A new biography of Walter Benjamin stumbles on the problem his writing addressed: how to write history without taking the victor’s perspective.
“‘A man who dies at the age of thirty five’, said Moritz Heimann once, ‘is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.’ Nothing is more dubious than this sentence – but for the sole reason that it violates time. A man so says the truth that was meant here – who has died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.”
Walter Benjamin, who wrote these lines, died in September 1940, aged 48, at the border of occupied France and Francoist Spain. His violent end still casts its light on his entire life. He was driven to suicide after the group of refugees he was traveling with was denied passage through Spain on their way to the U.S. If he had just arrived a couple of days earlier or later, the border would have been open, and Benjamin might have enjoyed the life of a distinguished New York scholar like his friend Hannah Arendt, who took the same escape route shortly after his ill-fated last journey.
Despite a belated reception, today Benjamin has arrived in the official pantheon of global humanities. Depending on theoretical trends and political interests, his German and later international receptions have depicted the contradictory image of a heterodox Marxist, Marxist Rabbi, conservative anarchist, proto-Postmodernist, mystical theologian, left cultural critic, or prophetic art and media theoretician. However, even with his posthumous fame as a modern icon, the image of his life has more or less remained the same. It is the image of a man who died as a radical leftist intellectual and a stateless German-Jewish refugee. Be it his sheltered Berlin childhood around 1900, his failed entry into German academia, his broken marriage and fleeting affairs, his impoverished exile after the Nazi takeover in 1933, or his incomplete Parisian work on the Arcades Project, it seems that his suicide in 1940 has retroactively turned the vicissitudes of his life into the story of a fateful tragedy. Benjamin’s work is read through his life, characterized by intellectual ingenuity, yet inhibited by failure, melancholia, and existential ambiguity.
With every biography the question of temporal presentation is posited anew. How can we tell the story of a life in a strictly chronological order? How are we to construct a non-linear temporality in which we can narrate a life without the anticipation of its factual end? How can we restore in narration the multi-layered actualities of a life that could always have taken a different course? For Benjamin in particular, how can we do justice to a “critical life,” a life that is always on the verge of crisis, of turning from one extreme into the other? The insight of Benjamin’s messianic-materialist concept of history was that history can only be written from of the partisan perspective of this dangerous moment, the critical point of parting ways. How can Benjamin’s critical life be told?
In his essay "The Storyteller", Benjamin conceives of this figure as a secular chronicler. In contrast to modern historians and their linear, fact-based accounts, the history-teller as chronicler interweaves different layers of time and various types of documents without making the space-time of narration submit to the laws of temporal succession or logical deduction. For him, the task of a modern chronicler is to find new ways of producing historical evidence and biographical meaning.
In their new biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland have assembled the material body of such a modern chronicle. Both authors are among the very few scholars alive who know virtually every piece of Benjamin’s scattered production. They have researched probably every document available that could shed light on Benjamin’s life, including his writings, notes, letters and eye-witness accounts of his various acquaintances, friends, and interlocutors. Jennings and Eiland are also editors of the standard English edition of Benjamin’s Selected Writings. Given this expertise and long-term research, one could be astonished that in the end their Benjamin biography comes as a handy 750-page book and not as a series of multiple volumes. Despite its numerous predecessors, this biography is the first of its kind to succeed in uniting most of the previously published biographical material in one book, including translations of documents which were until now only available in German. With the still-growing interest in Benjamin’s thought, one can expect this book to become the standard English-language biography on Benjamin.
In A Critical Life, the contours of Benjamin’s day-to-day life become graspable for the first time. It is fascinating to read about his whereabouts and travels, the people and places that formed the stages for his life and thought. The authors chose to present their findings in an accessible mix of journalistic and scholarly prose. Long passages on Benjamin’s networks of friends and acquaintances alternate with instructive excursions on his major works. Following the austere convention of presenting all biographical data in chronological order, the theoretical parts of this book modestly refrain from offering an overall interpretation or conceptual lenses with which to read Benjamin’s main theoretical figures. Instead, they remain introductory summaries to his key texts, which at best could motivate the reader to start her own readings. This biography is also an intellectual biography, which puts the reader herself in a position to navigate the labyrinth-like edifice of Benjamin’s thought. For this alone, this biography proves to be a landmark achievement in the history of Benjamin scholarship.
