Ian Penman on the work & life – and a new biography – of Walter Benjamin…
Nearly 75 years ago, at the outset of World War Two, stranded between official borderlines, right on the edge of things, the German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin slipped out of life. His passing barely registered beyond a small circle of friends and fellow travelers—habitués, like himself, of severe literary journals, fringe politics, esoteric philosophies. Like that of Benjamin’s own literary heroes, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, his posthumous career was to prove far more lively. These days, anyone tilling the stony fields of literary or political theory would soon find himself persona non grata if he didn’t pay due obeisance to Benjamin—at least, the version of him now favored: the presiding angel over all that is left-leaning, interdisciplinary, and media-studious.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, though, Benjamin’s work fell into relative obscurity. At the time, only a tiny portion of his rich and varied writing had been translated from German into English or French. What was available was hard to label and difficult to promote. Benjamin was more renowned for what most of us (i.e., those of us not fluent in German) could not read rather than for what we could. Introductory essays by Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, and his friend Gershom Scholem filled in some of the background, but back when I first encountered his work, there was little to choose from.
A lifetime on, and things look very different. From out of privation, we now have: four hefty volumes of Benjamin’s Selected Writings and his huge, genre-defying Arcades Project; Momme Brodersen’s exemplary Walter Benjamin: A Biography; countless secondary studies and various memoirs; a gorgeous mocked-up Archive, which reproduces texts, notebooks, and other scraps in eye-straining detail; and two novels dedicated to his shade (Benjamin’s Crossing, by Jay Parini; and The Angel of History, by Bruno Arapaia). Most recently, Howard Eiland and Michael E. Jennings have given us the sturdy Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, published by Harvard University Press. If the lion’s share of previously untranslated work finally appeared in the last decade, there still isn’t anything like a helpful “Best of Benjamin.” (Arendt’s 1955 selection, Illuminations, remains the best place to begin.) One reason may be that new readers who come to Benjamin end up recasting him in their own image.
Benjamin lived and worked just on the cusp of the current epoch of inescapable popular culture and omnipresent media. “Criticism,” he observed, “is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” This could have been written yesterday; it was published in 1928. The deeply cultured Benjamin found himself observing the slow breakdown of the very same high culture on which he depended for his daily bread. Yet he was also a fan of Hollywood films, detective fiction, and other dreamy, mainstream forms. It was one of destiny’s less congenial jokes that she took Benjamin and left us his friend Theodor Adorno, a man uniquely ill-disposed to figuring out anything of value in popular culture.
As an unashamed intellectual, Benjamin spent large portions of his life reading, writing, editing, and researching. But he was also a devoted traveler (he believed in foreign jaunts as a cure-all for most writerly ills); something of a ladies’ man; a loyal aficionado of plush casinos; and an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs. He was, in short, a logjam of contradictions: part Jewish mystic, part Marxist firebrand; skeptical priest, polite libertine. A line that Jean Cocteau devised for Orson Welles could equally apply to Benjamin: “an active loafer, a wise madman, a solitude surrounded by humanity.”
Some of the current vogue for Benjamin may stem from our nostalgia for the vanished dream of grand European culture to which he belonged. Photographs of Benjamin at work in elegant libraries, or strolling along tourist-free Mediterranean streets, provoke feelings of awed and envious benevolence. In today’s insipid, rigorously PC academy, Benjamin represents a burst of real flavor. He’s kind of sexy, by academic standards. As well as doing literary criticism (and conducting a pitiless interrogation of the status and value of same), he also wrote about window displays, travel, children’s books, drugs, food, and films. The gorgeous One-Way Street (1928) reads like a textual kaleidoscope: a glinting mix of views, shadows, memories, and jokes. His is a nomad thought: unmoored and unhurried, sometimes flinty, sometimes a bit vague and stoned. Benjamin works in starts and stops, to a strange fugue-like pulse. His sentences have a hesitant, leaning rhythm, not unlike the playing of Thelonious Monk: you’re never quite sure where the next emphasis is going to fall.
Benjamin was a stroller around the boundaries between serious thought and everyday pleasures, high culture and low tastes. His preferred place to think from was always a threshold. Sentences are constructed from memories of holiday walks, sundowner moods, and the rhythms of travel. There are deep sallies on baroque theater and the metaphysics of illusion—but also chatter about children’s-book illustration and how fish is prepared in Marseilles. When he produces what’s ostensibly a travel piece, it supplies the required “local color” about cooking smells and religious customs but also other, less wonted, observations: how porous Naples feels, a subtle commingling of private and public space so that you can no longer tell one from the other: buildings for which you don’t know if they’re still being built or slowly falling into vacancy.
