Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings

Beset by turmoil, an inimitable critic wrote as if from the future. Joanna Hodge on a material force

January 23, 2014

Reading Walter Benjamin is notoriously a hazardous affair: the range and variety of his writings seduce his readers into finding only that which they themselves have sought out. Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida have fallen foul of this rule, to greater and lesser extents. Writing about him is even more challenging: his writings are inimitable, both in the rigour with which they anatomise their material, and in the elegance and efficacity of their experiments with form, to do justice to that material. His writings display a cumulative effort to develop modes of presentation adequate to the turmoil of his times. They are innovative to the limit in ways that still startle and challenge. This study, subtitled A Critical Life, admirable in so many ways, appears to duck this challenge by opting for the classical, chronological form of intellectual biography, starting with a birth on 15 July 1892 and ending with the emblematic suicide in 1940.

The authors, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings – with the additional involvements of Marcus Bullock, Gary Smith and Kevin McLaughlin – are jointly responsible for publishing translations into English of five significant volumes of Benjamin’s selected papers, beginning in 1996 with Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (1913-1926). This undertaking brought together into chronological order work that had been translated, work previously published only in German, and work seeing the light of day for the first time. It was a major undertaking, generously funded by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, and a remarkable instance of collective scholarly endeavour. Eiland and Jennings might then have been expected to take a rest from their labours.

Instead they have produced this massive and gripping account of Benjamin’s life and troubles, testimonial both to their own efforts in bringing his elusive writings into view, and to the circumstances in which Benjamin arrived at such scope, depth and brilliance. His topics range from astrology to Nazism, and from prostitution to that famous Angel of History, in his testamentary On the Concept of History (1940), whose wings are filled with the tempest of destruction and who is about to be swept away. Benjamin’s writings capture a dying civilisation built on injustice, privilege, fine sensibility and the workings of chance. His addiction to gambling is a sub-theme for this study; despite his Marxist leanings, he was willing to live off his parents’ savings, the earnings of his wife Dora Pollack Benjamin and, in Paris exile, the charity of friends and admirers.

Eiland and Jennings acknowledge and give detail for this, providing evidence also for Benjamin’s occasional lapses into the default misogyny of his day (“typical woman’s scholarly effusion”). This is Benjamin warts and all, but in place of an impressionistic biographical sketch of a life, marked by false starts and a final mischance, what emerges is an astonishing panorama of a life and of theorising, of research and of publishing, on the crest of that wave of disaster that was the destruction of European Jewry and of German intellectual life. What emerges is an allegory for this new century, in which again those who trustingly think themselves securely assimilated are to be rejected and ejected from dominant cultures bent on imaginary restitutions. Benjamin had already written in 1919 on the apophthegm “character is destiny”, prescient of his own crossing of the French border into Portbou, Spain, a refugee whom Nazi law had made stateless. He would arrive a day too early for an unexpected relaxation of rules that would have allowed him to leave for America; too late to rescue a life of private scholarship. There he killed himself.

The authors trace Benjamin’s story from bourgeois Berlin and his early involvement in student protests, to his inept attempts to secure academic sinecures in Switzerland and Germany, in New York and, indeed, in the newly founded Zionist institutions in erstwhile Palestine. In advance of his time, he analysed cities and film before the invention of sociology and media studies, and studied children’s literature and collected children’s toys long before the creation of the fields of childhood studies and museum studies. He is shown to be hopelessly out of touch, leaving the relative security of Switzerland, where he lived for a time during the First World War, to take his chances in Weimar Germany; and again leaving the comparative safety of Copenhagen and the company of Bertolt Brecht for a Paris about to be occupied by Hitler’s Nazis. Hapless and helpless, inept and inspired; Benjamin’s writings read as blazons of the epoch through which he lived.

The account traces his movement from aspirant academic, naively supposing his contempt for academics to be undetectable, through experiments with hashish, Surrealism, radio and journalism, into the darker political reflections of the exile years, 1933 to 1940. “The crucial failing of this institution”, he writes in 1930 of radio, “has been to perpetuate the fundamental separation between practitioners and the public, a separation that is at odds with its technological basis.” The book interleaves Benjamin’s friendships and rivalries, love affairs and small-scale professional successes, into the narrative of a large-scale defeat.

But it is not just the destruction of Benjamin and of his art that is here on display. What this volume does is provide the stage setting, scenery and detail of context, on the basis of which the reader can attempt hypotheses about how and why Benjamin moved from writing on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, and on German early Romanticism, to his astonishing analysis of Paris as the capital city of the 19th century. The latter project was never completed. What is left to us is a set of working notes entrusted by Benjamin to his friend Georges Bataille and published posthumously as The Arcades Project, and fragments of a three-part study of Charles Baudelaire that even today are being edited, added to and revised. This work in progress traces out passages, both architectural and conceptual, linking the present to the past, with a genre-breaking method that juxtaposes lyric poetry and city destitution, value theory and prostitution, citation and denunciation.

Benjamin offered drafts of this work to (and some were rejected by) Max Horkheimer, director of the New York-exiled Frankfurt School, and Benjamin’s one-time friend Teddy Wiesengrund, later reinvented, and installed with the Frankfurt School, as Theodor Adorno, cultural critic. There was a rumour of an apartment overlooking Central Park to be rented in anticipation of Benjamin’s arrival, but no happy arrival ensued. Instead, there is a painful exchange of letters in which Adorno seeks to impose his own version of mediated dialectics on the Benjaminian standstill of shock and its transient “now” of knowability. The curiously flat tone adopted by Eiland and Jennings here emphatically comes into its own. The reader is scrupulously left to form a judgement about the direction of critique in the authors’ reconstruction of this “critical life”.

