Walter Benjamin, Fabulist*


Joseph Cermatori

Fifty years have passed since Walter Benjamin’s writings first began to appear in English translation in 1968, and more than twenty since the historian Mark Lilla could complain in the New York Review of Books about the “enormous Anglo-American industry” of interpretation growing up around them. Much more recently, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has criticized “the Collegiate Intellect’s efforts to make the most of Walter Benjamin,” suggesting an academic commodities market trading in Benjamin Studies. Benjamin himself might have been bemused by this posthumous destiny, given his ambivalence toward the scholarly establishment of his time and its reciprocal ambivalence toward him. Months after the University of Frankfurt ended his hopes for an academic career upon reviewing his post-doctoral thesis on German baroque drama, he expressed that ambivalence in a fairy tale intended as that book’s secret preface, sent to Gershom Scholem in May 1926:

I would like to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty a second time.

She sleeps in her hedge of thorns. And then, after a certain

number of years, she wakes.

But not at the kiss of a fortunate prince.

The cook woke her up when he gave the scullery boy a box on

the ear that, resounding from the pent-up force of so many

years, echoed through the palace.

A lovely child sleeps behind the thorny hedge of the following pages.

May no fortune’s prince in the shining armor of scholarship come near.

In the kiss of betrothal she will bite.

The author has therefore had to reserve to himself the role of master

cook in order to awaken her. Already long overdue is the box on

the ear that would resound through the halls of academe.

For there will awaken also this poor truth, which has pricked itself

on an old-fashioned spindle

as, in forbidden fashion it thought to weave for itself, in the little back

room, a professorial robe.

This bit of theoretical storytelling reflects a long-standing pattern in Benjamin’s career. It may surprise many of his English-speaking readers to learn that he was the author of numerous stories, fairy tales, play-scripts, poems, and puzzles, but his audacious traveling between the outposts of “literature” and “criticism"—which he learned from Goethe and the Romantics who formed the subject of his doctoral dissertation —ought to be recognized as a prominent facet of his work. This habit of mind hardly endeared him to the professoriate of his lifetime; his book on the German baroque was too speculative, too interdisciplinary, ultimately too much a work of creative or primary writing in itself to pass muster with his readers. Notably, no armor-clad knight of official Scholarship can awaken the slumbering, childlike, ultimately mordant Truth from within the pages of his thesis: only a Cook and a Scullery Boy, who in a slapstick moment rattle the academy’s ivory chambers with noise. The same clangor, however, awakens another old truth. Although Benjamin had hoped in his youth for a scholarly robe, he also wished "a thousand times” as a child—in direct opposition to this longing—for a life in which he could sleep his fill.

A spate of recent English-language publications now signals a new attentiveness to Benjamin’s previously untranslated literary output. The independent Publication Studio Hudson has released Carl Skoggard’s translation of his Sonnets—an extended sequence written after the death of his university friend Fritz Heinle. Meanwhile, Verso has compiled his texts for radio, including stories and plays for children, under the title Radio Benjamin, alongside another collection of short stories and reviews, titled The Storyteller. Together, they make Benjamin’s creative oeuvre available for Anglophone readers to an unprecedented degree and should become indispensable for research on him in the future. Their publication coincides with Stuart Jeffries’s group biography of the Frankfurt School entitled Grand Hotel Abyss, which devotes much attention to Benjamin as an outlier to the central Frankfurt constellation, but also as one who “initiated” the project of critical theory central to its undertakings.

We seem, then, to be living through a moment of resurgent interest in Benjamin’s life and work, one that is perhaps not fully incompatible with a simple academic imperative “to make the most” of him. Recent years had pointed to a fatigue with critical theory among writers and intellectuals of a certain generation, a situation Nicholas Dames summarized in an N+1 essay titled “The Theory Generation"—which largely overlaps the "Generation X” demographic—focusing on six realist American novels from 2010–11. Or, if not fatigue, at least a desire to reassess: from the standpoint of literary critics nowadays, laboring under the standards of “surface reading,” for example, the philosophical mode of allegoresis Benjamin practiced must now seem largely a musty affair. This burnout was predictable enough, given the passage of time and the prominence that “theory” enjoyed this side of the Atlantic since the 1980s, along with the many adherents and epigones it produced in American liberal arts departments. But within our current political climate, marked by a mounting sense of crisis that has only intensified in recent years, Benjamin and his cohort have come to seem urgent once again, and for a new generation of readers to boot. (As of this writing, the latest sign of this developing situation is the recent neo-fascist terror in Charlottesville, Virginia.) In a context shot through with evident peril, these stories, poems, and plays offer readers a chance to know Benjamin’s thought differently and more intimately than ever, not just as a custodian and dialectician of the literary tradition, but as an active participant in it as well.

