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Gathering Storm

Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist—Walter Benjamin remains difficult to classify, but his mystique only continues to grow

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Caricature of Benjamin as Klee’s Angelus Novus. (Via Athens Indymedia)

In the last five years, more than 300 books and articles on Walter Benjamin have appeared in English alone. Not bad for a man who was virtually forgotten when he committed suicide in 1941.

It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.

Uwe Steiner’s new book on Benjamin—which attempts to put Benjamin in his historical place—doesn’t really do him justice either. Steiner traces Benjamin’s mature work to the thinker’s early days as a radical student before the First World War, when Nietzsche was all the rage. Fair enough. Steiner also has a larger goal: He wants us to stop trying to bend Benjamin to our intellectual will—be it Marxist, deconstructive, or religious. A laudable goal but also slightly perverse, because Benjamin had no trouble trying on others’ thoughts to see if they fit. Even worse, Steiner’s approach scants Benjamin’s intellectual and emotional allure.

Benjamin’s remarkable endurance derives as much from his style as from his ideas. Or rather, his brilliant, damnably esoteric critique of capitalist culture is one with the pathos and indirectness of his prose. His sentences suggest. They imply. At their best, they radiate. Hence the remarkable bursts of scholarship his work has seen over the last few decades. He reminds people of what they might think.

His most famous set piece comes from his last work, a series of aphorisms called “On the Concept of History.” Written in the short period before he killed himself while trying to flee from the Nazis, this paragraph gains some of its considerable melancholy from retrospect, from the fact that it has been taken as his last will and testament:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

A beautiful piece of writing that gets an extra kick from its pessimistic counter-intuitive punch line. Progress doesn’t progress in the slightest. It is a steady march through disaster. And there is nothing, it seems, we can do about it.

Bleak stuff. But Benjamin’s ability to arrest you with the solidity of an abstraction can tempt you away from the thin thread of his argument. On its own, this paragraph presents us with a picture of fallen and unredeemable history. In the context of the other paragraphs of the essay in which it appears, we can see that the Angel of History does not have the last word. History, Benjamin maintains, is permanently, if elusively, susceptible to revolutionary change.

Benjamin claimed that his work was saturated with theology, even—or rather especially—when it appears to be at its most secular. In the piece that contains the Angel, the revolution fulfills a theological mandate by making “whole what has been smashed.” Benjamin imagines that it will enact tikkun olam in a very literal sense. Benjamin’s colleague, the philosopher Max Horkheimer, once accused him of believing all too squarely in the Last Judgment. Though Benjamin tried to recast his thought into more acceptably materialist terms, Horkheimer had a point. Benjamin might have talked about redemption as the historical fulfillment of squandered hopes, but at heart he was always listening for the final trump. He was waiting for the glorious resurrection of the dead.

Benjamin’s thought was essentially religious. It clung to the twin promises of redemption and transcendence. The man worked from the clearly Jewish intuition that justice cannot be derived from the world as it is. Justice is precisely that small break from nature instituted by the Law. Our problem is not that nature is sinful. Our problem lies with the fact that on its own, nature just isn’t enough. It needs to be transcended, if only just a bit. As his friend T. W. Adorno was fond of reminding us, the Talmud says that the redeemed world will be like this one, but a little different. And that tiny shift means everything.

But what happens when we, as the children of modernity, have lost the Law? That is where Benjamin’s messianic politics slip in. Gershom Scholem, the magisterial historian of Kabbalah, always maintained that Benjamin was a Jewish thinker and not really a Marxist. For his part, Benjamin argued that he pursued a single goal—the radical transformation of the world, a utopian strike against suffering. His was not the tikkun olam of good deeds and incremental improvements, but of bold risks and decisive moves.

Sure, sure, there is a great deal of Romanticism in all this (as Steiner would be the first to point out) and a sentimentalizing anarchism that speaks of another era. Even so, Benjamin proposes a heresy we might want to consider: redemption without faith. He refuses to give up the rigors and promises of theology for a more amenable, even amiable ethical Judaism. He therefore cuts a different path for the post-religious. Just as Scholem, however unwittingly, presents us with a Kabbalah without halakhah, so Benjamin quite wittingly addresses a theology without God. An intractable contradiction? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is a historical conundrum that we have yet to overcome.

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If only IJ Singer had read more Benjamin; I’m getting tired of all the overt Marxism in The Brothers Ashkenazi. Benjamin was always much more even or subtle, and I wish that same nuance infused IJ’s work. Can’t believe people said he was better than his brother…

“… so Benjamin quite wittingly addresses a theology without God.”

Reminds me:

“Can you turn ‘void’ into ‘God’ by switching the words over and over again?” -F. Howe, “Gone”

A theology without G-d is not the same as a negative theology.

