Angel in the City

Marshall Berman

Walter Benjamin: A Biography. By Momme Brodersen. Translated by Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Volume 1: 1513-1028. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, Edmund Jephcott et al. Harvard.

Benjamin's Crossing. By Jay Parini. Holt.

Walter Benjamin is said to have been a shy and awkward man, yet there was something about him that made people want to take his picture. One of the nicest things about Momme Brodersen's lavishly illustrated biography is that, more than half a century after Benjamin's death, American readers can finally get a good look at his face. His mop of floating hair; his glasses-framed, heavy-lidded, soulful eyes, looking down or aimed into the middle distance (looking not into but past the camera); the hand that forms a V under his chin and gives his face a point; the dangling cigarette that seems to be there not so much to be smoked as to be crashed out--it all makes us feel that we are in the presence of the most serious man who ever lived.

Some of the most radiant visions of Benjamin emerged late in his life, in his beloved Paris at the end of the thirties, the age of Renoir's Grand Illusion, after the Popular Front broke down, before (but not long before) the Nazis came. In 1937 Gisele Freund photographed Benjamin at work in the Bibliotheque Nationale. She is one of European culture's grandes dames today, but then she was a fellow German-Jewish refugee, only twenty years younger than Benjamin and living even more precariously. In one shot Benjamin searches through a bookshelf, in another he is writing at a table. As usual, his gaze occludes the camera, though clearly he knows it is there. These library shots are visions of a man wholly absorbed in his work and at one with himself. His aura of total concentration can make the rest of us feel like bumbling fools. Or it can remind us why God gave us these big brains and taught us to read and write.

What was he working on that day? Probably his immense Arcades manuscript, the exploration of nineteenth-century Paris that enveloped his life all through the thirties. (When he crossed the Pyrenees on foot in 1940 to escape from France, he carried it with him and wouldn't let go. Lisa Fittko, his guide, later said she felt the manuscript was worth more to him than his life.) But it might: have been one of his great late essays in that distinctively modem genre, Theology Without God. Here is a bit from "Theses on the Philosophy of History":

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead. and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin's very modern angel is prey to every anxiety and inner contradiction that haunts our history. And yet, here in the library, he is as perfectly at home in the modern world as any of us is ever going to be.

Maybe even too much at home for his own good. For years, his friends urged him to get: out of Europe. But he insisted he was going to hang in there, "like one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue." As poetry this is stunning. But as reality--signal to whom? rescue by whom?--it's insane. After Hitler started the war, Brodersen tells us, "twice at the turn of 1939/40 he met up with his ex-wife Dora, but he did not yield to her entreaties to leave Paris [as she did with their son Stefan and bring himself into safety. Instead, he had his reader's card at the Bibliotheque Nationale renewed so that he could proceed with his work."

He couldn't work long. Brodersen and Jay Pacini tell this grim and absurd story well. After he was arrested by the helpful French police and interned in a camp for enemy aliens--he edited the camp paper!---Benjamin saw he had to go. But the gates were closing fast. He headed for Marseilles, where he met Arthur Koestler and had the amazing good luck (thanks to Max Horkheimer) to get an entry visa to the United States. But he couldn't use it without escaping from France, where Nazi armies were closing in. In a small group of refugees, he made a heroic trek across the Pyrenees to Spain. Hobbled by a heart condition, he had to stop constantly for breath. At last he and his group got across. But they were stopped that night in the village of Portbou, where the local authorities refused their papers and threatened to send them back the next day to France and the Gestapo. The other refugees decided to wait and see: Maybe the local police could be cajoled or bribed. Benjamin didn't wait: A longtime serious drug user, he was carrying morphine. He took an overdose; in the morning he died. After his death the police abruptly changed their minds and let all the others through. In 1994, with Spain a democracy once more, the townspeople of Portbou erected a monument in his memory.

It's one of the classic heart-rending stories of the twentieth century. And it's important, especially for people who admire Benjamin and revere his memory, to notice his participation in the story: He was a victim of the most murderous regime in history, but he also killed himself. Underappreciated for his writing, he hit the charts with his death. The monument in Portbou is engraved with a single sentence from the essay "On the Concept of History," one of his last works: "It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless." Brodersen offers a gloss:

It is hard not to ask whether...Benjamin's death was 'preventable', 'unnecessary', though these are unanswerable, pointless questions. Hundreds of others were dying, unnecessarily, anonymously, on other borders: millions were to die with no border in sight.

I'm sure both Benjamin and Brodersen are fight, yet both sound a little complacent. Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca nobly effaces himself and his happiness, but he knows and we know the camera is on him; he's the star. Benjamin, insulted and injured for much of his life, found a way to be a star in death. His essay, his monument, Brodersen and I trying to write about them, are all in some basic way off-key. It may be impossible to talk about the murders and the victims of Nazism without false notes. But not to talk about them would be even falser.

