Late to Fame, Lost to Fortune


Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish writer, critic and theorist who was known, in his brief lifetime, to only a small circle of admirers and friends. His posthumous fame has grown over the years, inside and outside of academia, despite the difficult nature of the bulk of his writings.

The burgeoning of interest in Benjamin has been due in no small part to the diligence of Harvard University Press. For many years, only two volumes of Benjamin's essays were available to readers: Illuminations, published by Schocken and edited by Hannah Arendt, who was his contemporary, and Peter Demetz's compilation titled Reflections, published by Harcourt Brace. Beginning in the 1970s, Harvard has patiently, methodically published various volumes of Benjamin's letters and his selected writings (the fourth and final volume appears this month), as well as the extant manuscript of his massive, insanely ambitious work known as The Arcades Project, which was his (unfinished) attempt to encapsulate all of modern civilization and culture in aphoristic form.

Now, Harvard has added Berlin Childhood Around 1900 and On Hashish to the growing list of titles. The former was never published in Benjamin's brief lifetime, while the latter was a series of notes for a book on the topic of drug use that Benjamin never lived to write. (It's hardly surprising to learn that Benjamin's name should be added to the ranks of great literary drug-takers. He wanted to live literature fully, to thread writing's essence through his life, and he worshiped Baudelaire, who, along with his friend Theophile Gautier, experimented with drugs and let their effect seep into various works. Not to drag its feet, Harvard will soon make all of Benjamin's various articles on Baudelaire available in a volume called The Writer of Modern Life.) All of these new titles are typical of the critic's inimitable style and viewpoint, and help to flesh out our sense of his overall accomplishment.

An Inveterate Collector Benjamin was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892. His family belonged to the highly assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie, and had a certain literary and intellectual pedigree.

Benjamin's paternal grandmother was descended from the van Gelderns, which meant that Benjamin was distantly related to the poet Heinrich Heine. Benjamin's mother was the sister of the famous mathematician, Arthur Schonfleiss, who eventually became the rector of the University of Frankfurt. His cousin Gertrud Chodziessner became better known under her nom de plume, Gertrud Kolmar (which is the German name of the Polish village, Chodziessen, where her father came from). Gunther Stern was yet another literary relative who changed his last name to Anders, which means "different." And it was Anders' first wife, Hannah Arendt, who was instrumental in rescuing Benjamin's essays from the oblivion they'd fallen into after the Nazi onslaught.

From childhood, Benjamin was an inveterate collector — of books, toys, miniature objects, quotations — and the nature of the collector came to influence his writing style and his view of the world (one can see this especially in the brief chapters of Berlin Childhood, which seem like bits and pieces of a mosaic, picked up and laid in place by the writer till a fairly consistent portrait of a city and a life takes shape). Benjamin traced his obsession back to his father, who was an antiques dealer. But another major influence was bourgeois urban life itself, with its incessant emphasis on amassing things, which Benjamin tried to portray in his fragmented, poetic memoir.

He often described himself in his autobiographical works as an alienated child, and his friends often commented that there was a sadness about him. Nevertheless, he managed to distinguish himself at school, acquiring a reputation as a brilliant student. And unlike other intellectuals of his generation, his education was not seriously interrupted by the World War I. (He was clever enough to persuade the army medical commission that he was unfit for military service.) In 1919, after two years at the University of Berne, he became a doctor of philosophy after submitting an eccentric and wordy dissertation on the concept of art criticism in Germany; it was clearly the work of someone who loved quotations. Within a mere 106 pages, there were 317 separate citations.

One of the best portraits we have of the young Benjamin is found in the memoirs of perhaps his closest friend, Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of the Kabbalah. The two met formally in the summer of 1915, when Scholem was 17 and Benjamin 23. From then until Scholem immigrated to Palestine late in the summer of 1923, the young men were nearly inseparable.

Not that there weren't bumpy spots in the relationship. Scholem noted that in Benjamin there was a touch of "personal ruthlessness," which contrasted markedly with the "almost Chinese courtesy" he adopted in most social situations. Benjamin's manner created a sense of distance, as well as a certain secretiveness that bordered on eccentricity. (Arendt, in her introduction to Illuminations, is a bit kinder, describing Benjamin's mannerisms and enthusiasms as old-fashioned, as if he had drifted out of the 19th century into the 20th the way one is driven onto the coast of a strange land.)

There were many compensations, of course. "What thinking means," Scholem wrote, "I have experienced through his living example … . He had an effortless command of felicitous metaphors and striking images saturated with meaning yet always direct and to the point. Faced with unexpected views, he was utterly free of prejudice and sought to illuminate the sense of their place in the wider context from no less unexpected angles. This undogmatic manner of thinking contrasted with his pronounced firmness in judging people."

Only one issue divided them: Judaism. Scholem was a committed Zionist, who was certain that there was no place for Jews in Europe, and especially in Germany. At the time of their early friendship, Scholem was studying Hebrew and Torah, and was planning to make aliyah.

Benjamin's attitude toward Judaism was more abstract. Like most members of his family, he had no interest in ritual, even though the mystical Jewish writings — Scholem's expertise — greatly intrigued him.

'A Whole World Opened Up'

As for his personal life, Benjamin's marriage to Dora Pollak, which produced one child, a son named Stefan, was a disaster. In the end, Benjamin came to regard the institution of marriage itself as fatal to him, to his life as a writer (he took a committed bachelor, Kafka, whom he idolized, as a guide in these matters). In the end, he seems not to have known how to be either a husband or a father.

