Anxieties of influence: Melancholic or Marxist? 100 years after his birth, Walter Benjamin is still causing arguments. Kevin Jackson reports
Thursday 23 July 1992
Such was the grimly emblematic conclusion to a life that had been dogged with bad luck and ironic reversals. Walter Benjamin was born 100 years ago this month, into a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin. He might have had the cosseted life of an homme de lettres, devoted to the study of Hebraic mysticism and indulging his passion for book-collecting, had Germany's great inflation of the Twenties not wiped out his family's capital. He tried to support himself with a university post, but his hopes were dashed in 1925, when his Habilitationsschrift for the University of Frankfurt was rejected as incomprehensible. For the remaining years of his life, Benjamin followed the shabby, hand-to- mouth trade of the freelance writer.
Despite a tendency to dreaminess and procrastination, he wrote a great deal - criticism, history, translations, plays - but much of this work was fragmentary and ephemeral, and he remained unknown outside a relatively small circle of readers, some of whom wanted to see him dead. They had their wish granted before long. When he heard the news of Benjamin's suicide, Bertolt Brecht remarked that this was the first real loss Hitler had inflicted on German literature.
The story of what happened to Benjamin's reputation in later years may have a familiar ring. In certain regards, it is the old story of the genius who suffers and fails in life only to triumph in death - Van Gogh is one obvious example, Kafka another. (Benjamin, who resembled Kafka in many respects, wrote a fine essay about the Czech author in 1934.) When a two-volume edition of Benjamin's writings was issued in Germany in 1955, it enjoyed an immediate critical success. Translations of his work into English and other languages soon followed, and by the mid-Seventies it had become clear that Benjamin was not only one of the most brilliant writers of the century, but also one of the most influential. His mark can be now detected in almost every area of the arts: in books, films, television programmes, photography, even painting.
Yet if Benjamin helps teach his readers any single thing, it is the value of scepticism, especially when confronted with received ideas and stories that have the tang of myth. (In One-Way Street, 1925 / 6, he wrote that citations in his works were like highwaymen who descend on the reader to rob him of his convictions.) Are the facts of his posthumous victory really quite so unambiguous as they sound in outline? Though no one could reasonably deny the extent to which Benjamin's ideas have been taken up by subsequent writers and artists, that weasel word 'influential' stands in need of scrutiny.
For one thing, many of the people whose thinking has been changed by his work may not ever have read a word of his writings, and even today his name could scarcely be described as enjoying wide currency. As the playwright Trevor Griffiths puts it, 'I don't know how widely read he ever was in Britain, really. But lots of his ideas got into circulation and affected the way people thought. He certainly affected me, and still does - to some extent, he shaped my whole approach to writing. Just recently I found myself talking at a theatre conference in Manchester and inviting people to look at what Benjamin has to say about the differences between acting for the camera and acting on the stage.'
For another thing, the exact nature of Benjamin's sometimes strange and difficult work is still a matter of dispute. Perhaps it would be more useful to be a little old-fashioned and, rather than 'influence', speak instead of Benjamin's 'legacy', since this term - with its flavour of angry relatives fighting to lay their hands on the family loot, and interminable wranglings in the courts - more accurately suggests the present condition of his intellectual estate. The critic Terry Eagleton, who has written a study of Benjamin, notes that 'there's definitely a lot of tussling going on in Benjamin studies these days. The fact is that he's the kind of figure who's so extraordinarily rich that people can use him exactly as they want by pulling out the bits they like.'
Take the question - all the more vexed since the collapse of institutional communism in Eastern Europe - of how far Benjamin should be regarded as a Marxist thinker. To some writers of the left, Benjamin's Marxist credentials are beyond dispute. While he never joined the German Communist party, he sympathised with it for many years. He was closely associated with Brecht - again, Benjamin wrote about this contemporary with great insight - and some of his best-known essays, such as 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936) are avowedly in the tradition of Marx.
Curiously, none of this has stopped non- and even anti-Marxist writers from admiring Benjamin with equal enthusiasm, if in quite other lights, often remaking him in their own image. In his introduction to Benjamin's The Origins of German Tragic Drama, George Steiner suggests that Benjamin's life was itself a kind of tragedy of the intellect, for which the old elitist culture of middle Europe was the setting and in which Benjamin himself was the doomed, defiant prince: 'Like every man committed to abstruse thought and scholarship, he knew that not only the humanities, but humane and critical intelligence itself, resides in the always-threatened keeping of the few.'
