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The Last Intellectual

In most of the portrait photographs he is looking down, his right hand to his face. The earliest one I know shows him in 1927—he is thirty-five—with dark curly hair over a high forehead, mustache above a full lower lip: youthful, almost handsome. With his head lowered, his jacketed shoulders seem to start behind his ears; his thumb leans against his jaw; the rest of the hand, cigarette between bent index and third fingers, covers his chin; the downward look through his glasses—the soft, day-dreamer’s gaze of the myopic—seems to float off to the lower left of the photograph.

In the picture from the late 1930s on the cover of Reflections, a new selection in English of Walter Benjamin’s writings, the curly hair has hardly receded, but there is no trace of youth or handsomeness; the face has widened and the upper torso seems not just high but blocky, huge. The thicker mustache and the pudgy folded hand with thumb tucked under cover his mouth. The look is opaque, or just more inward: he could be thinking—or listening. (“He who listens hard doesn’t see,” Benjamin wrote in his essay on Kafka.) There are books behind his head.

In a photograph taken in the summer of 1938, on the last of several visits he made to Brecht in exile in Denmark after 1933, he is standing in front of Brecht’s house, an old man at forty-six, in white shirt, tie, trousers with watch chain: a slack, corpulent figure, looking truculently at the camera.

Another picture, from 1937, shows Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Two men, neither of whose faces can be seen, share a table some distance behind him. Benjamin sits in the right foreground, probably taking notes for the book on Baudelaire and nineteenth-century Paris he had been writing for a decade. He is consulting a volume he holds open on the table with his left hand—his eyes can’t be seen—looking, as it were, into the lower right edge of the photograph.

His close friend Gershom Scholem has described his first glimpse of Benjamin in Berlin in 1913, at a joint meeting of a Zionist youth group and Jewish members of the Free German Student Association, of which the twenty-one-year-old Benjamin was a leader. He spoke “extempore without so much as a glance at his audience, staring with a fixed gaze at a remote corner of the ceiling which he harangued with much intensity, in a style incidentally that was, as far as I remember, ready for print.”1

* * *

He was what the French call un triste. In his youth he seemed marked by “a profound sadness,” Scholem wrote. He thought of himself as a melancholic, disdaining modern psychological labels and invoking the traditional astrological one: “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn—the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays….”2 His major projects, the book published in 1928 on the German baroque drama (the Trauerspiel; literally, sorrow-play) and his never completed Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, cannot be fully understood unless one grasps how much they rely on a theory of melancholy.

Benjamin projected himself, his temperament, into all his major subjects, and his temperament determined what he chose to write about. It was what he saw in subjects, such as the seventeenth-century baroque plays (which dramatize different facets of “Saturnine acedia”) and the writers about whose work he wrote most brilliantly—Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka, Karl Kraus. He even found the Saturnine element in Goethe.3 For, despite the polemic in his great (still untranslated) essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities against interpreting a writer’s work by his life, he did make selective use of the life in his deepest meditations on texts: information that disclosed the melancholic, the solitary. (Thus, he describes Proust’s “loneliness which pulls the world down into its vortex”; explains how Kafka, like Klee, was “essentially solitary”; cites the Swiss writer Robert Walser’s “horror of success in life.”) One cannot use the life to interpret the work. But one can use the work to interpret the life.

Two short books of reminiscences of his Berlin childhood and student years, written in the early 1930s and unpublished in his lifetime, contain Benjamin’s most explicit self-portrait. To the nascent melancholic, in school and on walks with his mother, ‘solitude appeared to me as the only fit state of man.” Benjamin does not mean solitude in a room—he was often sick as a child—but solitude in the great metropolis, the busyness of the idle stroller, free to daydream, observe, ponder, cruise. The mind who was to attach much of the nineteenth century’s sensibility to the figure of the flâneur, personified by that superbly self-aware melancholic Baudelaire, spun much of his own sensibility out of his phantasmagorical, shrewd, subtle relation to cities. The street, the passage, the arcade, the labyrinth are recurrent themes in his literary essays and, notably, in the projected book on nineteenth-century Paris, as well as in his travel pieces and reminiscences. (Robert Walser, for whom walking was the center of his reclusive life and marvelous books, is a writer to whom one particularly wishes Benjamin had devoted a longer essay.)4 The only book of a discreetly autobiographical nature published in his lifetime—he began it in 1924; it came out in 1928—was titled One-Way Street. (A part of this book appears in Reflections.) Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of a place, and how the positions himself in it, navigates around it.

Not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest,” begins his still untranslated A Berlin Childhood Around the Turn of the Century.

But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice…. I learned this art late in life: it fulfilled the dreams whose first traces were the labyrinths on the blotters of my exercise books.

This passage recurs in his Berlin Chronicle—which repeats and transforms some material of the earlier book—after Benjamin suggests how much practice it took to get lost, given an original sense of “impotence before the city.” His goal is to be a competent street-map reader who knows how to stray. And to locate himself, with imaginary maps. Elsewhere in Berlin Chronicle (which also appears in Reflections) Benjamin relates that for years he had played with the idea of mapping his life. For this map, which he imagined as gray, he had devised a colorful system of signs that

clearly marked in the houses of my friends and girl friends, the assembly halls of various collectives, from the “debating chambers” of the Youth Movement to the gathering places of the Communist youth, the hotel and brothel rooms that I knew for one night, the decisive benches in the Tiergarten, the ways to different schools and the graves that I saw filled, the sites of prestigious cafés whose long-forgotten names daily crossed our lips.