The book’s greatest merit, however, corresponds to its shortcomings. Uniting the diverse pieces of biographical information to form a coherent image of Benjamin’s intellectual persona can only go smoothly once his incompatible facets become assimilated to today’s narrative patterns. The biography’s narrative thrust is achieved through of a series of psychologizations and historicizations, which involuntarily echo today’s reading cultures and their retromanic desire to gain full accessibility to the past. Instead of posing the question of presentation as its main challenge, this biography begins ready to tell a chronological story by establishing a causal nexus among various moments of his life.
Ironically, the historicist method of telling a “sequence of events like the beads of a rosary” is applied to Benjamin himself, the fierce critic of historicism. In fairness to the authors, refraining from avant-garde techniques like montage might have been the preferable mode of presentation simply because it avoids mimicry of Benjamin’s own literary technique (at least as deployed in the Arcades Project). But what this choice leaves unanswered is how it is that bits of his biographical data can be arranged in a way that appears factually coherent, when “everything factual is already theory,” as Benjamin quoted Goethe. The authors write as if they have found the “neutral” ground within a force field charged with tensions, the point of indifference from where Benjamin’s life and thought can be told.
Despite its merits, this biography’s mode of presentation suffers the fate of every historicist enterprise: it does too much and too little. Too much because there are simply not enough details, facts, letters, and eye-witness accounts to fill in the gaps of information. Given Benjamin’s fragmented oeuvre, his scattered production, the disappearance or total loss of much of his personal property and intellectual production (not to mention the still-unsolved mystery of his lost heavy briefcase on his final journey), even the most meticulous reconstruction has to rely on speculations, insinuations and the construction of fictitious causalities. Too little because the construction of the image of Benjamin’s life first requires the destruction of the clichés and commonplace views which his friends circulated after his death.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the authors’ painstaking effort to balance the presented views of Benjamin’s contemporaries with other accounts and to create an unbiased image that turns into its opposite. Who is the Benjamin that we see through the panoramic widescreen optics of a historicist chronology? A man who remains at all times the man who dies his tragic death in Port Bou in September 1940. In this teleological view, even Benjamin’s various meditations on suicide – the modernist trope – become anticipations of his own final death, part of a suicidal inclination of his entire personality. This kind of biographical plausibilization sidesteps the unbearable arbitrariness of his death – his last journey could have literally taken a different course.
A historicist view of the past, as Benjamin's “Theses On the Concept of History" relentlessly remind us, is tantamount to taking the victor’s perspective – the perspective of those who have victoriously survived and shaped history. In other words, the “neutral” backdrop of an seemingly unbiased historicist view is biased itself, and it conceals its inscription and investment in its object. In a book review, Benjamin wrote: “What is at stake is not to present literary works in the context of their age, but to present the age that recognizes them – our age – in the age during which they arose.” De-mythologizing Benjamin’s life can only succeed if we perceive the time of his life as such a literary work, a text in which the gaze of our age is inscribed. The inevitable question is: what does Benjamin’s life tell us about our age? Rather than historicizing Benjamin’s life only in the context of its age, the task is to organize the presented material by a prismatic optics, which recognizes itself as intended in the biographical image and, while constructing it, reflects its own time in it. Yet how to construct such a prism, providing a different narrative perspective, neither historicist nor mythologizing, is yet to be revealed.
After hundreds pages of this biography, the reader is left with an image of Benjamin she probably knew before: the Janus-faced Benjamin who led a personal life marked by close yet contradictory friendships, an ill-fated marriage, and unlucky love relationships. His love life has been subject to speculation in the past and the authors reproduce the image of Benjamin’s contemporaries according to which he was for the most part the losing third of a love triangle
If biographies can be gates to the lives of different times, their beauty and relevance consist in interweaving the threads of life and work in a way that both can illuminate each other without ever becoming identical. The presentation of this non-identical unity, however, is equally threatened by historicist biographicizing (externalization) and atemporal dehistoricizing (internalization). How can we construct an internal web of cross-references within a work and link it to biographical circumstances in a non-deterministic manner, without sealing a work off from its historical and political context? This question is most crucial in the case of Benjamin’s political thought. There is a long tradition in Benjamin scholarship of separating his philosophical thinking from his political positions, the latter of which are mostly presented as mere rhetoric without reaching the kernel of his thought. To this extent, Jennings’ and Eiland’s biography represent the most refined example of this mainstream view – despite all their precious discoveries and precise reconstruction of his peculiar kind of Marxism.
