Walter Benjamin was not a letter writer of the order of Lawrence or Flaubert, for whom the medium of the letter seems to fill a need, not for mere self-expression, but for some larger exercise of the personality in exasperation or enthusiasm, in that almost instinctive enlargement of reaction to things which others find in unmotivated physical activity. Benjamin was, on the contrary, a person of the greatest reserve; even where he lets himself go with people he trusts, one has the feeling not of the revelation of some true inner self but merely of the relaxation of that reserve. The extraordinarily stiff manner of a central European bourgeoisie – which sought no doubt to designate a certain class pride by its eschewal of aristocratic nonchalance and easiness, as well as of the barbarism and ignorance of country nobles in general – is appropriated and made part of the personality, like a mask that grows onto the skin of your face. Such a reserve may well also express fear, both of the rituals of a class you detest and devote your life to undermining, and of the artificialities of the artists who secede from it. It is in any case very European, and has no American equivalent, even where writers like Henry James have thought it desirable to produce one.
This peculiar ‘death of the subject’ may account for some of the fascination Benjamin has had for several generations of left intellectuals, by lending the interests and commitments of the absent subject a kind of monumental objectivity. Even Benjamin’s hobbies, such as book collecting, are thereby sacralised in advance, as relics and mementos of a defunct will and desire; nor are his more private notes – the Moscow diary, for example, in which traces of a passionate sentimental agitation are preserved – any more revealing. It is as if language were unable to say any more than this; indeed, many of the letters seem to have been provoked less by a need for expression than by all the painful practical necessities of which Benjamin’s life was so full.
One sometimes wonders whether these practical problems were visited on Benjamin as an innocent from the outside, or whether at least a few of them might not have been the fruit of his own awkwardness, his bad judgments and incapacities, if not his self-indulgence. Just as one wonders, faced with a record of his travels, whether exile and the flight from German boredom and misère (even that of the fabled Weimar!) might not have corresponded to some deeper choice fulfilled in its usual grisly and unforeseeable way by History. To have been obliged to spend the Thirties in Paris, for example, does not seem to have been an inconceivable destiny for Benjamin, even in a world without Hitler; nor would the straitened circumstances and appeals for money have been absent from such a world, along with the search for residence permits and the endless negotiations with editors of reviews and the possible intermediaries of possible publishers.
The crucial difference about such a world would have been the existence of a German-language readership. In one of his rare moments of expression, if not of self then at least of its fantasies, Benjamin declares that his life’s ambition is to become ‘le premier critique de la littérature allemande’. In the long run he became something better than that perhaps; it was in any case the one thing he could not become, when a literate German newspaper-reading public was absolutely sealed off from him. For this was an age when the feuilleton still existed, when critics and cultural commentators, writing regularly in the journals, could still claim to form and inflect public taste. Six hundred pages of book reviews by Benjamin exist, in the as yet untranslated third volume of his Collected Works: they give a very different picture of his activity from the lonely achievements of the volume we call Illuminations, or the immense and fragmentary Arcades project.
Like Kafka, Benjamin had to decide early in his life whether he was to be a Jewish writer or a German writer. The reviews show the choices he made, and in the spaces between the lines of this correspondence we can read his attempts to ward off Scholem’s over-enthusiastic embraces, even though the final decision not to emigrate to Palestine (see letter to Scholem of 20 January 1930, written in French and translated into English without comment in the present edition) seems to have been as much as anything else the result of laziness (in learning Hebrew), incompetence (in sorting out his divorce) and sheer lack of ideological commitment.
