Update: in response

‘All he is at this point is brains and sex’

Written in response to:

‘All he is at this point is brains and sex’

Justin Clemens’s review of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life indirectly confirms his own contention that Benjamin continues to have ‘a bad time in and with universities’. After some apparently thoughtful opening paragraphs on the perils of biography, Clemens proceeds to enact his own thesis in a glib assessment of Benjamin’s character that reveals more about himself than his subject – or (one can only hope) the book he is reviewing. ‘There is no genre more bourgeois than modern biography,’ he claims, and then delivers an account of Benjamin that exactly matches his own description of the genre.

Clemens quotes Benjamin on ‘the task of criticism’ – ‘the differentiation of truth from myth’ – and then proceeds to smear his subject with a confabulation of myth, insinuation and gossip from which any truth is hard to discern. He attributes to Benjamin the idea that ‘one should examine people from the perspective of their interests rather than their supposed personalities if one wants a better understanding of their actions’. And, I would add, from the perspective of their actual circumstances, the reconstruction of which alone constitutes the true task of the biographer. Without this, we are left with nothing substantial, but merely the empty extremes of opinion and gossip.

Clemens however praises Benjamin’s biographers for precisely this kind of oscillation between minutiae and generalities. ‘On the basis of the vast and scattered archives they have marshaled, they reveal that Benjamin’s interests were indeed directed towards sex and power.’ No, really? Who would have thought it? As it stands, this amounts to little more than the startling revelation that Benjamin was in fact a human being. Indeed, it is hard to see how anything more original could emerge from a ‘punctilious enumeration of Benjamin’s relationships’.

This does not stop Clemens from proceeding to judge Benjamin for failing to measure up to his own standards of acceptable high-table behaviour. For example he cites as a ‘cringeworthy’ the anecdote of Benjamin and his wife having a row after inviting Scholem over for dinner. Clemens’s embarrassment at this is, however, nothing compared to how ‘unappealing’ he finds Benjamin’s ‘sexual shenanigans’. He seems shocked by the fact – which is nevertheless for some reason ‘worth knowing’ – that Benjamin ‘hounded’ his lover Asja Lacis (‘who already had a long-term partner’) and eventually (‘despite their existing commitments’) consummated their relationship, and even ‘moved out with her for a couple of months in late 1928, while his wife and child stayed in the family home down the road’. I am not sure where else they were supposed to stay; perhaps he should have kicked them out? Or perhaps the whole idea of having an affair or leaving one’s marriage is simply too shocking for Clemens to contemplate? He censoriously quotes Benjamin’s wife before their separation saying (rather self-evidently) that ‘all he is at this point is brains and sex; everything else has ceased to function’ – to which Clemens primly adds the one-word comment: ‘Quite.’ It would be hard to imagine a more nineteenth century bourgeois response.

Similarly, his imagination baulks at the ‘impressive’ fact that Benjamin’s family and friends ‘never wavered in their awe of his brilliance’, as if the latter were somehow impeached by his private life (Oscar Wilde, anyone?). This is despite what Clemens somewhat hysterically terms ‘the psychosocial horror Benjamin kept reliably delivering’, as if the real ‘psychosocial horror’ were not the historical and political circumstances rather than Benjamin’s personal conduct – which is apparently to be handled and treated in some kind of pathology lab or moral isolation ward.

Unfettered by such considerations, however, Clemens embarks on a thoroughgoing demolition job on Benjamin’s character. He then (somewhat counter-intuitively) reduces him to ‘a pretty average guy’ who is allegedly ‘part of that vast trans-historical club of privileged bourgeois gentlemen that has swilled and screwed and scribbled itself silly throughout capitalist modernity’. Beneath this penetrating contribution to sociology, it is hard to ignore the sound of Clemens digging his own grave. Undeterred, he goes on to make the assertion that ‘Benjamin was nothing if not bourgeois.’ His evidence? Benjamin traveled beyond his means, spent time with prostitutes, had short-term affairs, quarreled with his family, borrowed money from them and neglected his son. Quel bourgeois! Au contraire, it is Clemens who sounds like the ‘envious’, ‘prurient’ and ‘identificatory’ purveyor of the species of biography he began by castigating.

