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2he 'ntellect%al and >ther Wanderings of Walter Benjamin 9 2he Cew <e"%blic

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The Intellectual and Other Wanderings of Walter Benjamin


by Peter E. Gordon | March !" #$%
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings Bel!na" #ress$

Walter Benjamin "assed some of the ha""iest moments of his life wandering shirtless in the s%n on the &"anish island of 'bi(a. 'n a letter in )*+,- he wrote that the little Mediterranean island lac!ed modern con.eniences- s%ch as /electric light and b%tter- li0%or and r%nning water- flirting and news"a"er reading.1 2he nearest .illage boasted a mere se.en h%ndred inhabitants- who got by witho%t modern farm e0%i"ment: the economy ran mostly on goats. 3%ring his two stays there- in )*+, and )*++- Benjamin strolled the beaches and e4"lored the island5s interior in the com"any of his friend Jean &el(- who wo%ld recall that /Benjamin5s "hysical sto%tness and the rather 6ermanic hea.iness he "resented were in strong contrast to the agility of his mind- which so often made his eyes s"ar!le behind his glasses.1 2ogether they too! long wal!s thro%gh the co%ntryside- b%t the wal!s were /made e.en longer by o%r con.ersations- which constantly forced him to sto". He admitted that wal!ing !e"t him from thin!ing. Whene.er something interested him he wo%ld say- 72iens- tiens85 2his was the signal that he was abo%t to thin!- and therefore sto".1 Among the 6erman g%ests on the island this idiosyncrasy was well9!nown and they ga.e the strange a""arition a nic!name: /2iens9tiens.1 2he .illage locals called him el miserable. 't is tr%e that Benjamin was "oor and "rone to de"ression. B%t o%t of each day he crafted a scholar5s idyll: he rose early and bathed in the ocean- then ascended the hills to his fa.orite s"ot- where he retrie.ed a hidden lo%nge chair from the b%shes. He sat there among the fig trees for the f%ll length of the morning- writing- or reading L%creti%s. We do not imagine Benjamin on the beach. He was a "oet of the city- one of the most "robing critics of the bo%rgeois e4"erience. 'n manifold essays and boo!s- some of them fragmentary and left %n"%blished %ntil m%ch later- he so%ght to "ortray modern life in all its richness and .ariety:its literat%re- its dreams- its c%lt%ral detrit%s. Li!e a rag"ic!er in the mar!et"lace this was his own com"arison$- nothing seemed to him witho%t significance. He wrote brilliantly abo%t the e4alted "oets and no.elists 6oethe- Ba%delaire- #ro%st$- b%t he did not neglect the /"hantasmagoria1 of modern ca"italism- the secret corners of e.eryday life from detecti.e no.els to children5s literat%re$ in which the %rban masses fo%nd both distraction and redem"tion. He read the major ca"itals of E%ro"e:Berlin- Moscow- and #aris:the same way he read wor!s of literat%re- as if they were te4ts- or grand ta"estries wo.en from all the m%lti9colored threads of modern conscio%sness. He was es"ecially s%sce"tible to the charms of #aris. Li!e Ba%delaire- he was a flneur who wandered the ;rench ca"ital in a state of rha"sodic distraction. He de.oted a massi.e st%dy to the #arisian arcades- glass9roofed corridors flan!ed with sho"s- which he inter"reted as allegories of ca"italist ill%sion. He called the Arcades Project his /dialectical fairy tale.1 A heretic to all orthodo4ies- Benjamin ne.er clea.ed easily to the schools of Mar4ism that ha.e claimed his name. He was a com"anion to Bertolt Brecht- b%t he lac!ed his friend5s to%gh9minded militancy and the re0%ired disdain for bo%rgeois aesthetics. He was affiliated with the 'nstit%te for &ocial <esearch- the collecti.e of Mar4ist "hiloso"hers and sociologists that "%blished some of his best9!nown essays and s%""orted him d%ring the )*+=s with a genero%s sti"end- b%t his friendshi" with the 'nstit%te5s leaders was tro%bled by disagreement: Ma4 Hor!heimer worried abo%t his 0%alifications for a %ni.ersity career- and e.en his friend 2heodor Adorno insin%ated that Benjamin5s theori(ing lac!ed dialectical n%ance. >thers see in Benjamin a thin!er att%ned more to religion than to "olitics- and some ha.e wished to ma!e of him a !ind of Jewish saint. B%t Benjamin co%ld ne.er m%ster the sort of ardent identification with J%daism that animated his friend 6ershom &cholem- the great historian of Jewish mysticism- who tried %ns%ccessf%lly to bring Benjamin to #alestine. 'n )*,*- Benjamin sec%red a grant from <abbi J%dah Magnes for instr%ction in Hebrew- b%t the lessons lasted less than a month: he was distracted by dis"%tes o.er his di.orce- and his teacher left Berlin for s"a treatments.

