Books: Cultural Amnesia — Walter Benjamin |
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Walter Benjamin was born in Wilhelmine Berlin in 1892 and committed suicide on the Spanish border in 1940, almost within sight of safety. In the 1960s, when his work as a critic began to appear in English, he was hailed as an original contributor to the assessment of the position of the arts in modern industrial society, and by now he is taken for granted as one of the early giants of Theory, that capitalized catch-all term which is meant to cover all the various ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist. Benjamin is above all taken for granted as a precursor of post-modernism. It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little bit about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all. This might seem an unpitying line to take, as well as a presumptuous one. Reinforced by the impressive density of his prose style, Benjamin’s intellectual status is monumental, and it is bathed in the awful light of his personal disaster. As a critic devoted to the real, however, Benjamin deserves the courtesy of not being treated as a hero in a melodrama.

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Far from inaugurating a purer sphere, the mythic manifestation of immediate violence shows itself fundamentally identical with all legal violence, and turns suspicion concerning the latter into certainty of the perniciousness of its historical function, the destruction of which thus becomes obligatory.


BUT LET’S BREAK the flow of eloquent opacity at that point and ask ourselves about its author. The essay is called “A Critique of Violence” and yields a lot more in the same strain. With Benjamin, “strain” was the operative word. Part of his sad fate has been to have his name bandied about the intellectual world without very many of its inhabitants being quite sure why, apart from the vague idea that he was a literary critic who somehow got beyond literary criticism: he got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read. Clever always, he was clear seldom: a handy combination of talents for attaining oracular status. More often mentioned than quoted, he has become a byword for multiplex cultural scope. But the unearned omniscience of post-modernism depends on its facility for connecting things without examining them, and the routine invocation of Benjamin as a precursor is symptomatic. In the under-illuminated conference hall where everything is discussed at once, everybody who matters knows his name, even if nobody seems to remember much of what he actually said. One of the few things Benjamin is remembered for actually saying is that his country was not Germany but German, meaning the German language. The idea poignantly harked forward to the unified New Europe which is now, we are assured, in the final stages of getting its act together. Populated by the merrily flush inhabitants of twinned towns, it will be the good New Place with no real borders except where languages meet. Unfortunately for Benjamin, as for nearly all the Jews of the Old Europe, he lived at a time when unity was being striven for by other means, and for other ends. In Hitler’s New Europe, where all internal political frontiers had indeed been dissolved but only at the cost of surrounding the whole expanse with barbed wire, Benjamin, a French-speaking cosmopolitan who should have been at home everywhere, was safe nowhere. At the border between France and Spain, within hailing distance of freedom but without a proper visa, he took his own life because he was convinced that for him there was no getting out of Nazi territory. He had devoted his career to pieces of paper with writing on them, but he didn’t have the right one.

Had he reached liberty, he might have written a classic essay about passports and permits. To write with scholarship and insight about the small change of culture was his calling card. He could have written an essay about calling cards: granted life, he would probably have got around to it. In the words of Ernst Bloch (from an encomium included in über Walter Benjamin, a 1968 collection of tributes by various hands), Benjamin was blessed with a Sinn für Nebenbei: a nose for the lurking detail. The idea of studying cultural by-products wasn’t new. His beloved Proust (of whom he was the first serious translator into German) had already said that when one reaches a suitable level of receptivity there is as much to be learned from a soap advertisement as from a pensée by Pascal. Mallarmé did not consider himself to be slumming when he got involved with women’s fashion magazines. Baudelaire, less afraid of the ephemerally chic than of the stultifyingly elevated, presaged the tradition by which to this day the most high-flown French artists and intellectuals show little reluctance when asked to be guest editor of Vogue. Just try to stop them.

