Walter Benjamin | A Critical Life
Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Full book)
Living the Life of Allegory
By Ian Balfour
Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning
of this great allegory — the world?
Melville to Hawthorne,
Nov. 17, 1851
WHAT A LIFE. And what — though one shouldn’t rush to it — a death. It’s a rare thing when the life of a cultural or literary critic is compelling enough for a full-dress treatment in the guise of sprawling critical biography. No one would balk at the (literally) weighty life of a George Eliot or a Picasso. But a freelance critic, no matter how brilliant, who spent many years hunched over books and ephemera in the Bibliothèque Nationale? Not so auspicious.
But Walter Benjamin is a beguiling, endlessly provocative figure, an eminently re-readable writer, and one whose life is worth pondering — both in itself and as a “life of allegory,” as Keats said of Shakespeare, without a whole lot to go on. And then there are the times of Benjamin’s “life and times”: history does not present many more turbulent decades than those between the start of World War I and World War II in the theater of Europe. Given that Benjamin was primed to think about history, suffering, and how things might be different, it’s no wonder his head was spinning his entire adult life. History was moving at breakneck speed, of which spiraling Weimar-era currency inflation was only an extreme index.
Hence also the need for Benjamin to pause, to catch his breath, to retreat from when he was down and out in Paris and Berlin to this or that “resort” (Capri, Ibiza, San Remo). The place-names suggest glamour and the easy life, but Benjamin was usually beleaguered, scrambling for money, some of which he literally gambled away, having a soft spot for casinos. He would live in just a room or two, rooms he thought of as a communist version of a monk’s cell, decorated with pictures of saints. He would decamp from a bad hotel to a worse one. He ate out virtually all the time. In his efforts to find a solution for permanent lack of cash flow, he seems not to have contemplated getting a job that didn’t have to do with writing or translating.
It’s tempting to think that Benjamin was born under a bad sign (Saturn, if it were a sign), but that would accord too much to the sort of astrological myth-making that fascinated him. And it would suggest a false uniformity to the life. Things had started out rather well. Born to a well-to-do family of assimilated Jews in Berlin a little before the turn of the 20th century, Benjamin, early on, didn’t appear to want for anything: the nuclear family took less of a toll on him than many, and material comforts helped him to experience an intense, playful life, thoroughly open to the splendors and mysteries of the city. Childhood would remain for him a lifelong attraction.
But before long the oppressive force of historical circumstance took hold of a disposition already prone to melancholy. Benjamin’s life would become exceedingly difficult, not least as a Jew in Germany in the lead-up to the darkest period of that history. Yet difficulty was almost as much a spur to Benjamin’s productivity as an obstacle to it. Given his preternatural gifts of insight, his Sitzfleisch, and a flair for formulation, he produced some of the most memorable and generative critical writing of the last century. There is no end in sight of the need to grapple with that writing and its legacies.
This magisterial biography by Eiland and Jennings sets that writing in its place and time with profane illuminations on almost every one of its many pages. Benjamin had scorn for people who produced needlessly “fat” books, but I think this fairly huge one hits the sweet spot of detail. Most biographical treatments to date tend to be half the length or less and content themselves with the highlights and the fairly well known, however well articulated. If one wants more, this “critical” biography is the place to look. Not every biographical treatment has had room, for example, for these cool facts about Benjamin:
— He purchased Klee’s aquarelle of the Angelus Novus in 1920 for the equivalent of 14 dollars.
— He and Brecht planned to write a detective novel together.
— He found Katherine Hepburn “magnificent.”
And if one wants to know a little more about the hand Max Horkheimer had in rejecting Benjamin’s Habilitation thesis, effectively kicking him out of the academy, one can learn of the creepy context here.
Eiland and Jennings’s critical biography presents a wealth of material, commentary, and gloss refreshingly free of grand narrative patterns. The authors opt to home in on the event, relationship, or text at hand. Context is provided but does not swamp the object in front of them. And whenever a reference or summary is called for outside Benjamin’s work proper, two (smart) heads are better than one: if one wants to know about something pertinent in the history of photography, say, or an uncommonly read work by Hermann Cohen, the combined expertise of the co-authors makes for a more substantial and satisfying account than one is used to getting. No potted summaries or soft Wikipedia information here.
No one, it’s safe to say, sits down to read the complete works of Benjamin in chronological order. One tends to piece together, as one reads unsystematically, a rough chronology of his life and work from bits of information gathered here and there, information often shaped by a narrative arc that goes, typically, from a supposed messianic mysticism to a more or less mystified Marxism. A great service provided by Eiland and Jennings is the granulated account of the contingencies of Benjamin’s writing from year to year, sometimes month to month, altogether apt for someone who thought the critic was to be a “strategist in the literary war”(“Stratege im Literaturkampf,” with “strategist” faintly recalling the Greek sense of “general”). Culture was war long before “the culture wars” because it was also, Benjamin taught us, barbarism. Benjamin conceived of all of his writing as participating in that struggle, even when pitched at an oblique angle and not overtly political. History suggests in such struggles not to bet on the oppressed, but Benjamin gambled there too. History is to be thought, written about, and enacted — so Benjamin contended — in the name of the nameless. But this history also operates, as Marx and Liz Phair teach us, with or without one’s best intentions. Indeed, Benjamin proposes the odd Proustian model of involuntary memory (mémoire involontaire) to figure the combination of retroactivity and not-consciously-willed action that informs our consciousness of the historical event as well as the event itself, for which his paradigm is the revolution.
One sometimes mistakes the strategic for the philosophical in Benjamin. Even the late, great theses on the concept of history (his last completed work) are not a philosophy of history but ideas and images that allow us to read, understand, and cite history, which is itself structured as much in terms of reading and citation as it is of action. (The French revolutionaries, Benjamin specifies, “cited” the Roman revolution.) For all of its apodictic, timeless-sounding pronouncements, a lot of Benjamin’s thinking is improvised, disposable, “strategic.” He thought of the self, a bit hyperbolically, as “a set of pure improvisations from one minute to the next,” and a lot of the writing is not far off in temperament and texture. Still, there are abiding concerns, protocols, and habits of thought that overarch distinct-looking periods in the life of this fetishist of the fetish. He’ll have an idea and it will incubate for years. The Trauerspiel book was finished in 1924, but he notes how it was conceived in 1916.
