A vibrant portrait of Walter Benjamin

Issue: 148

Stephen Philip

Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Harvard University Press, 2014), £25

At 700 pages, Walter Eiland and Michael W Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is the most complete biography available of this fascinating writer whose posthumous fame and reach continue to have an impact in radical intellectual circles. With admirable scholarship, the authors have marshalled a wealth of detail to provide a vibrant picture of Benjamin’s life. They believe previous studies have been selective, shaped by a pre-ordained agenda resulting in a “partial” account or, worse, a “mythologised and distorted portrait”. We needn’t tax ourselves with Eiland’s and Jennings’s naïve claim to impartiality, as the sheer scale of this study and its comprehensive attention to detail allow the reader to transcend the authors’ inevitable biases and can provide the basis for a more defined poitical reading of Benjamin’s complex life and works.

This project differs from recent biographies of Benjamin in content, scope and tone. Esther Leslie’s 2007 book Walter Benjamin is more accessibly written, mining recently released correspondence for biographical material. It does so with a greater stress on Benjamin’s cultural and technological studies and with a sharper eye for the political debates that intersect with Benjamin’s work. Eiland and Jennings’s biography still betrays the viewpoint of liberal literary critics with its own emphases and shortcomings.

Any claim that study of Benjamin’s work is in decline is surely premature as this much-heralded publication and the recent release of Radio Benjamin (a collection of transcripts of Benjamin’s radio broadcasts), not to mention the regular annual conferences on his ideas around the world, can testify. Latterly Benjamin has become a talisman of critical theory; an enabler of idiosyncratic abstract reflections on culture and philosophy with an anachronistic, albeit residual, Marxist methodology.

It is telling that, as the biographers note, the birth of Benjamin and that of German urban modernity were almost simultaneous. Bearing witness to European modernity was Benjamin’s life’s work. Benjamin was at the centre of Weimar culture, heralding modernist cultural expressions from Paris and the Soviet Union and “helped shape a new way of seeing”.

The study remains true to the acknowledged narrative of Benjamin’s life. He was born into a bourgeois world of cushioned ease and comfort but ended his life penniless and miserable, finally committing suicide in a hotel in Catalonia with the Nazis at his heel. He grew up in the household of an assimilated Jewish family of the Berlin haute bourgeoisie. His early foray into radical politics took the form of espousing the cause of “new youth” as the progressive element for social reform. From 1912 to 1914 Benjamin was a leader and spokesperson for the German Youth Movement, an uncharacteristic role as he subsequently shied away from involvement in political organisations although he did contemplate joining arms with his brother who was an SPD member.

Benjamin attempted to gain an academic position. But as an outsider, facing prejudice from anti-Semitic academics and cultural conservatives, he found it impossible and became an itinerant man of letters. To secure a position within the German university system as a professor he was required to submit a second dissertation: “Origins of the German Trauerspeil” on the subject of the German baroque play of mourning. The work was rejected by the University of Frankfurt for its “incomprehensible mode of expression”…“signifying a lack of scholarly clarity”. This dense and allusive work is now regarded as the “first full, historically orientated analysis of modernity”, a key achievement of 20th century literary criticism.

In the 1920s Benjamin began to establish himself as the pre-eminent critic of his time. His move towards Marxism began informally in 1924 as a form of romantic anti-capitalism. His discussions with his lover at the time, the Latvian revolutionary and dramatist Asja Lacis, along with his reading of Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, were significant in revolutionising his thinking. Like many radical German Jews, Benjamin was faced with the political choice of embracing Zionism as a means to escape anti-Semitism or moving in a Marxist direction. His lifelong intellectual friend Gershom Scholem was a Zionist and would urge Benjamin to leave Germany for Palestine throughout their partnership. But Benjamin only flirted with the idea, finally admitting to Scholem that his essential identification was with German culture.

By the late 1920s Benjamin departed from writing about historical topics and took on issues of contemporary culture. He recognised his approach was evolving politically and formally: “the critic is the strategist in the literary struggle”. With One Way Street, a montage constructed book of anecdotal observations, aphorisms, pithy snapshots of a range of cultural phenomena and subjective states such as dreamscapes and moods, he develops a new prose style and critical method. The authors correctly note that the style is a forerunner of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. In an essay titled “Surrealism” he subjects the movement to a critical discussion of its revolutionary potential, describing ­surrealism as a “profane illumination” of bourgeois culture. The authors argue that much of his work on media aesthetics in the 1930s was a development of concepts first elucidated in this essay. Benjamin’s eclectic interests, brilliantly original analysis and his intimate knowledge of the avant garde established him by the end of the decade as the “most important German cultural critic of his day”.

During the 1930s Benjamin wrote his more renowned Marxist-inspired texts but also endured a period of privation and terror as he struggled to survive a Nazified Germany. Forced into exile and living in insecure circumstances, he says in a letter to Scholem that “there are places where I could earn a minimal income, and places when I could live on a minimal income, but not a single place where these two conditions coincide” (p392). His penniless itinerant existence was partially mitigated by funding from Max Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research (the Frankfurt School) for which he became a significant contributor. His lively intellectual friendship with Bertolt Brecht was pivotal in developing an analysis with what Scholem called “heavier Marxist accents”. This was a cause for concern for Benjamin’s associate Theodor Adorno, who thought Brecht’s “crude” thought would affect the complexity of Benjamin’s own output. But the authors argue that it is this “juxtaposition of ‘extreme positions’ in his thought…this very instability, this resistance to the fixed and doctrinaire, that gives his writing the exciting ‘living’ quality that has engaged several generations of readers” (p431). It’s a pity therefore that a critical evaluation of the dialogue between Brecht and Benjamin is lacking in this work.