These narrowly conceived attacks are however not limited to Benjamin alone. Clemens goes on to compare him (somewhat invidiously) with even more crudely sketched caricatures of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. The former is summarily assessed as suffering from what amounted to a malignant superego; and the latter even more sweepingly dismissed as a Nazi opportunist, philanderer and hypocrite. Whatever Wittgenstein’s personal neuroses or Heidegger’s moral and political failings may have been (and leaving aside whatever Hannah Arendt and others more thoughtful or qualified than Clemens might have to say about Heidegger), to reduce either man in this fashion via pseudo-psychology or sloppy character assassination demonstrates a refusal to engage with any serious analysis of their behaviour, situations or personalities – let alone the complex relationship between these factors and the significance of their actual ideas.

Clemens weakens his case further by displaying a limited grasp of Benjamin’s actual thought – or rather what he rather grotesquely calls ‘his bizarre Platonic Judaism’. Without wishing to inquire into precisely what he means by the generalised term ‘Judaism’, I find it hard to recognise Benjamin in what Clemens wildly and incoherently characterises as the former’s ‘brazen writerly divagations’ or ‘covert depth charges slung into the grotesque and heaving body of time’. When he goes on to describe what are (for Clemens) ‘the partially illegible yet seductive surfaces of his writings’, which however ‘can suddenly erupt with revelations from the deep, as their hermetic sigils crack open in imageless bursts of redemption’ – or paraphrases Benjamin’s vision of progress as ‘a phantasm that radiates from the glorious bodies of history’s catastrophic masters’ – Clemens not only traduces Benjamin’s prose but makes the latter seem like a model of clarity.

I look forward to reading a serious, scholarly and genuinely critical review of the new biography – and trust these same qualities will apply to the work itself. Meanwhile, I will go and read some Benjamin ‘to purge and clarify the mythic element so as to intimate the true.’

Humphrey Bower
Hamilton Hill, WA

Whatever else it is, the genre of biography entails a questioning of the mystery of the connection between living and acting. So one of the central points of my review was precisely that it is impossible – ‘structurally’, ‘generically’, ‘existentially’ – to avoid confronting moral issues in the writing of a life. This is not the same as making a moral judgement, which I was trying to be careful to avoid (obviously, given Mr Bower’s response, with mixed success). Rather, I wanted to point to how morality plays are part of everyday life, how they involve multiple actors and evaluations, and how they frustrate any straightforward assignment of a boo-hooray metric, whatever that metric might be. There is no simple relationship between life and work, but there is no work without a life – a life that is itself bound up in its concern with the making of that work. This, again, is not a moral evaluation, but a traversal of moralism on the way elsewhere: Benjamin was not a saint and he, his work, his family, his friends and social circumstances, are all diminished and misrepresented when he is treated as one.

My concern in the review was therefore not to show that Benjamin was morally contemptible or abhorrent. To the contrary, I was very concerned to circumvent a reduction of the work to the life, and the life to that of a bad man. In this regard, Mr Bower seems to be much more upset than I am about Benjamin’s actions. For my account of these, I drew on quotations from Benjamin’s friends themselves, carefully provided and lucidly elaborated by Eiland and Jennings. I wanted thereby, first, to characterise Benjamin in the terms provided by his family and friends, against much of the literally disembodied invocations that circulate today; second, to show how these evaluations are in fact very complex and nuanced (e.g. Benjamin could be a nightmare but some friends were prepared to work through the often-strenuous differences and difficulties); third, to confront the common idealisations of Benjamin which, in their evasion of his material circumstances, function to betray his legacy in the guise of celebration; fourth, to then return to Benjamin’s work again in a way that does not ignore but shows how his intellectual interests are shaped in a struggle with his material situation. Perhaps that is a pretty banal basis for a review, as Mr Bower might say, but there you are.

But I also attempted to structure the review quite carefully. I began with a comment about Benjamin’s characteristic ill-timing, and the most familiar anecdote about Benjamin, the tale of his last days, with which almost every journalistic review seems generically constrained to begin. For those already au fait with Benjamin’s work, this should perhaps have alerted them to, among other things, his great short piece ‘Fate and Character’, which questions the relation between guilt and life, cause and effect. As Mr Bower himself notes, I then acknowledged the ambivalent objective factors that structure the genre of biography, to show that decisions about how to treat a life must always be made by the biographer – and praised Eiland’s and Jennings’ decisions in this regard. I then moved through the complexities of Benjamin’s daily existence, before concluding, deliberately, not with tales of the life but with the power of the work. In his response, Mr Bower at once notices yet underplays the sequencing of these sections, and in doing so mistakes my intentions in providing anecdotes from Benjamin’s life. The ‘histrionic marital circus’ I spoke of was not to do with the fact that a husband and wife might have serious disagreements, but that it is part of Benjamin’s life that he seems at times to have invited people over simply in order to witness these disagreements: a life is also always the staging of a life in situ, to others who are summoned in a disavowed manner, to provide ambiguous testimonies.

