Walter Benjamin's sparks of holiness. (Essays).
This blending of contradictory ideas goes back to the criticism of Friedrich Schlegel, specifically his idea of Verwirrung, which is best translated as "inspirational entanglement." This is the critical legacy in which Benjamin's sensibility took shape; he wrote his dissertation on the Romantic art criticism of the Schlegels. Benjamin understood very clearly what were once called extrinsic and intrinsic approaches--but he brought them into a dialectical confrontation in which the peculiar form, or intrinsically aesthetic nature of the work in question, literally sacrificed itself to the revelation of a "truth content" that would not have been apparent otherwise; in other words, art may serve truth by exposing its own artifice, but the truth must be grateful, for it would have remained unknown without the martyrdom of art. Kant in his Critique of Judgment had established the principle that the aesthetical idea is a complement to the rational idea, and Hegel ultimately followed with the argument that Geist or the spirit of Truth evolved from poetry to philosophy. In the interim Friedrich Schlegel in 1798 had made imperial claims for the powers of the imagination to stir up an endlessly suggestive "universal poesie" in pursuit of elusive unities that often take on a symbolic semblance. He had been given his cue by Goethe's great friend Schiller, who three years earlier in his influential "Aesthetic Education of Man" had announced "Even before Truth's triumphant light can penetrate the heart of man, the poet's imagination will intercept its rays, and the peaks of humanity will be radiant while the dews of night will linger in the valley." Benjamin's German intellectual heritage explains his readiness to mix all sorts of things from the worlds of imagination and feeling with the pursuit of the idea, and later in his Marxist phase all sorts of things from everyday life in pursuit of historical truth.
Like William Blake, Benjamin combined a radical politics with a religious vision and could not conceive of any form of social revolution without spiritual redemption. The combination of these two extremes--secular revolution and religious redemption--is unusual. Radical Protestantism, of which Blake is certainly an avatar, brings them together. Thomas Munzer, the German theologian (Luther's "archdevil"), represented a chiliastic Messianism that Ernst Bloch, in a book read by Benjamin, credited with being a model for Marx. In the main, however, it is Judaism that is known for intertwining messianism and social justice. Gershom Scholem, a friend of university days who was a strong influence on Benjamin, writes: "Judaism, in all its forms and manifestations, has always maintained a concept of redemption as an event that takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community.... In contrast, Christianity conceives of redemption as an event in the spiritual and unseen realm, an event that is reflected in the soul, in the private world of each individual, and that effects an inner transformation which need not correspond to anything outside" (The Messianic Idea in Judaism, 1971). Benjamin came to rely on Scholem's idea of communal redemption for the glue that kept the conflicting dialectics of German Romantic Verwirrung and Marxist revolutionary rationalism on a common track.
Another important component of Benjamin's thinking was allegory. It served him as an anchor in the windswept bay of his contradictory ideas. In our own day, Benjamin's preference for allegory endeared him to deconstructionists like Paul de Man, who elevated allegory over symbol because he felt it was less "mystified" about its own status as a fiction and a rhetorical device. The irony here is that Benjamin thought allegory actually brought art closer to the mystical origins of language itself, that it tapped the ability of language to explore the "inexpressible" far more probingly than symbolism, which was committed to the obscurity of suggestive images. There is a short note in his collected papers about his returning to Paris after a long absence and standing in a street near Notre Dame overwhelmed by an inexplicable nostalgia for Paris--even though he is standing on one of its loveliest corners. Why? Because he had forgotten to say the name of the street. Only when he voices its name does the strange feeling of nostalgia subside.
Benjamin thought of all words as a form of naming. Adam "named" the animals in Genesis, and ever since we have pined for the rapture of an equally primary experience through language. Every time we want to speak as if no one had ever heard what we are about to say, we are, thought Benjamin, in pursuit of the original language that Adam used to name the things God had created. In his influential essay on translation, Benjamin insisted that all translation is not motivated primarily by our need to communicate but by our secret urge to recover something of that original language that resurfaces whenever we have to think in more than one.