Years after the marriage ended, Dora told Scholem that Benjamin was a neurotic whose "intellectuality stood in the way of his sexuality." Still, for all that was cerebral and melancholy about Benjamin, he managed to fascinate women. He was not handsome, by any means. But he did have deep blue eyes (usually hidden behind thick glasses), a straight nose, a full, sensuous mouth and a bushy moustache. Yet in combination with his high forehead and his thick, dark brown hair, he made an imposing figure. And according to another friend, Olga Parem, Benjamin's laughter was magical. "When he laughed a whole world seemed to open up."

Until he was 30 years old, however, Benjamin was financially dependent upon his parents, who often urged him to find gainful employment and give up his dreams of writing. Benjamin refused to do so.

The situation was compounded by other roadblocks. The Jews of Benjamin's generation were shut off from academia. And, as Arendt noted, no one was prepared to subsidize him in the only profession for which he was suited — that of homme de lettres.

The only recourse left to him was freelance writing, but because of the idiosyncratic nature of his style, his works could never have found a wide audience. Take the major work of the late '20s, Einbanstrasse, or One-Way Street, which is much like Berlin Childhood in method, and indicative of Benjamin's style and outlook as a whole. This was a book devoted to "the world's minutiae." Benjamin could be inspired by street signs or advertisements, and he wrote about their implications for pages and pages (in Berlin Childhood the physical properties of the city simply come wrapped in smaller portions of text). He considered any number of other subjects in both of these works: amusement parks, money, the class struggle, publishers, postage stamps ("stamps are the visiting cards that national governments leave in children's playrooms"), art museums ("the facial expressions of people walking through picture galleries reveal an ill-concealed disappointment that nothing hangs there but pictures"), climate ("in summer one notices the fat people, in winter the thin ones") and the art of quotation ("quotations in my works are like robbers by the wayside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions").

Works like One-Way Street and Berlin Childhood also point up Benjamin's love of and dependence upon aphorisms. According to Scholem, to create or discover perfection on the smallest scale was one of Benjamin's passions; that large truths can be revealed in the smallest details became one of Benjamin's fundamental principles.

For example, in August 1927, when Scholem had returned to Europe from Palestine for a visit, Benjamin dragged him to the Musée Cluny in Paris, where in a display of Jewish ritual objects, he showed his friend "with true rapture two grains of wheat on which a kindred soul had inscribed the complete Shema."

Throughout the 1930s, as German nationalism grew to dangerous proportions, Benjamin often considered immigrating to Palestine. Scholem was central to his friend's plans, but nothing came of them. Benjamin's ambivalence toward Judaism was never more pronounced than at this time. He admitted that "In this matter I have come up against a pathological indecisiveness that I have also encountered in some of my other activities." He knew well that he was "never consistent in the important matters."

So began the final, peripatetic stage of Benjamin's brief life. He moved from Capri to Moscow (where he flirted with communism), back to Germany, then on to Paris. In the French capital, he found reasons for remaining in Europe despite the more obvious and rapidly mounting dangers. He experienced literary life in the salons, went book shopping along the Seine, continued to collect objects of interest — and so found a measure of hard-won happiness.

Paris suited Benjamin because of his facility with the language. He was a passionate admirer of French literature, had done the best German translations of Proust, Baudelaire and St.-John Perse, and was the most important German critic of French writing since Heine.

'Stroke of Bad Luck'

Benjamin would have liked to have remained there, but he could find no means of making a living. He understood that there were certain places where he could make a minimal income, and others where he could live on a minimal income, but not a single place in which such conditions were conjoined.

He returned to Berlin as the Nazis seized power. He wanted to resist "the impulse to panic," but within a short time understood that he had to leave. He returned to Paris briefly, went from there to the island of Ibiza in the Spanish Mediterranean, then back to Paris again, where he continued to hold on to the illusion that he could remain in Europe. But by then, he was not even able to surround himself with his beloved book collection. It had always been an obsession with him, as well as the greatest source of pleasure in his life, but he had to give it up. (It was also the impetus for one of his most accessible essays, "Unpacking My Library," which should be required reading for all book lovers.)

Not until the French began sending their Jews to detention camps did Benjamin fully comprehend the severity of the Nazi threat. Friends in New York were able to secure a visa for him, and he managed to obtain Spanish and Portuguese transit visas as well, which would permit him to depart from Lisbon. However, the French refused to issue their own transit visa. That meant that the only way into Spain was through illegal channels; by then, he was willing to take the chance.

After a treacherous climb over the Pyrenees, Benjamin's small group got to Port Bou, the first town within Spanish territory. They were detained by the police and told that, since they were stateless, and despite their official papers, they would be escorted back to the French border the next day. That night, Benjamin took a large dose of morphine. He died in the morning hours of Sept. 27, 1940, and was buried in a nearby cemetery.

His death would appear to have made a strong impression on the Spanish border police, for they allowed the rest of his party to continue their journey the next day. For Arendt, Benjamin's suicide was "an uncommon stroke of bad luck." The Spanish embargo on stateless refugees was lifted shortly afterward, and so "only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible." But, as Arendt saw it, this was the nature of Benjamin's life: an "inextricable net woven of merit, great gifts, clumsiness and misfortune."

The appearance of Berlin Childhood and On Hashish — small, unfinished works — provides further proof of how various and considerable his gifts truly were. In their style and manner, they are sui generis, perfect reflections of the man who shaped them.


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