Benjamin5s tem"erament:original- %nclassifiable:hel"s to acco%nt for the fact that he contin%es to ins"ire a bewildering welter of theories. /Benjamin st%dies1 today is a thri.ing b%t ill9defined trade. 2his is %ns%r"rising when we recall that Benjamin tho%ght in /constellations1 rather than doctrines. His "referred method was to com"ress an o.erab%ndance of signification into a single .ision:a Denkbild- or /tho%ght9image1:as if he co%ld con.ey his ideas in lightning9flashes of insight rather than "hiloso"hical arg%ment. 2his techni0%e of /literary montage1 drew ins"iration from the a.ant9garde- incl%ding the &%rrealists and 3ada: loo! at the Merzbilder by ?%rt &chwitters or the collage9constr%cts by Hannah H@ch and yo% will see in "ainting the stylistic co%sins of Benjamin5s essays- es"ecially the !aleidosco"ic dis"lays of city life in his boo! One-Way Street. 'n his brief life- Benjamin de.elo"ed many of the themes that now ser.e as an indis"ensable fo%ndation for literary and c%lt%ral criticism. Aet there is also the fascination of the man himself: Benjamin remains an object of end%ring interest not least beca%se he seems to embody the modern condition. His dislocation- his not9 at9homeness and willf%l alienation- mar! him as a !indred s"irit to ?af!a and Ba%delaire. Li!e ?af!a- Benjamin seems to ha.e been waiting for a messiah in whose arri.al he co%ld not 0%ite belie.e. He s"ent long days in destit%te wandering- %nable to finish essays that were long o.erd%e or waiting in des"eration for financial com"ensation from jo%rnals and news"a"ers who had "%blished his latest e4ercise. He did not j%st write abo%t #aris as a ca"italist dreamsca"e: he also e4"erienced it that way.

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The Intellectual an Cther $an erings of $alter Benjamin " The 2ew >epu#lic

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This helps to account for the fact that on every page of Benjamins writing one senses the force of his personality. It is partly a matter of genre: like the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, Benjamin live in the gol en age of the feuilleton, an he e!celle at the small"scale essay that permits the authors voice to rever#erate. But something more was in play. $hen one rea s %ontaignes essays, one feels a sense of intimate an e ifying communion with the writer& #ut when one rea s Benjamins essays one feels almost haunte . 'epressive #y temperament an acutely sensitive to noise, Benjamin was #etter at longing than at fulfillment. (is first marriage, to 'ora Kellner, isintegrate , an his later romances, nota#ly with the )atvian *sja )acis, were no less trou#le . (e was tempte more than once, especially uring perio s of penury, #y thoughts of suici e. *lrea y in the early +,-.s, when he was ga/ing upon the %e iterranean from his hilltop chair in I#i/a, he seems to have intuite that he was living on the precipice of civili/ation, an that the coming political catastrophe woul claim him among its victims.