His “Jewishness,” Benjamin himself thought, penetrated to “the core of his being,” although his relation to Zionism was “entirely negative,” as he could say point blank to Scholem; his relation to Judaism consisted mainly in respect for Haggadic storytelling and modes of interpretation rather than any adherence to belief or doctrine. Perhaps most tellingly, his thought from early to late is preoccupied with structures of completion and potentiality. Each of his key categories of language, history, critique, and translation entail one thing calling out, demanding another, a future other. Hence, as Samuel Weber has shown in lavish detail, Benjamin’s concern with the dynamics of “-abilities”: reproducibility, translatability, critique-ability, and more. The messianic is only the most extreme version of this, whose potential arrival at any moment Benjamin felt or imagined as vividly as almost anyone, though there’s little evidence that he believed in a literal Messiah. Hope, too, partakes of this structure, though it can take the form, Kafka-like, of the hope of the hopeless.
Benjamin’s was a life of allegory in part because it was so often removed from so-called life: a world teeming with books and images and commodified things, the commodity being “the bias of the world,” as Shakespeare wrote well before the fiercest era of commodification. These things, literal and otherwise, are all of the order of “second life,” even if they were also a kind of life. And an intense one at that. Before he had read in 1924 Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (whose analysis of reification deeply impressed him), Benjamin already had a sense, via Novalis and the Romantics he read for his doctoral dissertation, that the object can eerily return our gaze. When Marx, in Capital, has commodities talk, it’s pretty darn funny. Benjamin lets Marx’s serious point kick in and re-orient some of his pre-Marxist but “romantic anticapitalist” leanings more concretely to the left.
When Keats said of Shakespeare that he led “a life of allegory,” he meant partly that the great dramatist could do the voices of others, able to imagine, in negatively capable fashion, what it was to be in another’s head and skin and to speak just like them. There is something of this chameleon-like behavior in Benjamin, as he exposes himself differently to different friends, most famously to the not-so-compatible forces of Gershom Scholem, Asja Lacis, Brecht, and Adorno. So it is good to know, apropos of any project, with whom Benjamin is hanging around, corresponding, or reading. Not that Benjamin was incapable of drawing the line or bristling (or worse) at this or that suggestion or critique from another. He was a difficult friend to many friends. And mostly unsatisfactory as a lover, despite the fascination he could evoke. One woman who got close described him as “incorporeal.” According to his first and only wife, this historian of the historicity of perception was, around the time of their divorce, “all brains and sex.”
“Sex” — or what he called “the abyss of sex” — but not necessarily love. He had, his wife lamented, “a sterile heart.” One of his maladies late in life came from a (literally) “enlarged heart,” but the corresponding figure in his emotional life seemed sometimes lacking. Often what one would expect to be momentous events in someone’s psychic life — the death of one’s mother, say — are passed over without comment in the written record (though this is not to say that Benjamin recorded everything of psychic moment in his letters, which tend to the formal, nor that everything crucial survived). Living from hand to mouth after being cut off from his parents and never successful at landing a steady job, he was vitally dependent on friends, perhaps so much so that it became hard for him to be a friend. As for lovers, his preferred or at least de facto prime configuration was the triangle, maybe because he knew there would always be a way, even if an uncomfortable one, out. (He was looking for love, Elissa Marder once noted, in all the wrong places.) For all that, Benjamin was loyal to some and valued immensely by those who stuck by him. His judgmental friend Scholem opined that Benjamin was “not a righteous man” but I think the record (as most fully rendered in the book before us) indicates that he was more awkward and inept in some interpersonal relationships than not righteous, much less a bad person.
Until 1923 or 1924 Benjamin seemed on track for a conventional and possibly stellar academic career. He had achieved summa cum laude on his doctoral exams and might have proceeded apace to the second dissertation or Habilitation that should have paved the way to being the equivalent of a professor in America. All that was derailed with his brilliant but slightly ill conceived and possibly self-undermining thesis on the Baroque Trauerspiel. That Benjamin did not receive this degree is a stinging indictment of the (German) academy marred by institutional rigidity and a bogus system of patronage, in which one’s whole career can turn on the good or bad disposition of only one, powerful person. It’s a bad irony that Horkheimer — (an intellectual not remotely in Benjamin’s ballpark), who, as a soon-to-be Assistant (not a minor position) of Professor Hans Cornelius and not yet finished his own Habilitation — helped to tank the thesis. (Cornelius had sub-contracted some of his work and sought two judgments from much younger academics.) Horkheimer pleaded his inability to understand Benjamin’s text. Sure, it’s a difficult read but its occasional genius and penetrating insights should have commanded some respect and benefit of the doubt. It didn’t occur to Horkheimer to consider that maybe the problem lay as much or more with him as with Benjamin’s obscurity.
Benjamin had already proved himself rather unconventional in his writing. Few of his essays prior to the Trauerspiel play by the rules of academic or scholarly writing. Aside from the first dissertation on Romantics, Benjamin wrote with his object of study in mind far more than with any sense of scholarly convention. His astonishing essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinitiesfrom 1922 reads like nothing else. Hannah Arendt was right to call attention to how this essay, and much else in Benjamin, was sui generis. An essay of some 100 pages on a single novel, the analysis of Elective Affinities had a tenacity and intensity and speculative (but not ahistorical) texture unheard of in academic prose. Hofmannsthal could call it “absolutely incomparable” and “epoch-making in [his] life.” Benjamin would not always find such congenial reception.
