Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1961
Walter Benjamin was a distinguished literary and cultural critic with close ties to the Frankfurt School, especially to his friend Theodor Adorno. He received a doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Berne in 1919. In a short “Curriculum Vitae (III)” he explains his critical approach: “Such an analysis would regard the work of art as an integral expression of the religious, metaphysical, political, and economic tendencies of its age, unconstrained in any way by territorial concepts.” Good examples of this approach are found in this volume in the pieces on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Kraus, and Franz Kafka. Although he was attracted to the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution, he maintained his distance from Moscow to ensure his freedom as a thinker.
The contents of this second volume are arranged chronologically and grouped by year with representative headings. The topics are diverse and range in length from the three-line “Everything Is Thought” to substantial commentaries on writers and places. Several subjects recur (such as toys, children, hashish) and others are strikingly original, such as “Chambermaids’ Romances of the Past Century” and “Hitler’s Diminished Masculinity.” The thirty- three-page chronology that concludes this volume could profitably be read as an introduction, for it summarizes Benjamin’s activities during the eight years here represented and traces his intellectual exchanges with his good friend Gershom Scholem.
Benjamin went to Moscow early in December, 1926, following Asja Lacis, a Bolshevik actress he had met on Capri. The essay he wrote about his seven weeks there in a freezing city struggling through great changes is vivid and observant. Seeing Berlin through Moscow, he observes, is to see a city of luxury but one that is barren compared to the “fullness” of the Moscow streets. The children’s festivals impress him, especially the vendors of toy carts and spades: “All these carved wooden utensils are more simply and solidly made than in Germany, their peasant origin clearly visible.” The children fascinate Benjamin, with their organization into a “Communist hierarchy” leaving the gangs of delinquent war orphans, besprizornye, to menace night strollers. Generally, Benjamin is pleased with the evidence he sees of the workers appropriating bourgeois culture and of how “the liberated pride of the proletariat is matched by the emancipated bearing of the children.” Benjamin fully approves the didactic cultural innovations, noting such Tretyakov Gallery works as A Conspirator Surprised by the Police and The Poor Governess Enters Service in a Rich Merchant’s House, and he concludes that for a worker or a child, education in art is not dependent on masterpieces but on “topical works that relate to him, his work, and his class.” In “pedagogical theater,” several hundred people crowd into a room where the traditions and values of peasants and industrial workers are dramatized. In the scene that Benjamin witnessed, a peasant midwife was tried for the death of a woman in childbirth, but although she was found guilty, she was given a light sentence that recognized her mitigating historical circumstances and stressed the need for modern hygiene.
In a city where the law permits each citizen a mere thirteen square meters of living space, petty-bourgeois private life has disappeared. Cafés have disappeared because abolishing free trade and free intellect has taken away their patrons, and so only the office is left for social life in an environment “for which nothing counts except the function of the producer in the collective.” Constant meetings preoccupy each citizen, creating tremendous competition in a culture in which Russians betray complete indifference to time and schedules. The taverns remain, however, outposts of “intoxicating warmth” where tea-drinking patrons indulge their “most secret winter lust” on frigid nights.
Benjamin’s colorful sketch of Moscow in a Stalinist winter ends on a note that will grate on many readers’ sensibilities. When describing the Russians’ worship of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Benjamin poses him bent over a table conning Pravda: “When he is thus immersed in an ephemeral newspaper, the dialectical tension of his nature appears: his gaze is turned, certainly, to the far horizon; but the tireless care of his heart, to the moment.” Karl Kraus edited the satirical magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) from 1899 until his death in 1936. Benjamin’s essay on Kraus in 1931, although studded with obliquities (“To fail to recognize the beauty of feminine stupidity was for Kraus always the blackest philistinism”), is an acute analysis of Kraus’s vision of the corrupting influence of bourgeois technology. Kraus assaults journalism for its “empty phrase,” “journalism being clearly seen as the expression of the changed function of language in the world of high capitalism.” In Kraus’s mind, the miracle of nature has succumbed to the laws of science, and “the fact that mankind is losing the fight against the creaturely is to him just as certain as the fact that technology, once deployed against creation, will not stop short of its master, either.” In his regard for creation and the “creaturely,” Kraus is “cosmic man.”
Kraus is also “demon” in that he springs from the “primeval world.” Kraus’s style “is attained chiefly by the cardiac strength of great thoughts, which drives the blood of language through the capillaries of syntax into the remotest limbs.” As a mimic, the demon Kraus “insert[s] the crowbar of his hate into the finest joints of their posture” and “probing between syllables, [he] digs out the larvae that nest there in clumps.” This is the Kraus who is driven by “a nature that is the highest school of aversion to mankind and a pity that is alive only when interlaced with vengeance.” The demon gives way to something worse when his “semihuman or subhuman traits are conquered by a truly inhuman being, a monster.” These quotations suggest the frequent richness of Benjamin’s language as he portrays a Kraus who went “berserk” seeking to change the world beginning with his own class in Vienna and finally gave up to place “the matter back in the hands of nature—this time destructive not creative nature.” Of this essay, Kraus himself remarked, “I can only express the hope that other readers have understood his writings better than I have. (Perhaps it is psychoanalysis.)”
