Walter Benjamin's Archive trans. Esther Leslie. <br />Walter Benjamin, by Esther Leslie

The hidden god of small things

Reviewed,Guy Mannes-Abbott
Friday 14 March 2008 01:00
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In Michael Haneke's Caché, "hidden" events return in opaque form, but with dramatic effect. The film foregrounds acts of viewing, yet what is hidden resists representation in image or word. The writer, critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin began publishing in Germany behind the teenage pseudonym of "Ardor". By 1934, he was submitting texts using an anagram of the word Lateo, signifying "hidden" or latent – and being spurned. His elliptical work exists between these two terms: ardour and latency.

Benjamin's writings are invested in the latent features of modernity and have emerged fitfully into English since his death in 1940, aged 48. A leftist and a Jew, exiled from his native Berlin for most of the 1930s, he took his own life, trapped on the border of occupied France.

Benjamin had dedicated himself to the margins where the "small", discontinuous or discarded, settles, and he was destitute. He had catalogued and disseminated his writings among a network of friends. Now a sample of marginalia – notebooks, workings, lists and vital scraps – has surfaced against all probability. Walter Benjamin's Archive is a visual treat containing reproductions of drafts of his Berlin Chronicles, alongside plans for work on Parisian Arcades and Goethe's Elective Affinities. There are annotated photos of Russian toys and bourgeois interiors, postcards of Sienese Sibyls, and lists of his infant son's linguistic jumbles.

Benjamin was fascinated by the figure of the collector. Essays on his own library and Eduard Fuchs's collection of "the scorned and apocryphal" are among his best. This collector was full of passions and armed with a "divining rod" of discovery. Benjamin's own collecting of quotations became integral to his Arcades Project.

The Archive also contains Benjamin's tiny micro-texts: one of his seven surviving notebooks contains "over 20 works". These residues bespeak industry and a desperate frugality. He was also seduced by Proust's descent into minuteness: what remembrance "encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier".

Esther Leslie translated the Archive, and has written a brilliant digest of Benjamin's life to match it. It draws on a mass of texts, including his accounts of a privileged Berlin upbringing and travel diaries. She presents a definitive portrait of Benjamin the materialist, lingers on his obsession with children's books, and makes excellent use of German sources to detail his movements and finances.

Benjamin was blessed by archivist-friends: the Adornos, Gershom Scholem, and Georges Bataille. He has been equally fortunate with archivist-editors: Hannah Arendt, Michael Jennings, who edited the Selected Writings in English, and Giorgio Agamben, who did the same in Italian. Now Leslie has produced the best compact introduction to Benjamin.

While his existence is laid out in the Archive, he comes alive in the four-volume Selected Writings (published by Harvard). The urgent clarity in pieces from the Thirties – on childhood, food, or Kafka – is startling. Elsewhere, writing on language or the philosophy of history, Benjamin creatively investigates the margins of metaphysics. In approaching what is hidden in these writings, Leslie seems exposed; we must turn to Agamben to articulate their potency.

Leslie decries a "Benjamin industry" with some justice, but much is still hidden in German, and a full-bodied Life is needed. This Archive is an object to treasure and has the aura of a reliquary, but Benjamin is no saint. Hidden within this small selection is a profaning giant whom we are only beginning to see.

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