Benjamin is one of the patron saints of rejects, and not just because of the epic fail of his second dissertation. It’s both disheartening and strangely uplifting to learn here how many of his essays, reviews, books, and book proposals were rejected by publishers and editors whom he pitched with polished texts and parboiled ideas. Many pieces that were flat-out rejected are now lovingly edited and annotated, some of them forming part of the critical canon. But it has to be said that Benjamin’s writing was uneven, and that sometimes he relied on metaphorical bravura — with serious shock value — over more straightforward modes of proof or persuasion. Not every editor was persuaded in advance or after the fact and there was no imperative to defer to his proper name. Had he lived into the ’60s, presses and journals would have fallen all over themselves to publish Benjamin. In the ’30s — with the ongoing economico-political debacles not helping the publishing industry one bit — Benjamin had no such luck.
The failure to find a place in the academy was certainly a boon to Benjamin’s writing. It’s less likely that masterpieces such as Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (our authors’ favorite and unpublished in his lifetime) or One-Way Street would ever have been written had Benjamin been caught up in some academic grind. He was freed up to write in a variety of modes, though often forced, by economic and political circumstance, to write journalistically when, left to his own devices, he would have written at a more leisurely pace and at any odd length. The principal shift in “subject matter” was from texts (mainly literary) to his own life and analyses of social and historical configurations, of which the grand, virtually impossible project on the Paris arcades would be the most consuming.
Benjamin was the first student of his own life. His “narcissism” — if it was that — was not of a run-of-the mill sort. At the same time as he was intensely interested in himself (and why not?), he adopted a distanced, observational stance — precisely what he advises for the historical materialist, in the final text of his life — on his own doings and dreamings. At an official level, there’s a sharp distinction between his autobiographical writings and his critical ones. He prided himself on not using the word “I” in his criticism. Yet moments of personal investment and involution infuse and are encrypted in his critical writing. His great essay on Elective Affinities is dedicated to his mistress, Jula Cohn, precisely when the novel is about adultery and even portrays a configuration of four pair-switching people that parallels Benjamin’s own life. (Eiland and Jennings chart well the intricacies of this.) And he will pause in that essay, with no apparent need, to quote a passage about a kind of nymph named Schoenflies, when almost the only plausible explanation is that Benjamin’s full name is Walter Benedix Schoenflies Benjamin. A buried “note to self.” It was a conundrum legible almost only — before the advent of philological work on Benjamin — to himself.
But the writing (for money) of the late ’20s and ’30s is vastly more than notes to self. Benjamin embeds his subject, even when it is himself, in a web of societal, historical forces, and crafts texts responsive to the dialectics of those relations. The aphoristic chutzpah of One-Way Street owes less to his great predecessors in one-liners, such as Lichtenberg or Schlegel, and more to the language of signage, advertising, placards, and leaflets. His experiments with drugs, mainly hashish, are in their texture a far cry from hippie culture’s desire to space out or the “party on” mantra of Wayne’s World. They result in textual self-scrutiny of experiences in which pleasure seems almost incidental: drug experimentation, rather, was the occasion for dogged observations of consciousness (and the lack thereof). But they radiate outward from the mere self and come to resemble Benjamin’s writing about his experience of cities (Marseilles, Naples), for which he had applied measures of dialectical negativity that set it apart from the tired tropes of travel literature.
The change in the texture of Benjamin’s writing corresponded to and was partly driven by macro-and micro-political change. The late ’20s and early ’30s was a good time to be a communist. The real horrors of Stalin were at first not on the horizon and fascism was establishing its European profile as the clearest and worst enemy in modern memory, maybe ever. Liberal and especially parliamentary democracy in Germany had not been remotely up to the task of good governance, and the invisible hand of capital had delivered a self-inflicted wound with the crash of 1929 and its depression-inducing aftermath. Moscow in 1927 made sense, quite apart from the mostly ill-fated attraction to Asja Lacis who was the immediate occasion for his going there. And that in turn lead to the decisive encounter with Brecht.
Benjamin is not always at his best when writing about what is politically unambiguous or the most pressing for him, as with the writings on Brecht and related matters. Little pieces on proletarian theater or communist pedagogy don’t count among the most dazzling things he wrote, yet the issues were for him as compelling and congenial as could be. The causes mattered an awful lot, in themselves and in the struggle against fascism. Benjamin just didn’t operate quite as well in anything approaching Brecht’s mode of plumpes Denken (crude thinking), perhaps being constitutionally indisposed to it. All the more of a shame that we don’t have the Arcades project in something closer to what Benjamin projected as its final form. Though we can read the endlessly suggestive essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” and the polished parts of the Baudelaire material, there is no very extended work in the mode of historical materialism on which Benjamin was working away for the whole of the ’30s. Such truly dialectical work, of which the Arcades project is a skeletal version, is easier imagined than done.
But it’s not as if even the completed, honed works present easy formulae or programs for the work of others to follow. Benjamin’s texts sometimes seem all but organized around enigmatic formulations that arrest one and cry out to be quoted. Such sentences and phrases — One Way Street is full of them, as is the short Proust essay on a vast novel — are nothing if not seductive. Benjamin’s writings glean from and re-stage the enigmas of the works that fascinate him, such that he almost eases into a parabolic mode when elucidating the parables of Kafka and writes allegorically when addressing the allegorical veins of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. The riddling layers need to be read like the work of few other critics.
The relation of work to life can be enigmatic in its own right. Benjamin records (something not rehearsed by Eiland and Jennings) that on one of his stays with Brecht in Denmark, BB had just been reading Elective Affinities and brought it up in conversation with Benjamin, a Goethe “expert.” Brecht had thought the novel adventurous and unbourgeois and, on querying Benjamin and getting a response, found it hard to believe that Goethe could have written such a radical novel at the (over)ripe old age of 60 or so. The text was at odds with at least the presumed trajectory of the outward life. In Benjamin’s own case, it’s good to suspend one’s presumptions, as I think our authors successfully do, paying close attention to the texture of any given, complicated present in his involuted life. That’s not to say such attention resolves all interpretative difficulties. There are some texts, such as the “Theologico-Political Fragment” which can’t even be pinned down to one approximate date, with the plausible candidates lying 20 years apart, so oddly continuous and discontinuous is the writing.