The present edition of the Correspondence was co-edited in 1966 by Scholem and Adorno, who keep silent on their own priorities (and who had little in common save their friendship with Benjamin, which was obviously supremely precious to each of them). Their attempts both during his lifetime and after it to wrench Benjamin away from bad influences must necessarily inspire some suspicion about their confidences. Scholem deplored Benjamin’s Marxist commitments, and tells us that the essay on Eduard Fuchs was a piece of hackwork, which Max Horkheimer made Benjamin write for the Zeitschrift. As for Benjamin’s trip to the Soviet Union, Scholem comments acidly that, although Benjamin was unaware of it, he was allowed contact with nobody but Jews. For Adorno the contamination was personified by Brecht, whose influence on Benjamin he tried to undermine like a jealous suitor. ‘I held his arms up,’ he boasts about this new Moses, whose temptation to sink back into Brechtian vulgar Marxism and militancy clearly demanded eternal vigilance, even beyond the grave. Coming from Adorno, this will not exactly be considered anti-Marxism, except by the most orthodox, yet the reaction has a family likeness to Scholem’s (Scholem pointed out that, for his generation, both Zionism and Communism were related and equivalent ways of rebelling against the German-Jewish bourgeois family) while Adorno’s concern to defend ‘the autonomy of art’ may now seem as tiresome as Scholem’s lavish insistence on Benjamin’s fascination with Jewish mysticism.
Benjamin himself seems to have regarded all this with bemused impersonality: ‘Our philosophical debate whose time was long due’ – the reference is to Scholem’s visit to Paris in 1938 – ‘proceeded in due form. If I am not mistaken, it gave him an image of me as something like a man who has made his home in a crocodile’s jaws, which he keeps prised open with iron braces.’ The letters show a hapless intellectual at odds with life’s practicalities, and are biographically distorted insofar as they omit the whole ‘middle period’, the friendship with Brecht (of which we get some glimpses in Benjamin’s diary of his visit to Brecht in Svendborg) and his exploration of Marxism; and insofar as they centre on the friendship with Scholem in the early period (Scholem emigrated to Palestine in 1925) and on the more intellectual exchanges with Adorno (they seem never to have said du to each other) in the later one. More complete versions of both correspondences are now available, the Scholem cycle appeared in German in 1980 (after Scholem’s originals were miraculously rediscovered), and was translated in a 1989 Schocken edition; and the first volume in a series of Adorno’s complete correspondence appeared in German last year. The famous letters (Adorno’s rather ostentatious critical responses to various Benjamin texts, and above all to the Arcades materials, in which he shows off his own very keen intelligence a little too feverishly) have mostly been printed already, although without the catty personal references to friends and acquaintances which have been made much of in the German press. (Benjamin thought Bloch had plagiarised him, particularly in Erbschaft dieser Zeit; Adorno describes Marcuse’s great affirmative culture essay as ‘the work of a converted although very zealous high school teacher’.)
Yet, as in the elephantine jokes with Scholem, such exchanges can also be seen as a way of confirming what Adorno considered their narrower alliance against the outside world – our ‘general line’, as he calls it, ‘our old method of immanent critique’. But Adorno seems more anxious to seal this alliance than Benjamin, whose replies reflect his confusion and disappointment at the rejection, by Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, of his first version of the Arcades. Adorno’s extensive (and quite sensible) critiques and explanations make his responsibility in the matter plain enough to Benjamin, who was probably not aware that Horkheimer had also been responsible for the other great failure of his life, the refusal of his academic thesis on German baroque tragedy: with friends like these ... The Adorno correspondence is a far more satisfactory volume than the collected letters (about which the American publishers complain, ‘we were not permitted’ – by the notorious Suhrkamp people – ‘to revise the notes or to include any additional comments, prefaces, afterwords etc’), and is splendidly edited and annotated.
The notion of the public intellectual has been much abused in recent years, and has served as a stick with which to beat academics (whether political or not) and to reinforce a general climate of anti-intellectualism. But any serious discussion of the matter clearly needs to address changes in the media; Régis Debray has charted this transformation in France, where writers have given way to professors, and journalists to television personalities. These are features of the systemic changes in capitalism, along with its technologies and the enlargement of its markets. Culture, and along with it the possibilities of cultural politics, must necessarily adapt to modifications of the larger social system of which it is a part. Did Benjamin wish to be a public intellectual in this sense? Did the other members of the Frankfurt School? Probably they didn’t think in these relatively Post-Modern terms about a choice between being ‘political’ and apolitical. In their time, the choice was between Left and Right. Benjamin’s numerous reviews for a left journal called Die Literarische Welt, which does not seem to have had a very large circulation (not necessarily a gauge of its influence, however), are, I believe, best seen not as an attempt to reach some wider public and to make a political mark so much as to exercise the literary life in all its variety.