In their super# new #iography, (owar 0ilan an %ichael $. 1ennings have given us a portrait of this elusive #ut para igmatic thinker that eserves to #e ranke among the few truly in ispensa#le intellectual #iographies of the mo ern era. I am tempte to call it a masterpiece. 2early seven hun re pages in length, this is not only a stu y of Benjamins life, it is also a gui e to the #ewil ering mi! of themes an preoccupations that populate this most prolific an unfamiliar of min s. 0ilan an 1ennings are accomplishe scholars who share many years of e!perience in the worl of Benjamin. 1ennings is the lea e itor for the efinitive four" volume collection of Benjamins selecte writings in 0nglish pu#lishe #y (arvar 3niversity 4ress& 0ilan serve as co"e itor for three of those volumes, as e itor for Benjamins long essay On Hashish, an as translator for some of Benjamins signature works, inclu ing erlin !hildhood around "#$$ an the Arcades Project. To write the #iography of an intellectual is ifficult #usiness, since so much of what passes for an event is taking place only in the min or on the page5#ut those are the events that really matter. 0ilan an 1ennings move with eli#eration through Benjamins major works, e!poun ing an e!plaining with uncommon luci ity even when the te!t in 6uestion is one of notorious ifficulty. The result is not a mere chronicle of a life #ut also a relia#le map into Benjamins intellectual la#yrinth. To #e sure, not everything #y Benjamin is holy writ. *fter more than half a century, some scholars have erecte a shrine to his memory that too often o#structs critical assessment. Those of us who o not worship at this altar occasionally feel that healthy skepticism a#out Benjamin is taken for sacrilege, as if his memory were wrappe in an aura. But the #est way to pay homage to an intellectual is to tear off the holy vestments that inhi#it his mo#ility. This is especially so in the case of Benjamin, who felt that we coul fin our way to mo ern free om only if the aura were issolve .