What was unique about Benjamin was not his readiness to take a side track, but the lengths he would go to when he took one. He would devote more attention to children’s books than he did to books for adults. Even then, if all the side tracks had led downwards he would never have acquired his prestige. But enough of them led upwards to give the totality of his work an impressive air of the intellectually transcendent. Unlike Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch, whose Key to All Mythologies was as endless as a scheme for joining the stars, Benjamin, we are encouraged to feel, really could see how it all tied up. He had theories about history which still sound good even in the light of the general agreement among practising historians after Arnold Toynbee that any history written in conformity to a theory is likely to be bad. Benjamin argued strenuously that science needs a theory, too: not just theories but a theory, a theoretical background. The empirical evidence already suggested that it was a defining condition of science to need no such thing. (Whichever way Einstein arrived at a theory of relativity, it wasn’t by departing from a theory of science.) But Benjamin’s urge to validate his interest in concrete detail by elevating it with a suitably abstract lifting apparatus looked like a guarantee of seriousness during the Weimar Republic, when the German tradition of cloud-borne metaphysics was still strong. Posthumously and with renewed vigour, the same urge helped again during the 1960s, when Benjamin, like Gramsci, was rediscovered worldwide as a thinker about culture whose Marxist emphasis could be regarded as unspoiled because he had not stayed alive long enough to see everything go wrong in the Soviet Union. (He had, in fact, but the significance of the 1937–1938 Moscow trials was lost on him, perhaps because by then his own situation was getting desperate.) For the semi-educated Beatles-period junior intellectual intent on absorbing sociology, philosophy and cultural profundity all at once and in a tearing hurry, Benjamin’s scrappily available writings constituted an intellectual multivitamin pill, the more guaranteed in its efficacy by being so hard to swallow. The various English translations concentrated the effect by reproducing all the tortuous cerebration of his original texts without any of the occasional poetic flair, thereby forestalling accusations of frivolity. The less comprehensible he was, the more responsible he was held to be. Here was no lightweight.

Benjamin’s most famous essay, whose title might best be translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” is atypical for featuring a general point designed to be readily understood. Unfortunately, once understood, it is readily seen to be bogus. Benjamin argued that an art object would lose its “aura” through being reproduced. The logical extension of this line would entail that any painting would retain aura through being a one-off, whereas any photograph would be deprived of aura through its capacity to be copied by the million. I made up my own mind about this seductive notion one afternoon in Los Angeles, during one of those breaks in filming that I had learned, over the years, were better devoted to self-improvement rather than to just lying down and praying for release. At the Getty Museum, which at the time was still in Malibu, I happened to look at the sumptuous but frozen Winterhalter portrait of a Sayn-Wittgenstein princess. The picture was hung so that she was gazing out to sea towards Catalina Island, and she looked as if she could afford to buy it. As an ancestress of one of the Luftwaffe’s top-scoring night-fighter pilots, she was bound to attract my interest. She had some history ahead of her as well as, presumably, behind her: she was a bewitching glamour-puss. Or so, at any rate, Winterhalter was trying to assure us. He might have been trying to assure her as well, in which case he was worth the fee. But it was a pretty ordinary portrait, rather along the hagiographic lines of that other faithful servant to the aristocracy, Makart, except with a bit more light thrown on the subject. No doubt her price tag would have been in the millions, but she personally was a dime a dozen. Later on, back at the hotel, I was leafing through John Kobal’s excellent coffee-table album The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers. Not for the first time I was transfixed by Whitey Schaefer’s spare but incandescent photograph of Rita Hayworth. The Sayn-Wittgenstein princess had looked very nice, but for aura, in any meaningful sense of the word, she came nowhere near the film star. Which painting, and which photograph? And what about all those lovely-looking books Benjamin collected and cherished even when he couldn’t read them: what else were they but reproduced works of art, and why else caress them if not for their aura? Whenever Benjamin transcends his sense of the relevant detail, one’s own sense of the relevant detail tends to punch holes in his abstractions. Luckily for his reputation, if unluckily for the world’s sum total of mental health, his conclusions are seldom so separable from his relentless metaphysical vocabulary. A more typical essay is the one on Karl Kraus, of which Kraus confessed that the only thing he understood was that it was about him.

