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The Incomparable Benjamin

Illuminations. Essays and Reflections

by Walter Benjamin, edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn
Schocken, 278 pp., $2.45 (paper)

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.

Another great enemy of aura is the movie camera; the film, assaulting the senses in an almost tactile way by violent and discontinuous cutting, is the great agent of shock. Benjamin does not fail to relate these effects to those of the assembly line on unskilled workers.

In a film, perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in the film.

And he goes on to cite Marx. But primarily he is concerned to say something about the essential Baudelaire and the essential Proust.

How, then, do aura and shock concern Proust? Proust, like Kafka, discovered, though at great cost, a way of preserving wisdom and telling stories (stories, the receptacles of wisdom, of experience with its auras) in the modern city. Fantastically devoted to “information” (the enemy of wisdom and story) he lived in the world of conscious memory but nevertheless retained access to the mémoire involontaire, where everything has aura. “To perceive the aura of an object we look at [? for] means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.” Thus Proust was able to find what was lost in the midst of things that had “lost their ability to look.” And for Benjamin all that is left of “tradition” in our world is a store of discrete, fragmentary deposits like those attained by the Proustian involuntary memory.

No summary can convey much of the richness of these insights, nor of the high skill with which the controlling ideas are manipulated. Writing of Proust alone, Benjamin is content with a simpler brilliance; but he adds greatly to our knowledge of Proustian essences. He chooses an anecdote, matches it with one of his own,2 speaks aphoristically of Proust’s defining the structure of the society by a “physiology of chatter”; asks whether it is not “the quintessence of experience to learn many things which apparently could be told in a very few words” but actually require an enormous mimicry of the society and its language. “Proust’s most accurate, most convincing insights fasten on their objects as insects fasten on leaves, blossoms, branches, betraying nothing of their existence until a leap, a beating of wings, a vault, show the startled observer that some incalculable individual life has imperceptibly crept into an alien world.” So keen is Proust’s sense of concealment that he even mimics the concealment practiced by the class he is describing, its silence as to its economic foundation. A consequence is that the greatness of Proust’s work “will remain inaccessible until this class has revealed its most pronounced features in the final struggle.”

That last doctrinally adhesive observation is of a sort that occasionally occurs in Benjamin’s work, but has to take its place with quite other kinds. The essay ends astonishingly with a meditation on Proust’s psychogenic asthma as source and condition of his art: “Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating.” Thus begins the concluding passage, as accurate, as original, and as free from critical or ideological vulgarity, as the essay on Kafka.

Now it must be already clear that Benjamin uses some terms—“aura,” “shock,” “experience,” “story,” for instance—in a special sense; and they do indeed form a substructure which lies as it were between the criticism itself and the Marxist foundation on which his thinking, officially but as all admit precariously, rests. This is to be inferred from the criticism, but is also the material of some extracritical speculation, Benjamin’s own informed inferences; I put it this way because it is so important to see the “poetry” of the criticism as primary, and because it will help us to see why Benjamin is a finer critic than Lukács, who is for the most part a critic last not first.

Yet it is precisely this extremely characteristic and independent layer of doctrine that has made it difficult for critics who know Benjamin’s cultural milieu to convey their sense of his greatness. Miss Arendt calls him a kind of poet, but her superb essay is colored, I think, by a sense that Benjamin is somehow, considered as an intellectual, a little irresponsible. Mr. Alter rightly observes that Benjamin’s mind normally operates “quite outside the prefabricated structures of Marxist theory,” and properly regards this as distinguishing his work from that of Lukács or Goldmann. But even so there is always a feeling that Benjamin’s individuality must be expressed by showing how he deviates from one or another philosophical norm. Thus Miss Arendt, for all her resourcefulness, seems secretly puzzled that he can be so good: in linking the Marxist “superstructure” to Baudelaire’s “correspondances” he is showing himself the most peculiar Marxist who ever lived; his central image of the flâneur—the nineteenth-century gentleman-stroller, connoisseur of metropolitan curiosities—is very un-Marxist, etc. Just so Adorno criticized him for using the relation of sub- and superstructure as metaphor rather than as fact. Instead of system there is, to everybody’s surprise, poetry: they ask for a stone and are given bread.

Benjamin, we remind ourselves, aspired to literary criticism; he wanted to be the chief German literary critic. Like good poets, good literary critics need to have a lot in their heads, but it need not be systematic; and there is no need to be surprised that Benjamin at his best uses Marxist as well as Hasidic knowledge as elements of a system imposed by the criticism more or less ad hoc. (Thus, although Mr. Alter ingeniously and usefully compares him with Trilling, the best American comparison would be with Blackmur.) And in between the criticism and the big systems falls his own body of systematic inference.

A knowledge of Benjamin’s secondary preoccupations will prevent the objection that he is too often merely paradoxical. For example, in his essay on translation he proposes a doctrine of inutility. Translation is not a means of conveying information; all good translations of a particular text, taken together, constitute an attempt to reveal some hypothetical ur-language underlying that in which the original was written; every translation is in a sense a contribution to the restoration of an ideal never wholly knowable. He even says that a translation is linguistically more definitive than an original, since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering; but that is a flourish, and the basic insight (founded on no more than the observation that we really always assume a text can be translated) is a Mallarméan sense that the imperfection of languages, as revealed in their plurality, implies an ideal, l’immortelle parole, to the discovery of which each translation contributes.