Once, waiting for someone in the Café des Deux Magots in Paris, he relates, he managed to draw a diagram of his life: it was like a labyrinth, in which each important relationship figures as “an entrance to the maze.”

The recurrent metaphors of maps and diagrams, memories, and dreams, labyrinths and arcades, vistas and panoramas, evoke a certain vision of cities as well as a certain kind of life. Paris, Benjamin writes, “taught me the art of straying.” The revelation of the city’s true nature came not in Berlin but in Paris, where he stayed frequently throughout the Weimar years, and lived as a refugee from 1933 until his suicide while trying to escape from France in 1940—more exactly, the Paris reimagined in the Surrealist narratives (Breton’s Nadja, Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris). With these metaphors, he is indicating a general problem about orientation, and erecting a standard of difficulty and complexity. (A labyrinth is a place where one gets lost.) He is also suggesting a notion about the forbidden, and how to gain access to it: through an act of the mind that is the same as a physical act. “Whole networks of streets were opened up under the auspices of prostitution,” he writes in Berlin Chronicle, which begins by invoking an Ariadne, the whore who leads this son of rich parents for the first time across “the threshold of class.” The metaphor of the labyrinth also suggests Benjamin’s idea of obstacles thrown up by his own temperament.

The influence of Saturn makes people “apathetic, indecisive, slow,” he writes in The Origin of German Trauerspiel. Slowness is one characteristic of the melancholic temperament. Blundering is another, from noticing too many possibilities, from not noticing one’s lack of practical sense. And stubbornness, from the longing to be superior—on one’s own terms. Benjamin recalls his stubbornness during childhood walks with his mother, who would turn insignificant items of conduct into tests of his aptitude for practical life, thereby reinforcing what was inept (“my inability even today to make a cup of coffee”) and dreamily recalcitrant in his nature.

My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origin in such walks, and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.

And from this stubbornness comes, “above all, a gaze that appears to see not a third of what it takes in.”

One-Way Street distills the experiences of the writer and lover (it is dedicated to Asja Lacis, who “cut it through the author”),5 experiences that can be guessed at in the opening words on the writer’s situation, which sound the theme of revolutionary moralism, and the final “To the Planetarium,” a paean to the technological wooing of nature and to sexual ecstasy. Benjamin could write about himself more directly when he started from memories, not contemporary experiences; when he writes about himself as a child. At that distance, childhood, he can survey his life as a space that can be mapped. The candor and the surge of painful feelings in Berlin Childhood and Berlin Chronicle become possible precisely because Benjamin has adopted a completely digested, analytical way of relating the past. It evokes events for the reactions to the events, places for the emotions one has deposited in the places, other people for the encounter with oneself, feelings and behavior for intimations of future passions and failures contained in them.6 Fantasies of monsters loose in the large apartment while his parents entertain their friends prefigure his revulsion against his class; the dream of being allowed to sleep as long as he wants, instead of having to get up early to go to school, will be fulfilled when—after his book on the Trauerspiel failed to qualify him for a university lectureship—he realized that “his hopes of a position and a secure livelihood had always been in vain”; his way of walking with his mother, “with pedantic care” keeping one step behind her, prefigures his “sabotage of real social existence.”

  1. 1

    Gershom Scholem, “Walter Benjamin,” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Schocken, 1976). Scholem, five years younger than Benjamin, relates that they did not actually meet until 1915, during Scholem’s first term at the University of Munich, which Benjamin attended after leaving the University of Berlin. Unless otherwise indicated, the Scholem quotations come from this essay, written in 1964, or “Walter Benjamin and His Angel,” written in 1972, in the same volume.

  2. 2

    In “Agesilaus Santander,” a short text that Benjamin wrote in Ibiza in August 1933, found in his notebooks and first published by Scholem in “Walter Benjamin and His Angel.”

  3. 3

    The long Goethe essay was written in 1922 and appeared in two parts in 1924-1925 in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge, a magazine published in Vienna and edited by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 1937 Benjamin excerpted the section about Goethe’s Saturnine character and published it in French translation in Les Cahiers du Sud as “L’angoisse mythique chez Goethe.”

  4. 4

    Benjamin’s brief essay “Robert Walser” was first published in Das Tagebüch in 1929; it is still untranslated.

  5. 5

    Asja Lacis and Benjamin met in Capri in the summer of 1924. She was a Latvian communist revolutionary and theater director, assistant to Brecht and to Piscator, with whom Benjamin wrote “Naples” in 1925 (included in Reflections) and for whom he wrote “Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theater” in 1928 (translated in Performance, No. 5, March/April 1973). It was Lacis who got Benjamin an invitation to Moscow in the winter of 1926-1927 and who introduced him to Brecht in 1929. Benjamin hoped to marry her when he and his wife were finally divorced in 1930. But she returned to Riga and later spent ten years in a Soviet camp.

  6. 6

    For an excellent essay, written in 1961, on Berlin Childhood as a reading of the past for omens of the future, see Peter Szondi, “Hope in the Past: Walter Benjamin,” translated in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring 1978.

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