Benjamin's dedication to the recovery of lost things--his haunting reach for original language, his determination to keep that rendezvous with the messianic promise of social justice--comes in great part from his embrace of the Kabbala, the mystical system of the Jews that reached its fullest expression in the teachings of Isaac Luria in the village of Safed in the northern Galille in Israel after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. What Benjamin understood of the Kabbala he owed to Gershom Scholem, with whom he conducted a lifelong correspondence and whose single-handed recovery of the Kabbala for the modern reader is one of the most astonishing feats of twentieth century scholarship:
In order for a thing other than God to come into being, God must necessarily retreat within Himself. Only afterward does He emit beams of light into the vacuum of limitation and build our world ... It is a binding rule that whatever wishes to act or manifest itself requires garbs and vessels, for without them it would revert to infinity, which has no differentiation and no stages. The divine light entered these vessels in order to make forms appropriate to their function in creation, but the vessels could not contain the light and thus were broken ... And what was the consequence of the "breaking of the vessels"? The light was dispersed. Much of it returned to its source; some portions, or "sparks," fell downward and were scattered, some rose upward ... Hence there is a Galut or Exile of the divine itself, of the sparks of the Shekinah. Into the deep abyss of the forces of evil fell some of these sparks of holiness and yearningly aspire to rise to their source but cannot avail to do so until they have support. (The Messianic Idea in Judaism)
Scholem concludes: "the Breaking of the Vessels ... is the decisive turning point in the cosmological process. Taken as a whole, it is the cause of that inner deficiency which is inherent in everything that exists and which persists as long as the damage is not mended" (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1941).
Did Benjamin believe in the literal truth of this mystical teaching? Not any more than Scholem himself, but both, in various ways, saw in it a metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic, and even political model for the "repair of the world"--in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam. The debt to the Kabbala helps to explain Benjamin's fascination with minutiae, fragments, ruins, quotations--any of which could be shadows of those scattered "holy sparks." He once said that the ideal critical essay could be composed of a string of appropriately connected quotations from a variety of unrelated texts. He was intrigued by Surrealism for its often outrageous juxtapositon of unrelated things precisely because these juxtapositions often stumbled on "sparks of holiness ... aspiring to their source." In writing on Proust, Benjamin praises his ability to weave from "involuntary memory" the great "web" of his novel, a web tight and durable enough to scoop up "sparks of holiness" from the most drab and morally compromising experiences. "For an experienced event," writes Benjamin "is finite--at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, (i.e. sacred), because it is ... a key to everything that happened before it and after it." And Proust's remembering is not just a subjective revelation of his soul, but the unwitting analysis of a society based on economic power. We see Benjamin bringing together Marx and the Kabbala in the following:
Proust describes an upper class which is everywhere pledged to camouflage its material base and for this reason is attached to a feudalism which has no intrinsic economic sigificance but is all the more servicable as a mask.... This disillusioned, merciless deglamorizer of the ego, of love, of morals--for this is how Proust liked to view himself--turns his whole limitless art into a veil for this one most vital mystery of his class: the economic aspect. He did not mean to do it a service.... And much of the greatness of this work will remain inaccessible or undiscovered until this class has revealed its most pronounced features in the final struggle.
Despite all the Marxist terms, the reader of Benjamin's essay is made to feel that the truth content of Proust's novel runs deeper than its economic revelations. So impressed is Benjamin with Proust's contribution to the messianic moment when the world will have recovered the lost divinity of the "shattered vessels," that he credits A La Recherche du Temps Perdu with a brilliant aura. It speaks to us with all the power that a great work of art radiates across time. To Benjamin Proust has avoided the allegorical melancholy of the protagonists in the old seventeenth century dramas who wandered between spiritual and secular worlds surrounded by ruins and unconsoled by nature. Proust discovered the infinite through relentless pursuit of involuntary memory, through, paradoxically, what Benjamin calls "forgetfulness": "For the second time there rose a scaffold like Michaelangelo's on which the artist, his head thrown back, painted the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the sickbed on which Marcel Proust consecrates the countless pages which he covered with his handwriting, holding them up in the air, to the creation of his microcosm" (Illuminations, 1968).
