Review: Justin Clemenson Walter Benjamin

‘All he is at this point is brains and sex’: Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

Walter Benjamin was born on 15 July 1892, mere hours after the commemoration of Bastille Day. It is hard to avoid making something allegorical of this insignificant contingency, given that for the rest of his relatively brief life Benjamin would almost invariably arrive a little too soon or a little too late. Whereas those about him could at least sometimes manage to get the right job at the right time or, more compellingly, get out before the Nazis got in, Benjamin seems to have been existentially incapable of good timing. In late September 1940, after escaping various internment camps, he fled with a little group of other refugees to Port Bou on the French-Spanish border, where they were prevented from crossing by the Spanish authorities. Ageing, unfit and terrified that he would be turned back to occupied France, Benjamin most probably overdosed on the morphine he carried for just such an eventuality. Perhaps this act contributed to beneficial consequences for others; the border was unexpectedly re-opened and his fellow travellers were admitted to Spain the next day. Then, there, in Port Bou, in another sickening twerk of historical irony, he was buried in the local Catholic cemetery under the German and Christian name of ‘Doctor Benjamin Walter’. As Benjamin himself famously put it in a late essay, ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.’

In 1980, Lisa Fittko, one of Benjamin’s companions in those last appalling days, remembered: ‘What a strange man. A crystal-clear mind; unbending inner strength; yet, a woolly-headed bungler.’ The perspicacity of Fittko’s brief remarks is corroborated by this latest, painstakingly researched biography, which details in meticulous and scholarly fashion Benjamin’s spectacular talent for impressing, distressing and repelling the people about him, from his family and friends to his famous interlocutors and beyond. His persistent efforts to acquire an academic position notoriously came a cropper; his writings were often rejected by publishers, ignored or condemned by reviewers, plagiarised by friends, and remained largely unknown to the general public; his financial situation was never more than parlous at best, lurching between patronage and parasitism; his quotidian behaviour could swerve between the supplicatory and the sovereign.

There is no genre more bourgeois than modern biography. It is at once hagiographical and envious, pragmatic and prurient, exemplary and identificatory. It conjoins the celebratory revivification of outstanding personages with a form of second murder. Perhaps you don’t have to agree with Germaine Greer that biography is ‘an unpardonable crime against selfhood’, but you can see her point. To expose a person’s humiliating secrets to the light of a posthumous day can become an assault in everything they held dear, taking from them the very things they were trying to take to the grave. The tracking of lives has today reached staggering depths of intensity. It is now said that we know what Goethe was doing every hour of every day. In this remorseless reconstruction of the life of an individual, the amassing, selecting and ordering of facts and details, contingency can so easily come to overwhelm order and fabulation can supplant causation. Perhaps it is not irrelevant to hear of Rainer Maria Rilke’s abominably bad breath or Samuel Beckett’s recurrent anal ulcers, such that the sublimation of spirit or the resolute tracking of material decay in the work of such writers can be referred without reduction to the experiences of their bodies … but, still. Biography can never quite avoid fabulation. Truth and myth come to be entangled in a Gordian knot of narrative, and the attempt to sort haphazard acts from defining events can founder in an ocean without stars.

Benjamin has tended to be ill-sung in the hymnals of academic choir-boys, who try to turn him into a sweet little liberal martyr, whether of an anarchistic or low-Romantic variety. In their hands and mouths, Benjamin’s critical concepts turn into pietistic platitudes, suitable for processing loose colonies of amoebic undergraduates into phalanxes of right-thinking professionals marching rigorously forward across the dying plains of the humanities, their arms crossed in the air. Benjamin himself had a bad time in and with universities. After an initially stellar reception (graduating from his Doctorate summa cum laude), his Habilitation Thesis – the substantial post-doctoral presentation required for a university position – was rejected out of hand by the authorities. Indeed, Benjamin was somehow induced to withdraw the document so that he would not have to suffer the embarrassment of a public failure. For the rest of his life, he regretted the greater humiliation he suffered on account of the withdrawal.

Confronted with the difficulties and temptations that face every biographer, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings — the erudite and eminent editors of the impeccable four volume Harvard edition of Benjamin’s Selected Writings (2004-6) — have quite sensibly opted for a maximum of social detail and a minimum of psychological speculation. This book is indeed, as its subtitle has it, a ‘critical life’. And it is so in a number of senses. Benjamin was obsessed with the meaning and practice of criticism, its provenance, uses and destiny, and thereby became one of the great literary-philosophical critics of the twentieth century, reinventing the form for new generations. But he also lived in critical times – that is, in times of crisis. His life was witness to the great geopolitical upheavals of the World Wars, imperial collapse, unconstrained inflation, poverty, putsches, anti-Semitism and concentration camps. Eiland and Jennings have also written a critical biography in the sense that they are critical of their subject in the commonly accepted meaning of the word, as well as in Benjamin’s own sense. As they so clearly and succinctly summarise Benjamin’s account of the critical enterprise in ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’: ‘The task of criticism, then, is the differentiation of truth from myth, or rather the purging and clarification of the mythic element so as to intimate the true.’