Partly as result of their no-nonsense attention, Eiland and Jennings produce a sensible, solid, and sober critical biography. Those virtues are not eminently Benjaminian ones: Benjamin, by his own admission, operated at extremes. But if one wants a solid base from which to reconsider the life and the works and their tangled relations, Eiland and Jennings provide just that. Extremity can be indulged in reading Benjamin again on the far side of the biography.
One knows in advance, alas, the ending of the life. It’s not aesthetically satisfying, like those Billy Wilder noirs that give away the death at the start of the film and then wind their way back to it. One does not want the book to end nor the death to come. My heart pounded throughout the last chapter and perhaps yours will. Benjamin famously, on his way to America and for once with all the proper documentation and visas, save for an exit one from the French authorities, was turned back from the Spanish border and then committed suicide a day before the border was reopened to refugees from France, including those who had helped him to the border — sometimes literally dragging him up a hill. It was the most catastrophic instance of bad timing in a life beset with bad luck and worse politics. One of the many virtues of this critical biography is to highlight how suicide had been on Benjamin’s mind for a good decade before he made his not-at-all rash decision to take his own life (something most states still disallow, while reserving the right to kill people who have not chosen to die). Benjamin had intermittently thought long and hard about his own suicide (to the point of sometimes writing farewell letters to those close to him) and about suicide as a sign of modernity of the big-city, 19th-century variety. To kill oneself was, if nothing else, a preeminent exercise of freedom in a Hitlerized world of vanished freedoms.
Benjamin’s incessant work was directly and obliquely dedicated to making things better, for just about everyone, and mainly, despite his position at a remove from the working-class fray, for oppressed people(s) of every sort. Late in his life he could say: “Every line we succeed in publishing today — no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it — is a victory wrested from the powers of darkness.” Surely there is still a lot of darkness around, at the edge of town and in the center of the city, at border crossings, in the favelas of Rio, in the warrens and even on the beaches of Gaza, and in the incandescent world of the world-wide-web. Benjamin, despite his work receding a little in time and becoming of “historical interest,” remains one of the best guides for negotiating what he invoked, in the opening passage of One-Way-Street, as the rigorous alternation between writing and action.
 Benjamin did not read an awful lot of Marx. He knew the highlights and Marx was certainly crucial in his intellectual and political orientations from after about 1924 (and more so as of 1929) though the signal document in that “turn” was his reading of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which primed him to think about reification and commodification in literal things and reified people, having immediate consequences even for how he understood Baroque tragedy. When Benjamin was reading Capitalin Denmark in the mid-’30s as Brecht’s guest, Brecht though it was a good idea for its very untimeliness, Marx having been out of fashion but “now” suddenly important to bring back.
LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
NOVEMBER 15, 2014
Get the Balance Right
By Sami Khatib
“‘A man who dies at the age of thirty five’, said Moritz Heimann once, ‘is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.’ Nothing is more dubious than this sentence – but for the sole reason that it violates time. A man so says the truth that was meant here – who has died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.”
Walter Benjamin, who wrote these lines, died in September 1940, aged 48, at the border of occupied France and Francoist Spain. His violent end still casts its light on his entire life. He was driven to suicide after the group of refugees he was traveling with was denied passage through Spain on their way to the U.S. If he had just arrived a couple of days earlier or later, the border would have been open, and Benjamin might have enjoyed the life of a distinguished New York scholar like his friend Hannah Arendt, who took the same escape route shortly after his ill-fated last journey.
Despite a belated reception, today Benjamin has arrived in the official pantheon of global humanities. Depending on theoretical trends and political interests, his German and later international receptions have depicted the contradictory image of a heterodox Marxist, Marxist Rabbi, conservative anarchist, proto-Postmodernist, mystical theologian, left cultural critic, or prophetic art and media theoretician. However, even with his posthumous fame as a modern icon, the image of his life has more or less remained the same. It is the image of a man who died as a radical leftist intellectual and a stateless German-Jewish refugee. Be it his sheltered Berlin childhood around 1900, his failed entry into German academia, his broken marriage and fleeting affairs, his impoverished exile after the Nazi takeover in 1933, or his incomplete Parisian work on the Arcades Project, it seems that his suicide in 1940 has retroactively turned the vicissitudes of his life into the story of a fateful tragedy. Benjamin’s work is read through his life, characterized by intellectual ingenuity, yet inhibited by failure, melancholia, and existential ambiguity.
With every biography the question of temporal presentation is posited anew. How can we tell the story of a life in a strictly chronological order? How are we to construct a non-linear temporality in which we can narrate a life without the anticipation of its factual end? How can we restore in narration the multi-layered actualities of a life that could always have taken a different course? For Benjamin in particular, how can we do justice to a “critical life,” a life that is always on the verge of crisis, of turning from one extreme into the other? The insight of Benjamin’s messianic-materialist concept of history was that history can only be written from of the partisan perspective of this dangerous moment, the critical point of parting ways. How can Benjamin’s critical life be told?
In his essay “The Storyteller”, Benjamin conceives of this figure as a secular chronicler. In contrast to modern historians and their linear, fact-based accounts, the history-teller as chronicler interweaves different layers of time and various types of documents without making the space-time of narration submit to the laws of temporal succession or logical deduction. For him, the task of a modern chronicler is to find new ways of producing historical evidence and biographical meaning.