Approaching these works requires us to acknowledge that Benjamin can hardly be classed as a “literary” thinker in any conventional sense. What’s more, adequate justice can hardly be done to four such publications in the span of a short review essay like this one. (The classical pianist and essayist Charles Rosen once devoted not one, but two full-length New York Review essays, totaling over 16,000 words, to analyzing the baroque drama book on its own.) Still, some attempt must be made, however quixotic, to come to terms with Benjamin’s literary preoccupations. Among his most relevant writings on the politics of literary production, the 1936 essay on Nikolai Leskov provides a convenient entryway into this material. It asserts storytelling as an untimely remnant of the ancient world persisting into the time and space of the modern one, finding expression in the form of the novel, the modern mode of epic delivery. In a seeming paradox, however, Benjamin observes that the “elements” favorable to storytelling’s novelistic flowering in modernity also bring about its obsolescence, raising a dialectical standstill of flourishing and ruination, antiquity and modernity, myth and history, to an extreme point of tension. Storytelling has fallen into crisis with the rise of a “new form of communication"— namely information—which, unlike the story form, "lays claim to prompt verifiability” and must “appear ‘understandable in itself.’” He elaborates:

If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs. Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing happens that benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. Leskov is a master at this. … The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

The terms of this analysis, its insistence upon the literary work’s necessary openness to interpretation, can be traced throughout the German tradition from Schlegel to Brecht, and resonate with Benjamin’s insight into Kafka’s parables: that they unfold more like a bud turning into a blossom than like a paper boat into a sheet held flat in one’s hand. There is no necessary politics to this non-coercive openness, only a set of political potentials inherent in the possibility of readers being free to draw connections on their own from material otherwise lacking in self-evident meaning. With this openness to creative contemplation, the “ponderación misteriosa” Benjamin found texts to presuppose—that is, the possible flash of recognition that can open the Now to the remembrance of things past and the messianic transformation—might then become a ground for educating constructive imaginations.

Benjamin’s literary writing can largely be approached in this spirit. Far from being “merely” playful, it also serves a “more serious” purpose: to train the reader for the cognitive or epistemological work necessary for liberation from modern conditions. Bringing work and play into double focus, the end of the Leskov essay figures storytelling as a prehistoric form of artisanship—stressing the coordination required from the teller’s soul, eye, voice, and hand. One might thus imagine that the task of creative writing functioned for Benjamin as a workshop where ideas and experiences could be fashioned manually; or else, as an imaginary theater, a platform for rehearsing epic gestures. As The Storyteller‘s translators put it, the stories create a space where Benjamin “formally stages, enacts, and performs certain concerns that he develops elsewhere in a more academic register.” (emphasis mine)

The works collected in Radio Benjamin express precisely this experimental, theatrical disposition, representing broadcasts he recorded for stations in Berlin and Frankfurt between 1927 and 1933. (No recordings of Benjamin’s voice are currently known to exist. Those texts that survive appear scattered throughout the Gesammelte Schriften, and constitute volume 9 of Suhrkamp’s new Werke und Nachlaß edition.) Radio Benjamin divides the material in four: stories for children; plays for children; talks, plays, dialogues, and “listening models” (Hörmodelle) for adults; and Benjamin’s off-the-air theoretical writings on radio. Although this was mostly paid work that Benjamin apparently esteemed less highly than his own independent projects, the scripts assembled here fed fruitfully into The Arcades Project, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, and numerous other endeavors. Lecia Rosenthal’s introduction entertains the many media-theoretical questions raised by the fact of Benjamin’s attraction to radio. (How do dialectical images translate to audio form? Does radio access an “auditory unconscious” or generate an auditory sense of the aura?) Within the stories and plays themselves, an enchanting “Voice Land” teems with recognizably Benjaminian images and references. The storyteller’s panoramic narration summons up fairies, angels, dwarfs, automata, cataclysms, exotic urban locales, and scenarios out of Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Among other lessons, a tour of a department store toy gallery culminates in a critique of commodities for young listeners; the mysterious life of Kaspar Hauser teaches children to delight in strange and inconclusive narratives; a description of Pompeii evokes the (dialectical) image of a city both destroyed and preserved by volcanic ash.

