Illuminations. Essays and Reflections
Walter Benjamin was born in 1892. He killed himself in 1940 when he was refused permission to cross from France into Spain in order to take ship from Lisbon to the United States, where he would have joined his émigré associates Adorno and Horkheimer at the Institute of Social Research in New York. He was of that Jewish class in which it was normal for fathers who had made a success in the world of business to support their sons in the life of independent scholarship, and although his father happened not to wish to do this Benjamin nevertheless pursued such a life, intending to make himself the best German critic. Miss Arendt, in her Introduction to this book, emphasizes the peculiarity of such Jewish intellectuals; they administered, as Moritz Goldstein remarked, “the intellectual property of a people which denied them the right and the ability to do so,” and because there was very little in their own lives to connect them with the religion or manners of their fathers they were often as much at odds with the Jewish as with the larger community.
Benjamin showed a characteristic wavering between the two available possibilities of affiliation: Communism and Zionism. But he remained, in spite of persistent misfortune and uncertainty, his own man, a unique and puzzling figure. He was a collector, and had a large library; he preferred to live in Paris; his extreme idiosyncracy, which Hofmannsthal at once recognized as genius, caused his closest associates, such as Adorno, to suppress his work. His entire life seems, on one view, to have been, in Miss Arendt’s phrase, a matter of bungling and bad luck, right down to its end, which would have been averted if he had arrived at the frontier twenty-four hours earlier.
When he died his work was known to a few; it is only in the past fifteen years or so that Benjamin’s name has become well known, and that in limited circles. But they widen, and so do the claims made for him. He is referred to as a great critic, the greatest, perhaps, of his time.
Reviewers of this book, therefore, are likely to be oppressed by two considerations, first that they have taken on something exceptionally important, and secondly that they have taken on something unusually difficult. The first appearance in English of a writer who is the subject of such high claims amply justifies the first sentiment, and the idiosyncracy of his method as well as the complexity of his historical situation excuses the second. Hannah Arendt shows an almost Benjaminite boldness of metaphor in her attempts to characterize that idiosyncracy, but she seems more authoritative, because more intimately concerned, as the expositor of a tragic historical situation.
Robert Alter in a brilliant Commentary review challenges her sharply on her reading of Benjamin’s political, social, and racial position, and the focusing of argument there seems to me, however sensitive the discussions of Benjamin’s criticism as such, to leave room for a commentator with different priorities—and no competence to dispute with the learned on such matters as German Marxism and Zionism between the wars—to try other ways of demonstrating its greatness. If it is as a critic that Benjamin counts—and he certainly thought so—it is arguable that his precise relation to Marxism or Zionism, the extent of the doctrinal deviations detected by his pupil Adorno, the question whether Brecht was good for him or not, are secondary issues.
The English reader has now a couple of hundred pages to go on. It is not much. The circumstances of Benjamin’s life and also his temperament were so strange, so unlucky, that even now, nearly thirty years after his suicide, much of his extant work has not achieved publication in German; presumably the material held in Frankfort by Adorno will now see the light. Of the works available in German Miss Arendt has, she assures us, given the most important, with two exceptions, these being essays on Goethe and Karl Kraus. One often feels, in reading her Introduction, that she is speaking of aspects of the writer not represented here; but there is for all that enough to be grateful for, and to give a fair idea of Benjamin’s stature.1
In trying to say what that is I intend, perhaps ungratefully, to avoid the front entrance, where Miss Arendt’s essay lies coiled at the gate, and slip in at the side. One might as well begin with literary criticism. There is a longish piece on Kafka. It starts off with a story about Potemkin, but this only sounds like a leisurely belletristic overture. Stories, as we shall see, are crucial to Benjamin. Soon he is discoursing intelligently about the ugly sexy women in Kafka, and about the beauty of the guilty. Good but not amazing, it sounds like capable commentary; but Benjamin distinguished between commentary and criticism, the latter being the higher activity and concerned, not with the communication to readers of information, here italicized as a word with special senses to be discussed later, but with, to be less vague than one sounds, the intuition of essences. Then, arising out of some remarks on Amerika, this passage occurs:
Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author at the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in everchanging contexts and experimental groupings…. The greater Kafka’s mastery became, the more frequently did he eschew adapting these gestures to common situations or explaining them…. Each gesture is an event—one might even say, a drama—in itself…. Like El Greco, Kafka tears open the sky behind each gesture; but as with El Greco…the gesture remains the decisive thing…. He divests the human gesture of its traditional supports and then has a subject for reflection without end.