In their new biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland have assembled the material body of such a modern chronicle. Both authors are among the very few scholars alive who know virtually every piece of Benjamin’s scattered production. They have researched probably every document available that could shed light on Benjamin’s life, including his writings, notes, letters and eye-witness accounts of his various acquaintances, friends, and interlocutors. Jennings and Eiland are also editors of the standard English edition of Benjamin’s Selected Writings. Given this expertise and long-term research, one could be astonished that in the end their Benjamin biography comes as a handy 750-page book and not as a series of multiple volumes. Despite its numerous predecessors, this biography is the first of its kind to succeed in uniting most of the previously published biographical material in one book, including translations of documents which were until now only available in German. With the still-growing interest in Benjamin’s thought, one can expect this book to become the standard English-language biography on Benjamin.
In A Critical Life, the contours of Benjamin’s day-to-day life become graspable for the first time. It is fascinating to read about his whereabouts and travels, the people and places that formed the stages for his life and thought. The authors chose to present their findings in an accessible mix of journalistic and scholarly prose. Long passages on Benjamin’s networks of friends and acquaintances alternate with instructive excursions on his major works. Following the austere convention of presenting all biographical data in chronological order, the theoretical parts of this book modestly refrain from offering an overall interpretation or conceptual lenses with which to read Benjamin’s main theoretical figures. Instead, they remain introductory summaries to his key texts, which at best could motivate the reader to start her own readings. This biography is also an intellectual biography, which puts the reader herself in a position to navigate the labyrinth-like edifice of Benjamin’s thought. For this alone, this biography proves to be a landmark achievement in the history of Benjamin scholarship.
The book’s greatest merit, however, corresponds to its shortcomings. Uniting the diverse pieces of biographical information to form a coherent image of Benjamin’s intellectual persona can only go smoothly once his incompatible facets become assimilated to today’s narrative patterns. The biography’s narrative thrust is achieved through of a series of psychologizations and historicizations, which involuntarily echo today’s reading cultures and their retromanic desire to gain full accessibility to the past. Instead of posing the question of presentation as its main challenge, this biography begins ready to tell a chronological story by establishing a causal nexus among various moments of his life.
Ironically, the historicist method of telling a “sequence of events like the beads of a rosary” is applied to Benjamin himself, the fierce critic of historicism. In fairness to the authors, refraining from avant-garde techniques like montage might have been the preferable mode of presentation simply because it avoids mimicry of Benjamin’s own literary technique (at least as deployed in the Arcades Project). But what this choice leaves unanswered is how it is that bits of his biographical data can be arranged in a way that appears factually coherent, when “everything factual is already theory,” as Benjamin quoted Goethe. The authors write as if they have found the “neutral” ground within a force field charged with tensions, the point of indifference from where Benjamin’s life and thought can be told.
Despite its merits, this biography’s mode of presentation suffers the fate of every historicist enterprise: it does too much and too little. Too much because there are simply not enough details, facts, letters, and eye-witness accounts to fill in the gaps of information. Given Benjamin’s fragmented oeuvre, his scattered production, the disappearance or total loss of much of his personal property and intellectual production (not to mention the still-unsolved mystery of his lost heavy briefcase on his final journey), even the most meticulous reconstruction has to rely on speculations, insinuations and the construction of fictitious causalities. Too little because the construction of the image of Benjamin’s life first requires the destruction of the clichés and commonplace views which his friends circulated after his death.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the authors’ painstaking effort to balance the presented views of Benjamin’s contemporaries with other accounts and to create an unbiased image that turns into its opposite. Who is the Benjamin that we see through the panoramic widescreen optics of a historicist chronology? A man who remains at all times the man who dies his tragic death in Port Bou in September 1940. In this teleological view, even Benjamin’s various meditations on suicide – themodernist trope – become anticipations of his own final death, part of a suicidal inclination of his entire personality. This kind of biographical plausibilization sidesteps the unbearable arbitrariness of his death – his last journey could have literally taken a different course.
A historicist view of the past, as Benjamin’s “Theses On the Concept of History” relentlessly remind us, is tantamount to taking the victor’s perspective – the perspective of those who have victoriously survived and shaped history. In other words, the “neutral” backdrop of an seemingly unbiased historicist view is biased itself, and it conceals its inscription and investment in its object. In a book review, Benjamin wrote: “What is at stake is not to present literary works in the context of their age, but to present the age that recognizes them – our age – in the age during which they arose.” De-mythologizing Benjamin’s life can only succeed if we perceive the time of his life as such a literary work, a text in which the gaze of our age is inscribed. The inevitable question is: what does Benjamin’s life tell us about our age? Rather than historicizing Benjamin’s life only in the context of its age, the task is to organize the presented material by a prismatic optics, which recognizes itself as intended in the biographical image and, while constructing it, reflects its own time in it. Yet how to construct such a prism, providing a different narrative perspective, neither historicist nor mythologizing, is yet to be revealed.
After hundreds pages of this biography, the reader is left with an image of Benjamin she probably knew before: the Janus-faced Benjamin who led a personal life marked by close yet contradictory friendships, an ill-fated marriage, and unlucky love relationships. His love life has been subject to speculation in the past and the authors reproduce the image of Benjamin’s contemporaries according to which he was for the most part the losing third of a love triangle. The meticulous reconstruction of these love triangles is among the book’s most original sections and succeeds in making legible a certain psychological pattern of Benjamin’s personality. But the reconstruction of his erotic adventures is flawed by anachronistic conclusions which reflect the morals of our time rather than shed light on the nature of his inclination to put himself – deliberately or not – into libidinously charged force fields beyond the classic heterosexual couple. The narrative style of the book symptomatically misses the precarious constellations of past anti-bourgeois life forms, which exceed in their outmodedness today’s horizon of standardized couple relationships and their exceptional “rendezvous.” As a result, Benjamin’s inclination for love triangles is depicted as an external cause for his precarious and ill-fated sexual relations, as if the fragility and imbalance of these relations were not their internal obstacle and, at the same time, exactly their source of pleasure.
