The story is by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold. The setting is the Franco-Spanish border, the time 1940. Walter Benjamin, fleeing occupied France, presents himself to the wife of a certain Fittko he has met in an internment camp. He understands, he says, that Frau Fittko will be able to guide him and his companions across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Frau Fittko takes him along on a trip to scout out the best routes; he brings along a heavy briefcase. Is the briefcase really necessary, she asks? It contains a manuscript, he replies. “I cannot risk losing it. It…must be saved. It is more important than I am.”
The next day they cross the mountains, Benjamin pausing every few minutes because of a weak heart. At the border they are halted. Their papers are not in order, say the Spanish police; they must return to France. In despair, Benjamin takes an overdose of morphine. The police make an inventory of the deceased’s belongings. The inventory shows no record of a manuscript.
What was in the briefcase, and where it disappeared to, we can only guess. Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem suggested that it was the last revi-sion of the unfinished Passagen-Werk, known in English as the Arcades Project. (“To great writers,” wrote Benjamin, “finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives.”) By his heroic if futile effort to save his manuscript from the fires of fascism and bear it to what he thinks of as the safety of Spain and, further on, the United States, Benjamin becomes an icon of the scholar for our times.
The story has a happy twist. A copy of the Arcades manuscript left behind in Paris had been secreted in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Benjamin’s friend Georges Bataille. Recovered after the war, it was published in 1982 in its original form, that is to say, in German with huge swathes of French. And now we have Benjamin’s magnum opus in full English translation, by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, and are at last in a position to ask the question: Why all the interest in a treatise on shopping in nineteenth-century France?
Benjamin was born in 1892, in Berlin, into an assimilated Jewish family. His father was a successful art auctioneer who branched out into property investments; the Benjamins were, by most standards, well-to-do. After a sickly, sheltered childhood, Benjamin was sent at the age of twelve to a progressive boarding school in the countryside, where he fell under the influence of one of the directors, Gustav Wyneken. For years after leaving school he was active in Wyneken’s anti-authoritarian, back-to-nature youth movement; he broke with it only when Wyneken came out in support of the First World War.
In 1912 Benjamin enrolled as a student in philology at Freiburg University. Finding the intellectual environment not to his taste, he threw himself into activism for educational reform. When war broke out, he evaded military service first by feigning a medical condition, then by moving to neutral Switzerland. There he stayed until 1920, reading philosophy and working on a doctoral dissertation for the University of Berne. His wife complained that they had no social life.
Benjamin was drawn to universities, remarked his friend Theodor Adorno, as Franz Kafka was drawn to insurance companies. Despite misgivings, Benjamin went through the prescribed motions to acquire the Habilitation (higher doctorate) that would enable him to become a professor, submitting his dissertation, on German drama of the Baroque age, to the University of Frankfurt in 1925. Surprisingly, the dissertation was not accepted. It fell between the stools of literature and philosophy, and Benjamin lacked an academic patron prepared to urge his case.
His academic plans having failed, Benjamin launched himself on a career as translator, broadcaster, and freelance journalist. Among his commissions was a translation of Proust’s À la recherche; three of the seven volumes were completed.
In 1924 Benjamin visited Capri, at the time a favorite resort of German intellectuals. There he met Asja Lacis, a theater director from Latvia and a committed Communist. The meeting was fateful. “Every time I’ve experienced a great love, I’ve undergone a change so fundamental that I’ve amazed myself,” he wrote in retrospect. “A genuine love makes me resemble the woman I love.” In this case, the transformation entailed a change of political direction. “The path of thinking, progressive persons in their right senses leads to Moscow, not to Palestine,” Lacis told him sharply. All traces of idealism in his thought, to say nothing of his flirtation with Zionism, had to be abandoned. His bosom friend Scholem had already emigrated to Palestine, expecting Benjamin to follow. Benjamin found an excuse not to come; he kept making excuses to the end.
In 1926 Benjamin traveled to Moscow for a rendezvous with Lacis. Lacis did not wholeheartedly welcome him (she was involved with another man); in his record of the visit, Benjamin probes his own unhappy state of mind, as well as the question of whether he should join the Communist Party and subject himself to the Party line. Two years later he and she were briefly reunited in Berlin: they lived together and attended meetings of the League of Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers. The liaison precipitated divorce proceedings in which Benjamin behaved with remarkable meanness toward his wife.
On the Moscow trip Benjamin kept a diary which he later revised for publication. Benjamin spoke no Russian. Rather than fall back on interpreters, he tried to read Moscow from the outside—what he would later call his physiognomic method—refraining from abstraction or judgment, presenting the city in such a way that “all factuality is already theory” (the phrase is from Goethe).