Benjamin's death overshadows his life; it's a hard act to follow. But we need to fight to bring him back to life because he had so much to say. One problem is that so many people who loved him--Brecht, Adorno, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt--all wrote moving testaments that he was really just like them. In the 1970s, Benjamin became the focus of a Sylvia Plath-like death cult. It has magnified everything eccentric and impenetrable in his work. Happily, the authors and editors of these books see him and love him as a man speaking to men.

Brodersen has done impressive research and excavates a great deal of fascinating material. His book is indispensable for unraveling Benjamin's life and work. Alas, he tends not to know what to do with what he digs up. For instance, when Brodersen discusses Walter's father, Emil, he takes at face value the son's Oedipal picture of the old man as a stupid, conventional German philistine. Then he mentions the fact that Emil had lived for many years in Paris and made his money in the art business. These.. are startling facts. They suggest that, though father and son did not treat each other very. well, there may have been some deep "elective affinities" between them. For Brodersen, these are throwaway lines as is the detail that Walter grew up with a French governess.

Brodersen shows how much of Benjamin's spirit and energy went into the pre-World War 1 German Youth Movement, in which hundreds of thousands of teenage boys (in the big cities there were girls as well) went into the countryside, in highly organized groups, to commune with nature, hike in the mountains, sleep in haylofts, bathe in streams, play guitars, sing folk songs and celebrate a "simple life" they considered "authentic"--so radically different from the business, professional and military careers their parents had raised them for. In some ways "Young Germany" evokes the sixties counterculture; in others, it sounds like a prep school for fascism. Benjamin knew that, as a Jew, he would always be an outsider there. But he persisted, encouraged by his friendship and intimacy with Gustav Wyneken, a follower of Nietzsche and the movement's charismatic guru. (This friendship might have shaded into a teacher-pupil love affair. But it is hard to know what Brodersen thinks, because his writing, never vivid, grows especially opaque where human emotions are in play.) Benjamin worked on several movement papers, and was often reproved for "going too far"; alas, we aren't told what "too far" meant. When World War I began, Wyneken urged the boys on to patriotic gore--keeping himself and the movement in the state's good graces, but losing many of his most devoted disciples, including Benjamin. Benjamin never got over the lost dream of a "free youth" that could renew the world.

Benjamin's own scene, the Berlin Free Students' Union, must have been weird. We are told by Brodersen how, a week into the war, one of Benjamin's dearest friends, the young poet Fritz Heinle, and his fiancee, Rika Seligson, turned on the gas in the Union kitchen and killed themselves. Benjamin would mourn this boy all his life, yet would also--ominous leitmotif--admire his suicidal act. The whole crowd then seems to have urged Heinle's younger brother, Wolf, and Rika's younger sister, Traute, to go and do likewise. The girl did in 1915; the boy lingered until 1923. What should we make of these murderous fusions of the personal and the political? (It might help to know if other European kids were killing themselves in that dreadful time.) Brodersen shows nice boys and girl s in the grip of wild and lethal emotions; but apart from remarking on "the confusion that war and death created in these young people's minds," he doesn't try to read them.

Brodersen's Weimar chapters are full of interesting material, but they tell the same tale again and again. Benjamin is encouraged to work in a university department, but then the one professor who understands him abruptly retires, and the new one can't stand him. He becomes an editor of a national magazine, only to see it fail before he can start. He makes what looks like a lucrative book deal, but the publisher goes bankrupt while his book is in press. Oy! Is this an I.B. Singer story called "Benjamin Shlimazl" or a cantata on the Stations of the Cross?

Benjamin's troubles were real. He was disliked by some because he was a Jew, a cosmopolitan and, though never a Communist, always a fellow traveler of revolution. He was disliked by others--starting with the Communist Party--because he thrived on irony, paradox and dialectical play, and nobody could predict, much less control, what he was going to think or say. But he earned this trouble because of the man and the writer he was proud to be.

Much of the material Brodersen has gathered can be read much less gloomily than he reads it. It's impressive that, even in daunting circumstances, Benjamin kept on writing. (Nor was he ever forgotten; publishers kept calling and he was always making deals.) And that so many of Weimar's great writers--Hesse, von Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann--thought the world of him, even though they couldn't stand one another. And that not only was he one of the first serious writers in any language to grasp the possibilities of radio--no surprise to readers of his masterpiece, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936)--but he actually made more than a hundred broadcasts, and built a devoted audience, turned off only by the Nazis in 1933.

Then there is the parade of fascinating women who passed through his life: his wife, Dora Kellner, thriller writer and feminist editor; his lover, Communist dramaturge Asja Lacis; psychoanalyst and sexologist Charlotte Wolff; Hannah Arendt; Gisele Freund; and more. There was always at least one very special woman around. With Benjamin himself, they are the stars of Brodersen's great store of illustrations. But he won't talk about them. He digs up luminous images, but sometimes seems to want to bury them again. Who is that woman with hair in her eyes? How close did she and Benjamin get'? What did she mean to him'? Brodersen's own policy seems to be, Don't ask, don't tell. His women are sisters from another planet. Too bad: Women helped Benjamin feel at home on this one.