There is no arguing against all-inclusive obscurity except to say that the whole thing means nothing, which few of us dare to do. Kraus did. Now that Benjamin’s writings are at last being published in English in some sort of orderly sequence, there is all too much opportunity to conclude that Kraus might have had Benjamin’s number. Kraus had his own limitations, but he had an infallible ear for the kind of rhetoric whose only real subject is its own momentum. Benjamin was a rampant case. Lest we doubt it, we can read on after the sentence already quoted. You will have noted that “the destruction” has “thus” become obligatory. But the “thus” is not enough. There is also “this”:

This very task of destruction poses again, ultimately, the question of a pure immediate violence that might be able to call a halt to mythic violence. Just as in all spheres God opposes myth, mythic violence is confronted by the divine. And the latter constitutes its antithesis in all respects... .

And that’s only a sample. Thus, this very, might, just as—it’s the prose equivalent of a velvet fog: breathe it in and you’ll choke on cloth. Benjamin was young, but this style of argument was never to be long discarded. In the next volume, or perhaps the one after that, the critic grown older will be heard on more down-to-earth subjects, but invariably the attendant metaphysical speculation will send his treatment of them spiralling towards the ceiling, like the burnt paper wrapping of an amaretto cookie rising on its self-generated column of hot air. (The first time I ever saw that trick worked in an Italian restaurant, I thought immediately of a thin argument gaining altitude.) Apart from his remarks on the reproducible works of art and their lost aura, Benjamin’s other widely known brainwave is about how the broad pavements of Paris favour café life. The observation is persuasive, if commonplace even for the time it was made, but the prospective reader should be warned that the disquisition it instigated was endless. Benjamin’s aperçus about his ideal European city grew into essays which themselves went on growing, on their slow way to becoming a book which was left unfinished at his death and might never have been finished even if he had lived, since its obvious aim was to Get Everything In. Often supposed, by literati of the panscopic persuasion, to be one of the great lost books of the twentieth century, the completed work might well have turned out to be a teeming marvel. Indeed the fragment we have, published under the enchanting title of The Arcades Project, was greeted by some critics, notably George Steiner, as proof positive that the finished job would have been inexhaustibly miraculous. But for those of us who have been dismayed by the essays, the vanished prospect of Benjamin’s magic syntopicon is less likely to bind us with a spell. There is no reason to believe, and every reason to doubt, that the fully realized omnium gatherum would have kept a reasonable proportion between its author’s enviable knack for assessing the significance of what everybody else had already seen and his congenital propensity for inflating the results into a speculative rigmarole that nobody else would ever think or could even follow. The sceptical question lingers; how could a brain as sharp as his churn out so much mush?

His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning. Reality was anti-Semitism. Born into comfortable surroundings, Benjamin nevertheless concluded at an early age that the Jewish bourgeoisie were kidding themselves about assimilation. The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce, the more they were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out. In other words, they were disliked for themselves. Before World War I, Theodor Herzl has drawn the central impulse of Zionism from no other assumption. (Victor Klemperer, in To the Bitter End, the 1942–1945 volume of his monumental diary, noted that a total rejection of assimilation for Jews was the point on which the arch-Nazi Hitler and the arch-Zionist Herzl were of the same mind: les extrêmes se touchent.) The idea was already in the air, but Benjamin, perhaps because he was struck with it so young, gave it a portentous twist. He chose to despise, not the goyim for their prejudice, but the Jewish bourgeoisie for their gullibility, and, beyond them, the bourgeoisie in toto. Wanting a more enlightened society, he saw its seeds in Marxism. Objectively (as the Marxists went on saying until only recently) he became committed to one of the two implacable forces that would combine their energies to undermine the Weimar Republic, which might conceivably have withstood the pressure from either the Communists or the Nazis, but was squeezed to death when attacked by both.

