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The Origins of Walter Benjamin

It may be that Benjamin exaggerated, and certainly he misstated, the complicity of art and culture in the injustice of history. In any case, he could not bring himself to condemn the possible—and even, he hoped, eventual—disappearance of the society he knew, although he understood that much of what he considered art would disappear with it—not only by the destruction of objects, but by the death of the aura, the sense of art which was already losing its power.

He was perhaps the only critic who would neither rejoice at the prospect of the death of art nor—in spite of the deep nostalgia his essay expresses—allow himself to mourn its passing. His dispassionate tone is aristocratic. Perhaps to understand the tragic irony of this famous essay we should need to have the text of the unpublished discussion in which Benjamin, according to Scholem,16 defended in Marxist terms the thesis that art is meant for connoisseurs of art.

In the end, it was probably this aristocratic manner that made the difficulty between Benjamin and the editors of the Zeitschrift für Sozial Forschung, the one review where, by 1938, Benjamin could still place a substantial essay. The refusal to publish some of his finest work, the three essays on Baudelaire now grouped together as Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire, delayed their appearance until the years 1967-1971.

The ostensible reason for the rejection, as expounded in Adorno’s letters, was Benjamin’s faulty Marxism, his pragmatic placing of details from the “superstructure” directly against traits drawn from the “substructure” without the mediation of theory. For example, Benjamin set the stanzas of Baudelaire’s The Ragpicker’s Wine directly alongside a description of the wine tax, without comment. Adorno objected to his “open-eyed wonder in the presentation of the facts” as un-Marxist. There is no doubt, as Habermas has said, that Adorno was the better Marxist of the two—although he, too, was peculiar enough in his own way; what upset him was what he called Benjamin’s “ascetic” withholding of theory.

This “asceticism” was central to Benjamin’s philosophy. He seized on Adorno’s phrase about his “open-eyed wonder”:

When you speak of “open-eyed wonder in the presentation of facts,” you characterize the true philological attitude…. Philology is the close inspection of a text, moving forward by details, that fixes the reader’s attention magically onto it….

In your Kierkegaard criticism you say that this wonder gives “the deepest insight into the relation of dialectic, myth and image”…. This ought to read: “the wonder should be a prominent object of such an insight”….

If you think back on other works of mine, you will find that a criticism of the philological attitude has been close to me for a long time—and is at its core identical with my criticism of myth. At times this criticism provokes the philological activity itself. It presses, to use the language of the Elective Affinities, towards a display of the material content in which the truth content is historically enfolded.17

Benjamin was unregenerate. Necessarily so, as what he called philology was at the heart of his style. Philology is the “display of the material content” of a work of literature, the elucidation, element by element, of its historical significance. Theory, however, could only be presented indirectly, unless it was doctrine—that is, unless it was sanctified by tradition, given the authority of “historical codification,” as Benjamin put it.18

The form of indirect presentation—that, in fact, of Symbolist poetry—Benjamin called the “tractatus.” In it the appearance of a mathematical demonstration, of a rigorously ordered chain of reasoning, had to be abandoned.

Presentation as detour—that is the methodical character of the tractatus. Renunciation of the uninterrupted course of intention is its principal mark of distinction. Perseveringly thought begins always afresh, ceremoniously it goes back to the thing itself. This unremitting respiration is the most characteristic existential form of contemplation. [P. 28, my translation]

This is the rhythm of Benjamin’s style. Basically, this respiration was his innocent idea of dialectic. Between every sentence there is a moment of silence; as he said, he deliberately renounced the use of all those stylistic equivalents of the manual gestures and the directed glance by which we normally carry over from one sentence to the next when we speak, and which the writer can mimic by rhythm and syntax. This renunciation accounts for Adorno’s confusion: he thought that Benjamin was implying a causal connection between the facts of social and economic history and the lines of Baudelaire juxtaposed to them. No such connection exists in Benjamin’s text. Adorno had not heard the silences.


Die wahre Aesthetik ist die Kabbala.”

[The true aesthetic is the Kabbala.]

—Friedrich Schlegel, Literary Notebooks 1797-1801, Fragment 1989

The Romanticism of the end of the eighteenth century—of Novalis, Schlegel, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Senancour, Chateaubriand—is often presented as a religious revival. That is to stand things on their heads. It was a profoundly secularizing movement, an attempt to appropriate what was left of a moribund religious culture and to reinstate it in secular form, most often to replace religion with art. The fact that by 1810 many of these figures had lost their revolutionary fervor and fled into the arms of the Church meant only a temporary setback: the task was larger than one had initially imagined. It has continued. Most of the institutional aspects of religion had already become secularized by the American and French revolutions: the pretense at transcendence within the Church after that time has largely been fraudulent. What had remained almost untouched were the mystical strains in religious thought. It was to the preservation of these mystical elements, giving them a secular form, that Blake, Novalis, and the others addressed themselves, sometimes inventing new mythologies to liberate mysticism from its religious mold, sometimes merely giving it an aesthetic expression that made it once again available.

