The Principles of the Weighty Tome
September 4, 2007 11:01 AM   Subscribe

" . . . every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter."
There is a lot we do not know about September 27, 1940. On that day, Walter Benjamin found out that he needed a visa to cross the border from France into Spain. By September 28, he was dead. Was it a suicide? Was he murdered by Stalin? He carried trunks with his last works. What was in them? These questions will never be answered, but Benjamin is not lost to us. He told us about the culture of print and photograph. He probed the metaphysics of hashish. Through fashion, feuilleton, and flânerie, he traced the lineaments of the modern city. His task, as he saw it, was one of reading and critique, the illumination of modernity.
posted by nasreddin (17 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic post.

One of the great, sad ironies of Benjamin's demise is the fact that Gershom Scholem had been trying without success to lure him to the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Scholem had secured a salary advance for the perennially destitute Benjamin with the understanding that this money would be used for basic Hebrew instruction prior to his aliyah. Benjamin promptly squandered the money and the episode cast a pall over relations between the two.

If I am recalling it correctly, the correspondence relevant to the episode can be found in the collected letters of Scholem and Benjamin.

Who knows? Benjamin the Israeli might have fared no better than Else Lasker-Schuler or any of the other cultured German-Jews who struggled to make a life for themselves in the harsher climes of the Levant. But it's clear that his death on the Spanish border had as much to do with a cultured German-Jew's inability to imagine life as a Zionist as with a refugee's despair.
posted by felix betachat at 11:29 AM on September 4, 2007

Thanks for this great post. It's hard for me to imagine anyone more brilliant and illuminating than Walter Benjamin. I'm always reminded of his famous allegory about history, riffing off the Klee painting "Angelus Novus," which is quoted in one of the FPP links: "[The painting] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating ... 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. This 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."
posted by blucevalo at 11:29 AM on September 4, 2007 [5 favorites]

Sorry, here's a link that works.
posted by felix betachat at 11:31 AM on September 4, 2007

Dammit, nasreddin, I'm supposed to be working today.
posted by jokeefe at 11:32 AM on September 4, 2007

blucevalo: that image has shaped the past third of my life. It is the most profound thing I have ever read.
posted by nasreddin at 11:37 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

The bit about the lost manuscript is very interesting. One of my favorite parts of the Benjamin legend (as opposed to the life) is the hiding of the Arcades Project in plain site, a la Poe, with Bataille in the Bibliotheque National.

Benjamin's refusal to emigrate to Palestine is one of the most interesting intellectual choices that he made. Of course it's easy to look back and see that it would have been preferable to death, but Benjamin had very developed reasons to be suspect of Zionism and, hence, of moving to Palestine. The discussions are all through the Scholem correspondence, and his other correspondence. What's so fascinating is the tension between those reasons, which included both a commitment to a different sort of political utopianism and a developed sense of himself as a European, and the threats to Jews in Europe. The prescience of Zionism as a movement looks much different after the Nazis, ironically especially so for Jews growing up in Germany.
posted by OmieWise at 11:41 AM on September 4, 2007

Fittko describes the little party striking out at a steady pace, she and Joseph taking turns to carry Benjamin's black briefcase. Much later, when people asked her if she knew, or he'd said, what it contained, she was impatient. He was carrying a very important manuscript, worth more in his eyes than his own life, as he'd intimated, but that was as far as it went .. 'For better or worse,' she said of Benjamin's luggage, 'we had to drag that monstrosity over the mountains.'

An interesting article on Benjamin's last days (and the mystery of the missing manuscript), from a recent issue of the LRB.
posted by verstegan at 12:04 PM on September 4, 2007

verstegan beat me to the LRB link, which also precipitated an interesting exchange on the letters page of the next few issues. I hadn't realized until reading this review and these letters how shaky the whole lost-manuscript story was – since it appears in later accounts much more consistently than in the contemporary eyewitness versions of Benjamin's last days, it seems at least possible that it was a piece of colorful retrospective embellishment.
posted by RogerB at 12:21 PM on September 4, 2007

Thanks, verstegan. I wish I had caught that and put it in my post.
posted by nasreddin at 12:23 PM on September 4, 2007

Thanks for this, nasreddin.

I've been reading Berlin Childhood around 1900 and feel compelled to transcribe the entry "Hiding Places":

"I already knew all the hiding places in the house, and would return to them as to a home ground where everything is sure to be in its familiar place. My heart would pound. I held my breath. Here, I was enveloped in the world of matter. It became monstrously distinct for me, loomed speechlessly near. In much the same way, a man who is being hanged first comes to know what rope and wood are. The child who stands behind the doorway curtain himself becomes something that flutters, a ghost. The dining table under which he has crawled turns him into the wooden idol of the temple; its carved legs are four pillars. And behind a door, he is himself the door, is decked out in it like a weighty mask and, as sorcerer, will cast a spell on all who enter unawares. Nor for a fairy kingdom would he be found. When he makes faces, he is told all the clock need do is strike, and he will stay like that forever. In my hiding place, I realized what was true about all this. Whoever discovered me could hold me as a ghost for all time into the curtain, confine me for life within the heavy door. Should the person looking for me uncover my lair, I would therefore give a loud shout to loose the demon that had transformed me–indeed, without waiting for the moment of discovery, would anticipate its arrival with a cry of self-liberation. Thus it was that I never tired of the struggle with the demon. Through it all, the house was an arsenal of masks. But once a year in secret places, in the empty eye sockets of the masks, in their rigid mouths, lay presents. Magical experience became science. I disenchanted the gloomy parental dwelling, as its engineer, and went looking for Easter Eggs."

Magician and materialist–I wonder what he made of the rope and the wood?
posted by generalist at 4:18 PM on September 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Nice stuff, thanks nasreddin!
posted by carter at 5:35 PM on September 4, 2007

Not long ago I typed in the bulk of a Benjamin fragment called "Capitalism as Religion," which I still like:

A religion may be discerned in capitalism—that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers. The proof of the religious structure of capitalism—not merely, as Weber believes, as a formation condition by religion, but as an essentially religious phenomenon—would still lead even today to the folly of an endless universal polemic. We cannot draw closed the net in which we are caught. Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it...
posted by BackwardsCity at 6:33 PM on September 4, 2007

Damn. Here's the link.
posted by BackwardsCity at 6:34 PM on September 4, 2007

Excellent post. Thank you for this.
posted by Kinbote at 10:28 PM on September 4, 2007

posted by semmi at 10:38 PM on September 4, 2007

Germany's greatest loss.
posted by hortense at 11:24 PM on September 4, 2007

Another big tick for nasreddin.
posted by Wolof at 1:11 AM on September 5, 2007

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