All About the Benjamins

The Bookworm and the Angel

Side by side with these efforts are more personal meditations such as Benjamin's further thoughts on Kafka, the complete Berlin Childhood around 1900and the ultra-quixotic, intensely moving German Men and Women (both published here in English for the first time), along with the remarkably expansive essay "The Storyteller" and the stunning précis "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century," his poetic outline for the massive, unfinished Arcades Project, that biblical-Proustian political economy (1072 pages in its published form) which aspired to tell the full Genesis-to-Revelation story of the society of the commodity. In the spectrum of these writings, the discordance in Benjamin's thought is apparent, but what Scholem termed "self-deception" can also be seen as an inevitable by-product of his spectral brand of rational mysticism: While history awaits the Judgment Day of either the Messiah or the Proletariat, Jewish gnosticism and dialectical materialism circle each other in a mating dance of the Trojan horses.

Penetration is achieved, however, in flashes, like the conclusion of 1937's "Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian": "Whether devoting such attention to anonymous artists and to the objects that have preserved the traces of their hands would not contribute more to the humanization of mankind than the cult of the leader—a cult which, it seems, is to be inflicted on humanity once again—is something that, like so much else that the past has vainly striven to teach us, must be decided, over and over, by the future." By this light, the quintessential Benjamin gesture of Volume 3 is the 1936 selection of letters by a wide assortment of figures from the German Romantic era, together with his brief, meticulously sympathetic commentaries, contained in German Men and Women. Published under the pseudonym Detlef Holz to avoid Nazi censorship, the book was an almost preternaturally oblique excavation of what Goethe's missive therein called "the human . . . in its singularities," which is to say everything Hitler wished to destroy. It is the story primarily of friendships amidst the passages and misfortunes of time, and of ideas as the substance of friendship: Their exchange becomes the fabric that connects one individual to another, and binds each to their precarious, uncertain lives.

Devoted absorption: Walter Benjamin in Paris, 1937
photo: Gisèle Freund
Devoted absorption: Walter Benjamin in Paris, 1937

Details

Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship
By Gershom Scholem
New York Review Books, 302 pp., $14.95
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Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938
By Walter Benjamin
Harvard University Press, 462 pp., $39.95
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In that vein, The Story of a Friendship traverses a wealth of idiosyncratic allusions and details: The WB who occasionally referred to himself as "Dr. Nebbish," the anguished sufferer of "noise psychosis" and happy aficionado of Louis Lewy's Krzadok the human onion and spring-fresh Methuselah("a 'detective' story without any point," Scholem tells us, "a hidden metaphysics of doubt"). Of Hugo Ball's A Critique of the German Intelligentsia: "It impressed both of us with the acuity of its hatred." Other fragments that stick in the mind: "devoted absorption," "soothsaying from coffee grounds," "like a voice from another planet," "the living light and dark heart of things." These offhand remnants give Selected Writings a salutary context. Benjamin's universe is a compressed, aphoristic one: "The wisest thing . . . is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits," holding the splinters of a broken mirror up to Creation (or vice versa). This rearview reflection makes faraway objects seem close, and near ones as remote as falling stars: "To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity, and in its peculiar beauty, one should never lose sight of one thing: it is the figure of a failure. . . . Perhaps one might say that once he was sure of ultimate failure, everything on the way to it succeeded for him as if in a dream."

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