On Walter Benjamin
“For the critic,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, “the highest court of appeal is his own colleagues. Not the public. Even less posterity.” The statement reflects the stance of intellectual rigor and self-skeptical inner distance that Benjamin maintained toward everything he cared about seriously—literary criticism, literary experience itself and its future in an age of technology and mass societies, Marxism (though perhaps here there were lapses in the rigor), Zionism, European culture, Jewish tradition and its theological categories of vision. The statement also suggests something of the retrospective irony that historical circumstances have cast on Benjamin's life and career, for it is only posterity that is now realizing, prominently in Germany, rather dimly elsewhere, his stature as a critic.
When Benjamin took his own life in September 1940, after having been turned back at the Spanish border in his flight from Nazi-occupied France, he was already, at the age of forty-eight, what would be generally recognized only posthumously, the major German literary critic of his time. His friend Bertolt Brecht is reported to have called his death the first real loss to German literature caused by Hitler. At the time, however, his importance was sensed only in a few limited circles of German intellectuals, some of them Marxists, most of them Jewish. Benjamin had begun publishing his criticism in periodicals less than a decade before Hitler's rise to power; after 1933, of course, he had no outlet in Germany, and the Swiss publisher that had undertaken to print a volume of his selected essays went bankrupt, leaving almost the entire edition stored in a basement where it would be discovered more than twenty years after the author's death. An additional irony, one that might have been felt keenly by Benjamin himself, was the fact that he was also for the most part neglected in France, where he lived after 1933, though he had devoted a substantial part of his intellectual effort to French literature, had made Baudelaire and Proust defining figures in his critical conception of modern experience, and Paris the focal point for his vision of 19th-century culture.
The emergence of Benjamin from the honorable underground of unrecognized genius began signally in 1955 with the publication in Frankfurt of a two-volume edition of his writings. Since then he has been the subject of numerous articles in German periodicals, sections of not yet collected works have appeared in periodicals, and German literary intellectuals, especially the younger ones, have come to see him as possessing the same stature in German criticism between the two wars that Brecht has in the German theater of that period. Outside Germany, his reputation has advanced much more slowly, to say the least. A selection of his essays published in France in 1959 received so little attention that the publisher abandoned the plan to bring out a second volume. Now, a generous sampling of Benjamin's literary criticism has been translated into English for the first time1; the essays included give ample evidence of one of the most original critical minds of recent decades, and the book ought to have the impact of a revelation in literary circles here, but so far it seems to have been greeted mainly with silence.
All this suggests that Hannah Arendt is right in attributing Benjamin's failure to receive adequate recognition during his lifetime more to the radical peculiarity of his literary enterprise, the anomalousness of what he sought to achieve, than to the historical circumstances of his career. The problem is not Benjamin's “difficulty,” though he is at times alternatingly—even simultaneously—difficult and lucid because he combines the poet's sense of dramatic verbal gesture with a metaphysician's love of abstractions; the real problem, as Hannah Arendt argues, lies in Benjamin's incommensurability. Because he does not fit readily into any familiar category or recognizable tradition—a German-trained mind enamored of French modes of literary discourse, moving from theological concerns to literary texts with a professed allegiance to dialectical materialism!—one naturally gropes for rubrics that will cover him. Hannah Arendt proposes that we consider Benjamin above all as a man who thought poetically (her italics), that is, thought primarily through metaphor; and while this may be at least partly true, I wonder how helpful a classification it is, how it enables us to distinguish Benjamin from critics as different as Coleridge and Valery, for whom there is also no profound disjuncture between critical and poetical thinking.