“Theology without God”–

Actually, Benjamin took God quite seriously. See, for example, his early essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” in which a God that is the ground (to use a Benjaminian term) exists in the non-representational language of naming:

“the other conception of language…knows no means, no object, and no addressee of communication. It means: in the name, the mental being of man communicates itself to God” (Harvard U. Press, 65).

God is part of Benjamin’s theology as much as his theology is a linguistic theory. Language, for Benjamin,always retains its pre-Edenic/gestural aspect, and this aspect must be “seen” in order to recapture the ground of Being. This is Benjamin’s redemption; nowhere does it reference a metaphysical God, but nowhere does it spurn a God that is the ground of all language, gesture, and history.

Benjamin’s theology is embedded in the G*d-field such that we are all in the Pinchas position (albeit, b”H, not via murder) in regard to pushing for a world where our lives are rich in tikkunim, i.e., mitzvah-centered rather than self-centered lives.

Fartig says:

“Ground of Being” brings him a little too close to Heidegger, don’t you think?

I’m not sure that Benjamin would conceive of his ideology as “redemption without faith.” I don’t understand why that’s relevant to the article or where the notion could be found in Benjamin’s works. His kabbalistic Marxism is based on faith, albeit not faith in a classically theistic god.

But I’m most interested in the Adorno quote– I’ve done quite a bit of work on Adorno, and I haven’t seen him cite the Talmud. Could you (or anyone) tell me where I might find this citation?

Benjamin died in 1940, not 41.
And Benjamin isn’t really a Marxist. He doesn’t use the dialectic. He is a Marxist because people don’t really know how else to classify him. His tepid fear of the past/present is a poor excuse for the Marxist label.

I think I can help with the Adorno quote. It comes from the metaphysics section of NEGATIVE DIALECTIC though I vaguely remember him using it somewhere else. Two other things–placing your hopes on the tiger’s leap into the past and on revolutionary risk is hardly faith. And yes, Benjamin’s lack of dialectical acumen was the basis of Adorno’s objection to the Arcades work, but to make dialectics the sine qua non of Marxism is to get awful Second International, isn’t it? And it ignores anti-Stalinist (ie structuralist/French Marxism.

David Kaufmann says:

Francesca, you’re absolutely right about the year of his death which was a typo and a misleading one at that. My apologies. I’m not sure I know what you mean by his tepid fear of the past/present. Could you explain?

B”H It is easier to understand religion when we view it as a system imposed on the ill-conduct prepetuated by people against creatures and continued existense of harmony found in nature. Harmony with the trepedations of human life is the common denominator of cultural aspirations, rhythm and music, physicality and dance, color and shape; and to ascertain that none will dispute its premminence over behavior –a death beware mandate imposed upon everybody identifiying with the nurturing society. The fact that it works, it retains a virtual eternal vision (Hashem)that nothing could be better. Yet, the devices of men and their intellectual portrayals create concepts encourage humanity to cleave to a universe of spirit, greater than death. It may be true that there is trace of the past in our concepts of existence but each individual imagines his suffering into imaginary senarios to stay the realization that we are passing substance that degrades into nothing. Here and then people try political, economic, and religious doctrines to give evidence to the reality which we desire to believe, since it’s prefferable to life. People who commit suicide can no longer devise their personal senario and this is a “mind-dead” individual who offers no more of value and since death beckons, anyway, it is the only image that prevails in their mind set. This seems to be an obvious outcome of persecutions, or political repression but is indicative that Benjamin’s philosphy might have been tainted from a conception that it is not the Angel but mankind whom had the power to restrain his death. His image of the powers-to-be irresponsibity reflects back on the individual who place their faith in the illusion of existence. The science of Jewish existence is designed to secure the survival of any individual within the ranks, and always has an exit available from the oppressive: life! the purpose of which is to avoid death and negotiate on our terms. Independent survival is almost impossible.

The Adorno quote might also be this, from _Aesthetic Theory_ (pg. 6 of the Hullot-Kentor translation):

“In their relation to empirical reality, artworks recall the theologumenon that in the redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.”

In turn, Adorno seems to be riffing on Benjamin’s “Franz Kafka” essay of 1934:

“The same symbol occurs in the folksong ‘The Little Hunchback.’ The little man is at home in distorted life; he will disappear with the coming of the Messiah, who (a great rabbi once said) will not wish to change the world by force but will merely make a slight adjustment in it” (_Selected Writings_ 2: 811).

