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Short life, long book

Review | RP186

Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2014. 768 pp., £25.00 pb., 978 0 67405 186 7.

Many reviews of books on or by Walter Benjamin begin with a capsule description of the key events in his life. It goes something like this. Born in 1892 into a well-off assimilated German Jewish family in Berlin, Walter Benjamin failed to gain an academic career, just about getting by, instead, through journalism and handouts from his family, friends and the Institute of Social Research. He was drawn to Communism but never shook off his religious heritage. He died by committing suicide, after ingesting morphine, at the age of 48, in 1940, while held up at the Franco-Spanish border when attempting to leave occupied France for the relative safety of Franco’s Spain, perhaps en route to the USA. Subsequently he became one of the present epoch’s most celebrated critics and theorists and there is now a mountain of books devoted to his work.

Repeated often, these outlines have been enough to communicate the idea of Walter Benjamin, if not his ideas. The cursory details of a life – touching in a few lines on the descent from riches to rags, the contradictions of his ethnicity and beliefs, the tragedy of dying in middle age, with his life’s work unfinished, his context being the worst that the twentieth century had to offer in fascism – are sufficient, and colourful enough, for many to understand all that they need to know about Benjamin the man. The upshot of these sketchy details came out frequently in one way or another as something like: Life is ironic and largely cruel and clever old Benjamin was not so clever after all. The outlines of a life which seems to be headed from the very off towards tragedy, and which appears emblematic of greater human and cultural losses in the twentieth century, led many to indulge in the game of what ifs. What if he had reached America, North or South? What if he had left France the following day when the visa situation was different and he would have been let across the border and not threatened with return to France and more internment? What if he had gone East, to Russia or Jerusalem? John Schad even wrote a counterfactual novel, The Late Walter Benjamin (2012), about Walter Benjamin, or at least someone who imagines himself to be Benjamin and speaks only his (published) words, having reached a suburban council estate in his final years, in Oxhey, outside London.

There have been opportunities aplenty to fill out the historical-biographical picture. There has long been the availability of copious correspondence from Benjamin and his circles, which sits alongside Benjamin’s memoirs and autobiographical writings, and the reminiscences of friends, lovers and acquaintances, as various forms of insider material. There are the contextualizing sections in the Harvard Selected Writings and elsewhere, and online biographies in various encyclopaedias. There are highly illustrated coffee-table books, including catalogues to various Benjamin-themed exhibitions in Germany and France, the Marbacher Magazin special on Walter Benjamin (1991) and the self-consciously fetishistic Benjaminiana by Hans Puttnies and Gary Smith (1991). There are partial biographies, such as that by Gershom Scholem and Erdmut Wizisla’s story of the friendship of Benjamin and Brecht, and the focus on his time in the Youth Movement. There have been novelizations, films and videos. There have also been other book-length biographies – Werner Fuld’s (1979), Bernd Witte’s (1985), Momme Brodersen’s (1996), my own (2008) – that have filled out the picture, showing in various more or less detailed ways the routes from one scene of Benjamin’s life to another and the ways in which this formed a crucible for his writings and the development of his thought. But until now there has not been a vast biography, a blockbuster, one that draws into itself whatever details can be gained from any letter that was ever sent by, to or about Benjamin, any reminiscence uttered by a lover, any diary jotting, alongside explanatory passages on significant pieces of writing. Amassed here, such biographical and incidental detail fills a volume that stretches out to more than 700 pages. It is no surprise – there is abundant material to draw on. It could be longer. ven more details could be described from the letters. More letters could be quoted in full or part. More works could be introduced and interpreted. More than anything, the book, and its great length, made me wonder what makes a book the size that it is – and whether this is something determined in advance, on the basis of other considerations, such as economics or time available to write, or does a book simply become a size that works itself out as it is written? Is the length of the book evidence that Benjamin packed a lot into his shortened life, or is it a testament to how well documented that life was, drawing as it does on the lengthy and well-archived letters of one who was a particularly adept practitioner of an art that is now on the wane? In any case, the book is, as is already clear, long and provides many details about Benjamin’s life from start to finish. For the sake of leading one’s own life, it almost makes one grateful that Benjamin’s was not longer.