Another alchemy will be needed to convert this lovingly restored, antiquarian Benjamin into a material force, namely the dynamite he writes about, that can expose the inanities of current academia: its constant institutional “innovation” and its more-of-the-same research and publishing rubrics. For Benjamin and his writings surely constitute such a force, arriving out of the future, and these estimable biographers prove themselves its harbinger.

The authors

Born in Huntington, West Virginia and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, Howard Eiland says: “My small-town upbringing in the American South has made me, I suppose, impatient with fast-paced, cold, big-city life. I am always longing for peace and quiet. And mountains.”

A lecturer in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eiland lives with his wife, Julia Brown, a specialist in Victorian literature at Boston University, in Sharon, Massachusetts. “Four grown children are often in and out,” he adds.

Eiland recalls that he was “a voracious reader as a child, and loved to draw, listen to music, and write stories. My father was a television executive, and both of my parents were amateur actors.”

Literature at MIT, he says, “is an undergraduate program only; there are very few Lit majors there. The faculty all teach introductory courses as well as more specialised classes for advanced students. MIT students are by and large a real delight. It’s great to talk about Kafka with people who know about modern theoretical physics. It is also a genuinely international academic community.”

He first heard of Walter Benjamin as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, “from a teacher, Erich Heller, who was a close friend of Benjamin’s friend Hannah Arendt. I’ve been working with Michael Jennings since around 1990, when I began translating The Arcades Project. I know of no one, by the way, more generous than Mike Jennings.”

Asked what he thinks Benjamin would have thought of this book, Eiland replies: “Benjamin was hard to please, so I won’t venture to say what he might have thought of our work in particular. He wanted, in the 1920s, to be regarded as the foremost critic of German literature, so he would presumably be gratified by his great posthumous fame and influence. I’d like to think he would also be gratified by our presentation of him as a writer first of all, an artist of thinking.”

Eiland is also known for his writing on jazz, and among the recent noteworthy live events he has witnessed were “Cassandra Wilson and her band of young musicians performing in Cambridge, Massachusetts; that was wonderful. Also, for the record, I recently saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company performing in Boston for the first time in a decade: truly unforgettable.”

Michael W. Jennings

“Although I was born in the American Midwest, my family moved to Arizona in the early 1950’s,” says Michael Jennings, Class of 1900 professor of modern languages at Princeton University. “I grew up on the northern Sonora Desert and in the four mountain ranges that surround Tucson. I’m a lifelong outdoorsman, and the long tradition of American nature writing (Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and especially Ed Abbey) has been absolutely formative. My wife and I backpacked the 96 miles of the West Highland Way last summer and are eager to return to the Highlands.”

He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, “one of North America’s oldest university towns, with my wife Susan and our two crazy border collies, Mia and Tobie. We are very fortunate that our children, Sarah (a nurse practitioner and primary care giver at a women’s health clinic) and Andrew (a strategic business consultant), both live and work in New York: we see a lot of them, and are able to mix the urban and the rural in a very satisfying way.”

Of his early interest in the German language, Jennings confesses: “I’ve always wished that I could say ‘I encountered Kant at age 13 and knew that I had to read him in the original.’

“The reality, alas, is a bit drearier: I attended a small high school 60 miles from the Mexican border. Everyone was learning Spanish. To be cool, one studied French. To be extra-super-cool, one found a friend and went to the principal to demand that he find a German teacher.”

He continues: “My actual seduction by European culture came when my mother’s employer sent me along with his grandchildren on a study trip to London, Paris, Rome and Munich. I’m a first-generation student from a working-class family and feel immediately under the spell of great works of art. I snuck away whenever possible and stood in front of paintings for hours on end.”

His work as a literary critic and historian, Jennings adds, “has always been underlain by a strong interest in the visual arts. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very powerful voices in the study of art – Hal Foster and Brigid Doherty among others – and have not only learned from them, but been inspired to teach and write about the history of photography.”

Walter Benjamin’s texts “pose endless challenges to the reader, which, together with the stunning beauty of his prose, is what draws me to him,” Jennings says. “With the biography behind me, I can say that my admiration for his achievements as a man during the years of exile has grown still deeper. But our book is anything but a hagiography: we show Benjamin in all his complications, warts and all, for the very first time.”

One of his and Eiland’s goals in writing the book, he observes, “was to combat the tendency to annex Benjamin to a single cause – be it Jewish mysticism, messianism, the avant-garde, or communism – and thus to reveal the incredible complexity, both local and global, of his work.”

On the subject of what Benjamin would have thought of the book, Jennings says simply: “I can’t top the response of my friend and co-author Howard – and working with him has been the high point of my career.”

Has he ever wished to live or work in Germany? “My department at Princeton is very Berlin-centric. I’m an outlier: I’m fortunate enough to spend a month or so in Munich every second or third year, and am very, very happy there. I prefer the unselfconscious Germanness of the Bavarians to the forced cosmopolitanism of the Berliner…and the fact that I can be on a hiking trail in less than an hour only adds to the attraction!”

Karen Shook

Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

By Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 768pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674051867
Published 29 January 2014

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