This condensed version perforce leaves out the supporting examples. The reader will supply them: the hunched backs, the raised hands, all those postures and movements which, in Kafka, import familiar behavior into a context which alters or strips it of usual meanings. Thus we know it is wrong to think of the novels as if they were analogous to dreams. Benjamin is saying why. Kafka “took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings,” which is why explications and allegorizings, psychoanalytic or theological, are always wrong. He made stories; he dealt in primordial experience, which is why
his novels are set in a swamp world. In his works created things appear at the stage which Bachofen has termed the hetaeric stage. The fact that it is now forgotten does not mean that it does not extend into the present…. An experience deeper than that of an average person can make contact with it.
But of course it cannot be interpreted in another language. Like all the literature of wisdom (wisdom being truth in its epic aspect) it expresses itself as story, a lost art. Kafka’s world is not ours, if only because “his gestures of terror are given scope by the marvelous margin which the catastrophe will not grant us.” Hence his wisdom, traditional though in decay; hence also his “radiant serenity,” his acceptance of a world without hope for us, who have no source of serenity.
Benjamin, as one sees from this, is not a critic who goes in for “close analysis.” He isn’t even, on this evidence, the master of any great range of critical strategies. He is not noisily prophetic or apocalyptic; certainly he sees Kafka as providing a relevant wisdom, but he does not pretend that Kafka was needed to show the world what was already obvious, that it was on the brink of a disaster. On the other hand it must be said that he chooses his illustrations with extraordinary skill and insight. The code of gestures is a brilliant notion: the analogy with El Greco—one of many such rapid allusions to painting and sculpture—has terrific assurance and point. But it is doubtful whether these advantages alone would guarantee Benjamin the now widely endorsed opinion that he is pre-eminent among twentieth-century critics. And if we try to describe the quality which does vindicate that opinion I doubt if, at this stage, we shall come up with anything much more illuminating than certainty.
The centrality of Kafka is a public concept, but most ways of stating it simply seem intolerably vulgar and imprecise after Benjamin, who knows the author in his essence, and has exactly the means, nothing beyond or short of necessity, to show it forth. You hardly feel that you have been reading criticism; this is not because the method is eclectic or “impressionist,” but because it requires the kind of response we are accustomed to give to works of art. This is the quality Miss Arendt is trying to describe when she talks about the poetic nature of his thought. Benjamin’s is, however, a poetic of accuracy, not of vague suggestion. And this is why he really is a great critic. The fact that his primary critical operations had methodological by-products which he employed, with great ingenuity and taste, in the construction of literary and cultural theories is interesting but less important; what counts here is the art of criticism.
Before I get on to those secondary matters I had better give a further example of the primary. On the evidence of this book, the second author of whom Benjamin speaks with unequalled authority is Proust, who figures largely not only in the essay devoted to him but also in the longest and most elaborate of the studies, the one on Baudelaire, who, for Benjamin, was Proust’s evangelist.
Baudelaire, as we all know, invented for art the modern city—l’immonde cité—and its crowds. Benjamin subjects this commonplace to extraordinary processes of elaboration and refinement. For him the city is not only the locus of our complex modern isolation, it is also the source of modern shock. Its gestures are all productive of, or protective against, shock: switching, inserting, pressing, snapping; the exchange and avoidance of glances; the barrage of incomplete and discontinuous impressions. (This aspect of metropolitan life, incidentally, fascinated Conrad. Benjamin would have been very good on Conrad, but he lived in Paris and chose Poe.)
What is destroyed by this continuous discontinuity is a quality Benjamin calls aura. This is variously described and apprehended. It is, for example, the quality of the unique work of art, handed down by a tradition, a quality lost in mechanical reproduction.
That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art…. The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.
The book is important enough for niggling criticism. There seems no good reason for printing the essays out of chronological order. (The dates are given at the end.) In the index of names "Fernandez Ardavin, Luis" has usurped the place that belongs to Ramon Fernandez. Something is wrong with the last sentence of the first paragraph on p. 161, and with the sentence about night and day on p. 204.↩
The book is important enough for niggling criticism. There seems no good reason for printing the essays out of chronological order. (The dates are given at the end.) In the index of names “Fernandez Ardavin, Luis” has usurped the place that belongs to Ramon Fernandez. Something is wrong with the last sentence of the first paragraph on p. 161, and with the sentence about night and day on p. 204.↩