Benjamin never saw his emerging sympathy for popular art as any reason to forsake high-mindedness: he always maintained his lofty reading habits, alongside coarser addictions. Books you might expect him to love, like Paul Nizan’s The Conspiracy, a portrait of fiery young left-wing students, are given short shrift; authors you might expect him to disdain, like the society prowler Proust, he adores. In fact, if there is one work that holds the claim to be Benjamin’s own peculiar “Rosebud,” it’s probably Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Benjamin didn’t have the kind of temperament that settled comfortably into groupthink or institutional frameworks. This caused problems not just politically—it’s a glum thought, trying to picture him justifying his work to some grim-faced Communist Party committee—but also set the tone for his vexed relationship with academia. The long saga of his trying to get tenure with German universities is not a happy one. Time and again, he was shut out by “chairs” and experts, who claimed that his work was unreadable, or beyond the pale. Much as he put on the requisite show of being stricken by such brush-offs, it seems just as likely that certain forms of rejection were precisely what Benjamin was after. Benjamin could do first-paragraph seduction with a vengeance; yet on the several occasions when certain essays were the key to a prestigious university post—when those powers of seduction would really have worked in his favor—what does he do? He goes in the opposite direction, producing dense thickets of prickly, forbidding verbiage. Today, there isn’t a university press anywhere in the world that wouldn’t kill to get the rights to publish those same contentious, rejected essays.
For someone so often portrayed as profoundly unworldly, Benjamin could give the impression of real Machiavellian scheming—on occasion, displaying all the two-faced, tortuous politesse of an eighteenth-century courtier. Throughout his life, he maintained a habit of ruthless compartmentalization between various circles of friends—behavior that was scrupulous, verging on paranoid. He might say, as Pessoa has one of his characters confess: “I’m highly sociable, in a highly negative way.” Friends and editors were often angry when they found out the lengths that Benjamin went to in order to keep them in the dark. (On one occasion, he accepted a large advance with no intention of doing the agreed-upon work.) Not that he didn’t have his reasons. Best friend Scholem didn’t like or trust new buddy Bertolt Brecht. Brecht loathed the Surrealists. Benjamin’s wife, Dora, had a whole range of people to dislike and distrust. (He saw women of his own class as romantic muse figures—and then there were the numerous, unnamed others, the “working girls,” a whole other class, in both senses of the word.) The trouble was, not all of his wily stratagems brought anything like the expected benefits. In the end, the nimble courtier succeeds in keeping everything at bay, except his own deepening sense of isolation.
Benjamin was unflinching about many of his own dire afflictions: the obsessive collecting, the compulsive gambling, the haggard enchantment with prostitutes. In his scattered essays about gamblers, drug fiends, and bibliophiles, Benjamin writes like a winking initiate. Here is a jaunty and typically acute Benjamin sentence—but feel the undertow of sadness, separation, ardor going cold: “For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector, ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.” As well as books and art, Benjamin also collected states of mind, states of being (thus, his quasi-scientific experiments with various drugs). He’s right on the money (so to speak) about the psychology of addicts and collectors, but maybe breaks off rather than dares certain conclusions. All his frittering of vital savings on roulette, Klee prints, and expensive first editions? Maybe the underlying problem wasn’t an addiction to gambling or collecting. Maybe the real fetish was money itself.
All of which may have been a hedge against his complicated, melancholy relationship with the passing of time. Benjamin was someone who had no difficulty skiving the hours away. But the passage of time is also the passing away of time, of opportunity. Benjamin revelled in surplus leisure time but also had major problems with ordering time, being on time, and finishing work by agreed-upon deadlines, if at all. Profiling Baudelaire, he wrote about the poet’s fearful trespass into the cruel marketplace, and Benjamin himself certainly feared that his best writing might be lost or overlooked.
If Benjamin is known at all to the world at large, it may be through the figure of the “flaneur.” He first unearthed this legendary topic while researching Baudelaire and the world of nineteenth-century Paris. The flaneur was, generally speaking, a stroller, an idler, a connoisseur of broad city avenues. But for Benjamin, the flaneur had a specific, highly circumscribed resonance: this wasn’t mere dawdling from café to café for a week or two. The flaneur’s rarefied air of nonchalance goes hand in hand with certain social and architectural developments—most of all, the new covered shopping arcades that sprang up in late-nineteenth-century Paris.
The flaneur casts his gaze around—seeing every class of citizen, from cop to cocotte, while remaining unnoticed himself. The flaneur looks but doesn’t buy. He exchanges humid glances but doesn’t touch. He is a disembodied eye, an elegantly suited wraith. The itinerary of window-shopping and people-watching is superficially attractive, but Benjamin spies a more serious undertone. This is an “unfailing remedy for the kind of boredom that easily arises under the baleful eyes of a satiated reactionary regime.” The flaneur stands for both heroic lassitude and poignant alienation: heroic in his refusal to work; poignant in the way time washes away, leaving no trace of his passage through life. The reign of the Parisian flaneur had been, in fact, a brief one: before Baron Haussmann’s re-organization of the Paris city grid, the streets had been too narrow and filthy to allow such “botanizing on the asphalt.”