Benjamin, for his part, is paraphrasing Ernst Bloch’s 1930 book _Traces_ (on pg. 158 of the English translation):

“Another rabbi, a true Kabbalist, once said: To bring about the kingdom of freedom, it is not necessary that everything be destroyed, and a new world begin; rather, this cup, or that bush, or that stone, and so all things must only be shifted a little. Because this ‘a little’ is hard to do, and its measure so hard to find, humanity cannot do it in this world; instead this is why the Messiah comes. Thereby this wise rabbi too, with his saying, spoke out not for creeping progress but completely for the leap of the lucky glimpse and the invisible hand.”

Eppou, Koji says:

This essay on Benjamin points in the direction of a question a friend of mine and I asked one another just yesterday: Why has Eastern thought become so prevalent in the West.
Answer, to judge from this essay on Benjamin: Transcendence leads to slaughter. Indeed, a notable Zen layman-lecturer replaces Transcendent with Descendent. G*d is UP THERE. The human heart is down here. Buy, or get from the library, THE LANGUAGE OF ZEN: HEART SPEAKING TO HEART for a prolonged address to the result of thinking decendently.

ivo hoek says:

the source for the quote about the redeemed world being just a tiny bit different is not Adorno, but Scholem. It’s in his book ‘Benjamin Geschichte einer Freundschaft’, if I remember correctly.

Daniel Winter says:

Perhaps this is an esoteric critique to be making but mentioning that Waler Benjamin died at his own hand in the first paragraph and then not referring to the circumstances until well into the piece strikes me as ill considered. Benjamin was not “trying to flee from the Nazis.” He was fleeing. That he chose to end his flight with an overdose of morphine rather than allow the Spanish to deport him back to France, where the French were prepared to hand him over to the Nazis, in no way diminishes the portion of the flight which had already been undertaken. Perhaps had he waited a day he would have been allowed passage to Lisbon but there is no way of knowing with certainty now and it is unfair to dissect his decision making process with the hindsight at our disposal. To refer to his suicide so early in the piece, perhaps judgmentally, as if his circumstances were no different from a Primo Levi or Jerzy Kosinski or even, perhaps, a David Foster Wallace, says more about your thinking, Mr. Kaufman, than it does anything about Mr. Benjamin. If you mourn the lost work due to the circumstances of his premature death you are not alone.

Best joke for the New Year gooks. Proof of the neshama yisayra is th3e fact the chareideim have separate “soles” they wear only on (complete the sentence). The difference between racism and the fanaticism of a religious proclamation is the extinction of the Judaic tradition; no generation of Jewish people was able to be a sustained identification with the purpose of life, unless the prohibitions of intermarriage were maintained. The pudding is the pletah upon whom has crashed the roof; what can I do to help you: , as permitted here is my approach, there may be another that is the third and of course the gemaras dealing with the subject. If the American Jewish people will not be weary of various migrations of vast numbers of populations, through last half century – you all better wake up and can benefit as well to take note of the rise of the socio-economic status of the US Africans. One person’s racial prejudice has nothing to do with the warnings proffered since we Semite have the same origins. Many Jewish migration were traveling in the footsteps of the Islamic (pere adom meaning to:: capture the minds of the world and subject them to Islamic thought, so should a good bubie mind if that’s what her ainechal comes out?

I agree with Daniel Winter that it was ill-considered to describe Benjamin’s death in the first paragraph as a suicide, and I don’t think this is a trivial or esoteric point. We may not fully understand the circumstances of the decision, but it should not have been so flatly categorized as a suicide.

To end one’s own life is a tragedy, whatever the cause. The causes that come most readily to mind — depression, psychic anguish, emotional trauma — are very real and can be life-threatening. But people who take their own lives while living under the threat of enslavement and genocide should not be described as having “committed suicide.”

To my mind Benjamin’s most important work was “The Arcades Project” — a magnificent, unfinished monument to intellectual adventure.

Nachshon says:

“But people who take their own lives while living under the threat of enslavement and genocide should not be described as having “committed suicide.”
People who take their own lives should be described how? As run over by a bus? Moses and his generation lived under the actual circumstances of slavery. Somehow they survived and thrived.

Genugshoyn says:

I agree with Nachson: to kill oneself is to kill oneself. He took his own life. He purposely overdosed. (I once read that Koestler gave him the pills, but that’s probably apocryphal.) Benjamin had considered killing himself more than once in the twenties and the thirties, but he didn’t. Having been interned by the French and being detained at the border, he decided to go through with it. I have no idea what Mr Kaufmann’s thinking might be, but I don’t hear any judgement about Benjamin’s decision. I don’t know what it says about your thinking that you do.

Well, I don’t think I implied that he should have been described as having been run over by a bus. I think that is intentionally overstating my point to make it sound ridiculous. But to commit suicide implies a certain agency, and I think that is misleading in this case. Just a few words mentioning that he had been interned and was living under the threat of being deported would have helped, I think, to put it in context. Personally I am not reading anything into David Kaufmann’s decision to write it this way; I’m just stating what I think would have been a more just way to describe it.

