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Fri Dec 22 11:34:48 MST 2000
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
January 11, 2001
The Marvels of Walter Benjamin
J. M. COETZEE
Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
by Walter Benjamin, edited by Marcus Bullock, edited by Michael W.
Jennings, and translated from the German by Rodney
Livingstone, Stanley Corngold, Edmund Jephcott, Harry Zohn, and others.
520 pages, $37.50 (hardcover)
published by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
Selected Writings,Volume 2: 1927-1934
by Walter Benjamin, edited by Michael W. Jennings, edited by Howard Eiland,
edited by Gary Smith, and translated from the
German by Rodney Livingstone and others.
870 pages, $37.50 (hardcover)
published by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
The Arcades Project
by Walter Benjamin, translated from the German and French by Howard Eiland,
and Kevin McLaughlin
1,073 pages, $39.95 (hardcover)
published by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
The story is by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold. The
setting is the Franco-Spanish border, the time 1940. Walter Benjamin,
fleeing occupied France, presents himself to the wife of a certain Fittko
he has met in an internment camp. He understands, he says, that Frau Fittko
will be able to guide him and his companions across the Pyrenees to neutral
Spain. Frau Fittko takes him along on a trip to scout out the best routes;
he brings along a heavy briefcase. Is the briefcase really necessary, she
asks? It contains a manuscript, he replies. "I cannot risk losing it.
It...must be saved. It is more important than I am."
The next day they cross the mountains, Benjamin pausing every few minutes
because of a weak heart. At the border they are halted. Their papers are
not in order, say the Spanish police; they must return to France. In
despair, Benjamin takes an overdose of morphine. The police make an
inventory of the deceased's belongings. The inventory shows no record of a
What was in the briefcase, and where it disappeared to, we can only guess.
Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem suggested that it was the last revi-sion
of the unfinished Passagen-Werk, known in English as the Arcades Project.
("To great writers," wrote Benjamin, "finished works weigh lighter than
those fragments on which they work throughout their lives.") By his heroic
if futile effort to save his manuscript from the fires of fascism and bear
it to what he thinks of as the safety of Spain and, further on, the United
States, Benjamin becomes an icon of the scholar for our times.
The story has a happy twist. A copy of the Arcades manuscript left behind
in Paris had been secreted in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Benjamin's
friend Georges Bataille. Recovered after the war, it was published in 1982
in its original form, that is to say, in German with huge swathes of
French. And now we have Benjamin's magnum opus in full English translation,
by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, and are at last in a position to ask
the question: Why all the interest in a treatise on shopping in
Benjamin was born in 1892, in Berlin, into an assimilated Jewish family.
His father was a successful art auctioneer who branched out into property
investments; the Benjamins were, by most standards, well-to-do. After a
sickly, sheltered childhood, Benjamin was sent at the age of twelve to a
progressive boarding school in the countryside, where he fell under the
influence of one of the directors, Gustav Wyneken. For years after leaving
school he was active in Wyneken's anti-authoritarian, back-to-nature youth
movement; he broke with it only when Wyneken came out in support of the
First World War.
In 1912 Benjamin enrolled as a student in philology at Freiburg University.
Finding the intellectual environment not to his taste, he threw himself
into activism for educational reform. When war broke out, he evaded
military service first by feigning a medical condition, then by moving to
neutral Switzerland. There he stayed until 1920, reading philosophy and
working on a doctoral dissertation for the University of Berne. His wife
complained that they had no social life.
Benjamin was drawn to universities, remarked his friend Theodor Adorno, as
Franz Kafka was drawn to insurance companies. Despite misgivings, Benjamin
went through the prescribed motions to acquire the Habilitation (higher
doctorate) that would enable him to become a professor, submitting his
dissertation, on German drama of the Baroque age, to the University of
Frankfurt in 1925. Surprisingly, the dissertation was not accepted. It fell
between the stools of literature and philosophy, and Benjamin lacked an
academic patron prepared to urge his case.
His academic plans having failed, Benjamin launched himself on a career as
translator, broadcaster, and freelance journalist. Among his commissions
was a translation of Proust's A la recherche; three of the seven volumes
In 1924 Benjamin visited Capri, at the time a favorite resort of German
intellectuals. There he met Asja Lacis, a theater director from Latvia and
a committed Communist. The meeting was fateful. "Every time I've
experienced a great love, I've undergone a change so fundamental that I've
amazed myself," he wrote in retrospect. "A genuine love makes me resemble
the woman I love." In this case, the transformation entailed a change of
political direction. "The path of thinking, progressive persons in their
right senses leads to Moscow, not to Palestine," Lacis told him sharply.
All traces of idealism in his thought, to say nothing of his flirtation
with Zionism, had to be abandoned. His bosom friend Scholem had already
emigrated to Palestine, expecting Benjamin to follow. Benjamin found an
excuse not to come; he kept making excuses to the end.
