The Benjamin Files 
by Fredric Jameson.
Verso, 262 pp., £20, November 2020, 978 1 78478 398 3
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FredricJameson points out in this study that Walter Benjamin never wrote a book, or not of a traditional kind. His account of German baroque theatre, translated into English as The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was written in the early 1920s as an academic thesis, though it was later published as a book. Since the examiners couldn’t understand a word of this stunningly original work, Benjamin withdrew it, putting paid to his hopes of a university career. Instead, he lived a hand to mouth existence in his native Berlin as a cultural journalist, eventually leaving his fascist homeland in 1933 for Paris, where he stayed for the most part until his death in 1940.

The tragedy book lacks any real unity, and the same is true of Benjamin’s other works. One-Way Street is loose in structure, while The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s great study of 19th-century Paris, is in Jameson’s phrase an unfinished ‘collection of clippings’. The ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ can best be read as the jottings of a Jewish communist who will shortly swallow a massive dose of morphine rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis. The fragmentary structure of the text reflects the ruined history from which it arises.

All this brings to mind the career of another German-speaking refugee, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was on the run not from the Nazis but from wealth and respectability. ‘It’s better to go barefoot’ was his motto for this journey. Wittgenstein published only one book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which he thought resolved all problems in philosophy. It, too, was first presented as an academic thesis, and like Benjamin’s tragedy book was greeted with bafflement. Wittgenstein, however, had better luck with his examiners than Benjamin: one of them, the philosopher G.E. Moore, drily reported that the Tractatus was ‘a work of genius, but be that as it may’ met the requirements for a PhD. The rest of Wittgenstein’s work was published after his death, and a lot of it abandons academic decorum for aphorisms, snatches of dialogue, cryptic musings, teasing questions and homely images. Benjamin, too, is a master of the aphorism, though his images have nothing of Wittgenstein’s simple-peasant quality.

There are other parallels between the two men. Wittgenstein was a spiritual vagrant, wandering from a hut on a Norwegian fjord to a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. Benjamin was fascinated by the flâneur, the Parisian dandy who strolls the streets with no particular purpose in mind. The vagrant tries to escape from modern life, while the flâneur finds his composure in the midst of it. The son of the richest industrialist in the Habsburg Empire, Wittgenstein fled from Cambridge to become a village schoolteacher, and at one point worked as a monastery gardener. Even so, there was a place of refuge for Benjamin as well: revolution. In his view revolution isn’t a runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. History is hurtling out of control, and revolution is necessary if we are to get a decent night’s sleep.

Benjamin was never an academic, and Wittgenstein was a deeply reluctant one. He gave away a fortune to live the simple life, whereas Benjamin lived the simple life because he was chronically short of money. Benjamin thought of writing a book consisting entirely of quotations; Wittgenstein contemplated writing one consisting entirely of jokes. Benjamin was driven towards Marxism by the rise of fascism; the younger Wittgenstein was widely regarded as a communist fellow-traveller. Not everyone, however, has been struck by the parallel. Benjamin has been an abiding presence in Jameson’s work ever since his early masterpiece Marxism and Form, whereas Wittgenstein figures as an eloquent silence.

Benjamin was a modernist theorist rather than simply a theorist of modernism. His writing is part of that cultural experiment, not just a commentary on it. Like Wittgenstein, he was an anti-philosopher who felt the need to write differently in order to say what he meant, and one of the concepts anti-philosophy calls into question is that of the book. There is an amusing squib in One-Way Street titled ‘How to Write Fat Books’. Academic works are meant to be reasonably lucid, mostly conceptual in content and written from a specific point of view. A good deal of modernist art, by contrast, prefers multiple viewpoints and discontinuous narratives. Artists may opt for obscurity rather than lucidity, or prefer the image to the concept. Books are also supposed to be unified, but in the eyes of the more avant-garde modernist, unity is a discredited notion.

It is striking how original a move this is. From Aristotle to I.A. Richards, the work of art is expected to form a coherent whole. It is not until the rise of Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and so on that this arbitrary diktat is really challenged. From the Dadaists to Brecht, there is an urge to dismantle rather than integrate, to reveal conflict rather than resolve it. Unity, as the avant-gardists are aware, is always at some level a political concept.

