On the versatile interests of Walter Benjamin and making a living out of writing
While revisiting some passages in Radio Benjamin published by Verso in 2014, I realized that I never once examined Walter Benjamin’s variegated interests. Specifically, how and why do his works exhibit a wide breadth of interests that borders on a diffuseness of thought? In the selected essays, we see how the critic’s fascinations extend beyond his renowned critical essays and spills over to his lesser known reviews and broadcasts.
Walter Benjamin’s work as a professional critic began relatively late in 1926, when he was thirty-four years old. The essays he broadcasted on the radio were some of his earliest works as a professional writer. Up until 1926, he had published only a small amount, including the renowned essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which was printed by Hofmannsthal in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge, a masterpiece of intensive dialectical thinking, for which he earned certain fame. This early recognition allowed Benjamin to jumpstart a career as a reviewer under the auspices of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). From sporadic publishing, he was then able to produce a string of articles that regularly came out until the spring of 1933.
A large part of these articles were on the books he read. That Benjamin commented on Germanic and literary-historical, philosophical and cultural-historical works comes as no surprise; but he also dealt with books on psychiatry, psychology, education, theology, occultism, graphology, art and architecture, circus and, puppet theater. He discussed forgotten children’s books and modern fables, antique documents and new travel guides, a volume of photographic plant pictures, toys. He even wrote about the skull collection of a Swiss pastor. Is there an explanation to the variety of Benjamin’s interests?
The broad scope of his studies may also be observed in the readings in which he deals with purely literary publications. He wrote on French, English, and Soviet books, but their selection, with a few exceptions, reveals no obvious critical structure. Most of the time, he seems to have reviewed whatever unsolicited texts he received in the mail. One can get a sense of this upon observing that the most interesting and important Soviet authors of his years evidently escaped him.
The same applies- to an even greater extent- to Benjamin’s critiques of German literature. Which books are representative or characteristic for the period 1926-1933? Except for “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, Benjamin did not discuss any of the notable works of his time between 1926 and 1933: Musil, Brecht, Mann, etc. Perhaps because of politics or an unofficial rule among writers of that generation we are not aware about.
The names of these authors listed are not mentioned in his reviews and in his letters. Perhaps he lacked neither the time nor the patience to repeatedly deal with anything out-of-the-way and what he deemed to be completely irrelevant novelties. He was not particularly interested in the German literature of his immediate present and he usually ignored them. Benjamin’s much-cited thesis in Einbahnstraße (1928) that “the critic is a strategist in the literary struggle” is usually thought automatically to refer to himself. This can now be seen as a misconception. Benjamin was someone who missed out or evaded the center and the mainstream, and preferred to turn his eye to the periphery. What he did was hardly a work of a “strategist in the literary struggle.” As much as Benjamin considered such a function of the critic necessary, he was evidently not prepared to take it on himself.
Precisely because all of his works on new phenomena are gathered in such compilations as Radio Benjamin without a single thematic criteria but on the basis of “broad appeal, passion, acuity.” (From Introduction to Radio Benjamin) it appears that the basic feature of Benjamin’s literary criticism practice was a strikingly strong escapism. His position in the intellectual world of the Weimar Republic can be seen in this context. If Benjamin exerted very little influence in those years, if he was little more than an original marginal figure in literary life, and merely an insider among connoisseurs, it was not because of political or ideological circumstances. Rather, it is the aristocratic and snobby attitude that he held towards a large part of contemporary literature.
His vehement rejection of the poems of Erich Kästner in 1931 testifies to a sectarian understanding of literature. Benjamin accuses Kästner of “all too intimate petit bourgeoisie flavour” and speaks of his “nihilism”, describes the “radical left-wing intelligence” that Kästner represents as a “as a phenomenon of bourgeois dissolution”. (Left wing melancholy, 1974). There are two very different language worlds detectable in his works during this period. There is talk of the “proletariat” and the “age of high capitalism,” of “class fronts” and “class wars.” On the other hand, we hear about “fateful moments”, about the “gaping rift between wisdom and information” about the “self-conscious”, and about the “incarnation of the time-bound and space-bound genius”. (Illuminations, 1969) It was evident in the years of exile that Benjamin, subject to the slightest influence, was very receptive to the vocabulary of both Marxists and conservatives alike, and, when it came down to it, knew how to separate these worlds of language.
He had left Germany in mid-March 1933, but not because of the political circumstances and terror of the Nazis like how he mentioned them in his letter to Gershom Scholem on the 20th of March 1933 but only because he did not want to publish works within a Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Benjamin had neither inhibitions nor concerns to supply the FAZ from abroad with manuscripts that were published under pseudonyms. It can be imagined that in anti-fascist emigration circles such an approach was not exactly welcomed and sometimes even considered treacherous. What is more important is what was actually to be read in these reviews. Their content and language according the Brecht, were not likely to cause even the slightest inconvenience to the editors of the FAZ appointed by the new regime. (Correspondence, 1992). One finds in his reviews that Benjamin wrote not out of passion so much as out of necessity. Again, it was only in 1926, at the age of thirty-four that he decided to work as a freelance writer (mainly as a reviewer) only because he failed after at his efforts to obtain habilitation (a requirement to teach after a PhD) at the University of Frankfurt, and saw no other way out. Although he informed Scholem in January 1930 he hopes that “in the foreseeable future he will limit his “bread work” to journalism, and he is not dissatisfied that he almost does nothing more than “bread work in magazines” and “simply dictating things” on the radio. (Scholem 1992).
The fact that Benjamin usually regarded reviewing as journalistic bread making and only dictated “such things” is a clear insight into how he viewed his work as a writer: the superficiality of many of his book reviews and stylistic negligence are explained here. In any case, what emerges is a completely amorphous picture resulting from the list of disparate objects he deals with. One often finds Benjamin maintaining a boundary between the literature that interested him and philosophy, as he conceived it in the reviews. When the border between these two worlds became porous, Benjamin had to respect this limit and paid more attention to concrete objects. And it immediately showed how little these items meant to him and how little he was prepared to respond to them. Benjamin’s relationship to literature was marked by his extreme self-centeredness. The audience hardly ever appears in his field of vision. This criticism dominates rather especially where it is significant: in his monologues. In his essays on Goethe, Proust and Kafka, Brecht and Karl Kraus, we can see a thread of non-critical distance but also both an unconscious identification.
Benjamin was subject to differing influences-from revolutionary to extremely conservative, from Marxism to mysticism, from historical materialism to Jewish theology. A sampling of his writings will easily reveal this with incisive clarity. Benjamin provides arguments against those who would want to stylize his image and claim him in the name of this or that direction. One should be aware-as his ambiguous and contradictory writings reminds us- of posthumously compensating and inventing decisions Benjamin himself avoided with good reason.
Walter Benjamin: Einbahnstraße. Werke und Nachlass. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Band 8. Abgerufen am 11. Januar 2019.
________.Left-Wing Melancholy (On Erich Kästner’ new book of poems), Screen, Volume 15, Issue 2, Summer 1974, Pages 28–32, .Illuminations. New York :Schocken Books, 1969. _______.,Gershom Scholem, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.
_______.Radio Bejnamin. Lecia Rosenthal, (ed.) Verso, New York, 2014, 424 pp.