All About the Benjamins


Two aspects of Walter Benjamin face each other across a narrow, bottomless chasm: the all too human pursuer of meaning—redemption—and his supernatural, Doppelgangland twin. Like a man with two left hands, on one we have the solitary intuitionist, heuristic bookworm, impoverished collector (of children’s books and tattoo art, among other detritus), investigator of the private, mystical dialectician, devoted correspondent, armchair flaneur, detached student of hashish and prostitution, Jewish alchemist (gnomic specialty: changing ruins into runes), and infinitely well-prepared suicide (disappearer might be a better term). On the other, the more imposing mythic figure of an intellectual guardian angel whose peripatetic afterlife has seen him rise from history’s wreckage like a refugee from some unmade Wim Wenders film (we’ll call it Paris, Capital of Desire).

This second, ur-Benjamin is the patron saint of lost causes and oxymoronic dreams (utopian apocalypse, illuminated distraction, Marxist unorthodoxy), providing the impetus for countless tomes (subject to such archaeological exegesis as Susan Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing, besides serving as the decisive inspiration for works like Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air). Benjamin’s unforgettable image of “the angel of history,” helplessly blown backward into the future by the “storm . . . we call progress,” has even gone quasi-pop, resurrected in songs by Laurie Anderson (“The Dream Before”) and the Mekons (“Sorcerer”). “Ooh,” the Mekons added with a little phantasmagorical twinkle, “the abyss is close to home.”

Which in a tough nutshell is the perpetual exile’s lot: At home only in the void, inhabiting the space between the world as it is and what it might be, Benjamin would naturally be claimed by the tradition of the outcast and the misfit, as well as that of the prophet. And thus canonized and sanctified as a cultural symbol—the dispossessed critic as knight-exemplar of paradoxical, self-divided modernity—Walter Benjamin has suffered a similar fate to that of his spiritual cousin Franz Kafka, albeit on a somewhat more obscure academic scale. (The Benjaminesque isn’t so widely recognized as a state of being or mind: It patiently awaits the transformation of the asociological into the universal.) Posthumously, he has become a convenient, all-points totem, one whose blessing and validation are sought through the offerings of a host of supplicants. In this shopworn, once-upon-a-time-in-academe form, he stands for an indivisible synthesis of blissful disenchantment and unshaken theoretical faith.

Gershom Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, a memoir Scholem wrote in 1975, 35 years after Benjamin’s death and only a few before his own, represented an attempt to reclaim Benjamin and his legacy from the early stages of the reification process. With an eloquent mix of tact, candor, reserve, and affection, the great Kabbalist scholar set out to reinstate the centrality of Jewish metaphysics to his dearest friend’s life and thought. In doing so, Scholem argued the Marxist influence exerted on Benjamin by Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht diverted him from his essential calling as a radical interpreter of Judaic tradition. At the same time, Scholem places WB in the context of his real, unvarnished life: the milieu of German-Jewish intellectuals in the ever bleaker interregnum between the world wars, the incessant pressure of “battle fatigue on the economic front” by a thinker who was profoundly unsuitable for academic “habilitation” and a writer who was no better equipped to either the demands of the capitalist marketplace or the Communist party line.

The Story of a Friendship is a polemical yet evenhanded book: There’s not a feeling of settling old scores so much as diligently, fastidiously setting the record straight to the extent the author is in a position to do so. The sense it gives of Benjamin’s relationship to Adorno and Brecht is not of someone brainwashed or corrupted, but rather of a man caught up in fraught, problematic intellectual romances—in Brecht’s case, Scholem cites a “slavish-masochistic” undertone to Benjamin’s hero-worshiping attitude, which is in keeping with the doomed romantic attachments he had with women. (Scholem sighs: “One of his close acquaintances told me that for her and her female friends he had not even existed as a man, that it never even occurred to them that he had that dimension as well. ‘Walter was, so to speak, incorporeal.’ “)

Certainly by the time covered in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, Benjamin’s attraction to the terminology and assurances of historical materialism had reached its zenith: This was a system that promised to not only explain the world, but redeem it by bringing about an absolute transparency in human relations (parallel to the transparency of God’s word) and replace arbitrary, irrational power with justice. Here, then, are the desperately earnest paeans to Brecht (“The Land Where the Proletariat May Not Be Mentioned”—”Such drama . . . will emerge as a testament in bronze for posterity”), the heavy-dutiful essays like “A German Institute for Independent Research” (a positive evaluation of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, on whose financial support Benjamin depended at the time, but which came with Marxist strings attached) and “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” (a longer and more convincing version of Benjamin’s famous theory of film, introducing some valuable material about the role of “play”).

Side by side with these efforts are more personal meditations such as Benjamin’s further thoughts on Kafka, the complete Berlin Childhood around 1900 and 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.

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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