Walter Benjamin
A life in scraps, quotations & fragme nts

24 Hours    pp. 50-

At the age of 48, Walter Benjamin gave himself to death on 26 September 1940 in the Spanish border town of Port Bou. Fifty years later, the Australian documentary-maker John Hughes filmed the inauguration of an environmental sculpture commemorating Benjamin’s life, death and writings. Through the rocks above Port Bou, the sculptor had cut a passage – stopped by a panel of glass – through which the free swell of the Mediterranean could be viewed but never attained. That passageway recalls the motif from Benjamin’s study of nineteenth-century Paris which emphasised its arcades.

“There is one thing curious about the Moscow streets: the Russian village plays hid-and-seek in them … The street takes on the dimension of the landscape. In fact, nowhere does Moscow really look like the city it is, rather it more resembles the outskirts of itself.” (Moscow Diary, 1926-7)

In 1928, Benjamin published a collection of fragments, One Way Street, which is also invoked by the blocked passage in the rock. John Hughes has taken that phrase for the title of his documentary which he hopes will entice viewers to became readers. This aim is but one of the ways in which One Way Street challenges the conventions of television documentary.

Largely unpublished and almost unknown during his lifetime, Benjamin came to be considered as the finest German literary critic from the first half of this century after a two-volume selection of his writings appeared in 1955. English translations of essays became available after 1968 and were soon popular as part of the New Left’s retrieval of one more alternative to Soviet Marxism.

Benjamin’s reputation flourished in Anglo-Saxon societies as part of the a 1970s interest in those inter-war German social critics with whom he had argued and collaborated: Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom survived Nazism by escaping to the USA. With their aid, Benjamin had been on his way to New York when Spanish authorities closed the border. During the night, he took an overdose of morphine, by no means his first encounter with drugs or suicide.

“If I write better German than most writers of my generation, it is thanks largely to twenty years’ observance of one little rule: never use the word “I” except in letters.” (Berlin Chronicle, 1932)

Benjamin’s life cannot be contained in any one of the forms or themes with which he worked – fragments, quotations, passages, cities, or the minutiae of everyday life. From those, and more, Hughes must select.

Television demeans. Ideas are reduced to their biographies. The lives of artists and philosophers are plundered for their gossip quota. The complexities of living and thinking are flattened into a storyline. Visuals in documentaries about intellectuals are little more than slide evenings.

One Way Street opens with its form expressing a key device in Benjamin’s writing: what he called the “charmed circle of fragments”. His one completed book-length study – The Origins of German Tragic Drama (1928) – is also made up of brief segments. Competition between scraps and tomes is crucial to Benjamin’s view of language, knowledge and the world. He reasoned in letters, or at no more than essay length. His life’s work on the arcades of Paris remained incomplete, and perhaps lost, although no one can be sure if its surviving remnants are all there ever was. His cast of mind erupted in his prose – the fulcrum of his sentences being dashes rather than conjunctions. In his fascination with fragments, Benjamin’s method paralleled the montage of film. In tribute, Hughes has jigsawed his screen with multiple comments and images. Benjamin’s choice of fragments was political. So is Hughes’s.

“Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; … it must nurture … leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.” (One Way Street, 1928)

The corollary of fragments was quotations, which Benjamin saw as “robbers by the roadside who … relieve the idler of his convictions.” Although philosophising in fragments had a distinguished lineage – from Montaigne and Pascal, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and onto Wittgenstein – arguing through the assembling of the words of others was more controversial. To subvert the definition of originality as all work and no plagiarism, Benjamin hoped to produce a volume made up only of quotations.

The Viennese satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) had directed the attention of Benjamin’s generation to quotations. Kraus filled his weekly journal The Torch (1899-1936) with quotations from the daily press. These extracts were more than “documentary proof” of bourgeois stupidity, as they had been in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Opinions. Kraus used quotation marks to reveal, in Benjamin’s words, the bourgeois trinity of “Why nonsense is true, stupidity beautiful, weakness good.” Quotation had begun as a means of preservation. Kraus, Benjamin and Brecht realised that quotations could serve as ammunition. Quotation had the power to “purify”. Each stale adverb in the morning paper sparked philosophical outrage among devotees of The Torch.