Biographers often like to make a big deal about alleged contradictions in personality, as if inconstancy spells a singular complexity. Yet, as Sigmund Freud would say, we still know what men want: sex, money, reputation, power. What of those who do not want those things, or at least seem not to? Well, they are fixing to get them by other means. This can lead to certain obscure hierarchies and sacrifices in the elaboration of character, as self-interest jostles with self-interest, forcing down some strands and elevating others, mixing and transforming each into each. Benjamin noted 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. Eiland and Jennings have clearly sought to do that here. On the basis of the vast and scattered archives they have marshalled, they reveal that Benjamin’s interests were indeed directed towards sex and power, as long as we understand ‘sex’ to mean dissolute, distressing love imbroglios, and ‘power’ to mean unrivalled intellectual insight into the pulsing hermetic heart of historical circumstance.

Eiland and Jennings expose this doublet through their punctilious enumeration of Benjamin’s relationships, in such a way that compelling correspondences begin to emerge from the quotidian morass. Some of the anecdotes are indeed cringeworthy, as when Benjamin invited his great friend Gershom Scholem — later to become the greatest twentieth century scholar of Jewish mysticism — over for dinner. Although aware that their guest had arrived, Benjamin and his wife Dora spent the evening screaming at each other upstairs until Scholem finally snuck out, the duped spectator of a histrionic marital circus. As far as Scholem was concerned, Benjamin could be truly despotic. Eiland and Jennings explain that Benjamin ‘kept even his closest friends at arm’s length … intent on keeping each group of friends sealed off hermetically from every other group’. He proved himself brutal and unforgiving of apparently minor infractions. Scholem was far from being the only cataloguer of such irritating, insulting foibles of control.

For a contemporary reader, however, it is perhaps Benjamin’s sexual shenanigans that are the most unappealing. Asja Lacis was a radical theatre director and friend of Bertolt Brecht, to whom she introduced Benjamin. Benjamin was besotted with Lacis and dedicated his avant-garde testament One Way Street (1928) to her in the following striking terms:

This street is named
Asja Lacis Street
After her who
as an engineer
cut it through the author.

So it is worth knowing that Benjamin hounded Lacis, who already had a long-term partner, Bernhard Reich, and that, despite their existing commitments, he 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. When he finally decided he wanted a divorce he was prepared to resort to the most despicable tactics, which — as anybody could have told him — would only make things unnecessarily worse for all. As Benjamin’s wife Dora wrote in a letter to Scholem just before the acrimonious separation battle in 1930, ‘all he is at this point is brains and sex; everything else has ceased to function’. Quite. What remains impressive is how, despite all the psychosocial horror Benjamin kept reliably delivering to his nearest and dearest, they never wavered in their awe of his brilliance, and only rarely took his misery-dealing melancholia and treacheries as an excuse to withdraw their emotional and fiscal support.

Outside of this genius, however, Benjamin comes across as duplicitous, bumbling, self-indulgent, navel-gazing, arrogant, demanding, ever-susceptible to spasms of personal and familial destructiveness. A pretty average guy, in other words – at least if we take him as part of that vast trans-historical club of privileged bourgeois gentlemen that has swilled and screwed and scribbled itself silly throughout capitalist modernity. Growing up as he did the son of a successful Jewish businessman, bottled and decanted at a boutique Berlin address, coddled by nursemaids and hirelings, educated at superb schools, financed by his uncomprehending parents or by his only-too-comprehending wife and close friends, Benjamin was nothing if not bourgeois. He loved travelling, for example to Capri or Ibiza, even when there were no real funds to do so. He would frivolously consort with the Parisian demimonde, even while obsessively planning abortive affairs. He would rage at his parents and siblings, even as he rifled through their open pockets. His only son Stefan was mostly ignored, except for the speculative interest Benjamin took in children’s books, games and language acquisition. Indeed, the master word that dominated Stefan’s childhood was ‘Quiet!’ — for nothing could be permitted to interfere with the Daddy Genius and his Very Important Researches. It is likely that Benjamin sucked some strange psychic solace from all this personal and familial distress, more greedily than a weasel sucking eggs.

This sense of Benjamin’s middling personal qualities is perhaps slightly mitigated if we compare him to two other great contemporaneous Germanic thinkers, who also continue to dominate intellectual discussion in the humanities today: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, respectively the patron saints of so-called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. Whereas the Viennese Wittgenstein — also from an assimilated Jewish family — was morally ferocious, tormented, unforgiving, abrupt and self-lacerating to the point of ongoing personal and interpersonal damage, Heidegger was – as Hugo Ott has shown in his unforgiving biography – a guy so creepily craven and careerist that he attempted to turn Nazism into a world-historical opportunity for his own institutional advancement, after having cheated on his enthusiastically Aryan wife Elfride with his brilliant Jewish student Hannah Arendt.