Gershom Scholem, the distinguished historian of Jewish mysticism, in an important essay on Benjamin,2 his intimate friend from student days on, is not moved to exercise the same ingenuity of analysis one finds in Arendt, but his more obvious generalization seems closer to the mark: Benjamin, Scholem contends, was fundamentally a metaphysician, in fact a rare instance of the “metaphysician pure and simple.” What I assume Scholem means is that although Benjamin's mind was continually and passionately engaged in literary texts, he never explicated them, only intermittently commented on or evaluated them, but instead used them as points of departure (and of return) for larger speculations. What interested him about literary modes, about literature itself and language itself, was above all their ontology. I should hasten to add that this makes Benjamin sound more abstract than he is in fact; rhetorically, his argument is often articulated through the most vividly concrete particulars, and conceptually, he has an acute sense of the complex historical moment and its bearing on the arts, so that an ontology of literature for him is always deeply implicated in a sociology and anthropology of literature, and never separated from the imaginative feel of the particular literary experience.
The disparity between Arendt's Benjamin and Scholem's Benjamin is worth pursuing. Arendt's introductory essay inevitably draws on Scholem since, as Benjamin's confidant and closest correspondent over the years, he is an invaluable source of biographical and bibliographical information; but Arendt speaks of Scholem with a peculiar mixture of overt respect and muted suspicion. Clearly, much of her suspicion is of Scholem as representing the Jewish and Zionist pole in Benjamin's life. It is on the question of the relevance of Benjamin's Jewishness to his intellectual endeavor that the two stand farthest apart, and that issue is bound to be one of the most elusive yet crucial considerations in any attempt to place Benjamin.
This metaphysical critic of German and French letters wrote virtually nothing on explicitly Jewish matters, yet, by all testimonies, he was continually concerned with questions of Jewish tradition, Jewish identity, and Zionism as both a national and personal alternative. Scholem attests to his repeated, animated involvement with these subjects in conversation, and even reports one discussion in Paris in 1927 with Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University, in which Benjamin asserted that if he came to Palestine, he envisaged his eventual role as a commentator of traditional Jewish texts. Though Arendt undertakes a rather ample biographical sketch of Benjamin in her introduction, she scarcely mentions any of this, nor does her survey of Benjamin's intellectual sources intimate what we know from Scholem, that Benjamin read seriously in the history of the Kabbalah, that he was deeply impressed with the theology of Franz Rosenzweig (whom he quotes a number of times in his essays), and that he could even evince great enthusiasm, at least at an early age, for Ahad Ha-am, whom he read in German translation.
These omissions are significant, for Arendt sees Benjamin's Jewishness primarily as a sociological fact, and a negative one, while in Scholem's view strands of Judaism as a philosophical vision are woven into the fabric of Benjamin's thought through its underlying concern with revelation, redemption, tradition, and the role of language in the interplay of these three categories. Scholem describes the Judaism of messianic expectation as a goal Benjamin “approached asymptomatically throughout his life, without ever attaining it.” Arendt's view, on the other hand, would seem to follow closely that of the French critic, Pierre Missac, who in an intelligent general essay on Benjamin,3 turns Scholem's image around and suggests that Benjamin was carried away from Judaism by the inexorable winds of history though he never entirely freed himself from it.
For Hannah Arendt, at any rate, what Benjamin's Jewishness chiefly gives him is an energy of disengagement. Like other German Jewish writers of the earlier 20th century, Benjamin emerged from the asphyxiating milieu—ably described by Arendt—of the Central-European Jewish haute bourgeoisie, knowing himself to be neither fully a German nor, in his parents' sense, a Jew; he therefore was able to sharpen his social and moral perceptions through the very denial of the smugness, the hypocrisies, and the appalling self-deceptions that surrounded him. Zionism, then, according to Arendt, was for Benjamin primarily a means of affirming the essential rottenness and wrongness of Jewish existence in Europe, just as Marxism served to affirm for him much the same thing about the entire bourgeois order; but he could never go all the way either to Jerusalem or to Moscow because all he could honestly take from the two ideologies was a perspective of radical critique, never a solution to the insoluble.