“The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of words, such as Karl Kraus skewered for inspection: “utterly and completely”, “for better or for worse”, “implemented and effected”. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being damned up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer’s expressions. This applies not only to combinations of words, but to the construction of whole forms. If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning-point of his advancing ideas by starting with a “But” at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.” (Adorno, Minima Moralia, Reflections from Damaged Life, 1951)

Concern for literary scraps completed a fascination with what professional historians had dismissed as trifles. Benjamin believed that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” Since the 1970s, the texture of everyday life has became an academic fashion, but Benjamin was among the first to treat such materials as microcosms from which to investigate a society. In company with the Surrealists, he used everyday objects – the arcades of Paris, panoramic photographs, clothing styles, tatoos – to detect the roots of social disorder. In Russia, he bought and studied toys. Throughout his life, he accumulated postcards.

“To an ever greater degree, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” (“Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, 1936)

As a form, fragments expressed a key element in the content of Benjamin’s thoughts. Yet Hughes needed more than one device to approach how competing notions operate in one life, and in order to rebut all attempts to dissolve life’s diversity in a final solution.

Attempts to recruit Benjamin’s ghost for one element in his thinking against the others neutralise his critical powers. The current move is to incorporate him into the academic world he never managed to join in life. Hughes’s film-making sags only when he parades one talking brain after another.

Benjamin rejected any attempt to depict a writer’s life apart from the after-effects of his works. Hughes has been faithful to Benjamin’s injunction by giving time to the battles among Marxists, between Marxists and Zionists, as well as to a recent challenge from deconstructionists for possession of the Benjamin legacy. Such disputes presume that Benjamin’s thinking was headed towards a predetermined terminus – whether Moscow or Jerusalem. Moreover, the body-snatchers must make themselves forget that the intellectual enterprises of Marxism, Zionism and semiotics remained open and fluid before 1940. Benjamin met Marxism and Zionism as competing responses to Nazism, the threat from which bound them to each other.

“Every line we succeed in publishing today – no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it – is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness.” (Benjamin to Scholem, 11 January 1940)

Philosophising about language provided Benjamin with a means to enrich both his Marxism and his Jewishness, while commenting on their weaknesses. His Jewishness led him into the Kabbalah while its mysteries stimulated his belief that words were not arbitrary signs.

“The development of the communicate aspect of language to the exclusion of all else in fact inevitably leads to the destruction of language. On the other hand, the way leads to mystical silence if its expressive character is raised to the absolute. Of the two, it seems to me the more current tendency at the moment is towards communication. But in one form or another, compromise is always necessary.” (Moscow Diary, 1926-27)

No clearer instance of how Benjamin’s Jewishness and Marxism fed each other can be found than in the concluding paragraph of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, composed during 1940. He portrayed a proletarian revolution capable of transforming the future through the Jewish belief that “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”

Lurking behind the disputes around Benjamin’s politics is the question: “Had Benjamin lived, which side would he have been on in the Cold War?” Would he have returned to East or West Germany, or taken refuge in Switzerland, like Thomas Mann? Benjamin’s trajectory cannot be divined from his not joining the German Communist Party, as did his brother, a doctor, who died in a Nazi camp. Walter Benjamin’s visit to Moscow in the winter of 1926-27 confirmed his radical communism, in opposition to the experience of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth who, Benjamin observed, had arrived as a revolutionary but was going home as a Royalist. Benjamin found in Moscow a touchstone which obliged him to refine his outlook on European developments. A remark of Benjamin’s concerning Karl Kraus’s conservatism could have been a self-confession of his own relations with the German Communist Party: “As a ‘grumbler’, he participates in their lot in order to denounce them, and denounces them in order to participate. To meet them through sacrifice, he one day threw himself into the arms of the Catholic Church.” Except that Benjamin never took unholy orders.