Some of Benjamin’s claims for the “world-historical” experiment he sees being conducted in the USSR now seem naive. Nevertheless, his eye remains acute. Many new Muscovites are still peasants, he observes, living village lives according to village rhythms; class distinctions may have been abolished, but within the Party a new caste system is evolving. A scene from a street market captures the humbled status of religion: an icon for sale flanked by portraits of Lenin “like a prisoner between two policemen.”
Though Asja Lacis is a constant background presence in the “Moscow Diary,” and though Benjamin hints that their sexual relations were troubled, we get little sense of Lacis’s physical self. As a writer Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people. In Lacis’s own writings we get a much more lively impression of Benjamin: his glasses like little spotlights, his clumsy hands.
For the rest of his life Benjamin called himself either a Communist or a fellow traveler. How deep did his affair with communism run?
For years after meeting Lacis, Benjamin would repeat Marxist verities—“the bourgeoisie…is condemned to decline due to internal contradictions that will become fatal as they develop”—without having read Marx. “Bourgeois” remained his cuss word for a mindset—materialistic, incurious, selfish, prudish, and above all cozily self-satisfied—to which he was viscerally hostile. Proclaiming himself a Communist was an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins. “One thing…can never be made good: having neglected to run away from one’s parents,” he writes in One-Way Street, the collection of diary jottings, dream protocols, aphorisms, mini-essays, and mordant observations on Weimar Germany with which he announced himself in 1928 as a freelance intellectual. Not having run away early enough meant that he was condemned to run away from Emil and Paula Benjamin for the rest of his life: in reacting against his parents’ eagerness to assimilate into the German middle class, he resembled many German-speaking Jews of his generation, including Kafka. What troubled Benjamin’s friends about his Marxism was that there seemed to be something forced about it, something merely reactive.
Benjamin’s first ventures into the discourse of the left are depressing to read. There is a slide into what one can only call willed stupidity as he rhapsodizes about Lenin (whose letters have “the sweetness of great epic,” he says in a piece not reprinted by the Harvard editors), or rehearses the ominous euphemisms of the Party: “Communism is not radical. Therefore, it has no intention of simply abolishing family relations. It merely tests them to determine their capacity for change. It asks itself: Can the family be dismantled so that its components may be socially refunctioned?”
These words come from a review of a play by Bertolt Brecht, whom Benjamin met through Lacis and whose “crude thinking,” thinking stripped of bourgeois niceties, attracted Benjamin for a while. “This street is named Asja Lacis Street after her who like an engineercut it through the author,” runs the dedication to One-Way Street. The comparison is intended as a compliment. The engineer is the man or woman of the future, the one who, impatient of palaver, armed with practical knowledge, acts and acts decisively to change the landscape. (Stalin, too, admired engineers. In his view writers should become engineers of human souls, meaning that they should take it as their task to “refunction” humanity from the inside out.)
Of Benjamin’s better-known pieces, “The Author as Producer” (1934) shows the influence of Brecht most clearly. At issue is the old chestnut of Marxist aesthetics: Which is more important, form or content? Benjamin proposes that a literary work will be “politically correct only if it is also literarily correct.” “The Author as Producer” is a defense of the left wing of the modernist avant-garde, typified for Benjamin by the Surrealists, against the Party line on literature, with its bias toward easily comprehensible, realistic stories with a strong progressive tendency. To make his case Benjamin feels obliged to appeal once again to the glamour of engineering: the writer, like the engineer, is a technical specialist and should have a voice in technical matters.
Arguing at this crude level did not come easily to Benjamin. Did his faithfulness to the Party cause him no unease at a time when Stalin’s persecution of artists was in full swing? (Asja Lacis herself was to become one of Stalin’s victims, spending years in a labor camp.) A brief piece from the same year, 1934, may give a clue. Here Benjamin mocks intellectuals who “make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on every issue,” refusing to understand that to succeed they have to present different faces to differ-ent audiences. They are, he says, like a butcher who refuses to cut up a carcass, insisting on selling it whole.
How does one read this piece? Is Benjamin ironically praising old-fashioned intellectual integrity? Is he issuing a veiled confession that he, Walter Benjamin, is not what he seems to be? Is he making a practical, if bitter, point about the hack writer’s life? A letter to Scholem (to whom he did not always, however, tell the whole truth) suggests the last reading. Here Benjamin defends his communism as “the obvious, reasoned attempt of a man who is completely or almost completely deprived of any means of production to proclaim his right to them.” In other words, he follows the Party for the same reason that any proletarian should: because it is in his material interest.