In 1926 Benjamin traveled to Moscow for a rendezvous with Lacis. Lacis did
not wholeheartedly welcome him (she was involved with another man); in his
record of the visit, Benjamin probes his own unhappy state of mind, as well
as the question of whether he should join the Communist Party and subject
himself to the Party line. Two years later he and she were briefly reunited
in Berlin: they lived together and attended meetings of the League of
Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers. The liaison precipitated divorce
proceedings in which Benjamin behaved with remarkable meanness toward his
On the Moscow trip Benjamin kept a diary which he later revised for
publication. Benjamin spoke no Russian. Rather than fall back on
interpreters, he tried to read Moscow from the outside-what he would later
call his physiognomic method-refraining from abstraction or judgment,
presenting the city in such a way that "all factuality is already theory"
(the phrase is from Goethe).
Some of Benjamin's claims for the "world-historical" experiment he sees
being conducted in the USSR now seem naive. Nevertheless, his eye remains
acute. Many new Muscovites are still peasants, he observes, living village
lives according to village rhythms; class distinctions may have been
abolished, but within the Party a new caste system is evolving. A scene
from a street market captures the humbled status of religion: an icon for
sale flanked by portraits of Lenin "like a prisoner between two policemen."
Though Asja Lacis is a constant background presence in the "Moscow Diary,"
and though Benjamin hints that their sexual relations were troubled, we get
little sense of Lacis's physical self. As a writer Benjamin had no gift for
evoking other people. In Lacis's own writings we get a much more lively
impression of Benjamin: his glasses like little spotlights, his clumsy hands.
For the rest of his life Benjamin called himself either a Communist or a
fellow traveler. How deep did his affair with communism run?
For years after meeting Lacis, Benjamin would repeat Marxist verities-"the
bourgeoisie...is condemned to decline due to internal contradictions that
will become fatal as they develop"-without having read Marx. "Bourgeois"
remained his cuss word for a mindset-materialistic, incurious, selfish,
prudish, and above all cozily self-satisfied-to which he was viscerally
hostile. Proclaiming himself a Communist was an act of choosing sides,
morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois
origins. "One thing...can never be made good: having neglected to run away
from one's parents," he writes in One-Way Street, the collection of diary
jottings, dream protocols, aphorisms, mini-essays, and mordant observations
on Weimar Germany with which he announced himself in 1928 as a freelance
intellectual. Not having run away early enough meant that he was condemned
to run away from Emil and Paula Benjamin for the rest of his life: in
reacting against his parents' eagerness to assimilate into the German
middle class, he resembled many German-speaking Jews of his generation,
including Kafka. What troubled Benjamin's friends about his Marxism was
that there seemed to be something forced about it, something merely reactive.
Benjamin's first ventures into the discourse of the left are depressing to
read. There is a slide into what one can only call willed stupidity as he
rhapsodizes about Lenin (whose letters have "the sweetness of great epic,"
he says in a piece not reprinted by the Harvard editors), or rehearses the
ominous euphemisms of the Party: "Communism is not radical. Therefore, it
has no intention of simply abolishing family relations. It merely tests
them to determine their capacity for change. It asks itself: Can the family
be dismantled so that its components may be socially refunctioned?"
These words come from a review of a play by Bertolt Brecht, whom Benjamin
met through Lacis and whose "crude thinking," thinking stripped of
bourgeois niceties, attracted Benjamin for a while. "This street is named
Asja Lacis Street after her who like an engineercut it through the author,"
runs the dedication to One-Way Street. The comparison is intended as a
compliment. The engineer is the man or woman of the future, the one who,
impatient of palaver, armed with practical knowledge, acts and acts
decisively to change the landscape. (Stalin, too, admired engineers. In his
view writers should become engineers of human souls, meaning that they
should take it as their task to "refunction" humanity from the inside out.)
Of Benjamin's better-known pieces, "The Author as Producer" (1934) shows
the influence of Brecht most clearly. At issue is the old chestnut of
Marxist aesthetics: Which is more important, form or content? Benjamin
proposes that a literary work will be "politically correct only if it is
also literarily correct." "The Author as Producer" is a defense of the left
wing of the modernist avant-garde, typified for Benjamin by the
Surrealists, against the Party line on literature, with its bias toward
easily comprehensible, realistic stories with a strong progressive
tendency. To make his case Benjamin feels obliged to appeal once again to
the glamour of engineering: the writer, like the engineer, is a technical
specialist and should have a voice in technical matters.
Arguing at this crude level did not come easily to Benjamin. Did his
faithfulness to the Party cause him no unease at a time when Stalin's
persecution of artists was in full swing? (Asja Lacis herself was to become
one of Stalin's victims, spending years in a labor camp.) A brief piece
from the same year, 1934, may give a clue. Here Benjamin mocks
intellectuals who "make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on
every issue," refusing to understand that to succeed they have to present
different faces to differ-ent audiences. They are, he says, like a butcher
who refuses to cut up a carcass, insisting on selling it whole. How does
one read this piece? Is Benjamin ironically praising old-fashioned
intellectual integrity? Is he issuing a veiled confession that he, Walter
Benjamin, is not what he seems to be? Is he making a practical, if bitter,
point about the hack writer's life? A letter to Scholem (to whom he did not
always, however, tell the whole truth) suggests the last reading. Here
Benjamin defends his communism as "the obvious, reasoned attempt of a man
who is completely or almost completely deprived of any means of production
to proclaim his right to them." In other words, he follows the Party for
the same reason that any proletarian should: because it is in his material
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