Well accustomed to travelling within Europe and setting up his desk anywhere, usually within sight of the sea, Benjamin was able to absent himself from Germany after the Nazis got their grip on it. Keeping a suitable distance should have been an aid to perspective, but he was hobbled in his capacity for political analysis by his pidgin Marxist conviction—which he shared with his friend Brecht—that the Nazi regime was somehow a logical consequence of bourgeois capitalism, instead of what it was, a radical force in itself. (In Die vergebliche Warnung—The Unheeded Warning—Manès Sperber said that when the Nazis finally came to power it never occurred to him that he was in danger as a Jew, only as a Communist. The Jews were capitalists, so why would the Nazis attack them?) Sooner or later, according to the Comintern general line, the coming crisis of capitalism would bring the Nazis down. The sooner became later and it never happened. If Benjamin had waited any longer he would have been caught at home, with the concentration camp as the inevitable consequence. When he finally ran, he was only just in time. If he had been better organized he might have made it across the border, but it would be a mistake to blame his unworldliness. Plenty of worldly people died from despair as he did, because the Nazis had taken care to ensure that the world was no longer worth living in. Mentioning Benjamin’s suicide in one of her letters to Karl Jaspers (Briefwechsel 1926–1969, p. 77) Hannah Arendt made a point we should consider: “This atmosphere of sauve qui peut was hideous, and suicide was the only noble gesture.” To go out nobly was the only way left to affirm life. It could be said that Arendt, who had got to safety in America, was asking a lot by suggesting that voluntary death was the only nobility left for those who didn’t make it, but she was undoubtedly right about the hideous pressure exerted when ordinary civil existence was suddenly transformed into a case of every man for himself. The Devil took the hindmost, and one of them was Benjamin.

There was a subsidiary consequence of Germany’s traditional anti-Semitism (the old, pre-Nazi brand that worked by exclusion rather than repression), a consequence which Benjamin might have examined if he had lived to write an autobiography. The autobiography would have had to be unsparing on the issue, because what affected him in a debilitating way was his acquiescence as much as his defiance. Benjamin never got the university post that he might legitimately have expected, but he allowed the rejection to haunt his work instead of giving it strength. Even as late as the Weimar Republic, the German universities retained their tacit quota system by which Jews found it hard to get a place on the faculty. Benjamin wanted a place on the faculty more than anything else in life. Other Jews of comparable critical talent, forced into journalism because the universities had shut them out, did what Benjamin could never bring himself to do. They accepted journalism’s requirements of readability, and found ways of giving everything they had to the article rather than the treatise. The books they wrote had a general public in mind. In retrospect, the journalists can be seen to have enriched German-speaking culture by saving it from the stratospheric oxygen-starvation of the deliberately high-flown thesis. Their written and spoken conversations were informal seminars that turned the cafés into universities, even as the universities were hardening further into hieratic structures where nothing mattered except the prestige of position—a characteristic that made them fatally corruptible by political pressure. The journalists were well out of it, and the cleverest of them realized it: they took the opportunity to create a new language for civilization, a language that drew strength from the demotic in order to cherish the eternal.

Benjamin, on the other hand, even when he wrote for a newspaper, had a way of sounding as if he was still angling for a Ph.D. If he had reached safety he might have been obliged to change his ways, almost certainly for the better. To pine for more of what he had done already, you have to miss the glaring point that he had already done far too much of it. Take any essay by Benjamin and then place beside it an essay by, say, Alfred Polgar. In a Benjamin essay, there will be very few actual perceptions gleaming through the cloud of smoke. Some of them will be unique, but they will all be gasping for air. A Polgar essay is made of perceptions and nothing else, and the style is just the most elegant possible way of holding them together. Benjamin truly and touchingly loved Paris, but what did he ever say about it that is not left looking thin beside the wealth of observation that the journalist Janet Flanner could put into a single report, or the historian Richard Cobb into a single paragraph of an essay? Joseph Roth, the Jewish exile from Vienna who drank himself to death in Paris in the last days of its freedom, packed his every piece about the city with enough material to keep Benjamin speculating for a year. Examples could be multiplied, and always to Benjamin’s detriment: the lowly journalism of others, then and since, leaves his paroxysms of verbiage sounding inarticulate. None of this is pleasant to say, and is probably not pleasant to hear. There aren’t so many truly comprehensive freelance scholars that we can afford to mock one of them just because he was a victim of his own style, and Benjamin was a victim of a lot more than that. Kicking a man when he is down is bad enough, and kicking him when he is unfairly dead looks like blasphemy. Considering the refinement of Benjamin’s mind, his fate was a crucifixion. But we are talking about his reputation, the prestige he still has, and, for the humanities, the baleful encouragement he gives to the damaging notion that there is somehow a progressivist, humanitarian licence for talking through a high hat. There is no such licence. The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting distance of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is.