This is a shrewdly argued view that carries with it some weight of justice, but I suspect that it fails to account adequately for an impulse other than the negative one in Benjamin, and finally makes out of him more of a prophet of doom than he actually was. And one must add that Hannah Arendt is not above distorting biographical facts in the interest of her thesis. Thus, she claims that Benjamin, improvident about financial matters, was prepared, or at least thought he was, to hire himself out to “the Marxists” for 1000 French francs a month, or alternately, “to study Hebrew for three hundred marks a month if the Zionists thought it could do them some good.” The most generous assumption one can make about this story is that it is a gross misrepresentation: Scholem and others had been interested in bringing Benjamin to teach at the Hebrew University, but from the language used here we are led to infer an equation between becoming an intellectual prostitute for a vicious Stalinist propaganda machine (something utterly inconceivable for Benjamin), and serving as a tool for a different ideological clique of unsavory manipulators known as “the Zionists.” Such moments make one wonder how reliable a guide to Benjamin Hannah Arendt can be, at least in regard to his Jewishness and his relationship with Zionism.
Perhaps we can better focus the whole perplexed image of Benjamin by devoting some attention to the actual nature and direction of his critical writing. If Benjamin's achievement is somehow incommensurable, it is certainly not incomparable, and here I believe a comparison may offer a useful perspective on him. Of the critics who rose to prominence in America and England in the earlier 20th century, during that great age of letters Which preceded our own, I can think of only two who equal Benjamin in subtlety of analytic imagination, in intellectual independence and venturesomeness, and in the vigor of their interest in the interinvolvement of society and literature, of moral and aesthetic values; those two are Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. Trilling will serve the purpose of comparison better because he happens to be a Jew, and a Jew whose cultural experience and allegiances are antithetical to Benjamin's in virtually every significant respect.
Now Trilling has throughout his career taken an honorable course toward his Jewish origins, whatever ambivalence he may have felt and sometimes expressed, by openly affirming them, hardly enthusiastically but with a certain sense of self-respect. (It is worth recalling that his earliest criticism and fiction, in the later 20's, appeared in a Jewish periodical, the Menorah Journal.) Nevertheless, what is remarkable about Trilling in this regard is that his career is such an achieved process of hyper-acculturation. It is a process that was never possible for Jews in Europe either socially or psychologically, that has not been generally felt to be necessary in this country since the 30's, and that could only have been achieved then by a gifted spirit. Trilling at twenty-one, writing, paradoxically, for the Menorah Journal, could on occasion sound offensively like a mock-Englishman—as, indeed, some of his disciples, unconsciously parodying him, sometimes still sound today—but by the time he comes to his mature work in the late-30's and 40's, the “mock” component has quite disappeared: the son of East-European Jewish immigrants has accomplished what would hardly occur to an American intellectual of Protestant background to attempt, has implicated his thought and feeling so deeply and finely in the British cultural tradition that in the quality of his imagination and the nature of its assumptions, in the poise and cadences of his prose, in all the minute calibrations of his intellectual life, he is thoroughly a spiritual compatriot of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Newman, Matthew Arnold.
One could hardly imagine a more striking contrast to Benjamin, that scarcely German critic of German and French literature, inventing his own peculiar variety of masterfully aphoristic German prose, working toward a definition of modern European culture at least partly through his distance from it as a Jew, all the while wondering whether he ought not to learn Hebrew, follow his friend Scholem to Jerusalem, and there become a latter-day Rashi or Ibn Ezra. In order to show how this contrast enters into the specific nature of the criticism itself, I would like to set side by side some parallel observations by each of the writers. Here, to begin with, is an instance where both critics have arrived independently at what looks like much the same insight. The Trilling quotation is from his justly famous essay, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel”:
Snobbery is pride in status without pride in function. And it is an uneasy pride of status. It always asks, “Do I belong—do I really belong? And does he belong? And if I am observed talking to him, will it make me seem to belong or not to belong?” It is the peculiar vice not of aristocractic societies which have their own appropriate vices, but of bourgeois democratic societies.
And here is Benjamin, commenting on the central importance of the analysis of snobbery in Proust's critique of society:
For the attitude of the snob is nothing but the consistent, organized, steely view of life from the chemically pure standpoint of the consumer. . . . But the pure consumer is the pure exploiter—logically and theoretically—and in Proust he is that in the full concreteness of his actual historical existence. He is concrete because he is impenetrable and elusive. Proust describes a class which is everywhere pledged to camouflage its material basis and for this very reason is attached to a feudalism which has no intrinsic economic significance but is all the more serviceable as a mask of the upper middle class.
