Walter Benjamin could be genius and gull by turns. Fred Inglis takes a journey in search of a loving and lost theorist.
It is, as Marxists used to say before the whole world turned accidental, no accident that Walter Benjamin has become the contemporary sage of intellectual boulevardiers . After Terry Eagleton's eloquent, powerful but hopeless attempt to fix him in the categories of cast-iron Althusserianism, Benjamin, the great flâneur and utter archaism has been called on for aphorism and aporia whenever a cultural commentator needed his authority.
Yvor Winters said of T. S. Eliot that "at any given time he can speak with equal firmness and dignity on both sides of almost any question, and with no realisation of the difficulties in which he is involved". No one could accuse Benjamin of not realising the difficulties, but it is certainly the case that he never knew where to catch himself, whether on modernity, on the celestial city and the cities of the plain, on revolution, on kitsch or on the Talmud.
As the vast prodigality of his writing unfolds - and in paying tribute to these three splendid volumes, their graceful translators and scrupulous editors - we come gradually to comprehend both the magnificence and the ephemerality of this infuriating man. He is by turns a dauntingly serious dilettante, a connoisseur of kitsch, a wilful procrastinator and a gull. James Fenton once quoted a paragraph by Benjamin in praise of some of Brecht's more posturing kind of aesthetic pedagogy, and said bluntly "this is language filthy with dishonest use". There are several such moments both in The Arcades Project and in the Selected Writings , though never when he writes to Theodor Adorno, who would have refused to countenance them. Few things are sillier than the call to militant action issued by this infinitely hesitant, ambiguous, irresolute and cabbalistic scholar.
The immediate danger for his heirs 60 years after his pointless suicide, 70 or so after his lack of urgency or even the incuriosity shown about fascism in Germany, is that we effect on him what he would have thought of as the bourgeois alchemy. By this token we turn him into a late-come impressionist, strolling the streets of the great capitalist and anti-capitalist cities, Berlin, Moscow, Naples and, supremely, Paris, turning in his 2,000 words of stylish description and humane insights to assorted newspapers and journals of the Weimar Republic.
He is indeed a wonderful journalist, and there are - as he would have been quick to agree - far worse trades than that of travel writer. His reports from Moscow and Marseilles, half a century before Tom Wolfe announced the new journalism, are fresh and quick at the same time as they keep up the admirable obligation of the left to stay in touch with human maiming, never more so than in a time and place - Stalin's Moscow - in which it had been officially eliminated. So, too, the Paris Diary , filled as it is with delicious moments and encounters, filled also with Benjamin's abandoned love of the place, an overwhelming passion that, of course, breathes its ardour and fragrance all through the vast, unfinished architecture of his Arcades Project . Ruinous it may be, but the Arcades is still the most momentous attempt of the century to grasp, not comprehensively but in an extended series of promenades, a long necklace of images, a darting sequence of raids, each with its significant gleam, threading a route through the maze of modernity's topographies, the City.
In Paris, as everywhere, Benjamin did not know whether to celebrate modernity and the communist victory it presaged, or to lament the supersession of what in much of his writing ("Berlin childhood", "Children's literature", "The storyteller") sounds like the organic community. The truth is that the best of Benjamin is to be found either in the loving notation of places and books, or in the intricate deployment and repudiation of dogma.
The loving Benjamin writes incomparably of the homes he has lost and the books he has found to replace them. In this open declaration of feeling he has much to teach present-day worthies of both place and page who would not be found dead admiring anything for fear their giddy superciliousness fall to bits. Benjamin takes us round Europe, making us see so much we missed, insisting upon a mad interest to match his own: in the colourfulness of Berlin bus tickets; in Chaplin; in photographs (where he cannot suppress his hatred of the gleaming inhumanity of advertisers' kitsch); in sewers; in cast-iron vaulting; in toys; and in dope.
