Berlin Childhood around 1900.
Ironically, the worlds of cultural and academic discourse are all the richer for the conditions that conspired to deprive Walter Benjamin, after 1925, of any stable institutional home for his intellectual activities and discourse. With the brilliance of historical hindsight, we know that any academic career he would have embarked on, had he been encouraged to submit his Habilitationsschrift on baroque drama, would have been short-lived. In the wake of this rejection, his career involved a constant quest for venues and occasions for his writing. The sheer variety and discursive positions and postures that he successfully articulated and creatively reformatted in his ongoing quest are in themselves one of the treasures of twentieth-century intellectual work.
Among the multifarious writerly roles that Benjamin not only successfully assumed but also developed toward the extremities of their possibility numbered at least the following: philosophy-based literary critique, cultural criticism, travel literature, food writing, personal memoir, and radio-talk. Benjamin not only mastered an astonishing range of literary dialects: he brought the rich and vibrant tradition of the book, in its architecture and design-values as well as its cultural role as a medium of memory, narrative, and thinking, to a culmination and to an insurmountable constitutional crisis.
Benjamin's devotion to the tradition of the book is such that he could follow this medium through its phases of configuration and fragmentation. His complex discursive identity both as a nostalgic, backward-looking collector and an avatar of shock open to the percussions of modernity may well owe something to Gershom Scholem's account of the two inaugural phases of Jewish mysticism: a creation-centered reconfiguration of biblical commentary in the Zohar and a post-exilic (post-1492) parcours, in Lurianic Kabbalism. The notorious Lurianic shevira ha-kelim or breaking of the vessels became an encrypted moment in Benjamin's resolute but ambivalent encounter with modernity. Benjamin fully registers, in the citational omniverousness, the open-ended linear progression, and the concatenation of multiple levels of documentation and commentary of The Arcades Project, the future and the fate of a book medium that was much simpler and more deeply entrenched when he encountered it at the outset of his intellectual life.
Harvard University Press has evidenced exemplary responsibility, scholarly rigor, and taste in the fashion in which it has assumed a vast share of the custody of Benjamin's writings--his intellectual fate--in the English language. The team of crack editors and translators that it assembled for these tasks not only added a vast amount of previously untranslated material from the German Gesammelte Schriften, it painstakingly reedited, and where necessary corrected earlier English translations, by Harry Zohn, for example, while preserving.intonations of the Benjaminian voice that had already been achieved. Harvard has recognized that Benjamin's work is not merely a worthy literary property produced by a figure whose productive career transpired under a shroud of impending disaster. Inhering in the material produced with loving care by Harvard University Press is nothing less than a good measure of the fate of critique itself in its invariably trying times. Ours happen to be beset, among other things, by technological hegemony, economic exploitation on a global scale, professional caste-formation, theological fundamentalism, the overuse and proliferation, in all spheres of life, of weaponry, the reduction of cultural literacy to a boutique specialty, and climactic meltdown. Benjamin's environment was stressed--severely--by variants on these issues. Harvard's sizable and laudable commitment to Benjamin is a well-considered investment in a paradigm of the work involved in an effective, mindful, and responsible critique emanating from a fully enfranchised secular public sphere.
With the recent publication of Berlin Childhood around 1900 and On Hashish, Harvard University Press is supplementing the magisterial volumes of the Collected Writings (I-IV) and The Arcades Project with those Benjaminian writings most conducive to being housed in beautifully designed and illustrated (in the case of the Berlin Childhood) volumes, formatted to the scale of our most beloved literary "good objects." A Berlin Childhood and On Hashish are books you want to hold; you want to take with you on your next jaunt to the local park. In the case of these volumes, book-design conveys a good deal of what Benjamin was saying about one's attachment to books in such signature essays as "Unpacking My Library" and "Old Forgotten Children's Books." These volumes convey a good deal of the intimacy with which the scenes between the young Marcel and his mother at the outset of "Du cote de chez Swann" are laced; the Recherche is one of the vast dissolving books most pivotal to Benjamin's own incursions into book-design.
A Berlin Childhood is not merely the evocation of a particular time and environment in the development of a family and a city; like the initial scenes in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the Proustian scene noted immediately above, it furnishes an account of the crystallization of a literary sensibility. In contradistinction to Benjamin's comperes in this endeavor, Kafka and Woolf in addition to the two afore-named authors, the city occupies center-stage in Benjamin's scenario. It is not merely a contingent surround. As Benjamin indicates in "Unpacking my Books" and elsewhere, the trajectories of cities and books are fatally interlocked. Certainly situated in the Benjaminian sub-genre of memoir, A Berlin Childhood uplifts us with the freshness and intimacy of its Proustian reminiscence; it takes us on a Cook's tour of the Berlin of this moment, lavishing special attention on such sites as the Tiergarten, the Zoological Garden, and the Markthalle on Magdeburger Platz; it highlights certain sites of personal and familial reminiscence, such as the grandmother's apartment at Blumenhof 12. More importantly, the text interweaves those auratic objects, physical and discursive (fairy tales), presenting the childhood imaginary with inexhaustible material for play--among them a sock and a sewing box--objects morphing themselves into a more mature sensibility, into exemplary tropes for poetic and critical composition.
It is precisely at the point where the breezy and reassuring recollections of childhood abut upon textual objects both alluring in their physicality and allegorical in their implications for poetic invention and critical mindfulness that A Berlin Childhood around 1900 joins the multiple other registers of the discourse that Benjamin synthesized over time as a composite primer in the activities and perspectives involved in engaged and self-aware cultural critique. This intellectual task is incumbent to some degree on all cultural citizens; it imposes its exertions democratically. It is one that preoccupies Leopold Bloom, a thoughtful civilian, during his circuitous perambulations through Dublin on June 16, 1904. A critic would have to be attuned to his audience and its intellectual needs indeed to make this demanding task palatable. The sweetest coating that Benjamin devised for the sometimes sobering work of personal cultural critique suffuses such works as A Berlin Childhood around 1900, Berlin Chronicle, and One-Way Street. His multifaceted exhortation to the task does not, however, stop there.
This reviewer fervently hopes that this volume, now that Harvard has made it available, will find its way into countless backpacks, handbags,
and suitcases. English-language readers everywhere can well benefit from its joyful recounting of urban childhood and its multiple illuminations. Everything about it is uplifting, not least the reprinting of Peter Szondi's "Hope in the Past" as the introductory essay. Would that all of our most informative and thought-provoking critics receive the tender cultural and scholarly care that Harvard University Press has lavished upon Walter Benjamin.
Department of Comparative Literature /Germanic Languages and Literatures
State University of New York at Buffalo/Yale University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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