A visionary at the crossroads

Walter Benjamin
July 11, 2003

Terry Eagleton admires a great collector of cultural odds and ends.

Like several of the great intellectual luminaries of the modern age, Walter Benjamin is a library cataloguer's nightmare. He was a thinker, but not exactly a scholar: he never held an academic post and was advised not to proceed with his Habilitation examination on the grounds that his examiners could not understand a word of his thesis. (It has since been published, in all its sibylline splendour, as The Origin of German Tragic Drama. ) Instead, he eked out a precarious living as a journalist and man of letters, fleeing his native Berlin for Paris when the Nazis came to power, and fleeing Paris in turn for the Spanish frontier when they occupied France. It was on that frontier that he committed suicide in 1940, having been informed that he was about to be handed over to the Gestapo. It was, a colleague commented, one of Hitler's most signal victories.

Benjamin was not quite a philosopher, sociologist, theologian or political theorist, although all these disciplines enter deeply into his work. He was not a historian either, but he produced some of the most suggestive, astonishingly original reflections on the idea of history in the 20th century. If he was an aesthetician, he was one who believed in avant-garde style in dismantling and transforming the classical work of art. He was a cultural historian of sorts, not least in his monumental work on 19th-century Paris; but he rejected the whole orthodox conception of cultural tradition, which seemed to him to forget how all such opulent heritages have their disreputable roots in scarcity, violence, hard labour and exploitation.

In his writings on Proust and Leskov, Kafka and Baudelaire, he proved himself one of the finest literary critics of his age - yet "literary critic" seems a distinctly pallid category to encompass his extraordinarily fertile, versatile work. In a single paragraph of sober, scintillating prose, he can weave together Freud's theory of the unconscious, Kabbalistic ideas of interpretation, Marx's concept of the productive forces, and the ragpickers of Paris. It is the kind of strategy that leads either to you being revered and remembered a century later, or to your undergraduate essay being festooned with a good deal of irritable red ink.

How does one label a man whose interests included surrealism, Judaic theology, Freud, photography, hashish, allegory, technology, Marxism, prostitution, language and cinema? "Cultural theorist" is probably the hybrid category closest to hand, though it was in fact invented a good deal later. Today, we are accustomed to much of the most interesting work in the humanities being carried forwards in the fissures and crevices between conventional subject areas.

If there is no convenient academic label for Benjamin, nor is there one for Jurgen Habermas, Raymond Williams, Julia Kristeva or Michel Foucault, all of whom work at the crossroads between orthodox academic pursuits. Since the epoch of high modernism, the map of western culture has been redrawn in ways that leave it out of sync with the inherited structure of our academic knowledge. And this is partly because what has been happening to culture, language, perception, technology and rationality in the real world of late capitalism has outstripped or undermined many of our traditional frames of intellectual reference. If it did not take artists such as Schoenberg, Kafka or de Kooning too long to sense this paradigm shift, it caught some of our less nifty academics napping.

Benjamin was one of the great precursors of this sea change, as a man of the frontier in more senses than one. In his breathtakingly innovative oeuvre, the erudite Jewish intellectual mind of Mittel Europa encounters the fragmented perceptions, sickness of tradition and political turmoil of late modernity. From Theodor Adorno to George Steiner, this encounter has been for the most part chillingly negative. What is astonishing about Benjamin in this respect is just how affirmative it is. Gripped by the Hegelian belief that history progresses by its bad side, and inspired by his Messianic theology to discern strains of utopia in even the most degraded of cultural phenomena, Benjamin is the great collector, the Jewish refugee who rescues his clutch of cultural odds and ends from the great pile of bones that is contemporary political history.

Modernity for Benjamin was a kind of amnesia. It had liquidated tradition, and so was poor indeed. Yet, in doing so, it had liquidated the past in the sense of making it fluid, not just in the sense of annihilating it. Once we could liberate ourselves from the stifling weight of tradition, we could dip in and out of its riches as our present moment demanded, retrieving some precious image from the past and placing it cheek-by-jowl with our own situation. This, Benjamin considered, was the only kind of historiography that could answer to a period of political emergency - and for the dispossessed, if not for their rulers, emergency was a permanent condition.

The fact that "everything just carries on" is the crisis, he wrote. Rather than seeing moments of the past simply in terms of what they led to, they could be blasted out of this continuum and reconfigured with the present.

Since what such richly potential moments in the past generally led to was failure, at least for the political left, this strategy became all the more pressing.

The left, Benjamin thought, had disastrously capitulated to the notion of history as progress - as a majestically unfurling narrative moving perpetually upwards. Leftists had thus obediently mimed the language of their political opponents since such a view of history is always, so to speak, on the side of Caesar. Yet, as mid-20th century history darkened, this triumphalistic vision was becoming less and less possible, and Benjamin recognised how the left could turn this catastrophe into opportunity by licensing a more disruptive, multi-layered idea of historical time.