The anti-theoretical, theorising Benjamin appears to best advantage in the correspondence with Adorno. Adorno is a fearsome correspondent. In perfect command of the literature and music of his continent, pupil of Berg and protégé of Max Horkheimer, dialectical materialist of a fiendishly subtle order, courteous by nature and pessimistic by experience, Adorno never failed his deeply exasperating friend, every inch his equal in erudition but in almost every way simply unable to match up to life, especially life in Nazi Germany.
He applauds Benjamin to the skies for his grounding phenomena in the consistency of his own categories rather than in those of hard Marxism. He admires what is frequently adumbrated in the Arcades and the Selected Writings , which is to say the theories of novelty and fetishism with which Benjamin announces his blurred vision of consumerism. He praises with faint damns Benjamin's ideas about the significance of offices in our bureaucratic lives, of popular lyrics as destructive of experience, and of what he diagnoses as Benjamin's archaism, never more in evidence than in his friend's alignment of beauty and hopelessness.
The exchanges are models of good manners, and, on Adorno's side, of candour though never of clarity, since he was (doubtless owing to the Zeitgeist ) incapable of it. Benjamin, however, unfailingly respectful, is also reliably evasive. He liked to think of himself as kin to Kafka, but it is his own picture of Proust at work that stays in one's mind.
"On the image of Proust" is the loveliest piece in this second volume of Selected Writings, but it is well-nigh impossible to get clear about what it says. Nor is this a difficulty of translation that, as one would expect, Benjamin the polyglot habitually represents as quite impossible. Yet Proust was to be not only translated by Benjamin (with Franz Hessel) but was also sketched out for treatment on a scale something like the gigantic folly of the Arcades .
In a brilliant cameo, Benjamin glimpses the breathless invalid with his violet cheeks, scribbling in a bed unmade for days, books and manuscript piled high in the cavern of sheets and blankets. Proust may have been stricken and psychotic but he finished the most colossal works of literary art of the century. Benjamin got up in the morning, but that was about the limit of his powers of completion. He could not stop writing; writing deferred and never defined action; it was unstoppable, it never closed.
Hence these beautiful, gripping, directionless volumes. Whenever Benjamin really set off marching towards the future, not only did it never last long, but he promulgated on the way some of his most dire dicta.
Portentous vacuity followed hard on his admiration for both Brecht and Bolshevism. Thus (criticising André Malraux) "the analysis is limited by its inability to explain the actions of the proletarian masses for whom revolutions are part of their experimental historical agenda". I suppose if people are again prepared to take Carl Schmitt seriously, it is permissible to reprint this sort of stuff, but it is not what we read Benjamin for.
Of the three huge volumes, it is The Arcades Project , all 1,000 or so pages of it, that has been most eagerly awaited. Beautifully fashioned, amazingly cheap, intelligently edited, it includes Rolf Tiedemann's splendid essay on how to cope with it as well as its reticulations. It also provides a memoir by Lisa Fittko, the one female member of the emerging underground who led Benjamin to the Spanish frontier post where, stopped by a bureaucratic hitch, he promptly swallowed the large dose of morphine that, apart from a heavy briefcase of manuscript, was his only but providential luggage. Her narrative plainly brings out Benjamin's utter lack of grasp of his circumstances, his obstinacy, his blind self-enclosure, his powers of procrastination, and the impulsive pessimism that determined his suicide.
All these qualities become more apparent as one leafs through this massive work. So too do the virtues I have named: the dazzling gift for metonymising Paris, the city's history caught in four sumptuary images - Fourier's Arcades themselves (the shop-window); Daguerre's exhibition of panoramas of the city (the miniature townscape presages the possession implied by photography); Grandville's world exhibition (the shrine of commodity); the over-furnished Louis Phillippe salon interior (the private house as a box giving upon the theatre of the world).
The audacity and vividness of this quartet are the best things in this impossible book. But these same pages are to be found in the much briefer and far more usable version that New Left Books published in 1974 as A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism with Baudelaire as hero of the action.