Benjamin was fortunate in still being able, in the interwar years, to participate in that unique form of the ‘public sphere’ which was organised around books and journals and inhabited by literary intellectuals whose domain was print. It was not only for reasons of personal taste that he wrote on novels and cookbooks, antiques, travel books, children’s literature, linguistics, social history, dolls, ideological tracts, French literature, dictionaries and encyclopedias, pedagogy, Chaplin, Jews and cities. Everything was grist to his mill and what was not yet a ‘text’ fairly itched to be turned into one. One assumes, of course, that the ‘literary life’ of Berlin, emerging from the rawer, late-industrial realities of the Wilhelmine state, was not so promising as that of Vienna (the figure of Karl Kraus haunts these letters), let alone that of Paris, which for these intellectuals – like most other Western ones – remains the ideal: Benjamin’s approach to this centre of destiny (with which only a few foreigners could hope to be intimately associated) was not brought about only by exile.
This, then, is the way to investigate the matter of Benjamin’s political commitment, which, like all deep ideological choices, must be grasped on a number of levels at once: Marxism as a form of personal revolt; Communism as a new kind of universalism in which Jews could participate fully; loathing for one’s own class and an instinctive identification with people of radically different backgrounds; ideal images of action, no doubt, whose appeal is a function of the peculiar status of the intellectual. Nor is the appeal of justice to be thought of as some figment of misguided Nietzschean altruism for, as Wilde put it, socialism precludes the necessity for people to ‘spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism’. Indeed, it is most often imagined (by those intent on repressing their complicity with the system) that left intellectuals are unhappy in their own (generally bourgeois) class – that they wish to secede from it and to enjoy an imaginary identification with simpler people, industrial or farm workers, underclasses, oppressed minorities, exotic populations in situations of cruel subjection or heroic revolt. Such identifications are certainly to be welcomed, as they enlarge our sympathies and undermine or dissolve the confines of our own class limits.
Yet Benjamin’s letters are instructive also in the way in which they show how political commitments are something a bourgeoisie makes for itself, for its own good and its psychic well-being. Maimed as well as privileged, it has an interest in lifting the burdens of exploitation it, too, necessarily suffers (and not only, as at the present time, when capitalism devours its own bourgeois children). Benjamin makes the point in his arguments with Scholem. His Communism is not something chosen independently and somehow added onto his writing and intellectual life, capable, as Adorno thought, of deflecting it in wasteful or deplorable directions. The political choice is motivated by the writing itself: ‘a victorious party’ – the German Bolshevist party – ‘might make it possible for me to write differently.’ This is the crucial issue: under what conditions might a truly ‘literary’ life be lived, in what kind of situation might the vocation of the intellectual be most fully realised?
The critique of capitalism is for Benjamin first and foremost a critique of how it affects his own possibilities for writing, the commitment to socialism first and foremost a kind of class interest for the bourgeois intellectual, who suffers under the market and yearns to make fuller use of his intellectual energies. This is why classical right-wing talk about the ressentiment of intellectuals is ignorant and misplaced, and the familiar counter-revolutionary analysis of their role in revolutions and their lust for power an ingenious misconception. True intellectuals want to write, and their deeper political reflections turn on the obstacles a given social system places in the way of that vocation. Hence Benjamin’s allegiance to Brecht, whose ‘essays are the first ... that I champion as a critic without (public) reservation. This is because part of my development in the last few years came about in confrontation with them, and because they, more rigorously than any others, give an insight into the intellectual context in which the work of people like myself is conducted in this country.’
The impersonality I have attributed to Benjamin – it might better be called by Eliot’s term, ‘depersonalisation’ – also plays its part in the glorious effects of style which achieve their most intense concentration in the great essays but which we can surprise here and there in these letters: ‘True criticism does not attack its object: it is like a chemical substance that attacks another only in the sense that, decomposing it, it exposes its inner nature, but does not destroy it. The chemical substance that attacks spiritual things in this way (diathetically) is the light. This does not appear in language.’ The digression is self-referential to the degree to which it includes a theory of its own necessary impersonality (leading the more fatuous, no doubt, to murmur ‘deconstruction’); the two final sentences then prod this formulation upwards into associative leaps that can be grasped either as the intensity of the thinking process or as a dialectical multi-layering (from which, incidentally, alchemy and allegory, the baroque and mystical language theory, are never far away).