walter-benjamin-a-critical-lifeWhether all this detail helps us to understand Benjamin better is a question of who the ‘we’ is. Those who know little about Benjamin will find a detailed and clearly written narrative of his life and a good sense of the multiple strands of his work. They may be impressed by the portrayal of his sheer tenacity and ability to write and think under the most difficult of circumstances. They may be grateful for the wider portrait of European history through the excitable years of the first half of the twentieth century. They may appreciate the short and lucid summaries of significant writings by Benjamin, set in the context of his life, ambitions and the wider intellectual environment. They may be shocked by Benjamin’s all-too-human pettinesses, his gambling, bitchiness, womanizing and the ill-treatment of his wife. They may find plentiful evidence for what Lisa Fittko, who helped him in his passage over the Pyrenees, years after the fact recalled as his twin nature: ‘A crystal-clear mind; unbending inner strength; yet, a woolly-headed bungler.’

All this is there and well expressed by the two authors, who move firmly and methodically through the life and its terrain and times. The facts are given, or at least the details are given, the letters are quoted, the memoirs gleaned, and hypothetical questions of motivation, or the attribution of inner feelings – à la novelist Jay Parini’s speculation in Benjamin’s Crossing (1996) – are left out. Some may find jarring shifts of register between the discussion of intimate details of, say, a marriage under strain (‘All he is at this point is brains and sex’, notes his wife Dora in a letter to Scholem) and Benjamin’s burgeoning fascination with Art Nouveau in the context of the Arcades Project – but the narrative must press on, and such is life and its weird carambolages. Those who already know well the correspondence and other biographies will find that there is not anything new here, but that it is, rather, a diligent and systematic exposition of the already known. There are no conspiratorial or crazoid revelations, such as have grabbed attention in recent years, threatening to overturn the capsule life story: David Mauas’s conjecture in the film Who Killed Walter Benjamin? (2005) that fascist agents had a hand in his death; Stephen Schwartz’s though-experiment that it was Stalinist GPU men who got him; or, less sensationally, the thesis of Ingrid and Konrad Scheuermann, who in 1992 collated new documents pertaining to Benjamin’s death in Port Bou, in order to posit that perhaps Benjamin did not commit suicide there, but rather may have died as result of natural causes, a cerebral haemorrhage, the cause of death recorded on the death certificate. For the Scheurmanns, it was not necessarily a blow against the historical record to state this, but rather an opportunity for reflection on the desires of the ‘industry’ for another, more tragic story. Nothing of this type of speculation and re-evaluation is in the new biography (not even symptomatic reflection on its occurrence). It sticks with the acknowledged materials, the documents, and so reports, blankly, ambivalently, of the death in September 1940 that Benjamin was, according to Arthur Koestler, in possession of a large quantity of morphine, and that the death certificate attributed his death to a cerebral haemorrhage.

This is a presentation ‘in full’, ‘beyond the mosaic and the mythical’, as the publisher’s press release puts it, seemingly turning against the Benjaminian predilection for the minuscule, the fragmentary, incomplete and the slight. For those who already know Benjamin, his biographies and letters, this reads like a greatest hits of the life and work, for each little event that might have lodged somewhere in our memory finds its place in the great narrative. Anyone writing about Benjamin must be aware of the passage in his 1940 ‘On the Concept of History’: ‘The chronicler, who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and small, thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ For Eiland and Jennings, the ambition seems to be indeed to lose nothing to history, but to recover as much as can be found and laid out. We must, then, overlook the fact that Benjamin doubts the efficacy of this act before humanity has been resurrected, before the day of the Last Judgement. Many – not Eiland and Jennings themselves, but those who have reviewed this tome – have certainly made their last judgements on Benjamin: a liar, a cad, a cheat, hypocritical, confused, a wife-abuser, hopelessly out of touch, neglectful of his only child, serving multiple masters, depressive, manipulative, ‘duplicitous, bumbling, self-indulgent, navel-gazing, arrogant, demanding, ever-susceptible to spasms of personal and familial destructiveness’, as one reviewer puts it in summary. It is not that there is really that much here on Benjamin as creep, or anything particularly awful to report – no murders or abuses of power, just some all-too human behaviours resulting from the efforts to escape privation and homelessness and the outfall of many difficult love affairs, as well as robust critical opinions and some intellectual bickering. Perhaps those spicy parts that there are jut out as more vivid than other bits, on publishing wrangles, illnesses, the search for work. Or perhaps it is just what people want to read whenever they read biography: idols with feet of clay and all that.