If biographies can be gates to the lives of different times, their beauty and relevance consist in interweaving the threads of life and work in a way that both can illuminate each other without ever becoming identical. The presentation of this non-identical unity, however, is equally threatened by historicist biographicizing (externalization) and atemporal dehistoricizing (internalization). How can we construct an internal web of cross-references within a work and link it to biographical circumstances in a non-deterministic manner, without sealing a work off from its historical and political context? This question is most crucial in the case of Benjamin’s political thought. There is a long tradition in Benjamin scholarship of separating his philosophical thinking from his political positions, the latter of which are mostly presented as mere rhetoric without reaching the kernel of his thought. To this extent, Jennings’ and Eiland’s biography represent the most refined example of this mainstream view – despite all their precious discoveries and precise reconstruction of his peculiar kind of Marxism.
Introducing Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and lucidly presenting its key arguments, the authors inform the reader that “the insistent political rhetoric of the opening and closing sections of the essay, which seek to discriminate fascism’s aestheticization of politics from Communism’s politicization of art, needs to be seen in the larger historical context of a Europe on the verge of war.” The contrast between an under-complex historicization (“the larger historical context”) and a sound presentation of Benjamin’s very complex argument on technology, perception and art is striking. This is even more surprising since the authors continue to carefully reconstruct Benjamin’s failed attempts to defend the politically explicit (that is: communist, Marxist, and anti-fascist) agenda of his essay against the internal censorship of the editors of Max Horkheimer’s Journal for Social Research. The treatment of the Work of Art essay is symptomatic of the entire book: even in its finest sections (and the presentation of this essay is one its most compelling parts), the book remains blind to the inherently political nature of Benjamin’s thought.
The unity of Benjamin’s philosophical and political thought can be traced back to his pre-Marxist writings, particularly in his 1921 essay on the “Critique of Violence”. In this essay he invokes the term “divine violence” – a term that designates both a paradoxically non-violent (or non-alloyed, “pure”) violence and a tautologically violent (“waltende”) violence. Divine violence remains inaccessible to human attempts to define it in advance or monopolize it; however, under certain circumstances, it might be embodied by human agency. Despite all instructive philological information, in its short introduction to this essay the biography fails to grasp the non-identical correspondence of Benjamin’s theological and political thinking. Missing his strategic deployment of the term, the authors suggest that, “Benjamin was not yet in a position fully to reconcile his political and his theological ideas.”
But in fact Benjamin never reconciled his political and theological ideas. Instead, he drew on the irreconcilable discrepancy of politics and theology to seal off his political concepts from both political theology and the conformist language of political professionals. In the same spirit, in “Critique of Violence” he invokes divine violence as problematic, yet inaccessible limit-concept to put forward his revolutionary anarchist politics of “pure means,” the unconditional purpose of which (why he calls it pure means, in contrast to means conditioned by a means-end-calculus) is the “depositing” (Entsetzung) of the law and the destruction of state power without establishing a new one. The displaced language of theology here neither refers to an apocalyptic intrusion of some divine power nor functions as a theological legitimization of profane politics. It introduces a non-instrumental language, which proves to be useless for the dialectics of “mythic violence,” that is, the self-deconstructing, yet irresolvable contradiction between the violent preservation of an existing law and the violent establishment of a new law. Against this flawed dialectics, Benjamin calls for “revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of pure violence by man.”
With Benjamin we enter an elliptically shaped intellectual cosmos that puts itself into force fields of irreconcilable extremes, not to rest there but to make these force fields productive without balancing or annulling their dialectical tensions. Benjamin thinks theologically and politically at the same time without conflating these two realms. He never sought a reconciliation of their tense relation but maintained their asymmetric polarity, which also organized the structure of his last reflections in “On the Concept of History”. The precarious existence of his critical life was not merely the result of external historical crises (capitalism, fascism, Stalinism) and internal psychological dispositions but also of his paradoxical, yet deliberate strategy of radicalizing these tensions up to their point of turning or reversal. The motto of his life and work can be summed up as “always radical, never consistent.” The same goes for his incompatible circles of friends (among them Ernst Bloch, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Theodor W. Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Asja Lacis, Florens Christian Rang, Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Hessel, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel). Assuming that Benjamin ever strove for some middle way between these extremes is to turn his intellectual biography into the story of a failed synthesis.
In the no-man’s-land of extreme tensions, there is no solid ground, no already established position on which one could rely. The task of finding the right balance, the “neutral” zone of indifference in the midst of these unstable force fields appears to be a hopeless endeavor. His critical life poses a challenge to any form of biographicizing narration. But equally, Benjamin’s own theoretical writing entails some hints of how the modern chronicler must proceed. First, you must rid yourself of the historicist empathy with your object of inquiry. You have to question your established patterns of historical understanding by aiming at a new narrative style that seeks to distance itself from its object without taking the God’s-eye perspective of historicism.
If Benjamin’s life is not the story of a man who dies at the age of 48, we have to question the temporal form of causal chains and to resist assimilating Benjamin’s non-contemporaneousness with our time. In search of Benjamin’s lost time we need to find a de-naturalizing principle to organize the massive data with which today’s scholarship provides us. These highly condensed concepts are needed to parse the wealth of biographical information beyond journalistic plausibility. As Benjamin wrote in the Arcades Project: “All historical knowledge can be represented in the image of balanced scales, one tray of which is weighted with what has been and the other with knowledge of what is present. Whereas on the first the facts assembled can never be too humble or too numerous, on the second there can be only a few heavy, massive weights.”
THE NEW INQUIRY
APRIL 17, 2014
Short life, long book
By Esther Leslie
Many reviews of books on or by Walter Benjamin begin with a capsule description of the key events in his life. It goes something like this. Born in 1892 into a well-off assimilated German Jewish family in Berlin, Walter Benjamin failed to gain an academic career, just about getting by, instead, through journalism and handouts from his family, friends and the Institute of Social Research. He was drawn to Communism but never shook off his religious heritage. He died by committing suicide, after ingesting morphine, at the age of 48, in 1940, while held up at the Franco-Spanish border when attempting to leave occupied France for the relative safety of Franco’s Spain, perhaps en route to the USA. Subsequently he became one of the present epoch’s most celebrated critics and theorists and there is now a mountain of books devoted to his work.