In his enormous and forever unfinished study, the Passagenwerk, or Arcades Project, Benjamin seized on one tiny detail and fanned it out into a whole encyclopedia. The arcades are clearings in the urban forest, tunnels formed by the branches and leaves of fruiting commerce. Benjamin assembles notes on everything—what materials the arcades were constructed from and why those materials were used at that particular time; how the arcades’ arrival signaled the beginning of a wholesale shift in modes of selling and forms of display; how people themselves became goods to be assessed, rented, and replaced; the crucial place of boredom as a motor of social change; how fashions change to suit new circumstances—or is it the other way round? His unfinished notes, as now published, span more than a thousand pages. This is a text that mimics its subject: a labyrinth to get lost in, defined as much by its gaps and crossings and echoes as by anything like a main body or thoroughfare. You could spend a lifetime feeling your way around these low-lit backstreets: following up suspicions, developing clues, comparing statements. Benjamin called flanerie “the rhythmics of slumber,” theArcades Project a “dialectical fairy tale.” His fond hope was to jolt awake listless sleepers out of their blurry capitalist phantasmagoria—into another, harsher, worthier dream.
With his decadent interests and expensive tastes, Benjamin may strike the new reader as one of the twentieth century’s more unlikely Marxists. He came from hopelessly unpromising bourgeois stock. Benjamin was slighting about his father, Emil, when he mentioned him at all. The impression given is of a typically stolid, unimaginative bourgeois, a caricature bumpkin and fraud—except that the father seems to have been a canny and cultured man. Emil was a wealthy art dealer with a house spacious enough to accommodate ne’er-do-well Walter and his family in a separate wing for years at a time. We see here something that goes to the heart of one aspect of Benjamin’s life: patronage. Throughout his short span, he relied on his father for financial support—or, failing that, he relied on his wife, Dora, to take various menial jobs—even as he posed as an artless martyr to cruel market forces. Always other people’s money. Always other people who work. Which is maybe a tricky position for a would-be socialist. Benjamin continued to throw down great wads of money on the roulette tables at the same time that he was penning lines like: “The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.”
To be fair to Benjamin, one of the main shadows behind his Marxist turn was the rise of Fascism during the 1920s and 1930s. Like his friend Georges Bataille, he saw Fascism as an imminent catastrophe, which justified any and all prophylactic countermeasures. The specter of Fascism made Communism the only real alternative political masque for the “masses.” Like Bataille, Benjamin understood the lure of Fascism; he could see the fateful fascination it exerted. But when he tries to shape a leftist mythos to counter far-right demonology, he strikes a profoundly flat note. In later essays (such as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), Benjamin tries to work up a blueprint for a more politically adventitious art. But pragmatism, like happiness, reads white. He himself said as much years earlier, about the weakening effect that politics had on the Surrealists. Whenever Benjamin tries to square his wildly individual methods with an unyielding Marxist line, it can feel forced. You get the feeling of a man who’s still trying to convince himself when he has already started trying to convert you. As for accurate prognosis, he was no better than anyone else at predicting the future course of capitalism.
People are often attracted to Benjamin not because he was a Marxist per se but because he was a rare, imponderable, one-off Marxist. (There are no similar cults around György Lukács, or even Adorno—who are far more by-the-book in their political stances.) His writing is oddly sensual and otherworldly—not doctrinaire. Had Benjamin survived to work further on the Arcades Project, you wonder if his tentative involvement with Marxist theory would have deepened, or fractured, in the absence of the immediate looming threat of Fascism. It seems unlikely that he would have gone over entirely to Marxist commitment (as he equally didn’t to Zionism) because that would involve a settled, finite, and irrevocable way of looking at the world.
There is also the question of how much of Benjamin’s Marxism is actually a recasting of Jewish mysticism, a sort of kabbalah undercover. Marx and kabbalah have certain things in common: a hope of coming redemption; the sorrowful and degraded present judged against a schematically messianic time; the felt presence of “aura” in material things. In later Benjamin essays, such as “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” it is the sumptuous quasi-theological imagery that still feels fresh; ironically, it is the passages on forging a new science of history that feel dated.
What would Benjamin make of the conversion of his off-kilter life into straightforward biography? He was acutely aware of the passing of time, and presumably not above a little shiver of amour propre at the thought of future commemoration; he was also deeply suspicious of critics who read works of art through the veiled time of their maker’s reconstructed life.