In a particularly amusing inclusion, Benjamin relates tableaux from the life of eighteenth-century charlatan and “arch-magician” Cagliostro, ultimately to illustrate the perils of secularized thought:

It was precisely during this free and critical Age of Enlightenment that Cagliostro was able to turn his artistry to such advantage. How was this possible? Answer: precisely because people were so firmly convinced that the supernatural world did not exist, they never took the trouble to reflect upon it seriously and thus fell victim to Cagliostro, who led them to believe in the supernatural with a magician’s finesse. Had their convictions been weaker and their powers of observation stronger, they wouldn’t have succumbed.

The stories and plays typically present and help interpret enigmas for the listener. In Benjamin’s hands, literature and performance—those domains of extra-moral lying, or “falseness with a good conscience"—become playgrounds for exercising the philosophical sense of wonder that can lead generatively to the loosening of convictions. (To some, such a view might seem "merely” fantastic today. It apparently did not seem so to Benjamin in the 1930s.) In the story of Cagliostro and elsewhere—as in a radio play about alien Moon Beings attempting to understand the Enlightenment philosopher Lichtenstein’s odd mixture of unhappiness and insatiable curiosity—an entire education in dialectics appears within their brief morals. (Moral: Lichtenstein’s melancholy is actually the spur to his constant sense of wonder.) Witty and limpid in tone, they would repay analysis alongside the 1928 essay outlining a “Program for Proletarian Children’s Theater,” co-written with Asja Lacis while under the influence of Brecht.

By contrast, the sonnets access a darker, more cryptic vein. Heinle’s suicide at the outbreak of World War I inspired at least fifty of the total seventy-three by 1918. Apart from Scholem and Florens Christian Rang, few if any of Benjamin’s professional intimates knew they existed, nor did he seek their publication. Skoggard expands upon their formal properties in his introduction, situating the sequence in relation to Benjamin’s criticism, notably his essays on Hölderlin, language, translation, and his study of the baroque Trauerspiel or “mourning play.” Idiosyncratic and abstract in the extreme, syntactically complex, without most internal punctuation, and at times devoid of concrete reference points apart from the departed friend’s physical form, the poems chart the work of mourning by oscillating between impersonal and personal registers, rhetorical ostentation and private grief, self-disclosure and self-concealment. Charles Rosen has commented on the deliberate resistance Benjamin’s writing poses to translation, but Skoggard’s renditions are serviceable guides, given the almost Mallarméan complexity to which the texts aspire. (With passages too hermetic to be glossed, he will sometimes confess refreshingly that Benjamin “appears determined to cling to secrets.”) Of those sonnets that are more easily decipherable, one can say—borrowing a phrase describing baroque lyric poetry that Benjamin admired—that they typically “have no forward movement, but swell up from within.” His distinctive prose style, which Susan Sontag described as “freeze frame baroque,” gains room in poetry to perform the attitudes of mournfulness he develops conceptually elsewhere. A relatively approachable example, sonnet 20, reads:

Pastness quivers inside all who are ensouled

So dance remained within the dancer’s heart

Even though the bow fell silent late on homeward way

Clouds companion him in sounding woodland halls

See how it invites the turning in of all

His death which grows like richly branching coral

And to please the nights illimitable

He is chosen as a precious implement:

A scepter of the bless’d which do not tire

His body which time passing rends no more

Is as the Cross which stars have drawn

Above the South for guide and measure

Now the gods shall keep him in their hands

For whom they send alive is ridiculed and mocked.