A poet in his youth, Benjamin began in gladness. This is the ambience of the first of three volumes of his Selected Writings. The editors must have debated whether to organize the set chronologically or thematically; they made the right choice. Time progression helps us see how his mind developed in passages from Berlin to Paris, from youth to middle age, from gentility to marginality, from Weimar's springtime to Hitler's. (My own feeling is that the best stuff came last.)

A glance at the Table of Contents of Selected Writings--he writes on language, time, colors, children's books, love, violence, messianism--shows us at once Benjamin's provocativeness and his infinite variety. The two longest pieces, both from the early twenties and neither translated till now, are his doctoral thesis, "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism," and his long essay on Goethe's late novel, Elective Affinities.

His thesis on Romanticism, emphasizing the Schlegels and Novalis, develops an idea of "universal progressive poetry." Benjamin explodes the reactionary canon of German culture that is pulling like an undertow against democracy. He is trying to capture the army of right-wing culture heroes for the French--and implicitly, the German--Revolution. His Goethe essay shows how the great man at the height of his fame was really of the devil's party: how much he hated the straight German world that had made him a national monument. It is an exemplary piece of lit crit, brilliantly analyzing the book's layers, motifs, symbols and subtexts. It is also an in-your-face, eat-your-heart-out gesture to the German universities, showing them what they lost when they passed him by. Benjamin's reverent feeling for tradition gives weight to his radical readings of tradition. Both essays could be an inspiration to people doing cultural studies today.

Jay Parini's novel Benjamin's Crossing offers something that all the biographies lack: a clear vision of what the man might actually have been like. Parini makes us see and feel his sweetness and nobility; his mood swings and volatility, which could make him a commanding presence one moment and a pile of broken glass the next; his quick changes from empathy and generosity to narcissism and back; his sexiness (look at those pictures), which tends to get airbrushed out of the commentary, maybe because critics don't think it's noble enough.

I have two problems with Benjamin's Crossing. First, while it's a great idea to tell the story in different voices, Parini allows Gershom Scholem (and his Jewish mystical agenda) to increasingly muscle out the other voices without letting us know why. Second, while Parini concentrates entirely on the end of Benjamin's life, he's strangely distant and opaque about his death. The book seems to be moving toward a climactic set piece where Parini will try to get inside his mind on his last night, as he tosses in his bed and waits for the morphine to kill him. But it doesn't happen. Any reader who has bonded with Parini's hero is bound to be overwhelmed by anguished questions of the kind survivors always ask. What drove him over the edge? Why should a man who had faced the Gestapo be daunted by some crummy village police? Was he determined to die in his beloved Europe and never board the ship to the promised land? If someone had knocked on the door that last night, might they have saved him? As he lay in bed, would he have had any regrets? Would he have felt complete? In real life, questions like these are not just unbearable but unanswerable. But isn't that why we have novels? Why Parini takes us so far along, and then pulls back, I wish I knew.

There is a profound problem with much of the literature on Benjamin, and on Central European culture. The young men and women who came of age in that culture--from the Age of Goethe way up to the 1930s--grew up on German Romanticism, with its cosmic nostalgia, soulful, heavy-laden yearning for dark forests and isolation from the modern world, suicide pacts and love of death. This is Brodersen's culture; his heart leaps up when he hears those tragic chords.

This is surely part of Benjamin's story. But in the culture of Central Europe's Jews, from Mahler to Freud to Kafka to Benjamin himself to Lubitsch, Ophuls and Billy Wilder, Romantic doom always coexists with a comic and ironic spirit, cosmopolitan and urbane, seeking light on the modem city's boulevards and in its music halls and cafes. Benjamin thrived on the contradiction between the joy on the street and the doom in his soul. Remember Gene Kelly dancing in the streets in An American in Paris'? As a young Kelly flew over the boulevards with his body, so the middle-aged Benjamin, with equal flair and finesse, whirled and soared with his mind. He did it in the brilliant 1'935 essay "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" and in essays on Naples, Marseilles;, Moscow and Berlin. He did it in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," where he unveiled a dialectical optics enabling us to see movies and psychoanalysis as part of the same historical long wave. He was dancing that day in 1937 when Gisele Freund took his picture in the Bibliotheque, and all through the Arcades manuscript that he carned till he died. (At last a complete text has come out in German, and Harvard will publish an English translation soon.) Even as the Nazis and his own sense of doom pulled him down toward death, he showed his readers how to dance in the streets and make themselves at home in the modem world.

All these books grasp Benjamin and help bring him back. But now that he's back, we should revere him not for his death but for his overflowing life. File him under Eros, not Thanatos: Auden's "Eros, builder of cities." Enjoy his largeness of vision, his imaginative fertility, his openness to the future, his grasp of the comedy along with the tragedy of modem times. Be glad. The Angel of History is back on the streets.

Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, teaches at the City University of New York. He is working on a book about Times Square.

In The Nation, Vol. 264, Issue 18, 12 May 1997.

To Andie's Web Home Page