The 1934 essay on Kafka approaches that author’s inkblot fictions with much ingenuity. Benjamin notes the correspondences between Kafka’s officials and his fathers, the way in which they are both punishers and accusers. The accused seem guilty of “a kind of original sin,” of some transgression that is “not accidental but fated.” The laws in Kafka’s world are written in the law books, but the books are secret, enabling the prehistoric world to exercise its power “all the more ruthlessly.” Besides the accused, there is that strange group of figures identified as “assistants,” whose role is to move among the other figures as messengers. As creations, they are “unfinished,” and as such there is hope for them; but their place in the world is insecure, for in their world there is no hierarchy, only fluidity.
Benjamin makes much of a childhood photograph of Kafka posed absurdly against palm branches in an “upholstered tropics.” In this embarrassing photo Benjamin sees the sadness of the boy who ardently wished to be a “Red Indian” “on a galloping horse, leaning into the wind. . . .” Kafka’s Amerika (1927; America, 1938) fulfilled this wish. When Karl Rossman reads the announcement for the great Nature Theater of Oklahoma (really a racetrack), he knows that happiness awaits him. Rightly or wrongly, Benjamin links the Nature Theater to Chinese theater, which makes significant use of gestures, and because many of Kafka’s shorter pieces are best seen as acts in the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, it seems “that Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.” Benjamin then stresses the importance of how Kafka saw the organization of life and work, even to the point that he could have “defined organization as destiny.”
Benjamin rejects both naturalistic and supernatural readings of Kafka, the “psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations.” Kafka’s prehistoric world bred in him a presentiment of guilt which he envisioned as a judgment in the future. Shame, Benjamin says, is Kafka’s “strongest gesture,” and he quotes Kafka’s confession that he “feels as though he were living and thinking under the constraint of a family.” Benjamin cannot identify this family but is certain that “it is this family that forces Kafka to move cosmic ages in his writings.” Benjamin connects these themes to Kafka’s many images of men bent over with their heads on their chests, illustrating “the prototype of distortion: a hunched back.” Benjamin traces this motif to the folk song “The Little Hunchback,” thus enabling a rather tenuous connection between Kafka’s profoundest depths and “the ground of folk tradition.”
In his “Notes from Svendborg, Summer 1934,” Benjamin recounts conversations with Bertolt Brecht about the Kafka essay, with which Brecht apparently was not impressed. Brecht’s own judgment on Kafka deserves quoting: “The images are good. The rest is just mystery-mongering.” So much for Benjamin’s learned exegesis.
Not all of Benjamin’s analyses are as critically daunting as those on Kraus and Kafka. One engrossing piece is entitled “Books by the Mentally Ill,” in which he comments on unusual books in his own library. His “Library of Pathology” includes Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903; Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, 1955). In Schreber’s original theology, only God could safely approach corpses; God was certainly familiar with railways; and the basic language of humanity is “a somewhat old-fashioned, but vigorous German.” Other people’s existence was difficult for Schreber to imagine, and consequently he used terms such as “casually improvised men” and spoke of those who had been “magicked away.” Astonishingly, Schreber, who was a judge, was declared cured after ten years of hospitalization, and he returned to his family. For truly startling conceptions, however, it is hard to exceed Carl Gehrmann’s Körper, gehirn, seele, Gott (body, brain, soul, God), published in three volumes in Berlin in 1893. Some of the fantastic case histories include “The broken reed is raised up again” (the complete Case 1) and the note in Case 7 concerning “reduction in size as the starting point for perfecting the form of the blueberry.” A previously ignored insight was developed in Case 13: “Effect of sweaty feet on the sexual and respiratory systems.” Gehrmann’s elaborate anatomy of the brain identified such sites as those of “Fear of moral sin” and “Abyss.”
“Chambermaids’ Romances of the Past Century” (1929) will serve to close this sampling. Benjamin looks to these cheap romances for knowledge of the “relations of production” in literary history. One recounts the story of a woman called the Hyena of Paris, who keeps a collection of human heads on her kitchen shelves. Benjamin’s conclusions about these works are in keeping with his description of himself as a materialist critic: “But let us not forget that books were originally objects for use—indeed, a means of subsistence. These were devoured. Let us use them to study novels from the point of view of their food chemistry!”
There are many other pleasures in this huge volume—the chronicles of Berlin and Paris, for example—as well as some trivial pieces well ignored, but the sheer variety of subjects and the grace of a style that shines through even in translation make this a satisfying collection from one of the twentieth century’s shrewdest commentators on literature and culture.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (May 15, 1999): 1661.
Library Journal 124 (June 1, 1999): 111.
The New York Times, May 29, 1999, p. A19.
Publishers Weekly 246 (May 3, 1999): 61.