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Walter Benjamin:

Some Biographical Fragments

by Lloyd Spencer


[Lloyd Spencer is the author of Benjamin for Beginners (Writers & Readers, 2000), Hegel for Beginners (Icon Books, 1996), & Enlightenment for Beginners (Icon Books, 1997). In 1985 he edited The Sense of Sight, a collection of essays by art critic & novelist John Berger. His translation of Walter Benjamin's essay "Experience" ("Erfahrung," 1913) appears in Benjamin's Selected Writings Volume 1: 1913-1926, (Harvard, 1996) and his translation of "Central Park," Benjamin's collection of notes and aphorisms on Baudelaire, appeared in New German Critique (No. 34, Winter). A senior lecturer on the media faculty at Trinity and All Saints College, Lloyd Spencer is also a member of the General Board of the International Walter Benjamin Association.]




'Life and Work'

That which is known or surmised about Benjamin's life and about the development of his thinking has already played a very conspicuous role in heated debates among his interpreters. Even basic documentation is far from complete. Some material has been lost, some of it is inaccessible, and the wealth of material now made readily available is the subject of continuing controversy. The many facts, documents, memoirs, letters, drafts available are so minutely examined, and each new statement, or discovery, so eagerly awaited because the picture we have is so strange, so complex and so riddled with tension. Benjamin's habits of secrecy and indirectness, together with the personal and political incompatibilities which surrounded him, and the profoundly original and experimental nature of his intellectual project have combined to keep almost every aspect of his life open to debate. There are few writers in whom the entanglements of 'life' and 'work' are so obvious, so important, and yet so elusive. There have been few thinkers in this century who have tackled so many of the most profound issues in such a searching, and suggestive way. Understanding his work involves understanding the life which he devoted to it; it is a collective labour which is still in process.


'The prose of the world'

Benjamin's writings bear obvious, as well as concealed, signs of the times and the circumstances in which he worked. A good deal of his writing was of an occasional nature - reviews, journal articles, talks, proposals - as Benjamin struggled to support himself and his writing following the failure of his attempt to win academic respectability. Benjamin proved himself adept at expressing concerns which were his own in a manner which suited the occasion and, to a degree, the audience. This was allied with his preference for exploring his own ideas through the analysis of the works of others. Benjamin's preference for shorter prose forms - aphorisms, letters, reviews, fragments, essays - best suited to his own literary-philosophical style had as its complement the intimation of a larger whole, a context never achieved. Today the most immediate context for Benjamin's beautifully-crafted fragmentary writings is that of his own life, and fate. But we should be wary of pre-judging (ironically because we are committed to the perspective of hindsight) the possibilities as they presented themselves to Benjamin. A radical incompleteness was both an article of faith for Benjamin and a guiding principle of the open and experimental way in which he conducted his thinking. It obscures, because it so exactly complements, the effects of 'unfavourable' circumstances - 'Dark Times': exile, poverty, isolation, personal misunderstandings and animosities, war - on the overall shape of his work.


'Der Anfang'

Although he eschewed explicitly prophetic tones, Benjamin anticipated radical, new beginnings. From the time of his youth and his involvement with the most radical and most idealistically intellectual wing of the Youth Movement (that wing associated with the journal Der Anfang 'The Beginning' and influenced by the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken), Benjamin spoke and wrote in the name of something unimaginable, something radically different to 'that which is'. It was this thought which formed the almost entirely abstract and ideal horizon against which was fought his hand-to-hand combat with the particular (personal and global) circumstances of the present.

From his early attack on 'experience', the older generation, tradition and the realities of the work-a-day world to his very last reflections in which he attempted to explain how 'experience' had been so degraded, and even the tradition of revolt and opposition could succumb to conformism, Benjamin kept alive the idea of necessary discontinuity in history, the desirability of a radical break with the past, and a relation to something as yet hardly glimpsed in the labyrinths of history. Benjamin saw himself not as a worker contributing to that which might be just beginning but a herald preparing his readers for something unheard of, something radically new. At almost every level, from the most trivially personal to the most portentously historic, the circumstances in which he lived and worked presented themselves to Benjamin, the writer, as increasingly ominous obstacles to both his work and to the kind of new beginnings they secretly enshrined.