Daniel Winter says:

Nu, I certainly didn’t mean to detract from the focus of Mr. Kaufmann’s piece, which I think is excellent, and I offer my apologies if that is in fact what I have done. However, since I’ve been called out a little bit, taking the same liberty I took, I’ll take a moment to respond @Genugshoyn: Mr. Kaufmann’s first paragraph consists of two sentences, the second of which, in jarring fashion (in my reading at least, and what should we be as readers of a piece about Walter Benjamin if not informed by deconstruction?), points out that Benjamin is a suicide. From a strictly journalistic point of view, the fact that Benjamin committed suicide is superfluous to the thesis of the piece and therefore does not belong in the first paragraph so much. Granted, there is much artistic license being taken in this piece and Mr. Kaufmann is far more a poet and literary critic than he is a journalist. So I ask, does the information that Benjamin committed suicide add so much to the gist of the piece? Did it need to be there in the first graph? Is it there perhaps for shock value? If it absolutely had to be there, it would have been such a heavy lift to add the critical detail: “…while fleeing the Nazis.” ? As for the “judgment,” I submit that the inclusion of the word “trying” while describing Benjamin’s flight sheds copious light on Mr. Kaufmann’s point of view regarding the whole episode.

May I offer a respectful dissent? A thinker lauded for rejecting progress and incrementalism, for his wholesale dismissal of markets and capitalism, for his looking to and beckoning the apocalypse of revolution, for his essentially religious thinking, is a thinker whose vivid prose style has overtaken the pervasive errors in his analysis. There is nothing, as set out in this short piece–including the passage about the angel of history–that commends Benjamin as a thinker, as opposed to his prose style or to him as essentially a literary figure.

dani levi says:

please may we have a piece on Gershom Sholem?!

David Kaufmann says:

The horse is far from the stable by now, but I do want to say that I think that Daniel Winter’s criticism of my first paragraph is very well taken. I read my use of the word “trying” differently than he does and draw different implications from it. Even so, I can’t say he’s wrong.

In reading this, my thought is that being clever and being intelligent are two different things. Oscar Wilde was clever, but he was not intelligent. If you doubt this, read his essay on socialism.

It is simply inconceivable to me that anyone would lionize anyone who had the faintest shred of respect for the economic philosophy of Marx–which was roundly disproven by events a century ago–or the Nihilism upon which Lenin built the modern church of Communism, itself an echo of the French Revolutionary “model”.

I have degrees from excellent schools, but I spend all my time with people who are largely uneducated. My work is physical, and requires concrete, readily measurable outcomes.

So much of the “work” people like Benjamin did is tantamount to defending the claim that steak “au poivre” is best eaten with pommes frites. How do we evaluate the claim? If it is wrong, when, if ever, will we know?

In the real world, houses such as those built upon the propagandistic base Marx–who critiqued Capitalism without providing an alternative–fall down. They are crooked. The windows are where the doors should be, and vice versa. The pipes all leak, where they are installed at all. The lights are on the floor. You can see the problems readily, since we have an idea what a house should do, and what it should look like.

As far as his suicide, Elie Wiesel went to the camps, and emerged on the other side. So did millions of other people.

It would seem to me that someone who would write such pessimistic words, would be someone with a greatly reduced resistance to despair.

Given that this is likely the case, it would seem to me he was hardly a model for anyone in the modern age.

This may be objected to on the basis that one can plainly see that steak au poivre should be served, in America at least, with garlic mashed potatoes. And on it goes.

I’m quite happy with my decision not to pursue a career in academia.

@ Eli,
How many brothers did I.B and I.J. have? I had always been told that when Isaac Bashevis Singer came to New York and founded his Yiddish newspaper that his reasons for leaving Warsaw were good; but different than his reasons for leaving his brother behind,knowing that you should leave to survive since he knew what was coming and, thus, left.
I have sat in an audience of many women taught to despise the Hasidim, and who hadn’t a clue what I.B. was talking about at their J.C.C.
I did; and I am now looking forward to reading his brother’s work on a deracinated family

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David Gontar says:

Dear Barry Cooper: Who cares whether you are a denizen of academe or not? Try to wrap your mind around the fact that just because you hold certain views doesn’t make them true. It may sound clever to say that Oscar Wilde was not intelligent, but such an utterance only shows how obtuse and ill-informed you are. Take a look around you, Barry. The mess you see was predicted by Marx long ago. He gave the world insight. What you provide is little but self-centered posturing.

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Gathering Storm

Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist—Walter Benjamin remains difficult to classify, but his mystique only continues to grow

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