Benjamin was #orn on 1uly +7, +8,9, into a wealthy an well"acculturate family of :erman 1ews in Berlin, the capital of Imperial :ermany. The el est of three chil ren, Benjamin felt himself to #e an only chil . *lrea y as a #oy he was rawn chiefly to #ook"rea ing an solitary pursuits such as collecting. (e kept a small #utterfly collection in the ca#inet of his #e room5;ca##age #utterflies with ruffle e ging, #rimstone #utterflies with super"#right wings<5an until the en of his life he kept a careful list of every #ook he ever rea . *s an a ult he woul amass a private collection of more than two hun re chil rens #ooks. (is #eautiful memoir, erlin !hildhood around "#$$, which appeare in +,-8, contains a loving homage to the collection of animals in the %oolo&ischer 'arten. It is somehow fitting that of all the /oos inha#itants Benjamin felt greatest affinity with the otter, which he christene ;the sacre animal of the rainwater.< :a/ing into its watery cage with his forehea presse against the iron #ars, Benjamin recalls feeling ;as though the rain poure own into all the street rains of the city only to en up in this one #asin.< In a goo rain Benjamin, too, felt ;securely hi en away.< (e woul wait for a long while #efore ;the glistening #lack #o y arte up to the surface, only to hurry #ack almost imme iately to urgent affairs #elow.< Benjamin woul spen most of his own life #urrowe among his #ooks. (e #egan his university stu ies in +,+9 at the *l#ert )u wig 3niversity in =rei#urg, where he attache himself to the epartment of philology an pursue courses in literature an philosophy, atten ing lectures in neo"Kantianism #y (einrich >ickert. ?*mong the stu ents in the lecture hall was the young %artin (ei egger, who woul emerge #y the mi "+,9.s as a philosophical revolutionary, an , in the early +,-.s, woul e icate himself to the Thir >eich.@ The young Benjamin was swept up in the enthusiasm of the youth movements, the Wander()&el ?;wan ering #ir s<@ who preache an into!icating #rew of nature"mysticism, pacifism, an cultural renewal. (e #ecame an ar ent participant in the =rei#urg Achool >eform 3nit, which followe the teachings of the e ucational reformer :ustav $yneken. In early essays such as ;%etaphysics of Bouth< an ;The )ife of Atu ents,< Benjamin calls for an ;unceasing spiritual revolution.< The youth movements also course with homoeroticism: $yneken famously theori/e a#out the nee for ;pe agogical eros.< Cn this point 0ilan an 1ennings write with some iscretion. They mention the ;peculiar nature< of Benjamins frien ship with the poet =rit/ (einle, ;an unusually #eautiful young man< with whom Benjamin woul take walks in the forest, returning well past mi night. In *ugust +,+D, when (einles #o y was iscovere alongsi e a female companion, some took their suici e as the last act of a oome love affair& #ut frien s interprete it as a protest against the coming war. =or Benjamin, the eath of his frien was a trauma from which he woul never fully recover. That autumn, when $yneken enjoine his followers to em#race the cause of war, Benjamin #roke with the movement an pu#licly enounce its lea er, whom he accuse of sacrificing youth on the altar of the state. $hen his ar or for the youth movement was e!tinguishe , its place in his heart was fille #y other passions that were no less tinge with utopianism an no #etter suite to his #ookish temperament. It is a striking feature of this #iography that the major political events of the early twentieth century seem to pass #y like scenery glimpse from a passing train: the =irst $orl $ar remains elsewhere, a storm in the istance. In Ccto#er +,+7, Benjamin manage to secure a eferment from military service #y flunking his me ical e!am: great volumes of #lack coffee the night #efore i the trick. Throughout his life he remaine a stranger to politics in the conventional sense. (e was prone to theori/ing in the most a#stract way a#out the political convulsions of the mo ern age, an rew #ack instinctively from this" worl ly political commitments. (is #elove frien Acholem, whom he first met in the summer of +,+7 ?an who conspire in the coffee" rinking scheme@, was a e icate Eionist who woul emigrate to 4alestine in the early +,9.s. Their #on was sustaine through faithful correspon ence, an long after Benjamins eath, Acholem pu#lishe an affecting testament to their frien ship. But Acholem coul never hi e his feelings of isappointment at Benjamins reluctance to make 1ewishness the cornerstone of his political #eing. *s the situation in 0urope eteriorate , Benjamin woul entertain Acholems repeate overtures to come to 1erusalem, only to efer them again an again with the e!planation that present circumstances were inopportune. That Benjamin #orrowe with some fre6uency from 1ewish sources is clear. (e rea mo ern philosophers of 1u aism such as (ermann Fohen an =ran/ >osen/weig, an with Acholems ai he enliste ka##alistic themes for his own highly i iosyncratic philosophy of history. *roun +,9+, he wrote a #rief commentary known as the ;Theological"4olitical =ragment< that speaks of a ;messianic king om.< Bet the compass points #y which Benjamin foun his intellectual orientation were inconstant. (is notions of revolution rew freely from the hetero o! %ar!ist theori/ing of 0rnst Blochs *he S+irit of ,to+ia, the (egelian %ar!ism of :eorg )ukGcs, an the voluntarist strains of >osa )u!em#ourg5#ut he also foun inspiration in the ialectical theology of Karl Barth, whose 4rotestant vision of a chasm separating history from eternity confirme Benjamins own postwar sense that profane history lay in ruins.