From first to last Benjamin demonstrated that it was necessary to think in theological categories (the redemptive rescue of the past, the messianic cessation of history) in order to achieve the kind of moral and ideal focus on the world which he strove to establish. There is no evidence that he retained any real religious faith. The 'weak messianic power' of which he spoke towards the end of his life was one vested in the historian guided by the principles of historical materialism and the masses at the moment of their revolutionary action. The active encouragement 'with which he accompanied Death in all its works', his appreciation of moments passing away, and of tendencies which were critical and destructive, does suggest a kind of 'faith' or confidence that every true content thus released, or liberated, would be re-used, re-absorbed, redeemed at some later point but not necessarily religious conviction. The rescue of the elements of the past was entirely the fragile and embattled work of the historian, that of breaking the continuum of history, citing the past, that of the revolutionary masses. Their explosive conjunction was, as Benjamin plainly saw, a remote but enthralling possibility.

In broad outline at least, the facts of Benjamin's life are now well-known, but the dispute over his biography, its developments, and its conflicts, is likely to continue. The dispute took shape originally as one between revolutionary Marxist, Critical Theorist and Jewish scholastic legatees. He has been claimed for the New Theology and for self-absorbed libertarianism of the permissive generation. His esoteric and elitist strains have been played against his analysis and commitment to the situation of the intellectual within a revolutionary movement. He has been invoked to support nostalgic elegies for a dying civilisation and the most ruthless and iconoclastic modernism. In its new guise the dispute over Benjamin's legacy has now shifted to one between neo-Marxist modernist and deconstructionist and post-modernist combatants. Benjamin's writings have played such an important role in the most serious discussions about progress, about history, about the 'spiritual condition of the age' precisely because, even if he avoided offering a programme, or a positive set of proposals, Benjamin showed more starkly than anyone else of his time what was at stake.

As the claim to any direct continuity with Benjamin's legacy becomes more tenuous, so the question of what Benjamin really said, what he really meant has been displaced by questions as to the variety of readings, no matter how tortured, to which he is susceptible. Benjamin's work was, even during his life-time, a battle-site. Today excavators vie with one another, some claiming a strictly archaeological interest, others mining for something which they can put to use. Benjamin himself made the principle of the interdependence of the philological and the political into a principle highly productive in his own life. Recognising the element of bad faith expressed in exclusively elevating either of these two interests is not the same as being able to effect their synthesis in imitation of the master. Hollow academic ivory-towerism and raucous political self-interest are twin dangers which lurk not far from the surface in any contemporary invocation of the unity of historical understanding and political concern in Benjamin's life. Understanding how the questions which govern Benjamin's life presented themselves to him is a process which should accompany the attempt to bring into focus the questions which hang over our own heads, and which we are often nervous of even naming.


Method is detour

The path of memory. Benjamin's secretiveness about his life and about his writing was due not only to professional caution, or to his exposed position 'between the fronts' of his closest friends and allies. The kinds of truth in which Benjamin was most interested were those which gave themselves up coyly, with the maximum indirectness. Benjamin was suspicious of method because the elusive truths he sought were wary of pre-established, pre-determined approaches. The truth Benjamin sought was as much the path trodden as it was the goal which beckoned. 'Method', Benjamin remarked cryptically, 'is detour'. The assemblage of montage, the tracing of tracks through the labyrinth, the interpolation into the infinitesimal are the procedures of a highly conscious memory, but one which knows that the wilful and deliberate efforts of memory can be destructive of that which they wish to resurrect. Benjamin recognised that a brutal grasp may also be part of what is involved in redemption, certainly in its revolutionary guise, but practised also myriad stratagems of indirectness.

Very early on in his career Benjamin developed the art of self-definition through the analysis of the writings of others: from his early (1916) attack on Socrates (using Nietzsche's words while aiming them obliquely at his erstwhile mentor, Gustav Wyneken), and his (1919) enshrinement of Dostoevsky's Idiot, Myshkin (in whom Scholem immediately recognised his friend Heinle, who had committed suicide in 1914), to the masterful essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities (1923), a novel in which Benjamin recognised, without making the connection explicit, a marital entanglement exactly paralleling his own. As Benjamin's historical and critical methods became more refined, so the canvas on which he sketched his self-portraits expanded and the subtlety with which he manipulated the distance between himself and his models increased. Benjamin developed his self-definition through an anti-subjective historical criticism, and through the harsh analysis of figures with whom his identification could not be incomplete (the melancholics of the Baroque, Baudelaire, Proust, etc.). As if to protect himself from assimilation he continued to maintain as a principle the primacy of the present over (the understanding of) the past.