A contemplative solitude accompanies the sonneteer through the cycle’s ossified landscapes and dreamlike emblems. Heinle’s death becomes a precious coral, while Heinle himself is chosen as a scepter, a discordia concors suggesting the form of some exquisite mannerist reliquary. The dead one’s body returns obsessively: here, once dismembered, it becomes cruciform among the Zodiac in a promised resurrection or redemption that brings little solace.

In other instances, when Benjamin addresses the lost Heinle directly, Skoggard follows Martin Buber in translating “du” as “thou,” which conveys the intimacy of familiars, lovers, and the Man-God relation, blurring the lines between dead friend and something greater. (“Thou” also produces a peculiar, faux-antique sound whose stiffness is consonant with the sonnets’ embrace of archaisms and other defamiliarizing gestures, which Benjamin ostensibly modeled from both baroque and Expressionist literatures, and which Skoggard usefully reproduces wherever possible.) Such intimacy borders on worshipfulness as the speaker anatomizes Heinle’s eyes, voice, breath, mouth, lips, and hair in frequently sensual tones, reaching a crescendo near the center of the book in a series of confessional sonnets (numbers 33–36) suggestive of erotic tensions between the two men, as in this final sestet, for example, which conjures a nighttime scene of intoxication and uncertainty:

Now trees fell silent and the wine in goblets sang

Inside our talk the rushing river whispers still

And in the friend a friendship wakes which does not guess

A quieter change of feeling in the loved one

For it blows away from open lips

That word which shelters even night with lovers.

Benjamin likely knew Stefan George’s 1909 translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets: while Heinle personifies martyred Youth in general, he also echoes the “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s desiring. Skoggard renders these scenes with depth and pathos, offering biographical context and interpretation in his notes, and arguing, “It is hard to know what to make of these moments, yet when Benjamin refers to ‘the most beautiful of men,’ we had better remember the physical as well as the moral component of ideal beauty.”

In comparison with the sonnets and radio broadcasts, The Storyteller confronts the reader with an astonishingly diverse grouping of pieces: the cover promises “Short Stories,” but in reality the volume does not coalesce around a genre. Instead, unfinished sketches from Benjamin’s adolescent forays into short fiction mingle here with diary entries, dream journals, travelogues real and imagined, scholarly book reviews, children’s puzzles, and brain-teasers, all punctuated with fanciful drawings by Paul Klee. A cynical reader might call it a grab bag, or else a publisher’s effort “to make the most of Walter Benjamin,” but these short texts and fragments will benefit our understanding of Benjamin’s thought as much as the radio and poetic works. An excellent editorial introduction orients the reader before this heterogeneous Wunderkammer and, in a particularly wonderful passage, elucidates Benjamin’s theories of literature in relation to his notion of play. Those stories that appear in this volume encompass a range of spectacular vistas: a great dream pyramid devoted to Literature brimming with the writers of past ages (“Schiller and Goethe, A Layman’s Vision”); the court of an aging, nineteenth-century Mexican monarch who ponders the world’s physical weight, attended by a retinue of children (“The Morning of the Empress”); and a four-masted sailing ship crossing the Atlantic, which becomes an allegory for a spoiled workers’ revolution (“The Voyage of the Mascot”). Yet another inclusion, set in the French Riviera, proceeds as a philosophical dialogue on the nature of risk, time, luck, and action “at a moment of danger” (“The Lucky Hand”). It can be read productively in tandem with the theses on the concept of history.