This vision of apocalyptic history hel Benjamin captive as he set a#out writing his stu y of :erman #aro6ue rama in the mi "+,9.s. *he Ori&in of the 'erman *rauers+iel was, accor ing to his #iographers, in many respects the pivot of his entire career, as it unite his earlier stu ies of literature with a theory of language an a nascent philosophy of history. *lthough it was outwar ly an in6uiry into a rather rarefie theatrical genre from the seventeenth century, the *rauers+iel or ;play of mourning,< it was also a commentary on the aesthetic an historical con itions of the present ay. It rew an e!plicit comparison to the contemporary vogue in e!pressionist art. ;=or like 0!pressionism,< Benjamin wrote, ;the Baro6ue is not so much an age of genuine artistic practice as an age possesse of an unremitting will to art. This is true of all the so"calle perio s of eca ence.... In its #rokenness, the present age reflects certain aspects of the spiritual constitution of the Baro6ue.< In Benjamins eyes, the mourning"play illustrate a istinctively )utheran evacuation of meaning from every ay e!perience. Its metho , allegorical rather than sym#olic, reveale the merely conventional status of the religious image: it a#an one the melancholy hero to a ruinous lan scape from which the promise of re emption ha raine away. (istory stoo isenchante as ;natural history.< In the en , Benjamin also came to see in this #aro6ue form an anticipation of his own interpretative practice: ;*llegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.< )ike the metho of #aro6ue allegory, the effect of philosophical criticism was to strip away all the sacraments of aesthetic illusion until the work of art stoo e!pose as a ruin. ;Friticism,< he e!plaine , ;means the mortification of works.< It ismantles the illusion of ;timeless< #eauty only to set free the truth of the artwork for the critics own time. In the spring of +,97, Benjamin su#mitte his stu y of the mourning"play to the university in =rankfurt for consi eration as his ha#ilitation ?the secon thesis re6uire of :erman octorates as the license for o#taining a full"fle ge professorship@. The ver ict was amning: the thesis e!hi#ite a ;lack of scholarly clarity< an was completely isa#le #y its ;incomprehensi#le mo e of e!pression.< =or 1ennings an 0ilan , this ju gment is monumentally unfair. The *rauers+iel #ook is

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&he .ntellectual and Ether Wanderings of Walter Benjamin - &he +ew >epublic

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admittedly difficult, but in their view it now stands as one of the signal achievements of twentieth-century literary criticism. With the rejection of Benjamins thesis, they write, the philosophic faculty of the niversity of !ran"furt brought down on itself a scandal that continues to cast its shadow today. #till, we might as" whether their advocacy covers up a genuine problem. !or Benjamins gift for metaphorical e$pression sometimes overwhelmed the ideas that he wished to convey. %is writing e$emplifies not just the advantages but also the disadvantages of what one might call para-philosophy, a genre in which ideas are evo"ed rather than developed through the laborious e$igencies of linear argument. &he an$iety about metaphor and its demagogic appeal runs through the philosophical tradition from 'lato to the present day, and in many precincts of the philosophical profession it has hardened into a serious prejudice. But this does not mean that Benjamins mannered and richly metaphorical prose deserves to stand unchallenged as a model for criticism.

Benjamins true strengths came most to the fore when he dedicated himself to the literary and aesthetic themes that remained his major preoccupation, from the early essays on (oethes -lecti(e Affinities and %)lderlins poetry to the mature essays on 'roust and *af"a. +or can one deny his contribution to .ulturkritik, or cultural criticism, a genre of which the (erman-,ewish sociologist (eorg #immel was a pioneer. -longside his friend #iegfried *racauer, Benjamin committed countless essays to the feuilleton section of newspapers, such as the left-liberal /rankfurter %eitun&, which devoted the bottom portion of its front page to cultural themes. .t was here, and in similar periodicals and literary maga/ines, that Benjamin published e$cerpts from One-Way Street, his brilliant e$periment in cultural montage that ta"es the reader on a tour of 0uropes major cities 1chiefly Berlin but also 'aris, 2oscow, and 2arseilles3 with section titles erected in the te$t li"e street signs4 it begins with !illing #tation and ends &o the 'lanetarium. .n a certain light, One-Way Street reflects the playful habit of childhood collecting that Benjamin never abandoned. .n a section on the ntidy 5hild, we read that each stone he finds, each flower he pic"s, and each butterfly he catches is already the start of a collection, and every single thing he owns ma"es up one great collection. .n him this passion shows its true face, the stern .ndian e$pression that lingers on, but with a dimmed and manic glow, in anti6uarians, researchers, bibliomaniacs. &his was Benjamins natural impulse of bringing into one frame materials of widely different "inds in a new, intuitive relationship. Benjamin honed this impulse for ju$taposition into a sophisticated modernist techni6ue that allowed him to capture the state of distraction in the capitalist mar"etplace.