Proust's auratic power is an anomaly in the modern world. In what many believe to be the best extant commentary on Kafka--an essay and a letter to Scholem--Benjamin argues that Kafka's genius is that of an artist who realizes he has no "truth" to convey but devises a rhetorical and fictive strategy to express just that conviction. And instead of evaporating from their own vacuity, Kafka's parabolic and fantastic tales seem locked in a ghost dance, searching for an allegorical definition that never materializes. Benjamin put it unforgettably when he said that Kafka's eerie fiction reads like Aggadah (myth and the fictive imagination), looking for Halacha (the law); art searching for truth. Kafka willed his work to be destroyed; his friend Max Brod disobeyed him. Did Kafka do this because he realized that his art was generated largely by its own negativity? Benjamin comes up with a powerful answer to that question:
To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure (Illuminations).
In Kabbalistic terms, Kafka dared to penetrate the deepest darkness, where the brightest sparks eluded him. For Benjamin, "aura" required a gaze between the artwork and the reader/viewer, a gaze triggered by the artwork's spiritual quality, its almost animate embodiment of ritual and magic origins. Kafka is one of those moderns, like Beckett, who force us to confront what it means for that gaze to be lost.
Benjamin's most famous essay, "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction," comes at a crucial point in his intellectual and personal history. It was written in 1936, three years after Hitler had taken power and just before the purges in the Soviet Union forced Benjamin to confront the full meaning of communist tyranny and duplicity, a revelation intensified by Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939. After this betrayal, he joked bitterly that, despite his being a Gymnasium (classical high school) graduate, it was time to put aside his "Latin"--thereby ironizing the faith that too many humanists had placed in communism. But in 1936, he was still fully committed to Marxism--though he never joined the Communist Party, not even to please Asja Lacis, a communist lover, nor to comply with the urgings of Berthold Brecht. "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" has struck many readers as hopelessly contradictory. On one hand Benjamin seems to be lamenting the diminishing power of art in the modern world: "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art"; on the other, with the passing of aura Benjamin takes political satisfaction in the fact that a certain inhibiting distance between great art and the masses also diminishes. Reproductive technology (photography and film) satisfies the need "to get hold of an object at very close range." In an earlier essay, "The Author as Producer," Benjamin praised the gradual doing away of the distinction between author and public in the Soviet press by the introduction of worker correspondents (a practice soon suspended by Stalin). In another essay, however, written in the same year, "The Storyteller," Benjamin laments the passing of the epic storyteller; the teller of tales conveys a moral (one senses the influence of Brecht); the novel just searches without certainty of finding a moral orientation.
Benjamin's fascination with communications--radio as well as film and photography--may strike us as relevant to our current problems of globalism and related questions. In his time, however, communications--particularly film, perhaps even more than radio--were seen as the principal battleground between fascism and the rest of the world. Benjamin, always something of a romantic, remains in awe of the power of auratic art to reach across time and suspend critical awareness in an illusion of transcendence. At the same time he feared the ability of the Nazis to create an illusion of "aura" by "mechanical" means; to utilize an inauthentic aura for propaganda. To this day viewers look at Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films (Triumph of the Will, etc.) and are taken in by their symbolic semblance, their appropriation of myth and ritual for ideological warfare. Benjamin was determined to "name" the forces at work in this corrupting art, to expose the symbolic lies of fascism with the allegorical counters of Marxist critique; this meant a close look at the way film manipulated class consciousness and fears. Benjamin was not giving up on "aura," but he was determined to prevent the Nazis from "co-opting it for an aesthetics of war." The contamination of aura was a greater calamity than its withering. Art had no choice but to ground itself in politics--and to Benjamin in 1936 that meant Russian communism, which had assumed a much more vigorous opposition to fascism in Spain than the western democracies and therefore seemed the only viable alternative to Hitler.