The most obvious differences in formulation are the differences between the idiom of British empiricism and a self-critical liberalism on the one hand, and of an imaginative Marxism, on the other hand, with its characteristically Central European interest in theory. What preoccupies Trilling is a question of moral psychology, and so his exposition flows quite naturally into hypothetical speech: “How would I feel, what would I tell myself, if I were in such and such a position?” What concerns Benjamin here is a matter of social philosophy, and in keeping with that perspective he brings to bear a more emphatically analytical power of generalization. Marxism, of course, helps him establish swift, precise connections among social attitudes, class structures, and their economic bases, though one senses in the legislative generalizations a controlled note of personally perceived moral outrage that is worlds away from the self-righteousness of parlor-and-campus radicals or the mouthing of formulas by party hacks. Marxist theory is clearly useful to Benjamin, but his sensibility and the nature of his interests continually push him beyond it, and even here his language reflects a profound dissatisfaction not merely with the particular structures of bourgeois society but with the very imagination of human life upon a material base. (In general, the question of whether Marxism was finally a constructive element in Benjamin's intellectual enterprise remains to be resolved. Hannah Arendt, for example, is skeptical about Scholem's assertion that Brecht and his radicalism were a “baleful influence” in Benjamin's life, but what else is one to conclude when Brecht was capable of objecting to as brilliant a piece of criticism as Benjamin's essay on Kafka because it “gave aid and comfort to Jewish fascism”?)
In any case, the characteristic that sets apart Benjamin's formulation most decisively from Trilling's is its emphasis on paradox, and paradox typically expressed with an aggressive, gnomic compression—the pure consumer is the pure exploiter, and he is concrete because he is impenetrable and elusive. Paradox in general is a rhetorical form that originates in a tension of ideas in the mind of the speaker and is usually meant to elicit some state of tension in the audience; for Benjamin that tension carries with it some of the threatening quality with which his subject presents itself to his imagination. Trilling, one feels, can write about the phenomenon of snobbery with reasonable detachment, as though from a relatively protected position: he is finely aware of both the destructiveness and the inner emptiness implicit in what he is talking about, at the same time that he regards it coolly as one of the besetting ills of a highly imperfect though obviously livable form of social organization.
There is, by contrast, something more uncompromising in Benjamin's sharper formulation of the contradictions of the phenomenon; one might say that he writes about his subject from a condition of naked exposure to it. The more enigmatic of his paradoxes here—that concreteness flows from impenetrability and elusiveness—would seem to be very much the shrewd and pained insight of an outsider, who senses the elaborate overlay of forms, styles, mores, of a self-protecting class as a cover for its lack of inner coherence and definition. Trilling makes virtually the same observation when, at the end of the paragraph from which I have quoted, he describes the dominant emotion of snobbery as a “sense that one is not quite real but can in some way acquire reality”; Benjamin's decision, however, to cast this idea in the paradoxical form he gives it has the effect of implicating the reader, too, in the experience of bafflement and exclusion of someone trying to penetrate a resistant snobbish milieu. It is a way of seeing things, I would venture, that makes special sense for a Jew always consciously Jewish in a Central European cultural situation.
This contrast between the psychologically protected, acculturated critic and the exposed, unassimilable one has to do not merely with their identity as Jews but with the kind of literary tradition to which each relates. Here a comparison of comments on a literary genre rather than a social phenomenon may be helpful in locating the difference between the two. At the end of “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” Trilling offers this summarizing generalization about the distinctive nature of the novel:
Its greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it. It taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human variety and the value of this variety. It was the literary form to which the emotions of understanding and forgiveness were indigenous, as if by the definition of the form itself.
And Benjamin, in a finely suggestive essay called “The Storyteller,” which argues that the art of storytelling is dying out because of the demise of “the epic side of truth, wisdom,” contrasts the characteristically modern narrative genre, the novel, with the traditional story:
The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.