In my review, then, I hardly countermand the statements of such thinkers as Hannah Arendt. But on the basis of my reading of this significant biography, I felt that the emphasis that she gives to fame – and she is quite right, Benjamin suffered the melancholy of a posthumous fame rather than its living light – should be re-inflected in favour of Bertolt Brecht’s take on Benjamin, which directs us towards analyses of power, and the tactics for its messianic seizure. If my style becomes somewhat purple and pretentious in this final section of the review, it is firstly because I foolishly didn’t listen to James Ley’s editorial suggestions, but I don’t think my characterisations are entirely otiose, either. For instance, time for Benjamin is not empty, homogeneous, nicely-formed, linear; rather, it can be invoked as a grotesque anti-form. Again, ‘hermetic sigils’ picks up not only on the common experience of the difficulties of reading Benjamin, but on a key conceptual wager of his thinking. And so on.

So I can agree with Mr Bower entirely on two points: first, the moralising about Benjamin ought to be curbed, whether in the form of praise or blame; second, that such a biography (and a review) can and should send us back to his writings themselves. This is what Mr Bower announces that he will do, and I hope others follow his lead.

Justin Clemens


I thank Justin Clemens for his gracious and thoughtful response to my letter, which addresses and clarifies many of my concerns about his original review. I completely agree that to sanctify is as false as to demonise, and that there are connections between life and work that elucidate both.

In this regard, I am reminded of a very personal passage in ‘The Concept of History’ (foreshortened in the published ‘Theses’) in which Benjamin movingly, and in an almost Proust-like vein,  states that our image of happiness is ‘steeped through and through in the time which the course of our existence has conferred on us’.

He goes on:

The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? Have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret appointment between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.

This ‘weak messianic power’ leads me to reflect on Clemens’ claims regarding messianism and power. My sense is that Benjamin used the languages of both theology and Marxism pragmatically, and even performatively, in order to understand and intervene in the present. He somewhere described the tension between these two languages as being like holding open the jaws of a crocodile with iron struts.  Hence, perhaps, his refusal to conform with orthodoxy in any form – religious, political, philosophical or personal – or indeed to remain faithful to any particular tribe or individual. This ‘systematic’ – or perhaps ‘unsystematic’ – refusal to conform or remain faithful explains why he sometimes disappointed and frustrated his closest friends and colleagues, including Scholem, Adorno and Brecht. In this regard, I am inclined to qualify the term ‘messianic’ in Benjamin along the lines of Derrida’s phrase ‘messianic without messianism’ and the latter’s distinction between ‘messianism’ and ‘messianicity’ (which perhaps goes some way to explaining why Benjamin was not a Zionist).

As to the broader question of ‘power’ in Benjamin (and Brecht): I have always seen an affinity here between the former’s efforts to ‘blast open the continuum of history’ and Foucault’s patient archeologies of discursive practice and genealogies of power. However, I am a little wary of the invocation of ‘power’ in relation to all three thinkers in terms of what Clemens calls ‘the tactics of its messianic seizure’. Benjamin uses the German word Kraft (rather than Macht) in the phrase ‘a weak Messianic power’ (eine schwache messianische Kraft). This to me implies not so much political power (at least in terms of its ‘tactics’ or ‘seizure’) as an interpretative capacity (which may certainly be political as well); hence the qualification ‘weak’ (schwache).

In terms of contemporary philosophy, I would point to Lyotard’s distinction between le pouvoir and la puissance, Derrida’s use of the term la force (which might also be translated as ‘energy’), or Deleuze’s definition of power – in explicit relation to Foucault (and Nietzsche before him) – as a differential relation between forces (the latter being derived from Spinoza’s concept of potentias or ‘potentiality’). In any case, it seems to me that there is an essential distinction between power as capacity, energy or potentiality and having power over something or someone – a distinction which is as important in the context of creativity or interpretation as it is in politics.

I am reminded of a passage about power in Benjamin’s ‘Conversations with Brecht’:

While he was speaking … I felt a power being exercised over me which was equal in strength to the power of fascism – I mean a power that sprang from the depth of history no less deep than the power of the fascists. It was a very curious feeling and new to me.

I hear a salutary ambivalence in this passage regarding Bolshevism no less than Nazism – an ambivalence all the more salutary for us today in a new dark age of identity politics.

Humphrey Bower
Hamilton Hill, WA

Published March 26, 2014