Both Adorno and Benjamin wrote important studies of epistolary texts and took the letter seriously as a form. Under a pseudonym, Benjamin edited a beautiful series of classical German bourgeois letters (Deutsche Menschen) which, exceptionally, was published under the Nazis. Adorno used his analysis of the Stefan George-Hugo von Hofmannsthal correspondence to analyse the most significant aestheticist currents in the Weimar period. Unsurprisingly, in the present collection, it is often a question of the letter itself, but now as a form in some sense constructed after the fact, by an interested readership (such as ourselves): ‘The exchange of letters characteristically takes shape in the mind of posterity (whereas the single letter, in regard to its author, may lose something of its life).’ By this Benjamin means to designate the way in which a single communication fulfils its immediate function, whereas the lengthier, more consecutive form of a correspondence we read in a book is neither available nor relevant to its participants.
These bookish letters, then, will interest only those interested in Benjamin – but ought we not to suppose the same about every correspondence centred on a single author? For them, however, the correspondence will be exciting, offering tantalising and fragmentary testimony on student politics in the prewar period, on Benjamin’s early and impenetrable ‘theories’ of language, on literary history and its problems, on nationality and ethnicity (‘for me ... circumscribed national characteristics were always central: German or French’), on travels and places, sometimes on people, much less on historical events or political positions (at least with these particular correspondents); finally and above all on his own reading and projects. Several immense Kafka letters (a fragment of one was included in Illuminations) constitute a more accessible literary criticism of Kafka than the ‘official’ statement in the great essay, and I have already mentioned the exchange with Adorno about the Arcades project (probably, despite its insufferable pretensions, even more important for Adorno’s thinking than for Benjamin’s): one of the classic moments in contemporary theory. There is also the abortive correspondence with Florens Christian Rang, who stands as Scholem’s opposite number and one of the rare non-Jews with whom Benjamin had productive exchanges (‘I was indebted to this man ... for whatever essential elements of German culture I have internalised’).
One can, then, read a correspondence like this in a novelistic way, reconstructing the biographical narrative and re-inventing the various characters at varying distances from the enigmatic central figure himself. Or one can ransack it for moments of particular brilliance; for example, Benjamin’s way of dealing with Bloch’s Erbschaft dieser Zeit, which was published as Hitler came to power. Benjamin felt that Bloch had pre-empted him and stolen something of the thunder of the Arcades project:
The severe reproach I must level against the book (even if I will not level it against the author) is that it in no way corresponds to the circumstances under which it has appeared. Instead, it is as out of place as a fine gentleman who, having arrived to inspect an area demolished by an earthquake, has nothing more urgent to do than immediately spread out Persian rugs that his servants had brought along and which were, by the way, already somewhat moth-eaten; set up the gold and silver vessels, which were already somewhat tarnished; have himself wrapped in brocade and damask gowns, which were already somewhat faded.
We must not take it here that Benjamin repudiates Bloch’s Utopian doctrine of hope and the future, which he himself shared in far more complex and internally conflictual ways; rather, that (alongside the satisfaction involved in portraying Bloch as a rug merchant) he is calling for a much more sombre characterisation of the Utopian in a situation – capitalism – of which he famously said that ‘the catastrophe is that it just goes on like this’, and for which his own notion of the Messianic, as the radically unprepared and unexpected, was a rather different kind of solution. (I cannot resist quoting Adorno’s complementary characterisation of Bloch, which comes during an appreciation of The Old Curiosity Shop, a novel about which he wrote in the early Thirties and which he held to be ‘a book of the highest rank – full of secrets compared to which the Blochian variety show themselves up to be the cloacal odours from eternity which they really are’.)