Benjamin's stance throughout his life and in almost everything he wrote was critical. His contestation of any form of continuity with tradition remained a constant element of his thinking. He exposed the very idea of tradition wherever and whenever he could not only as a burden upon the present but as an insult and a dead-weight carried by the dis-possessed, the anonymously labouring; by the people, in other words, excluded by the 'Great Traditions'. Benjamin's attempt to rescue from the past, and from the experience of the dis-possessed, truths worthy of servicing not only the discontinuities to which they had been subject but also the cataclysmic revolutionary upheavals of the future, has misled some of his most sympathetic readers into treating Benjamin's essays as 'nostalgic', causing them to overlook the destructive wrath to which Benjamin was prepared to submit that which was to be redeemed, in order that it might be liberated.


The 'magic' of language

It has been remarked that Benjamin stood very close to those things against which his most pointed critical remarks were directed, among them the auratic, contemplative and esoteric works of art enshrined by tradition. Benjamin's analysis of high art and the aestheticism of its spiritualistic devotees is so penetrating because Benjamin shared their intense and visionary concern for the secret side of language, differing from them markedly in the consistently radical moral and political sensitivity which he brought to bear on aesthetic matters.


The 'Great Tradition', Goethe, et al

Benjamin devoted relatively little time to writing about work already enshrined within the prevailing canon of literary taste. Even where he comes closest, in his early essay on a novel by Goethe, his study of the then somewhat neglected genre of the German Trauerspiel, or in his studies of the once despised but then immensely fashionable Fleurs du mal, Benjamin operates most effectively at some distance from the Great Traditions. The task of brushing (literary) history 'against the grain' was most effectively carried out by engaging the defenders of Tradition on their flanks, in those grey areas, least hotly defended, where explosive elements, elements which failed to conform to accepted orthodoxies put in an appearance. Benjamin's approaches to Goethe are a crucial example: his stress on Part II of Faust, his emphasis on the 'Romantic' view of nature and the natural sciences and his pursuit of moral ideas of fate and character in Goethe's strange novella, and the precise sociological and biographical account of Goethe's career in Benjamin's Encyclopaedia-article, were all designed to reassert aspects of the German national post which had all but been forgotten in the tradition fostered by Goethe's devotees.


The 'unheard-of'

Consistently Benjamin's major efforts were devoted to those works from the past, even the recent past, in which new, unheralded, even totally unheard-of elements or achievements had made their first appearance. In a surprisingly large proportion of cases, the figures, or works, or aspects to which Benjamin's attention was directed were those which gave Tradition something of a shock, and which initially represented something new, something strange, and even threatening, to those accustomed to what had gone before. Hölderlin, the Romantics, Baudelaire, Surrealism, Kafka, Brecht: although links and influences exist, these figures (or the others treated by Benjamin) do not add up to an alternative tradition. Their unity is derived from the tradition to which they were opposed or alienated from, and from the significance with which, in Benjamin's own writing, they are imbued.

Benjamin was a modernist, not in the sense that he gave the endorsement of criticism to actually existing modernist movements - he remained aloof from even those (Surrealism, Brecht) with whom he had most in common. All artistic impulses, and especially the most oppositional, the most radical, both past and present, were subject to the withering, mortifying force of criticism in order to liberate, for possible future purposes, that which had once been alive in them, and that which was most alive in them in the present.


The primacy of the present

Benjamin made active involvement in the struggles of the present (-struggles which for Benjamin involved the working masses and their Marxist representatives in a crucial way-), together with the radical discontinuity with the past and with tradition which that implied into a criterion, or at least into a necessary condition, of any genuine approach to the past. The appropriate assimilation of the insights, the concerns, even the gestures of even the most radical of precursors was made conditional on the activity of appropriation, and on the politics of the present. Identification was not enough. With acute, though sometimes veiled, historical self-consciousness Benjamin worked elements of the 'influence' of past writers into his own prose, often with qualifying insights which indicated his distance from any direct influence. Benjamin's doctoral dissertation on the early German Romantics for instance distils an idea of criticism (as the completion of the work) important for his own practice, but betrays nothing of the importance for himself of the implications for style, or the full eschatological context of his idea. That essay, together with other scattered reflections and 'borrowings' enable Benjamin to bring into focus a moment in the development of Romanticism in which its radicalness, its critical, destructive and progressive possibilities were all still in balance. That moment, at which Schlegel and Novalis were searching for a new understanding of literary history which could encompass and encourage every modern impulse, everything new and changing, was not without its ambivalence but it was radically at odds with the reactionary conformism to which Schlegel and other Romantics fell prey.