Benjamin would never enjoy Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s levels of public and academic acclamation, at least in his lifetime. Yet Benjamin was onto Heidegger from the first. Upon reading Heidegger’s 1915 doctoral thesis, Benjamin wrote to Scholem:

It is incredible that anyone could qualify for a university position on the basis of such a study … The author’s contemptible grovelling at the feet of Rickert and Husserl does not make reading it more pleasant.

For his part, it is not clear whether Heidegger ever took any real notice of Benjamin, but others certainly did, some of them exceedingly unexpected. One such covert interlocutor was the reactionary (and revolting) philosopher of law Carl Schmitt – ‘legal valet of the Third Reich’, as French linguist Jean-Claude Milner sardonically puts it – with whom Benjamin at one point broached a correspondence. Long after Benjamin’s death, Schmitt was still plotting his intellectual revenge, citing Benjamin in his book Hamlet or Hecuba (1956), and even confessing in a 1973 letter to Hansjörg Viesel that his book The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (1938) was conceived as a ‘response to Benjamin’.

The same should presumably be said of many critical masterpieces of the century. Works by Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, the Collège de Sociologie, Max Horkheimer, Sigfried Kracauer, and perhaps even by Leo Strauss, bear the often near-indiscernible stamp of Benjamin, not to mention the innumerable critics of today, from T.J. Clark to Sam Weber, who remain essentially Benjaminian. Benjamin’s now notorious topics, images, methods and renovated concepts — allegory, the flâneur, the collector, the dialectical image, the decay of the aura, the powers of technical reproducibility — continue to disseminate themselves across fields as diverse as architecture and theology. His dedicated studies of great literary figures and movements — Goethe, Baudelaire, Kafka, the German Romantics, Baroque mourning-plays — still stalk the dark hinterlands of criticism like vast artificial beasts, at once tutelary and terrifying. And towering above all these in its ruined, unfinished magnificence is the absolutely extraordinary Arcades Project (2002).

All this despite the fact that, as Stanley Corngold says, Benjamin’s work can be ‘hieratic, cryptic, and high-flown, and in places written in a German whose tortuousness defies deciphering’. Mystery and mysticism were the hard kernel of Benjamin’s thinking. Of course, being Benjamin, these concepts were of uncommon kind. His mysticism can be best described as radically rationalist; his rationalism a unique form of mysticism. His bizarre Platonic Judaism took it upon itself to separate the mythic from the messianic, seeing this as the most urgent political task facing modernity. Why? Because only from the point of view of the absolute end of all things — the Messiah’s return, the destruction of every possible interest and self-interest — can one have a genuinely rational perspective on time and history, a perspective that is not subject to situational distortions. To attempt to think from this impossible place should be the task of the revolutionary actor, whether in thought or deed, to unleash the ‘weak messianic power’ that has been bequeathed us.

That Benjamin sometimes attempted this task by means that take some deciphering is part of its risk. His brazen writerly divagations are not the unfathomable dilatory weavings of a drunken seer or big-dreaming gambler, despite his penchants for drug experimentation and roulette. They are, rather, covert depth charges slung into the grotesque and heaving body of time. The partially illegible yet seductive surfaces of his writings can suddenly erupt with revelations from the deep, as their hermetic sigils crack open in imageless bursts of redemption. There is no progress – ‘progress’ is always a phantasm that radiates from the glorious bodies of history’s catastrophic masters. Nor, concomitantly, is there decline. As Benjamin so-famously phrased it, every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism. Instead, there is study, studiousness, seriousness. Benjamin adored detective stories, as if each embodied an allegory of the perils and precariousness of thought, each a mystic-rationalist attempt to undo the effects of the disaster through a reconstruction of the situation before it was shattered by time.

Perhaps this is one reason why this biography proves so appealing: its careful reconstruction of Benjamin’s work is itself an allegory of some kind of redemption; or, at least, it proves a welcome witness to a truly critical life. In a famous essay that simultaneously commemorates and corrals her fated friend, Hannah Arendt wrote that ‘his was the saddest kind of fame, posthumous fame’. But Brecht — the only person that Benjamin seems to have been in intellectual awe of — thought differently. Not earthly fame, but effective power is the key. In ‘To Walter Benjamin, Who Killed Himself Fleeing from Hitler’, one of four elegies he wrote on hearing of the death of his friend, Brecht remembers:

Tactics of attrition were what you liked,
Sitting at the chessboard in the pear tree’s shade.

Read the correspondence for this review.