Several book reviews included here shed additional light on Benjamin’s theories of pedagogy, while also, charmingly, showcasing his professional practice as a critic. (Particularly memorable—for its virtuosic vitriol—is his excoriation of Alois Jalkotsky’s colonialist study of The Fairy Tale and the Present.) In the volume’s final entry, he reviews a pair of primers that invite children to learn letters, numbers, and words by making up stories about them, demystifying language and mathematics while also encouraging creative thought. They laudably endorse exaggeration as a pedagogical device: here, Benjamin latches onto the educational potential within a story that begins with the fabulous words: “A boy with the name Eve got up one morning from the closet and sat down to eat his evening meal,” to which he responds: “It is certain that the child feasts itself on such stories.” Given Judith Butler’s writings on the pedagogical value of exaggeration with respect to gender, these observations are strikingly prescient. Here, and in the quasi-erotic sonnets to Heinle, might the roots of a queer Benjaminian outlook be found. Older primers put children “under the spell of the black-upon-white, of law and right, the irrevocable, the being set for all eternity.” If these new ones include stories of boys named Eve coming out of their closets, and so dispersing the world’s aura of immutability through incitements to play, perform, and exaggerate, such stories demonstrate the world’s capacity to be reconfigured anew. So long as fascism depends upon what Masha Gessen describes as an “imaginary past in which every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, [and] everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed,” these teachings remain urgent today.

Finally, the first half of Grand Hotel Abyss evokes scenes from Benjamin’s life amid readings of his philosophical works. The book notably treats its subjects in lucid, easygoing prose—a fact that will surely please some and disquiet others. Boilerplate analyses of Benjamin’s major concepts and methodologies thread themselves throughout, clustering in chapters four and eight. Sketching Benjamin’s participation in the Youth Movement, Jeffries mentions Heinle only as having potentially induced Benjamin’s susceptibility to suicide. In his account, Benjamin the flâneur, collector, mystic, media-theorist, and patrician Marxist rub up against more colorful characterizations: Benjamin the self-identified bumbler, ungrateful child, draft dodger, and lady’s man. All these many faces and philosophemes call to mind Theodor Adorno’s characterization of his friend—which at first blush troubles the very project of biography foundationally—as one who “seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, into language.” Such an assessment however is too glibly negative and hagiographic in its own way to suffice. From the vantage of Benjamin as a literary thinker, Jeffries’s book strikes its most moving chords in granting Hannah Arendt’s remembrance pride of place instead. Her introduction to Illuminations hailed Benjamin as the last exemplary homme de lettres in the tradition of ancièn-régime writers like Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, Pascal, and Montesquieu: aristocratic men of letters who desired no integration with society or the state, but instead cultivated aphoristic thought, practicing philosophy as an art. (Surely Nietzsche could be added belatedly to their company.) Jeffries cites Arendt’s claim that, in Benjamin’s life, it was possible that “the purely intellectual passion which makes [the homme de lettres] so loveable might unfold in all its most telling and impressive possibilities.”

Grand Hotel Abyss is most engaging when it raises critical questions. In its title and each chapter, Jeffries takes seriously György Lukács’s suspicion that the Frankfurt group had built for themselves an elaborate, comfortable edifice at the edge of a precipice. What if “theory” was doomed to become “another fetishized commodity … made all the more exciting by its brush with fascism, a more or less harmless diversion for the chattering classes”? The question is as unavoidable now as it was then. With Benjamin specifically, Jeffries follows the scholar Max Pensky in worrying that “perhaps nobody other than Benjamin can find or make dialectical images” or even “if there is such a thing at all.”

Just the same, his final chapter reasserts the viability and necessity of critical theory for the new millennium, using Jonathen Franzen’s 2001 satirical novel The Corrections to argue against the very anti-theoretical prejudices in the Generation-X novel that Dames addresses in his N+1 essay. In an unforgettable scene in that novel, which also serves as one of Dames’s primary touchstones, the defrocked assistant professor Chip Lambert visits Manhattan’s Strand Bookstore to sell off all his grad school theory texts for a cool $65. He uses the cash to buy some overpriced salmon from a high-end supermarket called, winkingly, “The Nightmare of Consumption.” For Lambert, ours is already the best of all possible worlds—and so much for theory. But it is no longer 2001. History has not stopped, and perhaps creative ways can yet be found to redeem Benjamin’s forgotten literary career for a new century—for the oppressed past, our shared present, and global future alike.

  • Review of Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin, Lecia Rosenthal, editor, Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Haries Schumann, and Diana K. Reese, translators (London: Verso, 2014); The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness, Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski, editors and translators (London: Verso, 2016); Walter Benjamin: Sonnets, Carl Skoggard, translator (Catskill, NY: Publication Studio Hudson, 2014); Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London, Verso, 2016).