Critique and contradiction(s)

The focus on moments of discontinuity, moments of a break with tradition, the dispersed, fragmentary nature of Benjamin's writings, and the habit of expressing his own highly original synthesis of ideas through close encounters with the texts of others, all combine to make questions of influence in Benjamin's work complicated, tantalising and somewhat speculative. The impulses and occasions which generated or made possible Benjamin's writings were as diffuse and varied as the topics that were tackled: the turmoil through which Benjamin's associates lived and the intensity with which they worked upon one another contributed in their turn to the density and complexity of his prose. The image of Benjamin is one with strong and distinctive contours. He sought to make himself a stage on which contradictions could play themselves out. As an intellectual living out not only the history of his own day but also struggles of the past, Benjamin's stage was an extremely crowded one and on it his own image becomes more elusive. The story of the development of Benjamin's ideas is as much the story of the history and development of those ideas as reconstructed in Benjamin's scattered, fragmentary and often oblique critical writings.


The ploy of identification and distance

The influence on Benjamin of the many thinkers to which he devoted close critical attention - Goethe, the Romantics, Baudelaire, Nietzche, Kafka, the Surrealists, Brecht - as well as the many who are discernible only in certain phrases, ideas and gestures - the Cabbalists, Hamann v. Baader, Mallarmé, Bakunin, Rosenszweig, the neo-Kantians, Klages and so on, is complicated by the very range of Benjamin's reading, by his tendency to absorb at second-hand, and through more than one route, and by the acute historical sense he deployed in his reading.


The 'work' of a lifetime

Benjamin's life was almost wholly given over to writing, his own and that of others. Benjamin's absorption in writings - like those of Baudelaire or of the seventeenth century German dramatists - with whom his identification was intense but oblique and, to an extent, channelled, was another factor which encouraged the incompleteness of so much of his work. The 'completion' of his study of Baroque Trauerspiel - the only book-length study to have achieved 'final' form - may only have been possible because of the combination of external pressure (parents and university) and the fact that its guiding principles, its governing paradigm had already been superseded by the historical materialism to which Benjamin had been introduced. After the predictable rejection of the Trauerspiel-book by the university, Benjamin turned to what he thought would be an essay on the Paris arcades and the culture of the nineteenth century. Instead Benjamin fell under the spell which it was the aim of that study to diagnose and to break. From this original impulse (provoked in part by the Surrealists) grew the monumental 'Arcades' project, on which Benjamin worked for more than thirteen years without bringing it nearer to completion. At the centre of the project stood the brooding figure of Baudelaire, but Benjamin's attempt to extract a manageable study of the poet remained likewise incomplete. The monumental enterprise took shape as something intrinsically incomplete, rather like the Romantic architectural convention of the artificial ruin. Instead of a life's work, Benjamin left a life of work, a life's commitment to writing, to intellectual productivity, criticism and experiment.


Anti-subjectivism and experience

Benjamin believed that the late medieval doctrine of the four temperaments (sanguine, cholic, phlegmatic, splenetic) was more relevant to the complexities and tensions of his make-up than more modern psychological theory, whether behaviourist or psychoanalytic, which acknowledged a determinacy of the past over the present. Benjamin combated the influence of the past in the present in order to rescue from the past what is most vital for the present and for a possible future. As Benjamin's troubled life took its course his commitment to the recovery of the fragile and elusive truths yielded by memory grew in intensity. Benjamin was quite explicitly that the preservation of the truths of the past was no longer a function of any continuity with them. If it had once been possible to preserve such truths of history and experience from the ravages of history and experience, it was no longer so. The normalcy of catastrophe and the catastrophe of an empty, repetitive disjointed normalcy had made any such continuity suspicious. Only in the face of, and on the basis of, loss, distance and destruction can those truths which might arise from memory emerge; they are brought out only with difficulty, in the face of obstacles and as a result of the most committed and self-conscious work of reconstruction.

The roots in Benjamin's personal experience of his most obsessively pursued intellectual concerns are not difficult to discern, but difficult to follow. For instance, the impact on Benjamin's life of the suicide of his friend, the poet Heinle, who killed himself in a suicide pact with his girlfriend rather than go off to war, is remarked upon by those who were closest to him. Its likely effect in shaping the absolutism of Benjamin's moral categories, even during the period when he began to acquire a more subtle historical and political understanding, is hard to overestimate. But how do we understand the implications of the fact that it was this same friend whom Benjamin had more or less had expelled from that group within the Youth Movement to which they had both belonged, and for wanting to see more practical realisation of the Idea, whereas Benjamin insisted on awaiting its coming, leaving it unsullied in the meantime.