Benjamin's decision made him a hero for such Marxist critics as Terry Eagleton as late as the 1980s, but in 1936 it raised objections from Theodor Adorno at the Frankfurt School of Social Research, which had found permanent asylum in New York. Not only was Benjamin's overt embrace of Soviet Russia unacceptable to the Frankfurt School, but Adorno did not think Benjamin's essay sufficiently dialectical when he submitted it to the journal Adorno edited. Did Benjamin not see how the capitalist reification of the arts through technology gave little support to the belief that communism would do any better? Adorno's commitment to permanent dialectic made him think that Benjamin, under Brecht's influence, had settled for too naive a resting place. With emendations and changes that depoliticized the essay but made it seem more contradictory than it was, Adorno did allow it to appear in the Institute's journal. Benjamin was criticized from the extreme left as well. When Brecht saw it in 1938, he wrote in his diary "Everything is mystical, despite an anti-mystical attitude. In such a form does he adapt the materialist theory of history! It is rather horrible." Both Adorno and Brecht failed to grasp the real issue. Once Benjamin has reviewed all the technical innovations, the close-up, the "surgical" power of the film camera to create illusions of reality beyond the dreams of any painter, he closes in on the crucial truth for the modern person who lives in an age of film. The constant and abrupt change of images to which the film viewer is subjected, which has increased consistently in film history to our own time, "constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind." And this is followed, and in a footnote, by the following:
The film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life that modern man has to face. Man's need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus--changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.
For centuries art as aura had reached out to the viewer and reader in reciprocal gaze across a tactful distance with the songs, words, and images of traditional ritual and history. The non-auratic art work par execellence, film--the cinema--embraces us in overpowering illusions of reality and conditions us to the endless threat to our bodily existence. We are now, implies Benjamin, furtive creatures in a nature darkened by history where political tyrannies are the new beasts of prey. The movies are physical training for Nazi arrest and deportation. Fortunately, Surrealism had provided a sneak preview. Benjamin writes: "By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect." The distance that aura provided for a reciprocal gaze, even in the fashionable art of the recent past, between art and viewer or reader has been replaced by a threatening intimacy in a dark movie house. Scholem was disturbed by the essay because he felt Benjamin was moving beyond his own instincts, that he had left his post at the crossroad between literature and politics and had gone over completely to the political side. Far away in Jerusalem, he, just like Adorno in London, and later New York, could not fully grasp the terror that Benjamin knew was coming. From Paris Benjamin wrote Scholem that in Berlin the Nazis had turned off the free municipal gas to all Jewish residences; too many were wasting it to commit suicide.
The one thing Benjamin did not do was panic. All who knew him attested to his remarkable patience. Although he had planned suicide at the very outset of the Nazi threat in 1932, he changed his mind and instead began work on his memoir of childhood. Inspired by Proust, Benjamin felt that the challenge of the moment was how to make sense of extremes, the extremes of beginning and end--not only his own, or even just that of the world around him, but rather of the world of his time, the modern bourgeois world that he sensed had reached its twilight hour in which birth and death would coalesce in revelation. Revelation was a source of redemption, what Benjamin called the Jetzt Zeit, the now time, when extremes of experience forced a heightened perception. Catastrophes, in their own strange way, were proof of their opposites. Having survived them in the past, the rabbis had argued that one had the evidence that they need not be the last word on the meaning of experience.