Repeated often, these outlines have been enough to communicate the idea of Walter Benjamin, if not his ideas. The cursory details of a life – touching in a few lines on the descent from riches to rags, the contradictions of his ethnicity and beliefs, the tragedy of dying in middle age, with his life’s work unfinished, his context being the worst that the twentieth century had to offer in fascism – are sufficient, and colourful enough, for many to understand all that they need to know about Benjamin the man. The upshot of these sketchy details came out frequently in one way or another as something like: Life is ironic and largely cruel and clever old Benjamin was not so clever after all. The outlines of a life which seems to be headed from the very off towards tragedy, and which appears emblematic of greater human and cultural losses in the twentieth century, led many to indulge in the game of what ifs. What if he had reached America, North or South? What if he had left France the following day when the visa situation was different and he would have been let across the border and not threatened with return to France and more internment? What if he had gone East, to Russia or Jerusalem? John Schad even wrote a counterfactual novel, The Late Walter Benjamin (2012), about Walter Benjamin, or at least someone who imagines himself to be Benjamin and speaks only his (published) words, having reached a suburban council estate in his final years, in Oxhey, outside London.
There have been opportunities aplenty to fill out the historical-biographical picture. There has long been the availability of copious correspondence from Benjamin and his circles, which sits alongside Benjamin’s memoirs and autobiographical writings, and the reminiscences of friends, lovers and acquaintances, as various forms of insider material. There are the contextualizing sections in the Harvard Selected Writings and elsewhere, and online biographies in various encyclopaedias. There are highly illustrated coffee-table books, including catalogues to various Benjamin-themed exhibitions in Germany and France, the Marbacher Magazin special on Walter Benjamin (1991) and the self-consciously fetishistic Benjaminiana by Hans Puttnies and Gary Smith (1991). There are partial biographies, such as that by Gershom Scholem and Erdmut Wizisla’s story of the friendship of Benjamin and Brecht, and the focus on his time in the Youth Movement. There have been novelizations, films and videos. There have also been other book-length biographies – Werner Fuld’s (1979), Bernd Witte’s (1985), Momme Brodersen’s (1996), my own (2008) – that have filled out the picture, showing in various more or less detailed ways the routes from one scene of Benjamin’s life to another and the ways in which this formed a crucible for his writings and the development of his thought. But until now there has not been a vast biography, a blockbuster, one that draws into itself whatever details can be gained from any letter that was ever sent by, to or about Benjamin, any reminiscence uttered by a lover, any diary jotting, alongside explanatory passages on significant pieces of writing. Amassed here, such biographical and incidental detail fills a volume that stretches out to more than 700 pages. It is no surprise – there is abundant material to draw on. It could be longer. ven more details could be described from the letters. More letters could be quoted in full or part. More works could be introduced and interpreted. More than anything, the book, and its great length, made me wonder what makes a book the size that it is – and whether this is something determined in advance, on the basis of other considerations, such as economics or time available to write, or does a book simply become a size that works itself out as it is written? Is the length of the book evidence that Benjamin packed a lot into his shortened life, or is it a testament to how well documented that life was, drawing as it does on the lengthy and well-archived letters of one who was a particularly adept practitioner of an art that is now on the wane? In any case, the book is, as is already clear, long and provides many details about Benjamin’s life from start to finish. For the sake of leading one’s own life, it almost makes one grateful that Benjamin’s was not longer.
Whether all this detail helps us to understand Benjamin better is a question of who the ‘we’ is. Those who know little about Benjamin will find a detailed and clearly written narrative of his life and a good sense of the multiple strands of his work. They may be impressed by the portrayal of his sheer tenacity and ability to write and think under the most difficult of circumstances. They may be grateful for the wider portrait of European history through the excitable years of the first half of the twentieth century. They may appreciate the short and lucid summaries of significant writings by Benjamin, set in the context of his life, ambitions and the wider intellectual environment. They may be shocked by Benjamin’s all-too-human pettinesses, his gambling, bitchiness, womanizing and the ill-treatment of his wife. They may find plentiful evidence for what Lisa Fittko, who helped him in his passage over the Pyrenees, years after the fact recalled as his twin nature: ‘A crystal-clear mind; unbending inner strength; yet, a woolly-headed bungler.’
All this is there and well expressed by the two authors, who move firmly and methodically through the life and its terrain and times. The facts are given, or at least the details are given, the letters are quoted, the memoirs gleaned, and hypothetical questions of motivation, or the attribution of inner feelings – à la novelist Jay Parini’s speculation in Benjamin’s Crossing (1996) – are left out. Some may find jarring shifts of register between the discussion of intimate details of, say, a marriage under strain (‘All he is at this point is brains and sex’, notes his wife Dora in a letter to Scholem) and Benjamin’s burgeoning fascination with Art Nouveau in the context of the Arcades Project – but the narrative must press on, and such is life and its weird carambolages. Those who already know well the correspondence and other biographies will find that there is not anything new here, but that it is, rather, a diligent and systematic exposition of the already known. There are no conspiratorial or crazoid revelations, such as have grabbed attention in recent years, threatening to overturn the capsule life story: David Mauas’s conjecture in the film Who Killed Walter Benjamin? (2005) that fascist agents had a hand in his death; Stephen Schwartz’s though-experiment that it was Stalinist GPU men who got him; or, less sensationally, the thesis of Ingrid and Konrad Scheuermann, who in 1992 collated new documents pertaining to Benjamin’s death in Port Bou, in order to posit that perhaps Benjamin did not commit suicide there, but rather may have died as result of natural causes, a cerebral haemorrhage, the cause of death recorded on the death certificate. For the Scheurmanns, it was not necessarily a blow against the historical record to state this, but rather an opportunity for reflection on the desires of the ‘industry’ for another, more tragic story. Nothing of this type of speculation and re-evaluation is in the new biography (not even symptomatic reflection on its occurrence). It sticks with the acknowledged materials, the documents, and so reports, blankly, ambivalently, of the death in September 1940 that Benjamin was, according to Arthur Koestler, in possession of a large quantity of morphine, and that the death certificate attributed his death to a cerebral haemorrhage.