“Norman Kemp Smith has come to believe in Providence and God and even talked seriously about the angels; he says that he has been forced to believe that there is a Providence taking care of things because it is intolerable, impossible to accept such an idea as that the fate of Europe after the war depended on Lloyd George.” (Edmund Wilson, 1921)

The dispute over Benjamin’s legacy is part of a contest for the spirit of the twentieth century. Was Benjamin a pessimist, and if so, in what sense? Many of the authors he admired are not those we associate with optimism: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Proust, Kraus and Kafka. Yet, in the late 1930s, Benjamin could find “radiant serenity” in Kafka’s remark that “there is infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” Twelve years earlier, Benjamin had been cheeky enough to assert that since improvisation was replacing competence, “All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.” That aphorism can be read as an injunction to seek the sources of hope in the least likely places. In that expectation, he had the support – personal and intellectual – of Ernst Bloch (1855-1977), whose philosophy of hope assumed that everyone and everything had a potential for hope other than their present condition. If Benjamin was no Dr Pangloss, he did not accept that all was for the worst in this most curst of all possible worlds. His resistance to fascism kept him apart from its culture of death. Nor did his pessimism slide into defeatism, as might be alleged against Kraus, though never by Benjamin.

“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 1940)

Benjamin’s Marxism was at once an intellectual question mark and a political statement. Orthodoxy was alien to his being and he could never have toed the party line. Yet his greater fear became that, in an era of open class conflict, he might not be able to resist going over to the bourgeoisie if he remained an outsider. Possession of a party card, as he said in 1934, provided no protection in itself. Only active involvement as a producer in the workers’ movement could make him secure, morally and politically, and so keep his writing fertile.

That attitude explains why he sided with Brecht against the academic Marxists of the Frankfurt Schools, headed by his erstwhile disciple, Theodor Adorno. In the late 1930s, the émigré Frankfurt scholars in New York chastised Benjamin for the crudeness of his explication of Parisian fashion in terms of technological and economic changes. For Adorno, dialectics required greater subtlety. As arcane as writer as any when he chose to be, Benjamin disagreed. First, he suspected that any political act would offend the sensibilities of a philosophy professor. Secondly, for Brecht and Benjamin, dialectics demanded crudities, but the kind of crudities that Benjamin found in Proust. “Proustian crudities” sounds oxymoronic. Benjamin perceived crudeness in the mundanities out of which Proust crafted his fiction. Moreover, Benjamin grasped a “savage nihilism” when Proust “endures into the tiny private chamber” of the petit-bourgeois in a parallel insight, Benjamin praised detective writers for appreciating that the ponderous furniture of a nineteenth-century apartment was designed for corpses.

“These petit-bourgeois interiors are the battlefields over which the devastating assault of commodity capital has victoriously swept, and nothing human can thrive here any more.” (Moscow Diary, 1926-27)

“No one knows how much obvious bad taste this retrospective envy accounts for …”.  (Balzac, Cousin Bette, 1846)

In dismissing Max Brod’s life of Kafka, Benjamin deplored its “pietistic stance of an ostentatious intimacy [as] the most irreverent attitude imaginable.” John Hughes avoids giving offence by including comic clips of a funeral from a 1920s feature film and by presenting Benjamin through a Groucho Marx-like actor, Nick Lathouris. An alternative way of introducing Benjamin the person would be for Woody Allen to adapt Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, which is also a good place to begin reading him. In that volume, Benjamin explores himself and his politics while we observe discovering a new city until the man, his ideas and wanderings illuminate each other’s shadows.

Benjamin himself long “played with the idea of settling out the sphere of life – bios – graphically on a map” with coloured signs for formative events. One commentator suggested that readers approach Benjamin as he did foreign cities, walking their streets and byways, attending to the insignificant details for what they reveal about the dynamics of their survival.

Walter Benjamin had become a refugee long before he had to flee Nazi Germany. An associate, the social philosopher Hannah Arendt, located his career in the three conflicts faced by the sons of assimilated German Jews who had to settle accounts with their Germanness, their Jewishness and their bourgeois families. Benjamin escaped into French culture, into the Kabbalah and into Marxism. Each of these retreats involved a rebellion.