In modernist art, obscurity can be a conscious strategy. It is one of the ways in which the artwork can avoid being consumed too easily. Poems need to thicken their textures and scramble their syntax if they are not to slip down too easily, which is the fate of the commodity. Everyday language is no longer a medium of truth. It has grown stale and threadbare, and only by wreaking violence on it can you force it to yield something of value. Literary modernism sends language on a spree, but that’s because it is so distrustful of it. Jameson has some comments here on Benjamin’s idea of an ur-language, an original speech in which things speak their own names. Then comes the Fall, in which the bond between word and thing is broken. Words become arbitrary signs of things, and language degenerates into a Babel of tongues.

If language is no longer to be trusted, you can turn instead to the image. Hence Benjamin’s passion for Surrealism, for which revelation lies in the clash between one image and another. You can take in an image at a glance, but not a narrative. Time is giving way to space, the sequential to the simultaneous. Modernism is among other things a crisis of narration, as the world ceases to be story-shaped. History is no longer informed by the plot once known as progress. Progress and continuity are fictions of the ruling class. They are also the delusions of those socialists who believed that capitalism was doomed to collapse, and that fascism was its death throes.

Everyday language unfolds in a linear way, and the general view is that history does too. We think of the past as finished and the present as open-ended, but this is not Benjamin’s opinion. In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ it is the past that is incomplete, and the present that has a chance to bring it to fruition. What happens, happens, and does so irretrievably; but the meaning of such events is in the custodianship of the living, so that it is up to us to decide whether, say, a Neolithic child belonged to a species which ended up destroying itself. We can also ensure that those in the past who were defeated in their fight for justice and friendship did not die in vain – that in Benjamin’s phrase, the names of those anonymous men and women will be mentioned in dispatches on Judgment Day. The dead cannot literally be compensated for their suffering, but that suffering can be invested with new significance by our actions in the present. For the moment, then, the meaning of the past remains fluid, and our judgment on it must remain suspended.

The Messiah, he argues, will not arrive as the fulfilment of history but will reveal a constellation of moments woven into historical time, periods of political emergency in which there is a chance of justice for those whom the ruling powers hope to erase from the historical record. This montage of moments represents the history of the oppressed, which is as diffuse and discontinuous as a modernist work of art. Only with the coming of the Messiah can this history be recounted as a coherent narrative, as the secret affinities between particular acts of resistance are laid bare. What seemed futile and meaningless at the time will then become readable, like an encrypted text we can finally decipher.

Benjamin’s own dark political age is precisely such a moment of danger, one in which the continuity of history is violently ruptured; this opens up a space in which images of past struggles for emancipation can come flooding in. There is a trade-off between past and present: the present can rescue the past from oblivion, while the dead can be summoned to the aid of the living. Time can be looped on itself, as in Proust’s great narrative, to reveal a solidarity of the dispossessed across the centuries. It is the grandest narrative of all, though one that deflates the dream of inevitable progress for which most such tales are notorious. It is certain that the Messiah will come, but he will not arrive like the final note of a triumphal tune. On the contrary, he is the friend of all those who have been crushed and defeated in their day by such triumphalism, and his coming to power will be their victory too.

Memory, for Benjamin as for Freud, can be an emancipating force, since those who wish to move forward must do so by turning back. In the hands of this most idiosyncratic of Marxists, even nostalgia can become a revolutionary concept. It is tradition that is subversive, not the act of abolishing it. What inspires men and women to revolt, Benjamin remarks, isn’t dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. His Angel of History turns his back on the future, and hence on all false utopias, gazing with horror at the mounting pile of rubble that is the past. It is not because history is valueless that the angel wants to end it; it is because much of its value springs from exploitation, and the latter weighs more heavily than the former. Hence Benjamin’s much quoted comment that every document of civilisation is also a record of barbarism.

The angel can’t move because his wings have become entangled in a storm, and Jameson seems uncertain about what this storm represents. Benjamin actually tells us: it is the myth of perpetual progress. What stops the angel from waking the dead here and now, calling time on history and ushering in redemption, is the assurance that history needs no such transformation, since it will carry us into a glorious future through its own momentum. It is the colossal complacency known as historical determinism that betrays the need for change.

Baudelaire writes of the modern as fleeting and contingent on the one hand, and eternal and immovable on the other. Modernism is caught up in the random and provisional, but it is homesick for a time when (so the rumour goes) the absolute and infinite existed. There is an absence at the centre of the modernist work of art where you might just catch a glimpse of truth and reality, firm foundations and stable identities, everything the modern age has supposedly swept away. Postmodernism, by contrast, is too young and brash for such nostalgia. There is no haunting absence in the world. What you see is what you get. Truth and reality are convenient fictions, and identity is invented on the hoof. Modernism should abandon its metaphysical hankerings. As the postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty was fond of remarking: don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.