There is a large method implied by this four-cornered configuration (it is much the same, surely, as T. S. Eliot's in Four Quartets ) but everything turns on the accuracy of the figure. In the 1974 edition, the foursome is plainly stated as the book proceeds to set the poëte mundit in the front of the scenery. The poet of urban politics and damnation, the man who captures in his great, ambiguous essay "The painter of modern life" the dark negations and contempt that are to become hereafter the subject matter of art, embodies in his threadbare, stylish frockcoat, his worn, good-quality shoes, his haggard hashish-ravaged face, his keen, hopeless intelligence, Benjamin's trinity of city life: the flâneur , the gambler and the collector.
The brevity of the 1974 version makes this urban melodrama work well. Faced with its variations and the vast array of incomplete and speculative quotation in The Arcades Project , cheerfulness (on the reader's part) insists on breaking in.
This is not a book, a method or an argument. Still less is it, in Benjamin's own bemusingly inane remark, a "work comparable in method to the process of splitting the atom", one that "liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the 'once upon a time' of classical historiography". Well, one thinks, The Eighteenth Brumaire is nothing if not a tale told once upon a time, and a trio of Benjamin's more-or-less contemporaries, Weber, Robert Musil and William Carlos Williams, sociologist, novelist, poet, are better methodists of the city than Benjamin ever was.
The point and originality of the book go along with the singularity, sharpness and errant phenomenology of his eye. He was an astonishingly clever man. His is not a novel cognitive technique method by which to unfasten the bonds of history twined about the atomic structures of urbanism. It is much more an account of the comparativist's passage, looking deliberately through an astigmatic or myopic lens and finding paradox, reminiscence and chiasmus everywhere.
Hence the pages crammed with quotations. We have here a huge commonplace book. What puts him in mind of Theophile Gautier, Henri Saint-Simon or Victor Hugo may be turned to paradoxical account in a glimpse of a gas lamp, a prostitute's corsage or fog along the Seine. "Professional conspirator and dandy meet in the concept of the modern hero. This hero represents for himself, in his own person, a whole secret society."
Perhaps the melodrama of the Third Reich excuses a little such attitudes struck in the privacy of a notebook. Marxism, lacking any notion of the comic, does not lend itself to aphorism. The radically unfunny professoriat of the present may find too much in Benjamin to vindicate the dark theorems of anti-Enlightenment, and much more with which to cultivate a wistfulness for the lost politics of insurrection along with a fashionable disdain for the sheer hard work of social amelioration. This beautiful volume will serve to head its admirers off from the true but limited soundness in Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin at his best has entirely distinctive modes of thought and vision. He sets himself the problem of modernity, for sure, and commitment in his circumstances, a Jewish intellectual drawn to the Frankfurt Institute in incipiently Nazi Germany, was unavoidable and right. But his true Penelope was always Proust. Modernity was less a matter of capitalism and more of the monstrous and enchanting city. The preposterous awkwardness of his celebrated angel in his "Theses on the philosophy of history", wings forced open by the wind of change, staggering backwards before a heap of historical rubble, is Benjamin at his worst.
He brings to mind Michael Frayn's headteacher in Clockwise and his piteous cry, "It's not the despair, I can stand the despair, it's the hope." Benjamin, ardent to find the best hope for the future prefigured in the tiny details of the present, does marvellous work in finding somewhere imaginative to live in his fearful present, only to turn on it his florid gift for eschatological malediction.
Homeless himself, he searches for a new home everywhere, anywhere: in literature, in film and in city corners. When he finds it, in Kafka's fragments, Proust's hesitations, in the shop windows of the Arcades, in women's magazines and in fairy tales and in the grace of letter writing, he takes on the shape of a heroic literary type.
This is a character from the past. It can no longer be lived, and the loss is ours. Benjamin bustles up to us out of these pages, talkative, voluminous, exquisitely well-mannered, generous to all, invincibly sombre. His genius for minute significance teaches the travelling theorist much about the joys and terrors of the Great Wens.
Then the darkness of fascism and Stalinism comes down, and he is gone from sight.
Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.
Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume Two 19-1934
Editor - Michael W. Jennings
ISBN - 0 674 94586 7
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 870
Translator - Rodney Livingstone