The authors have their bases covered. This is ‘full’ and ‘complete’, but life is never so, especially the life of Walter Benjamin, which unfolds in the book under the motto of a ‘contradictory and mobile whole’. This was Benjamin’s own phrase describing his thought – not his life – in the draft of a response to Gershom Scholem’s outraged inquiry as to whether he was peddling ‘communist credo’. Benjamin’s response was effectively ‘it is more complicated than that’, or more dialectical. Mobilized here the motto seems to allow for endless equivocation. It means that for all the efforts to encapsulate a life, we cannot encapsulate this life or we can encapsulate it only as a contradiction. The subject shifts and eludes. We experience the vanity of biography as a mode of coming to know a subject closer. But Eiland and Jennings do attempt to distil the elements of this mobile and contradictory whole, a coagulation that is in place by 1929, they note, and pulsates through the whole rest of the life: ‘The admixture of a radical leftist politics, a syncretistic theological concern that drew freely upon theologoumena from Judaism and Christianity, a deep knowledge of the German philosophical tradition, and a cultural theory adequate to the diversity of its objects under the fast-changing conditions of modernity.’

Many reviews collaborate with the publisher’s desire that this be the last word: ‘what looks like the definitive version’, a ‘thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin’s life and the sources of his work’. The place of the biography in the canon of commentary is assured – and these places need to be fought for, for there is plenty else out there to catch the eye of someone who is Benjamin-curious. ‘It will prove of enduring value and will doubtless become the standard reference work’ states the publisher’s description on Amazon, and widely reproduced online, yet unattributed. This is doubtless true. Unless the mythical completed version of the Arcades Project, together with the missing last possessions – a pipe, watch, x-rays, glasses, photographs, letters and a bunch of other personal documents – turns up in a Perpignan skip one day, it is unlikely that another biography of such or greater length will be written. Those who write this have impeccable credentials. Eiland and Jennings have worked extensively as editors on Harvard’s multi-volume Selected Writings and are intimate with the work, having been main conduits of its English-language translations from 1996 and through the 2000s (in volumes amounting to over 3,000 pages). But is there something else at stake here, something to do with publishers’ politics? Perhaps this book stands as a certain bulwark at a moment when the Benjamin Industry is heading into freefall. The copyright has now expired on his writings in Germany, meaning that anyone can publish them, and new translations of his work, as well as translations of materials not previously published – such as the radio work and the fiction – are appearing or under way. How to remain at the core of the Walter Benjamin business? A recent interview with the director of the press, Lindsay Waters, a long-time champion of Benjamin in English, reveals as much, playfully claiming that ‘This is what God put me on earth to do, to bring Benjamin to America’, as he boasted about his role in bringing to fruition the ‘definitive biography’, a role that the authors acknowledge in describing him as the book’s ‘godfather and progenitor of the well-established faith in the work of Walter Benjamin prevailing at Harvard University Press’.

The rampant ‘what iffery’ that attends reflections on Benjamin flared up again in April 2014 in a widely tweeted article by Walter Lacquer for the online magazine Mosaic: Advancing Jewish Thought. Titled and subtitled ‘The Walter Benjamin Brigade: How an Original but Maddeningly Opaque German Jewish Intellectual Became a Thriving Academic Industry’, the rather ill-tempered essay, which was a review, though so much more, too, of the book under consideration here, drew an elaborate picture of what would have happened had Benjamin joined Scholem in the ‘desert’ of Palestine, or rather, as Lacquer puts it, ‘the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia’, where instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French–Spanish border’, he could have spent time in ‘a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy)’. But he did not and there were many reasons why he did not. These might be discerned here and there in passing in this ‘definitive’ book, though it does not stop the punters dreaming of different outcomes. Really, what can the data of a biography, however big, do in the face of our desires, hopes, malignness and fantasies?


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