Eiland and Jennings’s A Critical Life does pull a few things into focus. A clearer image of the Benjamin marriage begins to emerge. Even if it’s only a slight extension of what was already known, we do at least get a more rounded and believable Dora Benjamin. Walter was irascible, unreliable, occasionally slothful, and always bad with money. He could be cruel, unresponsive, and an unregenerate moocher. For all these flaws, there was nevertheless something about Benjamin that kept drawing strong, interesting, jazzy women to his side. Walter wasn’t anyone’s idea of ideal husband material, but Dora stood by him and kept trying to help him, even after they separated.
Eiland and Jennings seem to harbor many of the same fusty academic prejudices that Benjamin fought against. They are more at home with the heavyweight Benjamin than with the man who enjoyed mere popular culture. They can spend pages unraveling a ponderous early essay but allow amazing bits of information to slip away unremarked, if, say, they concern Benjamin’s love of detective fiction. Benjamin often used everyday idioms to slip in echoes of far stranger obsessions. Such hiding in plain sight is obviously given an extra fillip by Benjamin’s Jewish heritage. Eiland and Jennings seem to stint a bit on these aspects of Benjamin—his Jewishness, his peeks into the mystic. The flaneur might be seen as a class of wandering Jew, an internal exile with good reason to “pass.” Stepping into shadow as a form of revelation, withdrawal as a species of flight, inertia as willed disappearance: Proust and Kafka, too, can be read this way.
Benjamin did a lot of on-the-hoof work for German radio and newspapers, and his best writing is often not about large or obviously “political” subjects. As a general rule, the smaller he sets the aperture, the more light floods in. He is always at his most resonant writing counterpoint. Or, as he put it: “All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.” Some of his best work was forged in cheap cafés and hotels, other people’s houses, and public libraries. You get the impression of someone who liked the feeling of being momentarily out of reach, out of sight of shore; who sought out positions that were provokingly in-between. Benjamin had an intuitive understanding of montage because his whole life was itself a work of montage.
In the end, he was left alone. Scholem was already in Palestine. Adorno and other Frankfurt-school luminaries found a convenient perch among the Babylonic towers of New York. Brecht washed up in Los Angeles, a turnip among the hothouse orchids. Benjamin’s now ex-wife, Dora, and their son, Stefan, found refuge in London. (Stefan grew up to be a dealer in rare books.) Benjamin’s own final months resist reasonable analysis. As the war closed in around him, friends tried to get him moving, but he did what he had always done: paused, turned another page, did more research. In photographs from this final period in Paris, he looks far older than his 48 years, a small burrowing creature frightened out into the light.
The passage of Benjamin’s final act in the autumn of 1940 was a grim comedy of errors. Having finally decided to flee Europe, he ended up in the small Spanish coastal town of Portbou. He was informed by the Spanish authorities that all transit visas had been canceled and that all refugees would be returned to France the following morning. One step forward, two steps back: he would not be allowed to pass. This prospect all but felled the already exhausted Benjamin. He had already had a terrible time making it over the high mountain passes to Portbou. He was appalled by the prospect of worse physical ordeals, further internment (which he’d already undergone once), and almost certain mistreatment. He was worn down, out of choices.
Sometime during the night of September 26, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine tablets. His body was discovered the next morning by fellow refugees who had helped him as far as Portbou. No one who knew him well was there to chorus his passing. His “suicidal” end, like his singular life, invites speculation: the last bit of bad timing in a life lived between waking and dream.
Neither capitalism, nor fascism, nor the cruel whims of the marketplace finally extinguished Walter Benjamin. His own life killed him—a sudden overdose of time. He hobbled his own escape route with a prevaricator’s endless last-minute stalling: adjusting the sail and testing the wind. He had always had periods when he was unable to think, move, or see a way forward. Eiland and Jennings refer to intermittent periods of depression—but this is very much a postwar reading and not at all the same thing as melancholia, in the vital and many-edged sense that this word had for Benjamin. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton includes in the class of those most subject to saturnine humor: “such as are solitary by nature, great students, given to much contemplation, and lead a life out of action.”
Turn to the final pages of Momme Brodersen’s 1996 biography, and you find a lovely image: the monument in Portbou by Israeli artist Dani Karavan that is now the nearest thing to a resting place Benjamin has. (It’s thought that his remains were transferred to a common grave, immediately after the war.) It honors the site of his particular loss but also, by implication, all the other victims of the Nazi regime. Pilgrims look out through a glass screen to the nearby Mediterranean. There’s a sense of both intimacy and the wider curve of the world. As you look through the glass to the horizon beyond, your eye falls on a quotation from Benjamin engraved there: “It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.”
It seems like the kind of memorial that this unassuming, paradoxical, and demanding man might have wanted.