With the rise of fascism and the onset of economic crisis in 7898, Benjamins writings on modern culture too" on a new urgency. &hat same year also brought a new friendship with Brecht and deepening relations with -dorno, both of whom would remain intellectual companions to Benjamin throughout the 78:;s. %ere we come to the chapter of Benjamins life that is perhaps most riven with controversy. Benjamins friends saw that -dorno and Brecht tugged him in different directions. Brecht drew him toward a style of 2ar$ist militancy that proudly disdained the inherited categories of traditional aesthetics 1Brecht himself spo"e of his +lum+es Denken, or crude thought3, and -dorno tried to draw Benjamin away from Brecht for the sa"e of a philosophically rarefied or more dialectical perspective on modern culture. (retel *arplus, later -dornos wife, warned her friend Benjamin that Brecht represented a great danger. Benjamin responded by reminding *arplus of his own creative strength. %e refused to be cast as a victim since he was gifted most of all with the freedom to ju$tapose things and ideas that are supposed to be incompatible. .n this !austian struggle for Benjamins soul, 0iland and ,ennings do their best to remain neutral. But one can sense that their sympathies, though not e$actly for the cigar-chomping Brecht, incline them away from the dialectician -dorno, whose influence in Benjamins life they document with notable coolness. &he controversy comes most dramatically to the fore surrounding the 6uestion of mass culture<or what -dorno and his colleague %or"heimer preferred to call the culture industry. .n 78:=, Benjamin published his celebrated essay &he Wor" of -rt in the -ge of its &echnological >eproducibility in the official journal of the .nstitute for #ocial >esearch, where %or"heimer served as director. &he essay, a brilliant contribution to the history of aesthetics, traces the gradual dissolution of the sacred halo, or aura, that once surrounded the traditional artwor" when it was understood as a uni6ue object of passive veneration. With the advent of modern techni6ues of reproduction<reali/ed first in photography, then in film<the aura began to give way. .t is technological reproducibility, writes Benjamin, that first emancipates the wor" of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. When the aura dissolves, the very notion of the authentic wor" of art cedes its authority and the social function of art is revolutioni/ed. #hedding its bourgeois status as an object of secular worship, the artwor" is volatili/ed and finds a new life<in politics. 0lsewhere Benjamin mourned the auras disappearance, but not here4 the age of infinitely reproducible art, he argued, opened up bold new prospects for human e$perience. .t dissolved the wall between author and audience, transforming the masses into potential participants. But this was participation without contemplation4 the masses did not behold the wor" of art in a state of piety, they absorbed it in a state of distraction. &he new partnership between aesthetics and mass technology left the twentieth century with a political decision4 either welcome the transformation in human perception to embrace a massified art in the communist mode, or reject this transformation and ma"e the overpowering violence of mass technology into a cult. &he first option led to communism and a politici/ed aesthetics, the second led to fascism and what Benjamin called the aesthetici/ation of politics. &he essay contains a good dose of technological utopianism, as the biographers admit. - paean to the communist ideal of a truly proletarian aesthetics, it can also be read as a document of Benjamins intellectual pro$imity to Brecht at a moment in the mid-78:;s when 0urope was faced with a star" choice between fascism and communism 1though communism at the time meant #talinist dictatorship3. !or -dorno, however, this was a false alternative. .n a letter in 2arch 78:=, he chastised his friend for celebrating a crude aesthetics of mass-mobili/ation and dismissing the redemptive power of art when left to obey its own internal laws4 ?ialectical though your essay is, it is less than this in the case of the autonomous wor" of art itself@ for it neglects a fundamental e$perience ... that precisely the uttermost consistency in the pursuit of the technical laws of autonomous art actually transforms this art itself, and ... brings it that much closer to a state of freedom. Ai"e (retel *arplus, -dorno detected the influence of Brecht. 2y own tas", he wrote, is to hold your arm steady until the Brechtian sun has finally sun" beneath its e$otic waters.