Introducing Benjamin’s famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and lucidly presenting its key arguments, the authors inform the reader that “the insistent political rhetoric of the opening and closing sections of the essay, which seek to discriminate fascism’s aestheticization of politics from Communism’s politicization of art, needs to be seen in the larger historical context of a Europe on the verge of war.” The contrast between an under-complex historicization (“the larger historical context”) and a sound presentation of Benjamin’s very complex argument on technology, perception and art is striking. This is even more surprising since the authors continue to carefully reconstruct Benjamin’s failed attempts to defend the politically explicit (that is: communist, Marxist, and anti-fascist) agenda of his essay against the internal censorship of the editors of Max Horkheimer’s Journal for Social Research. The treatment of the Work of Art essay is symptomatic of the entire book: even in its finest sections (and the presentation of this essay is one its most compelling parts), the book remains blind to the inherently political nature of Benjamin’s thought.
The unity of Benjamin’s philosophical and political thought can be traced back to his pre-Marxist writings, particularly in his 1921 essay on the “Critique of Violence”. In this essay he invokes the term “divine violence” – a term that designates both a paradoxically non-violent (or non-alloyed, “pure”) violence and a tautologically violent (“waltende”) violence. Divine violence remains inaccessible to human attempts to define it in advance or monopolize it; however, under certain circumstances, it might be embodied by human agency. Despite all instructive philological information, in its short introduction to this essay the biography fails to grasp the non-identical correspondence of Benjamin’s theological and political thinking. Missing his strategic deployment of the term, the authors suggest that, “Benjamin was not yet in a position fully to reconcile his political and his theological ideas.”
But in fact Benjamin never reconciled his political and theological ideas. Instead, he drew on the irreconcilable discrepancy of politics and theology to seal off his political concepts from both political theology and the conformist language of political professionals. In the same spirit, in "Critique of Violence" he invokes divine violence as problematic, yet inaccessible limit-concept to put forward his revolutionary anarchist politics of “pure means,” the unconditional purpose of which (why he calls it pure means, in contrast to means conditioned by a means-end-calculus) is the “depositing” (Entsetzung) of the law and the destruction of state power without establishing a new one. The displaced language of theology here neither refers to an apocalyptic intrusion of some divine power nor functions as a theological legitimization of profane politics. It introduces a non-instrumental language, which proves to be useless for the dialectics of “mythic violence,” that is, the self-deconstructing, yet irresolvable contradiction between the violent preservation of an existing law and the violent establishment of a new law. Against this flawed dialectics, Benjamin calls for “revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of pure violence by man.”
With Benjamin we enter an elliptically shaped intellectual cosmos that puts itself into force fields of irreconcilable extremes, not to rest there but to make these force fields productive without balancing or annulling their dialectical tensions. Benjamin thinks theologically and politically at the same time without conflating these two realms. He never sought a reconciliation of their tense relation but maintained their asymmetric polarity, which also organized the structure of his last reflections in "On the Concept of History". The precarious existence of his critical life was not merely the result of external historical crises (capitalism, fascism, Stalinism) and internal psychological dispositions but also of his paradoxical, yet deliberate strategy of radicalizing these tensions up to their point of turning or reversal. The motto of his life and work can be summed up as “always radical, never consistent.” The same goes for his incompatible circles of friends (among them Ernst Bloch, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Theodor W. Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Asja Lacis, Florens Christian Rang, Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Hessel, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel). Assuming that Benjamin ever strove for some middle way between these extremes is to turn his intellectual biography into the story of a failed synthesis.
In the no-man’s-land of extreme tensions, there is no solid ground, no already established position on which one could rely. The task of finding the right balance, the “neutral” zone of indifference in the midst of these unstable force fields appears to be a hopeless endeavor. His critical life poses a challenge to any form of biographicizing narration. But equally, Benjamin’s own theoretical writing entails some hints of how the modern chronicler must proceed. First, you must rid yourself of the historicist empathy with your object of inquiry. You have to question your established patterns of historical understanding by aiming at a new narrative style that seeks to distance itself from its object without taking the God’s-eye perspective of historicism.
If Benjamin's life is not the story of a man who dies at the age of 48, we have to question the temporal form of causal chains and to resist assimilating Benjamin’s non-contemporaneousness with our time. In search of Benjamin’s lost time we need to find a de-naturalizing principle to organize the massive data with which today’s scholarship provides us. These highly condensed concepts are needed to parse the wealth of biographical information beyond journalistic plausibility. As Benjamin wrote in the Arcades Project: “All historical knowledge can be represented in the image of balanced scales, one tray of which is weighted with what has been and the other with knowledge of what is present. Whereas on the first the facts assembled can never be too humble or too numerous, on the second there can be only a few heavy, massive weights.”