The harm of discretion

Walter Benjamin - Selected Writings
February 21, 1997

"What," asked Walter Benjamin, "is 'solved'? Do not all the questions of our lives, as we live, remain behind us like foliage obstructing our view? To uproot this foliage, even to thin it out, does not occur to us. We stride on, leave it behind, and from a distance it is indeed open to view, but indistinct, shadowy, and all the more enigmatically entangled." Between the time of Benjamin's birth - in a genteel and well-to-do district of Berlin in 1882 - and that of his premature death - at Port-Bou on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 - there is much that appears, to one attempting to make sense of his life, extraordinarily indistinct, profoundly shadowy and bewilderingly, enigmatically, entangled.

It is ironic that one who wrote so well and so movingly about the experience of being lost should have worked so hard and so assiduously to ensure that he would not be found. His latest biographer, Momme Brodersen, has noted that his investigations "received no support whatsoever from the trustees of the Benjamin estate", but, although one sympathises, one cannot help thinking that such stubborn obstructiveness was only in keeping with Benjamin's own cautious attitude to biographical curiosity.

There was always the feeling that Benjamin cherished the licence, the release, the perverse security, of the obscure life. He wrote often of the enigmatic, which strikes one as somewhat disingenuous; when a critic such as Benjamin, with the rare ability to read, as Nietzsche put it, "with delicate fingers and eyes", appears so eager to enshroud certain themes with the lazy vagueness of "the enigmatic", then he arouses suspicion, and his actions certainly suggest that he preferred for his own life and personality to seem, to the outsider, discouragingly mysterious. Gershom Scholem, who probably knew him longer - if not better - than anyone, has recalled the exasperation he felt when faced, time and again, with the "surprising, even ludicrous" secretiveness of someone "as sober, as melancholy, as Benjamin". He took great pains to keep each of those who knew him as far apart from one another as was humanly possible; on those rare and unwelcome occasions when he found he could not avoid sharing with one of these friends some solitary item of news concerning the circumstances of his life, he would beg them to swear that his secret would never be revealed to another; whenever he spoke, even in the privacy of his own room, his face, according to Scholem, "assumed a strangely reserved, somewhat inward expression", and the "almost Chinese courtesy" that characterised his relations with strangers and intimates alike "created a natural sense of distance" which seemed to demand reciprocation.

The distinguished translator of a collection of essays by Theodor Adorno - another of Benjamin's closest colleagues - prefaced the text with an apologetic note entitled "Translating the untranslatable", and one would not be at all surprised if the biographer of Benjamin felt it prudent to write a similar prefatory note on "Tracing the untraceable". Benjamin once wrote that "the only way of knowing a person is to love that person without hope", and yet, as far as his own life is concerned, it is hard to find an account that does not seek to illumine certain details with the light directed from a very particular ideological position. We have had rival studies arguing for Benjamin to be understood as the missing link between mysticism and theology, or as the Jewish libertarian, or the redemptive figure in the Marxist firmament, or the uniquely gifted German Publizist, or Europe's last great homme de lettres, or modernity's brightest hope in its darkest times, but we have yet to find a convincing explanation of what the real continuity might be in the discontinuities of this elaborate life.

Brodersen's well-designed and superbly illustrated biography, while certainly a considerable improvement on what has gone before, is still something of a disappointment. For a study of such an unconventional figure it seems surprisingly and unselfconsciously conventional in both its structure and its general approach. We begin with the bald facts of the man's origins and we end with the sober recitation of the circumstances surrounding his death. Each chapter is headed by a new brace of dates, guarding the stately chronological procession like vigilant escorts at the front of a royal carriage. It is neat, it is clear, it is disciplined, but it fails to do justice to its undeniably difficult subject. As a modest and unimaginative documentation of a discrete life, it is still frustratingly elliptical - we have, for example, just four, inexplicably tangential references to his only son, Stefan, and surprisingly few concerning both his wife, Dora Kellner, and his lover, Asja Lacis; and, for an altogether more ambitious consideration of an extraordinary subject, it lacks the requisite courage, conviction and invention.

As the splendid new edition of Benjamin's own Selected Writings makes clear, there are clues to be found within his work as to the appropriate design he may have envisaged for the story of his life. In a brief but refulgent memoir about his childhood in Berlin - which should be included in a subsequent volume in this series - he showed a keen awareness of the particular challenge of biography as a form. A conventional account, he observed, "has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life", whereas the approach favoured by him involved the exploration "of a space, of moments and discontinuities".

The moment that many consider to be of greatest significance in explaining the peculiar development of Benjamin's life and career is that point in the mid-1920s when his various efforts to obtain admission to the profession of university lecturer were thwarted. What pain and frustration and anger Benjamin must have felt whenever he reflected subsequently on the many craven mediocrities who enjoyed the security of academic life while he struggled to survive as a freelance writer and occasional translator we do not learn from Brodersen, but we can probably imagine it easily enough.

The contrast with the career of Leo Lowenthal - an associate of Benjamin's from the Institute of Social Research, and again overlooked by Brodersen - is, however, instructive; Lowenthal's hopes of a lectureship were dashed in similar circumstances to those of Benjamin, but whereas the pragmatic Lowenthal seized the opportunity to resurrect his career in the United States, Benjamin's stubborn yet comprehensible persistence in saying no (the "salt of refusal", as he once put it), combined with the growing, gnawing sense of loss as he watched the "small victories" in his writings overcome by what he perceived as the "great defeats", saw to it that he lived as an exile both in body and in spirit.

Thoughts of suicide, as Brodersen notes, were seldom far from Benjamin in his later years. In a letter to Scholem, written on the occasion of his 40th birthday, Benjamin told his friend of his intention to celebrate by sharing a glass of white wine with "a pretty strange fellow whose path I have often crossed in the course of my various travels" -this "strange fellow" being Benjamin's typically recondite reference to death. He did not, however, admit such thoughts submissively: in another letter to Scholem he likened his situation to that of the one "who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling", adding that "from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue."

It is tempting to conjecture that the jealous manner in which he (as a self styled "custodian of treasures") preserved his many remaining secrets during this period owed much to the sense that they had come to serve as the means whereby he retained a hold, against all the odds, on his dignity. He said once that he had been struck by the idea of drawing his life in the form of a diagram, and that the diagram that he drew was in the shape of a labyrinth. Studying it, he confessed that he was not interested so much in what he termed, knowingly, "the enigmatic centre" as he was in the "many entrances leading into the interior". What he failed to say, but what he clearly implied, was that those "entrances", viewed from the privileged vantage point of that "enigmatic centre", were really exits, leading him, and any inquisitive biographer who followed in close pursuit, far away from his intimate self and deep into the dazzling constellation of influences that reflected his times. Biography, through this subtle transposition, was to be secreted securely into the fine details of social history.

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a man, when he attempts to assemble a map of his world, only succeeds in producing an image of his face. What Benjamin seduces one into attempting is the production of an image of the man that only succeeds in resembling a map of his whole world. It is an enchantment his biographer would do well to resist. After Benjamin had taken his own life, the people with whom he had spent his final hours reflected on how the survival of his last writings had consumed his remaining thoughts: "It looks to me," said one, "as if his life was worth less to him than the manuscript." After one has come to value his work, one is moved to wish that he had taken greater care of his life.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

Walter Benjamin: A Biography

Author - Momme Brodersen
ISBN - 1 85984 967 9
Publisher - Verso
Price - £25.00
Pages - 334

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