&he story of Benjamins efforts to get his essay published in the .nstitutes journal leaves a bad taste in part because Benjamin, now living in e$ile in 'aris and shifting fre6uently from one apartment to another, was in desperate straits, and the .nstitute remained one of his few reliable sources of income. 0ventually the essay appeared in the journal, but in a somewhat shortened form in !rench translation and with changes dictated by the .nstitutes heads. Benjamin ac6uiesced, and by the end of 2arch he wrote to %or"heimer that he would do everything in my power to restore the .nstitutes former confidence in me. -mong the intellectuals in 'aris the essay made a strong impression@ it received an especially warm reception among the (erman-spea"ing BmigrBs, who organi/ed an evening discussion for the 'aris chapter of the ?efense Aeague of (erman -uthors -broad. Benjamin saw it as a major statement of his uncompromising views on modern art. But -dorno remained unconvinced, and long after his friends death he continued to brood over their disagreement. .n his Aesthetic *heory, he wrote that the sacred penumbra of the artwor" did not mean merely the immobility of tradition@ it also bore within itself the critical power without which art simply dissolved into ideology4 -ura is not only<as Benjamin claimed<the here and now of the artwor", it is whatever points beyond its givenness, its content@ one cannot abolish it and still want art. -dorno could not share his friends technological optimism. What he feared most was the degeneration of the culture industry into a medium that lac"ed this critical dimension, something merely affirmative of the present world. &echnology only hastened the stereotyping and commodification of artistic forms@ it tightened the cage of modern consciousness to such a degree that the mere thought of freedom was a virtual impossibility. .n his introduction to Benjamins collected correspondence, -dorno wrote that the essay represented a tragic betrayal of Benjamins true instincts and an identification with the aggressor. -dornos judgment in this 6uarrel does not have many defenders. - purely critical stance toward mass culture is difficult to sustain now, not least because the attitude immediately invites charges of traditionalism or snobbery. &his is especially so in the nited #tates, where culture is supposed to be popular if it is democratic. Cet it is important to insist that the alternative is hardly more appealing. #ince his death, Benjamins name has been invo"ed with some fre6uency to justify what really amounts to the li6uidation of culture in cultures name. -cademics who turn to Benjamin as a talisman for the study of mass culture in the mar"etplace forget that he believed in an unbrea"able alliance between mass culture and revolution. #tudents of popular culture today have bro"en that lin", and not just because communism has lost all legitimacy. &hey have surrendered it willfully and in a spirit of celebratory belonging, because it is far easier for intellectuals to swim with the tide and to identify with the relentless pull of their media-saturated surroundings. Cet intellectuals should value criticism even at the cost of identification. .n his strongest essays Benjamin himself obeyed this truth4 he called it brushing history against the grain. &he roots of the idea go all the way bac" to an encounter with a watercolor by the (erman-#wiss modernist 'aul *lee, titled -ngelus +ovus, that Benjamin bought during a short visit to 2unich in the spring of 7897. .t depicts a man in crude outline, his eyes opened wide with astonishment, his claw-li"e

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The &ntellectual and +ther Eanderings of Ealter Benjamin 5 The 4ew =epublic

