Walter Benjamin for Children

The premise of Jeffrey Mehlman’s tour de force is almost too good to be true. Walter Benjamin, “the intractability of whose major texts has long been the stuff of literary legend,” would seem to have been singularly unsuited to the role of “children’s author.” That these particular writings for children took the form of twenty-minute radio scripts adds to the piquancy of Mehlman’s subject. Indeed, given Benjamin’s own fascination with fraud and forgery, well-documented here, one may wonder if Mehlman has invented the texts he explicates with such virtuosity. (The thirty-odd surviving scripts, Mehlman tells us, were abandoned by Benjamin in Paris in 1940, fortuitously preserved and taken back to Germany when the Nazis fled France, and seized by the Russians in 1945; returned to Germany in 1960, they were not published until 1985.)

And yet, as Mehlman observes, there is a fitness about Benjamin’s role as a writer of scripts for children, evident not only in his memoir of his childhood in Berlin but in the whole cast of his thought. In the course of this short, densely argued book, Mehlman traces recurring themes that link the radio scripts with Benjamin’s better-known works—especially the themes of fraud and catastrophe, which Mehlman connects with Benjamin’s interest in the tradition of false messianism in Judaism, inspired by the pioneering researches of Gershom Scholem. In his closing pages, tinged with the apocalyptic hyperbole found in so many commentaries on Benjamin, Mehlman considers Benjamin and Primo Levi as the “most exemplary suicides” of the twentieth century.

Even if Mehlman had done no more than bring these obscure yet powerfully suggestive texts to the attention of a wider audience, we would be in his debt. He has done considerably more, though, producing one of the most illuminating recent studies of Benjamin.