What he now felt he had to do was chronicle the process, not to bear witness as a mere observor of the immediate crumbling world of the 1930s, but to extract from the accumulating debris of preceding generations the "laws" of humanity, the truth of the historical meaning in the long narrative of mankind's search for redemption. He could not remain in the dark cave of the cinema and submit to its deintellectualized shock therapy. He was in Hell and he needed a Virgilian guide. Kafka's art had approached the door of the problem, but as in his many parables, he lacked the key or the word to open it. Baudelaire, on the other hand, perhaps because he still had the integrated sensibilty of a late romantic lyricist, did succeed in a form of immolation; he sacrificed himself as an artist, and in the ashes of his poetry the hard fragments of irreducible truth are exposed: a shining fool's gold, the truth of modern materialism, what Baudelaire himself had called the "beauty of ugliness." Baudelaire tore away the facade that separated poet and reader and forced a recognition that both were at the mercy of the crowd, immersed in the street life of the modern city that shattered illusions of privacy and inviolate selfhood. The phantom crowd evokes in Baudelaire a corresponding "phantom crowd of words, the fragments, the beginnings of lines from which the poet, in the deserted streets, wrests the poetic booty" (Illuminations). And he did it with allegory. This is Benjamin's distinct claim, that Baudelaire, the father of modern symbolist poetry, was actually an allegorist. In an important essay on Benjamin (New York Review of Books, January 11, 2001), J. M. Coetzee observes that in "Le Cygne" Baudelaire "allegorizes the poet, as a noble bird, a swan, scrabbling about comically in the paved marketplace, unable to spread his wings and soar." He is an absurd intruder imposed on the commodity-driven cityscape of a "widowed" Paris; his anguish, that of the alienated poet, is allegorized while the city's "soul-less" condition is symbolized in a stream of images and allusions. Coetzee maintains that Benjamin, with Marx in mind, "argues ... that allegory is exactly the right mode for an age of commodities." Yes, but perhaps allegory is even more appropriate for the alienated poet than the illusory and fetishized world he must interpret. The poet's intrusion outflanks the symbolic import of his creation. Benjamin's conception of Baudelaire's persona calls to mind, among other moderns, the hovering speakers of the Cantos and The Waste Land--who resemble Baudelaire's allegorical swan.
Benjamin dedicated himself after 1935 to what he called the "Arcades Project." It changed its name several times, but never its purpose. By pursuing Baudelaire's references to the sordid commodified world that hurt him into his painful lyrical outbursts (the prostitutes and ragpickers of the Fleurs du Mal), Benjamin felt he was riding the coattails of genius to an even larger truth than Baudelaire dared to imagine. Instead of merely reading the sacred texts of the poets, Benjamin would read the texts of history itself--not only the writers major and minor, but the trivial observations of the popular press as well as the signs, literal and figurative, of the Paris street. His method was Marxist, in so far as he understood Marx. He never read his later works, but what really mattered was the thoroughness with which Benjamin pursued the quest. It was his way of fighting the darkness as he saw it, the endless lies that the bourgeois world of material capitalism had been telling itself for generations and that had finally come to roost in the darkness of Hitler. He was now the scholar-critic working against time to show the world the origins of its own corruption. He adopted the persona of the flaneur, the stroller, a seer composed of dandy and prophet who would sift through the rubble of time and draw together bits and pieces that might provide clues of the whole that had been shattered. He was at once the Talmudist laboriously testing each of the forty-nine interpretations, the Kabbalist searching for sparks of holiness embedded in the encrusted debris of the past, and the Marxist pursuing his dialectical path.
Just as he had demystified specific texts by Goethe and Kafka in earlier critical essays, he would now expose the mystifications of a received history that had brought Europe to the brink of disaster: "The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man ... Therefore the destructive man is reliability itself" (Reflections, 1978). Benjamin's flaneur, his daemonic stroller who follows Baudelaire's footsteps from the Paris of the 1830s and 40s on through the middle of the century and beyond is, perhaps, even a more ominous figure than Blake's wanderer, who, almost 150 years before Benjamin, "marks" signs "of weakness and woe" in the commodified streets of "chartered" London. What Benjamin, the stroller as researcher, extracts first from the poet Baudelaire and then from the city in which Baudelaire was a wanderer is no less revealing than what Blake extracts from his own visionary experience.