Passing over the visual details (‘the gas mask in my small room ... looks to me like a disconcerting replica of the skulls with which studious monks decorated their cells’), it seems advisable to juxtapose with the earlier statement about literary criticism what can only be Benjamin’s version of Frankfurt School ‘critical theory’ – it is noteworthy that Scholem feels obliged to comment in a rare personal footnote on the ‘unmistakably esoteric, if not almost conspiratorial, tone’ of this passage:
The point here is precisely that things whose place is at present in shadow de part et d’autre might be cast in a false light when subjected to artificial lighting. I say ‘at present’ because the current epoch, which makes so many things impossible, most certainly does not preclude this: that the right light should fall on precisely those things in the course of the historical rotation of the sun. I want to take this even further and say that our works can, for their part, be measuring instruments, which, if they function well, measure the tiniest segments of that unimaginably slow rotation.
We measure, in other words, not the past itself and its realities and energies, but rather the distance separating what is currently in shadow from some fuller natural light. We measure the distortions of our current unknowledge, without attempting to train our own artificial light on the ‘thing itself’. These sentences map out a tortuous path around the Uncertainty Principle of historicism proper, in which we ourselves, and our ‘current situation’, intervene between our own cognitive faculties and even those moments of the past with which we might have been expected to have some special ‘elective affinities’ – indeed, particularly such moments, for which we think we have been vouchsafed a privileged understanding.
This means that Benjamins’s ‘esoterical and conspiratorial’ relations with the past of Baudelaire and the Paris of Haussmann are relations it is possible we no longer share today. We have none of us succeeded in reconstructing the Arcades project to the point at which the whole operation becomes satisfyingly intelligible (like Pascal’s fragments or Gramsci’s ‘prison notebooks’, perhaps it was necessary that the pieces not be recontained and domesticated by a successful form). But, at least in the version discussed by Adorno and Benjamin in their correspondence, the emphasis on myth and the archaic no longer seems to resonate in a postmodernity which has abolished those things:
As for me, I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the 19th century that I am attempting to reproduce based on the characteristics it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic. I must naturally first build this telescope myself and, in making this effort, I am the first to have discovered some fundamental principles of materialistic art theory.
Again, the images of telescopy and celestial measurement, but now the content of the investigation is the peculiar co-existence of a mythic archaic and a birth of modernity in the mid-19th century (along with the historicist question of how a society liberated from such magical elements – and very precisely from that ‘commodity fetishism’ which was Marx’s contemporary version of the paradoxical co-existence – might wish to view such a peculiar past and ‘inherit’ it, to use Bloch’s expression of the same year).
And here is Adorno’s echoing discussion of ‘our central question, that of the identity of modern and archaic’:
It occurred to me that just as the modern is somehow the oldest, so also the archaic is itself a function of the new: in other words historically produced as archaic and to that degree dialectical – not ‘prehistoric’ but the exact opposite. That is: no less than the place of everything silenced by history: measurable only by way of the historical rhythm which alone ‘produces’ it as Ur-history.
Predictably, he goes on to compare his own current work in this spirit to the Arcades project, ‘along with the Ur-history of the 19th century a foreshadowing of the principal and categorical historicity of the archaic: not as what is historically the oldest but what itself emerges only from the innermost law of time’.
We are here at the very secret of Modernism as such, if not of modernity, of which both Adorno and Benjamin now stand revealed to us as prime embodiments fully as much as analysts and interpreters. For modernity can be distinguished from our own post-modernity as a space of ‘unevenness’ (the theory of Bloch in Erbschaft dieser Zeit), in which the most modern uneasily co-exists with what it has not yet superseded, cancelled, streamlined and obliterated. Only from the vantage-point of the Post-Modern, in which modernisation is at last complete, can this secret incompleteness of the modernisation process be detected as the source of modernity and Modernism alike.
In which case Benjamin and Adorno are themselves, now and for us, just such incomprehensible objects covered by shadow in the course of the rotation of history, and we must not seek to illuminate them with our artificial light. Their form of intellectual life is perhaps outmoded, even though the Frankfurt School’s mission, along with their own narrower and more intense version of it, is, in Habermas’s memorable phrase, an unfinished project. They formed a true intellectual avant garde, the formal equivalent of the great artistic or literary movements, about which it is said that in post-modernity they can no longer exist. Yet the rewards of historical commemoration do not always take the form of imitation.