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feet pointing downward, his arms raised like wings on either side of his oversized head. This peculiar image would remain a prized possession and a link between Benjamin and Scholem, who kept the painting on his own apartment wall in Munich (and later in erusalem!. Scholem even wrote a little poem called "#reetings from the $ngelus% in which the angel announces that "& have been sent from heaven,% but concludes, "& am an uns'mbolic thing()(and signif' what & am()('ou turn the magic ring in vain()(for & have no meaning.% *or Benjamin, this figure held enormous power. &n one of his final essa's, a set of theses titled "+n the ,oncept of -istor',% it serves as a witness to the "storm% of historical progress, which blows from paradise and propels the angel helplessl' into the future. *or the angel, histor' itself seems to be little more than a single catastrophe whose wreckage accumulates at his feet. Benjamin.s unsettling depiction of this divine creature has provoked countless interpretations, in part because Scholem was clearl' wrong/ the problem is not that it has no meaning but that it is overstocked with signification for which no single reading seems ade0uate. &s paradise to be found onl' in the past1 &s histor' merel' a theater for the destruction of utopian energies1 &s all historical action therefore a vain attempt to realize what is irretrievabl' lost1 But then wh' does Benjamin spend the rest of the essa' in a Mar2ist mood, polemicizing against reformist social democrac' and urging us to adopt the historical materialist view of revolution1 Somehow Benjamin was driven to the e2travagant conclusion that the onl' wa' to build a better world was to break free of profane histor' altogether. $t the moment when fascism was overtaking 3urope, he perhaps felt that this was the onl' viable stance for the revolutionar' left. The 4on5$ggression 6act between the Soviets and 4azi #erman', signed on $ugust 78, 9:8:, left him with little confidence in the ordinar' progress of things. 4or could he sustain his earlier confidence in the redemptive power of modern culture. "There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.% This was a grim verdict;and it ma' signal Benjamin.s last about5face against the technological optimism of his earlier essa'.

The darker tone of these "theses% on the concept of histor' also reflects Benjamin.s growing knowledge that the chances for survival in 3urope were slim. -is e25 wife <ora had alread' escaped;first to San =emo on the &talian coast, where she ran a small hotel, and then to >ondon, where she joined their son Stefan. (Stefan became a rare5books dealer in >ondon? his mother <ora lived the rest of her life as a manager of boarding houses in 4otting -ill and died in 9:@A.! -is sister, also named <ora, was fre0uentl' ill/ she survived the end of the war but died from arteriosclerosis in Switzerland the following 'ear. -is brother #eorg, a committed communist, was arrested b' the 4azis in 9:88 and died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 9:A7. Benjamin himself fled 6aris soon after the 4azis began their assault on *rance in Ma' 9:AB. B' late summer he made his wa' to the $merican consulate in Marseilles in order to ac0uire a visa that the &nstitute had secured to permit his entr' to the Cnited States. -e also ac0uired transit visas to traverse Spain and 6ortugal. But as legal passage from *rance proved impossible, the onl' recourse was a rugged trail through the 6'renees and from there to 6ort Bou, a fishing village on the border between *rance and Spain. B' this point Benjamin.s heart was strained to the limit. &n the Spanish customs office, there was some confusion/ he and his refugee companions were notified that the' were to be returned to *rance;which meant deportation to the camps. That night, disconsolate and e2hausted, Benjamin took morphine. -e died on the morning of September 7D, 9:AB. The villagers provided a funeral. $ priest and monks said a re0uiem and the bod' was buried in the cemeter'.s ,atholic sector, probabl' because the registr' had reversed his name, identif'ing the deceased as Benjamin Ealter. Ehat followed the ne2t da' was like a page from Fafka/ the border was opened, and the other refugees were permitted to pass through. "There is hope,% Fafka wrote, "but not for us.% Peter -0 'ordon is the Amabel 0 1ames Professor of History at Har(ard ,ni(ersity and the author2 most recently2 of ,ontinental <ivide/ -eidegger, ,assirer, <avos 3Har(ard40
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