The persistence of motifs from Benjamin's youthful struggles is complicated by the changed form of the critique which in later writings he attempts to direct at the figures - Dilthey, George, Nietzsche, etc. - who were influential in his youth. Benjamin spends little time in the critique of individual thinkers, or in analysing intellectual movements. His opponents are often unmentioned, though the polemical thrust of Benjamin's writings is not concealed. The tendencies and trends to which Benjamin opposed himself were diffuse and widespread, but more importantly, they had not only had a role in shaping Benjamin's thinking, Benjamin continued to depend on them, hoping to make them reveal certain truths, despite themselves unintentionally, as a result of his critique and analysis.


Autobiography, personal and historical


Benjamin's own characterisations of his methods and inspiration are so lucid as to make more difficult the necessary task of critical detachment. His own autobiographical writings are precious and revealing about the places and the things with which he grew up. But the child Benjamin was a discovery (perhaps a projection) of Benjamin, the adult. A good deal is disclosed about childhood in general but even obviously significant facts about Benjamin's own childhood remain hidden. It is as if Benjamin needed a certain indirectness, a detour via the intellect and experience of others, of the literary figures he analyses, in order even to face or to uncover his closest concerns. Protected by the assumption that all understanding might be a form of - historical, not psychological -self-understanding, Benjamin pursued his self-image in the densest thickets of history.


The image of Benjamin

An appointment with the past: Much has changed and Benjamin's life and work has taken on an exemplary character. In regard to the areas of literature and history which he opened up we may regard him rather as he regarded the Romantics: as the last bearer of a living 'tradition'. His search for authentic relations with the past has itself become an object of meditation in the course of our own searches for a truer image of the past. The question of the past and our relation to it poses itself more urgently, yet more amorphously, in our own day than it did even in Benjamin's. The study of Benjamin's life and work may act as a prism through which such questions are drawn into focus.

Benjamin's own texts are by no means the only source through which his ideas have come down to us. Already the picture of Benjamin's reception is a massive, dense and confusing one.

During his life-time Benjamin witnessed, not without alarm, several of his acquaintances produce and publish books on themes, and utilising insights, which belonged to the complex of his unfinished major work, the Arcades: Siegfried Kracauer's study of Offenbach and the Second Empire (and his work on film), Adorno's application of the concept of interiority in his Kierkegaard-study, Ernst Bloch's treatment of the motifs of hieroglyph, montage, allegory, phantasmagoria in his Heritage of Our Times, and the journalistic study of the nineteenth century panorama, its 'highlights' and 'twilights' by Dolf Sternberger. All of these theorists survived.

Adorno incorporated many of Benjamin's insights into his own unfinished magnum opus, the Aesthetic Theory. The use of Benjamin's illuminations in studies of large scope, or different emphasis by George Steiner (for instance in his book on translation, After Babel), John Berger (e.g. Ways of Seeing), Susan Sontag (On Photography) complements on the theoretical side the extension of Benjamin's researches by more empirical historians in studies of areas where Benjamin had left his mark: such as Geist's study of Arcades as building type and Schivelbusch's Railway Journey which is the study of the development and impact of railways on the social fabric (also to an extent his study of lighting).

As Benjamin's legacy is built upon and diversifies, it is also necessarily transformed. The general currency of motifs and preoccupations which we share with Benjamin are one source of the difficulty we are presented with in approaching Benjamin's writings. Benjamin's unique, often idiosyncratic, principles of interpretation and understanding are another. They instruct and mislead, but more importantly they are simply not available, at least not in pure and integral form. Attempts to utilise Benjamin's own principles in understanding Benjamin historically are always in danger of lapsing into the bathos of empathy, and empathy, even with a mind as acute, subtle and historically self-aware as Benjamin's, is simply not enough. Meanwhile there are a host of 'rival' critical and hermeneutical approaches allied or indebted to that of Benjamin's claiming efficacy in disclosing the significance of Benjamin's example in the late twentieth century: the radical metaphysics of Jacques Derrida, the textual subtleties of the Yale 'de-constructionists', the hermeneutics of Peter Szondi, the critical approach of Peter Burger or the Marxist Terry Eagleton. The scope of Benjamin's influence, the variety of contexts into which he can be, and is being, translated, make the task of re-constructing Benjamin's own text one fraught with the dangers of misplaced emphasis, and misleading enthusiasm. It is impossible to ignore the fate, the after-life (which is after all the real life) of Benjamin's ideas and to focus simply on the man, or the writing, itself. But even if present needs and exigencies are the starting-point, and the myriad paths of Benjamin's 'influence' provide a grid of approaches to Benjamin's writings, there is much to be said for making an understanding of Benjamin's writings themselves, in their difficult and often frustrating production, the aim of our efforts.


Material on Walter Benjamin by Lloyd Spencer

Walter Benjamin: a Chronology

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