Susan Sontag, in her eloquent essay 'Under the Sign of Saturn' (1978), takes a kindred view of Benjamin as a sort of embattled aristocrat, 'the Last Intellectual . . . the Saturnine hero of modern culture'. She sees him, above all, as one of European literature's supreme melancholics: 'His major projects . . . cannot be fully understood unless one grasps how much they rely on a theory of melancholy.' It is notable that her essay invokes the name of Marx just once, to underline the fact that 'this man who read virtually everything' barely looked into Marx's works until shortly before his death.
Terry Eagleton observes that this wish to downplay the Marxist component of Benjamin's work is particularly strong in the United States, where 'Benjamin has really been captured by the professors, who have sanitised him and turned him into an industry. The reality is that he is the most extraordinary combination of messianic Judaism and Marxism, and one can't take the one without the other. He's uncomfortable because he's heterodox both politically and religiously - a fascinating heretic. So he gets enormous reverence, and endless explications and commentaries, but it's hard to think of people who have actually found ways of using his work.'
One exception to this rule is the novelist John Berger, who smuggled some of the themes from 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' into the British national consciousness via his series on art for BBC 2, Ways of Seeing. Benjamin continues to be a substantial presence in Berger's work: 'First of all, everything that he says about story-telling in his great essay ('The Story-teller', 1936) has had an enormous influence on the way I have tried to write about peasants over the last 15 years. And the other important thing is the presence in him of a kind of mysticism, a notion of redemption and grace, combined with a materialist interpretation of certain historical events. It would be hard to think of Benjamin as a father, but I do think of him as a very close uncle.'
Berger also believes that Benjamin's taste for fragments, quotations and literary montage (which he shares with Pound and Eliot as well as the Surrealists) has inspired later generations of writers: 'You know, Benjamin dreamed of making a book entirely of quotations, and there have been some remarkable books which are creative responses to that idea, like Peter Jukes's A Shout in the Street (1990), which virtually manages to do just that.'
Benjamin's works argue for the value of quotation not only through their logic but through their pungent phrasing: like many writers and philosophers in the German tradition (Nietzsche, Lichtenberg, Wittgenstein) he was given to arguing in memorable one-liners. Indeed, it may well be that it is in this regard that Benjamin's influence has been and will continue to be most pervasive, if not most profound. Those caught up in the Benjamin industry will no doubt carry on arguing their claims to his legacy for years to come, but for others his work will endure on the one hand through the agency of popularisers and disciples and, on the other, in a handful of much-quoted phrases. Ever the connoisseur of half-forgotten wisdoms and strategies of obliquity, Benjamin might well have relished this view of his posterity. After all, as he wrote in One-Way Street: 'All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.'
Fragments from a
1. 'The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas.'
2. Benjamin was fascinated by small things - toys, cards, stamps - and by miniaturisation. One of his favourite sights was the exhibit in the Musee Cluny of two grains of wheat on which had been engraved the whole Shema Israel.
3. 'Stamps are the visiting- cards that great states leave in a child's room.' (One-Way Street)
4. It was typical of his cast of mind that he distrusted the vocabulary of modern psychology and preferred astrological terms: 'I came into the world under the sign of Saturn - the planet of detours and delays.' This vocabulary permeates his study of German tragedy or Trauerspiel - 'sorrow play'.
5. 'The only pleasure the melancholic permits himself, and it is a powerful one, is allegory.' (The Origin of German Tragic Drama)
6. His close friend Gershom Scholem wrote that Benjamin's dealings with others were marked by 'an almost Chinese courtesy'.
7. The great unfinished project of his life was his analytical history Paris, Capital of the 19th Century. The largest surviving fragment of this work is Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in an Era of High Capitalism (1938 / 9). Central to his argument, and in some ways to his life, is the figure of the flaneur - the urban stroller, and particularly the wanderer through Paris's great arcades.
8. 'In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective. Strolling gives him the prospect of doing so. If the flaneur is thus turned into an unwilling detective, it does him a lot of good socially, for it accredits his idleness.'
9. It has been said of Benjamin that, while his life cannot be used to interpret his work, his work can help us to interpret his life. One essay is particularly resonant in view of his violent end. It is called 'The Destructive Character' (1931): 'The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.'
All quotations are taken from the NLB and Verso editions of Benjamin's works.
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