In the 1930s Benjamin’s ambitious programme positioned him on the far-left, attacking both conservative and fascist writers and the moderate liberal left. In 1934 he published the essay “The Author as Producer”, in which he radically reconceived the relationship between literary technique and political tendency and between the bourgeois artist and the working class. As Eiland and Jennings note: “Benjamin’s advocacy of avant garde practice, its nascent populism, and its Brechtian materialism, flew in the face of the then current Soviet Arts policy” (p144). His friend Scholem despaired at the left wing turn that Benjamin adopted. In response Benjamin defined his commitment as “a drastic, not infertile expression of the fact that the present intellectual industry finds it impossible to make room for my thinking, just as the present economic order finds it impossible to accommodate my life” (p448).

The commodification of social life, the unique experience of modernity and the function of technology in altering perceptions became increasingly central to Benjamin’s work in the 1930s. The massive unfinished work, The Arcades Project, which amassed material from the previous seven years on the new world of the arcades, iron technology, photography, shopping, world exhibitions, newspapers and the democratic potential of the new media, was his self-professed life’s work. In a famous exchange of letters, which gets light treatment from the biographers, Adorno criticised Benjamin’s theorising of the collective consciousness as lacking in integrating a class dimension and straying too near to the reactionary ideas of psychologist Carl Jung.

In Benjamin’s celebrated essay on technology, art and modernity, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, a dialectical approach is at work. He’s alive to the destructive operations of technology but at the same time celebrates the potential for technology to liberate our perceptions. Benjamin says of film that it has the capacity to undermine traditional relationships surrounding culture and to shift our perceptions on a more profound level. He says that the technological reproducibility of art has effected a shift in how we perceive art; it loses its aura; it is no longer a unique commodity transmitting a sense of the authentic and the weight of its cultural tradition. The ruling class needs to defend “auratic” art as part of the process of its hegemonic control. The biographers explain the context of how Benjamin’s seminal essay was subsequently edited by the Frankfurt School—excising the Marxist terminology to satisfy a broader French public.

A major focus for these literary biographers is Benjamin’s take on the poet of modernity, Charles Baudelaire, who he claims as the “quintessential modern”. Baudelaire may have been an apolitical artist but his poetry betrays the complexity of urban capitalism due to his extraordinarily “sensitive disposition”. This emphasis in the book on literary matters comes at the expense of Benjamin’s political and philosophical reflections.

In early 1940, as the Nazi armies were waging war in the East and in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin pact he wrote his theses on history, not meant for publication, “On the Concept of History”. The biographers argue that the targets of the theses are those “who have betrayed humanity: fascism, the Soviet Union and finally those historians and politicians who have failed to grasp the order of the day”. But simply subjecting this essay to literary criticism and its theological context fails to explore the enduring political significance of the essay.

In this work Benjamin recognises that his approach will be unusual because of the paradoxical combination of theology and materialism; for Benjamin theology is an inextricable but invisible active element in his theory; that the role of a Marxist assessment of the past is twofold, not only to contemplate the past in a mode of ­remembrance but also to seek reparations for the suffering of the oppressed and exploited. It is the task of the collective—possessing a Messianic type of power—to undo the wrongs of the past and present. Benjamin’s perspective is resolutely from that of the exploited: class struggle is the core dynamic animating his perspective on history. History has to be rescued from orthodox historians whose empiricism and “great men of history” approach threatens to rob past struggles of their subversive intent.

Benjamin criticises the Enlightenment view of history in which blind faith is placed in progress. His target is Second and Third International Marxism; the German SPD and the Stalinist Communist Party, both of whom he regards as having rejected revolutionary struggle. He uses an allegory to explain that history has been a series of catastrophes, creating wreckage upon wreckage that appear unstoppable. Only human action (working class revolution) can call a halt and raise the alarm.

Benjamin’s approach, critiquing evolutionary Marxism, was unique for the times and is still relevant today. But clearly what is missing from the theses is how capitalism’s contradictory development generates a revolutionary consciousness within the working class. Chris Nineham, in “Benjamin’s Emergency Marxism”, International Socialism 119, claims the cause for this omission is Benjamin’s commitment to a surrealist method, a tendency to generalise too quickly from a single object or instance which could result in a crude one-sided determinism. Benjamin’s method of presentation can indeed lean to the surrealist, but his philosophical thinking relies on the use of poetic ­allegory—a method that may leave little room for the rigour of social scientific thinking in the mode of Lukács, Lenin or Antonio Gramsci. What we have instead, which Nineham’s critique perhaps undervalues, is an essay written in the ­darkness of the 20th century that’s a powerful assertion of the centrality of class struggle and reaffirmation of the potential revolutionary role of the working class.

The narrative of Benjamin’s life is rendered in vivid detail here, exhaustive and perhaps exhausting to some readers. This dispassionate and candid account of Benjamin’s life is one that reveals all of Benjamin’s romantic triangle liaisons, family disputes, petty academic rivalries, fulfilling intellectual friendships and financial dependencies including his weakness for gambling. As an intellectual biography the efforts to explain and critically evaluate Benjamin’s sometimes cryptic and dense texts are uneven in achieving their objective and the biography occasionally assumes a familiarity with the original texts. Nevertheless, fans of Benjamin will find this more than a diverting read.