Mallarme was Benjamin’s initial contact with French sensibilities. He next earned some income by translating Proust, in whom he found a fellow critic of the haut-bourgeoisie as a “Camorra of consumers”.

“The class struggle … is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist … the latter … manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning, and fortitude.” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 1940)

Benjamin’s reputation as a cultural critic is now linked to a third French writer, Charles Baudelaire, whose Tableaux Parisiens, he had translated in 1923. Their fractured form encouraged Benjamin’s fragmentary style as he chased the speed of a movie film, which he claimed had become essential for representing the city once the automobile replaced the train as the urban dynamo. Benjamin discovered in Paris the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century”. Much earlier, Paris had been the catalyst for his own self-revelation, as if in a dream. Like Baudelaire, Benjamin joined the ranks of the flaneurs who prowled city streets, to be joined during the 1920s by the Surrealists whose “unlimited trust only I G Farben and the peaceful perfection of the air force” he appreciated as the right kind of pessimism. “But what now, what next?”, he had to add.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 1940)

Paris was but one of several cities Benjamin essayed, beginning with Naples in 1925. Cities were living entities for him and he approved the Italian equation of cities with sins – greed for Milan, envy for Rome and indolence for Naples. His 1929 portrayal of Marseilles animated its physicality. Walls in its rich quarters “wear livery and are in the pay of the ruling class”, promoting hundreds of commodities. “In the poorer quarters they are politically mobilised and post their spacious red letters as the forerunners of red guards in front of dockyards and arsenals.”

Benjamin was a Modernist in his intellectual and personal commitment to cities which were his natural habitat. He imagined tall buildings as “mountain peaks”, and described the flatness of Moscow as a “a prairie of architecture”, encountering animals only in its zoos. Great cities sustained and reassured him by enclosing him “in the peace of a fortress”. Their centres protected him from any “awareness of the ever-vigilant elemental forces.” He feared that those ramparts were being breached, not by nature but by ploughed land and highways. The urban dweller therefore had to cope with both “isolated monstrosities from the open country [and] abortions of urban architectonics”.

Benjamin might have survived had the fascists halted his flight at Marseilles rather than after days in the open.

Despite his distance from what most people call nature, Benjamin did not look upon the earth’s resources as a given to be exploited, either alongside human labour as did capitalists, or instead of human labour, as many socialists were proposing. He no more trusted those who wanted to master nature through technology than he did “a cane-wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education.” A new society would need fresh understandings of both work and our planet. Benjamin welcomed the Utopian fantasies that had illustrated “a kind of labour which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lie dormant in her womb as potentials.” To accept nature as a free gift was equivalent to the careless exploitation of human capacities. This radical trilogy of humans, technology and nature grew out of Benjamin’s reactions against trench warfare on the Western front, which he now only at second hand.

“Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos … turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath.” ???????

Hughes’s camera has not tracked Benjamin around the traps of his cities. Rather, his camera interrogates Benjamin’s enthusiasm for film which, as a development of photography, he claimed – hoped? – had transformed the nature of art.

Benjamin appealed to 1970s radicals because he, more than his fellow German culture critics, had interested himself in the visual as well as with texts. His father had been an art dealer whose dutiful son kept Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” with him until death. Shortly before that end, Benjamin’s contemplation of Klee’s image allowed him to express his political expectations at a moment when not even the dead could sleep safe from the ravages of the enemy. The Angel of History, Benjamin wrote, has his face turned towards the past while the storm we call progress blows with such force from Paradise that he is propelled into the future.

One essay secured Benjamin a place on reading lists for students of the visual: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Its ideas underpinned one of the four episodes in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing television series and companion book in rebuttal of Lord Civilisation.

Mechanical reproduction, Benjamin asserted, brushes aside the aura of piety and of cult values from art works. Hughes might not agree. His documentary exists to feed off the aura of television where the cult values have become those of mass consumption. One Way Street is implicated in those consequences in order to present a fifth argument for the abolition of television – at least for long enough to read Benjamin’s writings.

“The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular. And before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that he chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight.” (One Way Street, 1928)


See also: MARXISM