This is a presentation ‘in full’, ‘beyond the mosaic and the mythical’, as the publisher’s press release puts it, seemingly turning against the Benjaminian predilection for the minuscule, the fragmentary, incomplete and the slight. For those who already know Benjamin, his biographies and letters, this reads like a greatest hits of the life and work, for each little event that might have lodged somewhere in our memory finds its place in the great narrative. Anyone writing about Benjamin must be aware of the passage in his 1940 ‘On the Concept of History’: ‘The chronicler, who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and small, thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ For Eiland and Jennings, the ambition seems to be indeed to lose nothing to history, but to recover as much as can be found and laid out. We must, then, overlook the fact that Benjamin doubts the efficacy of this act before humanity has been resurrected, before the day of the Last Judgement. Many – not Eiland and Jennings themselves, but those who have reviewed this tome – have certainly made their last judgements on Benjamin: a liar, a cad, a cheat, hypocritical, confused, a wife-abuser, hopelessly out of touch, neglectful of his only child, serving multiple masters, depressive, manipulative, ‘duplicitous, bumbling, self-indulgent, navel-gazing, arrogant, demanding, ever-susceptible to spasms of personal and familial destructiveness’, as one reviewer puts it in summary. It is not that there is really that much here on Benjamin as creep, or anything particularly awful to report – no murders or abuses of power, just some all-too human behaviours resulting from the efforts to escape privation and homelessness and the outfall of many difficult love affairs, as well as robust critical opinions and some intellectual bickering. Perhaps those spicy parts that there are jut out as more vivid than other bits, on publishing wrangles, illnesses, the search for work. Or perhaps it is just what people want to read whenever they read biography: idols with feet of clay and all that.
The authors have their bases covered. This is ‘full’ and ‘complete’, but life is never so, especially the life of Walter Benjamin, which unfolds in the book under the motto of a ‘contradictory and mobile whole’. This was Benjamin’s own phrase describing his thought – not his life – in the draft of a response to Gershom Scholem’s outraged inquiry as to whether he was peddling ‘communist credo’. Benjamin’s response was effectively ‘it is more complicated than that’, or more dialectical. Mobilized here the motto seems to allow for endless equivocation. It means that for all the efforts to encapsulate a life, we cannot encapsulate this life or we can encapsulate it only as a contradiction. The subject shifts and eludes. We experience the vanity of biography as a mode of coming to know a subject closer. But Eiland and Jennings do attempt to distil the elements of this mobile and contradictory whole, a coagulation that is in place by 1929, they note, and pulsates through the whole rest of the life: ‘The admixture of a radical leftist politics, a syncretistic theological concern that drew freely upon theologoumena from Judaism and Christianity, a deep knowledge of the German philosophical tradition, and a cultural theory adequate to the diversity of its objects under the fast-changing conditions of modernity.’
Many reviews collaborate with the publisher’s desire that this be the last word: ‘what looks like the definitive version’, a ‘thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin’s life and the sources of his work’. The place of the biography in the canon of commentary is assured – and these places need to be fought for, for there is plenty else out there to catch the eye of someone who is Benjamin-curious. ‘It will prove of enduring value and will doubtless become the standard reference work’ states the publisher’s description on Amazon, and widely reproduced online, yet unattributed. This is doubtless true. Unless the mythical completed version of the Arcades Project, together with the missing last possessions – a pipe, watch, x-rays, glasses, photographs, letters and a bunch of other personal documents – turns up in a Perpignan skip one day, it is unlikely that another biography of such or greater length will be written. Those who write this have impeccable credentials. Eiland and Jennings have worked extensively as editors on Harvard’s multi-volume Selected Writings and are intimate with the work, having been main conduits of its English-language translations from 1996 and through the 2000s (in volumes amounting to over 3,000 pages). But is there something else at stake here, something to do with publishers’ politics? Perhaps this book stands as a certain bulwark at a moment when the Benjamin Industry is heading into freefall. The copyright has now expired on his writings in Germany, meaning that anyone can publish them, and new translations of his work, as well as translations of materials not previously published – such as the radio work and the fiction – are appearing or under way. How to remain at the core of the Walter Benjamin business? A recent interview with the director of the press, Lindsay Waters, a long-time champion of Benjamin in English, reveals as much, playfully claiming that ‘This is what God put me on earth to do, to bring Benjamin to America’, as he boasted about his role in bringing to fruition the ‘definitive biography’, a role that the authors acknowledge in describing him as the book’s ‘godfather and progenitor of the well-established faith in the work of Walter Benjamin prevailing at Harvard University Press’.
The rampant ‘what iffery’ that attends reflections on Benjamin flared up again in April 2014 in a widely tweeted article by Walter Lacquer for the online magazine Mosaic: Advancing Jewish Thought. Titled and subtitled ‘The Walter Benjamin Brigade: How an Original but Maddeningly Opaque German Jewish Intellectual Became a Thriving Academic Industry’, the rather ill-tempered essay, which was a review, though so much more, too, of the book under consideration here, drew an elaborate picture of what would have happened had Benjamin joined Scholem in the ‘desert’ of Palestine, or rather, as Lacquer puts it, ‘the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia’, where instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French–Spanish border’, he could have spent time in ‘a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy)’. But he did not and there were many reasons why he did not. These might be discerned here and there in passing in this ‘definitive’ book, though it does not stop the punters dreaming of different outcomes. Really, what can the data of a biography, however big, do in the face of our desires, hopes, malignness and fantasies?