Already in his memories of a Berlin childhood, writes Susdan Buck-Morss (The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, 1999), Benjamin had noted how "public space, the city of Berlin, had entered into his unconscious and, for all his protected, bourgeois upbringing, held sway over his imagination." Blake's "mind-forged manacles" are forged by the "chartered streets"--in Benjamin's case, they are forged by covered markets, shopping excursions, brothel rooms, etc. What Blake largely juxtaposes--the tyrannies of commerce, church, state, and sexual repression--are sifted by Benjamin in his Passagen Werk, or Arcades Project, through an involved dialectical survey, not dialectical enough to please Adorno, but sufficiently probing to get Adorno to concede that Benjamin was being true to his "destructive" manifesto. His project was an elaborate exercise in montage, but it did more than juxtapose fragments of historical evidence. The idea was to confront the fragmentary truth and transform it into a "readable" text with a negative aura of its own. This, however, was no longer the production of art or literature; it represented, in Benjamin's eyes, the only form in which modern philosophy could be erected. In other words, he was erecting a theoretical foundation for a fresh understanding of historical truth. He was not engaging literary materials as a literary critic, but engaging them in a swirl of other evidence, empirical and textual, that would produce a new epistemology or way of knowing.
Edited in 1982 by one of Adorno's students, Rolf Tiedeman, the Arcades Project consisting of more than 1300 pages of essays and notes, has recently been translated into English. The essays on Baudelaire and nineteenth-century Paris were published in the Frankfurt Institute journal in the 30s, but the vast bulk of this collection of writings consists of notes, carefully classified, beginning with a catalogue of Paris arcades, those glassed-in passageways lined with curious shops and stuffed with consumer goods; this is followed by sections on fashion, advertising signs, mirrors, streetcars, railroad stations; this review of commodities and goods is interspersed with sections devoted to art galleries, prostitution, photography, illuminated gardens and cafes and finally by observations on thinkers and artists like Fournier, Marx, and Daumier. These notes do not read like source material for a book with a developing thesis; so much thought goes into every entry that they seem more like powerful fragments involved in a chain reaction of ideas that could never be contained in one opus or study. Benjamin is writing literary, architectural, aesthetic, intellectual and philosophical, political and social history at one fell swoop; he seems to be duplicating the action of history in the course of thinking about it. The mind, by concentrating primarily on place--Paris--is catching up with time, belatedly but not too late; the owl of Minerva, Hegel's owl, seems to be taking wing at the twilight hour of the early modern world. Baudelaire's poetics of shock, energized by twentieth-century Surrealism, enables Benjamin to render what he called the "decay of experience into a fetishizing of consumer goods," a vividly felt thing. He is not being merely encyclopedic or curiously "anatomical." There is something infectious, almost joyful, in the way this basically melancholy man is gathering up the confetti of history. Benjamin experimented with hashish in Marseilles but dismissed its titillating disorientations as trivial compared to the excitement of thinking. He seems caught up in a rediscovery and refashioning of Schlegel's Verwirrung. As he went on thinking every day at the Biblioteque Nationale, cramming observations into his notebooks with that tiny meticulous penmanship that has driven his editors to distraction, he was laying out the process that has developed into what we call "theory" today; he was planting the seeds of the new historicism, cultural "negotiations" with language and art.
In a short entry in the Passagenwerk Benjamin dismisses Zola's naturalist theories regarding the psychological determinisms of temperament; they have nothing to do, he writes, with the sensational plot and blood-letting of the novel, Therese Raquin, where lovers murder the heroine's husband and then, in remorse, take the poison they had intended for the dead man's mother. It's all about the gradual decay of the Parisian world, says Benjamin; as the arcades become more and more seedy, they exude a poisonous atmosphere that commodifies and vulgarizes the emotions--all of which is reflected in the sensationalism of the novel that panders to the corrupted taste of an increasingly materialized world. The reader is persuaded that urbanism in nineteenth-century Paris is a series of dehumanizing and exploitative acts carried out in the name of "progress." The workers' sections of Paris are demolished to make way for the great boulevards. Not only does this discourage the barricades of revolution, but it also forces the workers into the suburbs and creates a wave of land speculation that makes the rich richer. The beautification of Paris, at the expense of the masses, in the nineteenth century is a rehearsal for the aestheticization of politics by the Nazis in Benjamin's own time. The constant change in women's fashions become an allegory for "transiency without progress," a relentless pursuit of novelty that brings about nothing new in history. Fashion epitomises the hell of modernity, a configuration of repetition, novelty, and death. Change itself becomes a fetish. To combat this meaningless transiency, this illusion of "progress" in history, Benjamin begins to look backward at the small discarded objects, the outdated buildings and fashions that, precisely as the trash of history, are evidence of its uprecedented material destruction.