In Benjamin’s writing, the contingent and the eternal converge all the time. On the one hand he is fascinated by the stuff of everyday life: gloves, cities, gambling, food fairs, toys, sex workers, violence, fairy tales, class struggle, rooms, photography, childhood. Rather as William Blake finds eternity in a grain of sand, so Benjamin’s Surrealist gaze finds momentous meanings in the trifling and discarded. In the same way, he believes that every moment of time, even the most banal, is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. As well as being one of the first theorists of popular culture, he is also deep in astrology, mysticism and Kabbalah, not to speak of hashish. He is a Marxist who awaits the Messiah, tugged between the toughminded materialism of his comrade Brecht and the esoteric Judaism of his friend Gershom Scholem.

Jameson knows hardly anything about theology, and understands very little of ethics, which he sees as a simplistic opposition between good and evil. It is an American Puritan view of morality, later to be transplanted into cowboy movies. He also fails to grasp the distinction between morality and moralism. Even so, he is probably the finest cultural critic in the world, with none of Benjamin’s misgivings about writing books. Now in his late eighties, he has produced some 25 of them, and at least one more is in the pipeline. There seems to be almost nothing he hasn’t read, apart perhaps from the odd manual on pig-farming, and the wealth of cultural knowledge packed into this latest offering is astonishing. He combines a European sensibility with a prodigious American energy. He is also one of the great stylists among literary theorists, whose rolling waves of sentences unfurl in such leisurely fashion that the reader must take deep breaths, careful not to be dragged under before the next full stop arrives.

Jameson usually likes to spread himself comfortably over a large acreage of print, so it is surprising to find that The Benjamin Files is a set of snapshots: ‘Cosmos’, ‘Nature Weeps’, ‘Space and the City’, ‘History and the Messianic’ and so on. Perhaps he, too, is wondering rather late in the day whether books are really possible. There are other signs that he is loosening up a little. There are a lot of exclamation marks, which raise the emotional temperature. Jameson has always been a poet manqué – a ‘writerly’ critic, as he calls it himself, whose relish for language is the secret life of every sentence. No doubt this is one reason he finds Benjamin so attractive. When he observes that one passage is marked ‘with such gusto and with a writerly pleasure in its own energies quite at odds with his ostensible subject’, there can be no question who else he is talking about. The same applies to his theory that ‘the thinker in Benjamin incessantly interferes with the writer and vice versa, producing an unstable fluctuation between words and concepts which the reader must walk like a tightrope.’ Jameson, too, veers between the concept and the image, the critic and the creative writer.

Until now, his imaginative drive has been restrained by academic etiquette. Here, however, he is tempted to give it freer rein, not least when it comes to lists: the German verb Aufblitzen can mean ‘flash up, flare up, sparkle, coruscate, glint, gleam, glimmer, streak, twinkle, and so on’. Or take this inventory of Baudelairian topics: ‘prostitutes and lesbianism, syphilitic chancres and trash in the streets, beggars, blind men, arthritic old women, hymns to revolt, corpses’. Elsewhere, Jameson writes that in Baudelaire’s verse ‘the mot juste slashes like a knife-thrust, like the seizure of arsenal, radio station, post office, in an insurrection.’

Literary theorists are not supposed to read as closely as this. The usual complaint is that they stand too far back from the text. In fact, no well-known theorist fits this description, from the Russian Formalists to the poststructuralists. Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, J. Hillis Miller, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida: all of them are admirably close readers. Marxist critics like Jameson are among the more notable targets of this bit of intellectual indolence, which is the reason he once remarked that they have a particular responsibility to come to terms with the shape of sentences. Nobody has followed this advice more scrupulously than he has.

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Vol. 43 No. 18 · 23 September 2021

Terry Eagleton writes that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was ‘first presented as an academic thesis’ (LRB, 9 September). The work went through many forms during the 1910s, but the version published in German in 1920 and then in English in 1922 was finished when Wittgenstein was fighting for Austria in the First World War. The manuscript was first seen by Bertrand Russell in 1919, when Wittgenstein was interned in an Italian POW camp. The PhD viva Eagleton mentions took place ten years later, in 1929, by which time the Tractatus was widely considered one of the most important works of contemporary philosophy. As Ray Monk relates in his biography of Wittgenstein, the immediate reason for the submission of the Tractatus as an unlikely doctoral thesis was to secure a £100 research grant from Trinity College, Cambridge. This was awarded the day after he received his degree – ‘£50 for the summer, and £50 for the following Michaelmas term’.

Ben Ralph
University of Bath

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