In this return to early Romantic philosophy and criticism, Walter Benjamin continued that tradition—he was its greatest representative in our century along with Yeats and André Breton. The preservation of mystical forms of thought meant for him not their resurrection but their transformation—just as, in the seventeenth century, allegorical technique preserved the pagan deities by transforming them into emblematic fragments, presenting them as ruins. Philology, the painstaking study of the fragmentary documents of the past, was an act of transforming memory, of translation.

Benjamin held on to the doctrine of the autonomy of the work of art, because it was only by this autonomy that the work could assume an authority that was once the prerogative of the sacred image or text. The doctrine has been misunderstood: it does not imply that a text does not refer outside itself, or, even more absurdly, that it is intelligible without a knowledge of the universe that surrounds it. It merely guarantees that no elucidation of the text—not even the author’s own exegesis—can ever attach itself permanently to it, or pretend to be an integral or necessary condition of experiencing it (except perhaps for the elucidation of the explicit, public sense of the words in it). No critical theory whatever has a valid and lasting claim upon the work. This autonomy requires that one return to the work itself, and that the interpretation is never in any way a substitute for it, or even, more modestly, its necessary accompaniment.

This doctrine appears hard to some critics. They have labored diligently and long on some work, and they believe that in some sense it is now theirs, that they have earned it honestly like the squatter who has worked a piece of land for many years. That was why Benjamin claimed that knowledge was possession, something one had, but truth was not, and the work belonged to the realm of truth: this means above all that no critical reading can get a permanent hold upon it. The interpretation remains forever and necessarily outside the work. To take a recent example, an interpretation none the less absurd for having been sanctioned by an offhand remark of the author himself: no amount of critical work will ever succeed in turning The Waste Land into a work that says it is about a private grouse of the author. As long as it survives, a philosophical or sociological interpretation of it will remain as cogent as a biographical one—more so, in my opinion.

The autonomy of a work has recently been attacked by many critics, but with the greatest distinction and the most considerable panache by Harold Bloom. In a recent book, he has proclaimed:

Few notions are more difficult to dispel than the “commonsensical” one that a poetic text is self-contained, that it has an ascertainable meaning or meanings without reference to other poetic texts. Something in nearly every reader wants to say: “Here is a poem and there is a meaning, and I am reasonably certain that the two can be brought together.” Unfortunately, poems are not things but only words that refer to other words, and those words refer to still other words, and so on, into the densely overpopulated world of literary language.19

Bloom is incontrovertible as far as he is willing to go, but he makes a disastrous slip which reveals the cloven hoof of the professional. It may be found in the words “literary language”: it is into the whole of language that each work is absorbed. Bloom refuses to isolate the poem, but insists on isolating the literary tradition; he would evidently like to claim that before a poem reaches the larger context of culture as a whole, it must first be integrated into the literary tradition. But although the initial movement of a poem is within a purely literary tradition, long before it can find a secure place in even a part of that tradition it has spilled over into ordinary language. This does not make the teaching of literature any easier.

Bloom himself bears witness to what he refuses to recognize: the self-contained meaning of the poem. As he says, few notions are indeed more difficult to dispel. It is by such a meaning that a poem is supposed to work, it is essential to its function, it is what it has been made for—which is why ordinary and extraordinary readers everywhere find it so hard to give up the idea. In absolute terms, of course, the idea is absurd, but no one holds it on those terms.

For Bloom, “words…refer to other words, and those words refer to still other words,” as indeed they do, but that seems a limited view. In Bloom’s systematic criticism a poem by Wordsworth refers above all to a poem by Milton, transforms and overcomes it. But a poem refers beyond words to the totality of the culture that produced it, and as it moves through time it reveals the capacity to refer to the future as well.

In denying autonomy to the work, Bloom has to find another independent object for study. He relocates autonomy in the “literary language” and he thereby blocks the access of the work of literature to the rest of life. The “literary language” or “literature” itself is a fiction if there ever was one, unless it is an Idea in Benjamin’s sense. Bloom treats literature as if it exists in the real world, the world of phenomena, and so it does—in the university. Bloom is today in this country the most powerful force in literary graduate studies: rightly so, as his systematic criticism is both eminently fascinating and easily teachable.

Benjamin cannot be taught. His criticism imposes nothing. His metaphors for the most part glance at and then fall back from the work of literature: when they appear to be absorbed into it, it is only because they are derived directly from it. His interpretations do not give meaning to, but strip meaning from, the work, allowing the inessential to drop off and the work to appear in its own light. He does not place the work historically but reveals its integrity: history in his account finds its way to the work. As he himself said, he appeared to be writing cultural history, but it was not meant as such: the beauty and the distinction of his achievement came about because it was conceived as philosophical criticism.

(This is the second part of a two-part essay on Walter Benjamin.)

  1. 16

    On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Schocken Books, 1976), p. 221.

  2. 17

    Letter to Adorno, December 9, 1938.

  3. 18

    The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 27.

  4. 19

    Poetry and Repression (Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 2-3.

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