For a Jewish believer such as Benjamin, fascinated by esoteric Kabbalistic wisdom as well as by exoteric materialist politics, secular history was itself bankrupt and adrift, in contrast to the grand narrative of the coming of the Messiah. Yet this fact, too, could be made to yield political value. For the moment of the Messiah's coming is potentially any moment, so any event in history, however apparently empty, can be referred forwards to its ultimate fulfilment. History can be liquidated forwards, so to speak, as well as backwards, as its pieces are shaken out of their restrictive linear patterns, and viewed instead in the light of the universal justice of Judgement Day. It is not the kind of idea much in favour with High Table historians, for whom crises are sporadic, untypical and usually happen to other people.

By slicing into the present, then, you can excavate the past for intimations of the future. The premodern can yield clues to the socialist future since both seem equally remote from our own age. Like many a modernist artist, Benjamin is both archaic and avant garde. What stirs men and women to revolt, he remarked, is not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of enslaved ancestors. The Angel of History - one of his symbolic figures - is blown backwards into the future with his horror-stricken eyes fixed on the mounting pile of garbage that is the past. In the greatest of his works, the so-called Arcades project, Benjamin finds in the very conspicuous consumption of the 19th-century Parisian bourgeoisie a kind of utopian promesse de bonheur, a foretaste of the sensuous abundance of an emancipated future.

For this profoundly dialectical vision, the commodity form is double edged: if it freezes and reifies things, it also frees them up. A commodity's value lies only in the act of exchange; in a degraded world, things no longer have value in themselves. At the level of literary meaning, however, this is equivalent to allegory - for in allegory things have ceased to wear their meanings on their faces, as they supposedly do in symbolism, and can lend themselves instead to a whole range of significant contexts. And since the idea that a thing has a single meaning fixed within it is a deeply ideological one, Benjamin can use the commodity form for perversely progressive ends. It is what one would expect of a man who can find revolutionary potential even in the notion of nostalgia.

Much the same dialectical twist takes place in the realm of art. The modern epoch has reduced the work of art to a commodity, so that art - the very image of that which denies utility and refuses a price tag - is now fully in the service of the capitalist state. Yet the commodity is also, as Marx pointed out, a kind of fetish; and this, in the case of artwork, takes the form of its lofty, intimidating autonomy. Classical works of art come wreathed in an aura of distance and authority that modern cultural technologies can dispel. The very technology that has helped to make a commodity out of art can also rescue it from its elitist hauteur, bringing a Rembrandt painting closer to us in the form of a postcard, and allow us - with the invention of the camera - to become artists, making works of art newly portable and popular.

We are present here at the very dawn of so-called media studies. Benjamin is writing, significantly enough, in the era of the emergence of film, which he sees as using cultural technology to destroy classical distance and bring the world closer to the eyeball. It is just that he himself, unlike some of the more populist postmodern theorists, saw no incompatibility between writing on Chaplin and on Proust, advertising and minor 17th-century German drama. His attitude to "high" culture, like that of his friend Brecht, was neither geriatrically conservative nor adolescently iconoclastic. The point was neither to deify it nor to destroy such culture but to collect it since you never knew when it might come in handy. It could always be, in Brecht's term, "refunctioned". Who is to say that medieval love poetry may not prove a more radical resource for some society of the future than Rimbaud or Mayakovsky? How can one believe, as some postmodern critics appear to, that art is both endlessly reinterpretable and that Milton is a dead white male who can be written off? Many of Benjamin's insights into art, history and politics are crystallised in these final two volumes of Harvard University Press's superb four-volume selection of his writings. The first two volumes covered the period from 1913 to Benjamin's exile from Germany in 1934; volume three takes up the story from 1935 to 1938, and volume four records the work of the final two years of Benjamin's life, from 1938 to 1940. Like the two previous works, these last two selections reprint a good deal of writing, which is already available elsewhere, in such collections as Illuminations, One-Way Street and Understanding Brecht. But it is wonderfully convenient to have these pieces between the same covers, alongside previously unpublished papers, and all so meticulously edited.

Volume three contains perhaps Benjamin's most celebrated essay, "The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility", along with some other classic pieces, "The storyteller", a well-known account of the German collector Eduard Fuchs, and the charming and indispensable "A Berlin childhood around 1900". This was the period in which Benjamin became in effect the first great interpreter of Brecht, and a few such pieces are represented here. There are also chunks of the mighty Arcades project.

Volume four gives us, among other offerings, more drafts of the Arcades project, further commentary on Brecht, another version of the "Work of art" essay and the famous late reflections on the concept of history. It also reprints "Central park", Benjamin's aphoristic meditations on Baudelaire.

The scholarly notes adorning these essays are superbly erudite and informative. To have the substance of Benjamin in a mere four volumes, all moderately priced, is a publishing and editorial triumph. If it is a feast, however, it is one forbiddingly difficult to swallow. Benjamin's style is the reverse of pretentious, but the sheer intricacy of his thought demands much patient unravelling. It is a relief, in the light of this, to see that he was unable to spell the surname of the novelist William Faulkner.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, University of Manchester.

Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 3: 1935-38; Volume 4: 1938-40

Editor - Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings
ISBN - 0 674 00896 0 and 01076 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £26.50 each
Pages - 462 and 463

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