It follows that the translator ought not to try for a version that sounds original in his own language, but rather that he should let the original taint his version deeply. This, in its expression, sounds rather dandyish, rather épatant. Its implications are, however, serious; Benjamin would have approved of “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and, presumably, of Zukofsky’s Catullus. And its rationale is also serious. “Information” is the enemy of art, inutility the necessary condition of the essential act of criticism, as Benjamin conceives it, which is at the farthest possible remove from reviewing or textbook writing, being more like the action of the involuntary memory, a recherche of the only possible kind into le temps perdu. Benjamin speaks thus of translation for the same reason that he abjures the close examination of the existential flurry of the “words on the page.” He is interested in what does not render itself visible, whether it is language, a poem, or a Proustian memory.

In the great essay on Leskov he adumbrates a theory of story consistent with these assumptions. The art of story ends in modern times, ends, in fact, with the invention of the novel. Story belongs to a time before the machine devalued human experience; being the communication of experience as authenticated counsel; it belongs to wisdom, which is truth in its epic aspect. The decay of story and of wisdom is a “concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history.” The novel has nothing to do with wisdom. It belongs to print, to a world in which the teller is not impressing his aura on the tale, is “himself uncounseled,” and offers not a guide to the perplexed but mere perplexity. Information, which is absent from story, is critical to the novel; and the great novelists, Kafka and Proust, as we saw, achieve that greatness by finding ways to convert the novel into story, information into wisdom.

There follows a passage which might serve as a crucial instance of Benjamin’s genius. Story, he says, belongs to a world in which death is familiar, a part of daily life. Now we have tidied death out of our houses and the novel is obliged, in conveying something of the “meaning of life,” to provide it. Hence the extreme importance of the ends of novels, and the manner in which we regard characters as people in whose experience of death we intend to share; for if they do not actually die they suffer a figurative death at the end of the book. “This stranger’s fate, by virtue of the flame which consumes it, yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate.”

Incomparable” is a word that has attached to Benjamin; it may be coolly applied to these few paragraphs on the eschatology of the novel. And it must not be forgotten that all such speculations are solidly supported by work on novels. So too with the “probes” about technology and aura; so with almost all the more speculative material. It may have elements borrowed from more formal thinkers (the theory of the novel owes something to Lukács’s early book on the subject) but the force is generated by contact with texts. Thus the most McLuhanish piece in the book, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is ostensibly an independent study of how certain superstructural changes had become visible “only today,” half a century after the corresponding changes in the economic base. These changes alter the whole character and political bearing of art. The great single difference is reproducibility, with the attendant loss of aura. The old notion of art is now Fascist, because concepts such as creativity, genius, eternal value, mystery “lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense.” So Benjamin, in this essay, wishes to replace them with others that are more concordant with revolutionary demands.

Yet for all this half-willing radicalism, the concept of aura still belongs to his study of prerevolutionary art, an art that seeks to recover wisdom, an art associated with the sacred ritual from which mechanical reproduction will deliver it into the realm of politics.

Whenever Benjamin develops his ideas beyond their heuristic utility he arrives, naturally enough, at some such political position, so that his pronouncements can on occasion be rather remote from his critical practice. One such is the famous observation, made with Marinetti in mind, that Fascism aestheticizes politics while Communism politicizes art. We reach ideological base here, and also in some of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in which he emerges, under the duress of a mode of thought that must often have been uncongenial, as an abolitionist. The art of the past is a set of trophies celebrating the victory of the few over the many. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he wrote shortly before his death in 1940. “Barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another [though this transmission he earlier associates with aura]. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible.” Yet the Theses also associate this materialism with a kind of muted Messianism. We are thus reminded that the Jews, forbidden to investigate the future, were instructed in remembrance of things past. Instruction in remembrance (though the world is full of “information”) is his serious project: to give, without ignoring the modern intellect, without minimizing the shocks of modern reality, a human structure, so far as it may be had, to the “time of now.”

The dilemma is clear enough, and in 1940 Benjamin must have experienced it with tragic fullness. The “politicization” of art, which the situation required, marks the end of the historical process in which barbarism assisted at the creation of those virtually sacral essences which it was his special gift to divine. His major essays take cognizance of the shock as well as of the aura. He believed both that the material of great criticism was being destroyed, and that it ought to be destroyed. In wanting to be a great literary critic he discovered that he could only be the last great literary critic, and in explaining that, he explained certain aspects of the modern with an authority that thirty years of unpredictable change have not vitiated. And although some may think him unlucky, deviant, others will regard him as one of the norms by which fortune and correctness need to be judged.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    I mention this in passing, though lacking space to illustrate it, or to explain that Benjamin’s arguments are nearly always supported by instances, anecdotes, allusions, of dazzling appropriateness. This is why one thinks of his methods as characterized by a sort of metropolitan certainty.

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