Something begins to happen to Benjamin in the course of this relentless mapping of the birth of the modern, this still-birth of progress. He puts on the brakes and begins to run the film backwards--slowly. Memory is the rediscovered power. The "aura" of the traditional work of art, fading at every hour, must be attended to. In the midst of his work on Baudelaire, in 1939, he returns to Proust whom he celebrated ten years earlier. Proust remains the great model for the archetypal "storyteller." In the absence of a voluntary memory, which has been weakened by our superstitions of the future, Proust's involuntary memory, all "eight volumes of it," maintains a connection with infinity. It becomes the sacred text and must be read at even more than forty nine levels of meaning. In another project conceived at this time, Benjamin shakes off the decadence of Parisian progress and takes a holiday with a moving collection of letters, also fragments of the past, but each suffused in the aura of sincere feeling. They represent the voices of highly individualized lives and exude a symbolic complexity rather than allegorical precision. Emigres, scholars, dedicated revolutionaries from the idealistic time of the revolution of 1848, they fill a small book Benjamin entitled German People (Deutsche Menschen, 1936). This collection of pre-modern "saints" is a direct challenge to Hitler's glorification of the racially defined German masses.
One of Benjamin's last works, his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), includes the following observations:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. To be sure only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past--which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might come.
Walter Benjamin could not have foreseen at what crossroad he would stand in our day. For us he stands less at the crossroad of literature and politics, or Marxism and religion; rather, he stands at the crossroad of criticism and theory, a barricade of our own construction. His historical materalism would draw him to the theorists; his awareness of the authority of tradition and the call of aura would tempt him to step back from allegorical abstraction and remember the critical idealism informing Friedrich Schlegel's Verwirrung--the Kabbalistic promise of all antinomies resolved in a reintegrated world. Even Adorno, his fellow dialectician, more rigorous than Benjamin himself writes: "... the idea of harmony is expressed negatively by embodying contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure."
Benjamin's rediscovered sense of the importance of traditional aura in the very act of fashioning a philosophy of knowledge in which literature had a subsidiary function, might give us some pause about our own priorities today. Do we want theory to serve literature or do we want literature to serve theory? Literary criticism has, of course, always been theoretical in one form or another. Its ability, in Matthew Arnold's famous words, "to see the object as it really is" involves equal attention to the uniqueness of literature in itself and to its cultural connections. If we read less closely in order to read more objectively in a political or cultural sense, we run the risk of losing our grasp of something becoming more elusive with every day: the institutionality of literature. If we read hermetically, as if literature were a hot house flower, a cultist truth or false religion, we begin to gasp for air. But if we do not read the literary legacy we have inherited, we may lose our taste, in the fullest sense of that word, for life itself.
The Orwell scholar David Kubal, in an essay from his posthumous collection, The Consoling Intelligence (1981), writes the following about an old print of St. Clement Danes that the hero of 1984 accidently comes across: "The symbol (the print of the church) ... represents Orwell's political vision. Founded on the idea of historical continuity and on the necessity of maintaining the concept of objective truth, sustained by language both flexible and concrete, his politics affirmed the irrepressible, phoenix-like morality of the ordinary and the human--to be asserted through revolution if need be--over against the power of absolutes." Benjamin, too, in maintaining the contradiction between literature and history despite their perpetual coexistence in dialectical confrontation, wished to perpetuate the search for those elusive and traditional "sparks of holiness" necessary for the rebuilding of the world. He remains the deepest thinker we have on the paradoxical relation of literature and theory, art and history.
PETER BRIER is the author of Howard Mumford Jones and the Dynamics of Liberal Humanism [University of Missouri Press, 1994). The essay on Walter Benjamin was originally given as a lecture in January 2002 in a slightly different form for the David L. Kubal Memorial Lecture Series at California State University, Los Angeles, where Brier has taught the Romantics and literary criticism since the early 1970s.
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