Trilling's notion of human variety is not unrelated to Benjamin's sense of mankind's “perplexity” (Ratlosigkeit in the original is a shade stronger—the state of being at a loss, even helpless), but the general orientation of the two is radically different. In context, both critics, quite properly, make Don Quixote the ultimate point of reference in their conception of the novel, but Trilling is closer to the rationalist 18th-century view of Quixote, seeing it almost as an embryonic novel of education in which the reader becomes a discriminating observer of the interplay between appearance and reality, while Benjamin, in this respect resembling rather the Romantic interpreters of Cervantes's novel, seems to locate its center more in the striking and dangerous implications of the Don's madness. Trilling, with a secure base of orientation in the rich profusion of English culture since the Renaissance, regards the novel from his viewpoint of social critic and moral psychologist as an extraordinary instrument of self-knowledge. Benjamin the metaphysician, always with a strong sense of pre-modern culture and its theological anchorage, sees the novel more as what the late R.P. Blackmur called a “technique of trouble,” a means of ruthlessly exposing the most deep-seated insoluble predicaments of modern existence. (It is worth noting, incidentally, how characteristically Benjamin's mind operates quite outside the prefabricated structures of Marxist theory. His idea here that the distinctive mimetic purpose of the novel is “to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life” has an originality and breadth of suggestiveness that cannot be matched in Marxist theorists of the novel like Georg Lukacs and Lucien Goldmann.)
Trilling's conception of the novel leads us from Cervantes to Fielding to Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, while with Benjamin's uncounseled, solitary individual we move from Cervantes to Stendhal, Flaubert, Melville, Dostoevsky, Kafka. One would look in vain for the pushing of the incommensurable to extremes in the moral education of Emma Wood-house, as one would look in vain for understanding and forgiveness in the harshly unrelenting moral exposure of Emma Bovary. The difference, of course, is in part a simple difference between Continental and British literary experience, between a literature created against a background of despotism, changing regimes, violent revolution, and one created in a parliamentary democracy under conditions of slow, often drastically inadequate, but nevertheless peaceful reform. Trilling, so much at home in the British tradition, seems in some ways emotionally cushioned against the vast shock-waves of modernity that have been running through Western culture since the 17th century; Benjamin, partly because of his intense self-awareness as a Jew though obviously not only for that reason, feels the earth quaking beneath his feet, beneath all of us, and makes his criticism into a seismographic reading of the quake, while never totally abandoning faith in the instruments of reason and the redemptive possibilities of human culture.
The ultimate importance of Benjamin's critical enterprise may well be that it gives us one of the most far-reaching, abidingly relevant definitions of modernity that any critic has articulated, and the emphasis placed in his definition on the decline of wisdom is noteworthy. We are all wearily familiar with notions of modern experience as a failure of faith, a breakdown of values, a loss of community, but to put all those negative processes in terms of a loss of wisdom introduces rather new implications. In this view, what man needs to sustain himself above all else is not belief or a particular kind of social organization but learning. Human communities depend ultimately on being the bearers of living traditions, where there is something of growing substance that master imparts to disciple, one generation to the next, and so for Benjamin one of the most crucial symptoms of modernity is the erosion of tradition. Wisdom, learning, and tradition hardly seem Marxist categories, and they are of course not uniquely Jewish ones, but they must have presented themselves with peculiar force to the imagination of a writer keenly aware of the Jewish past, who had closely read Rosenzweig, Buber's versions of the Hasidic masters, and the history of the Kabbalah.
In order to make still clearer the distinctive perspective Benjamin brings to bear on the modern condition as a self-aware European Jew, I would like to offer one last comparison—of an extended observation of his with one of Trilling's on the paradigmatic modern writer, Kafka. Admittedly, the comparison is bound to be a little unfair to Trilling because Kafka does not sit very comfortably within the compass of his sensibility, while there are profound affinities between Kafka and Benjamin—cultural, intellectual, and above all spiritual affinities. Precisely for that reason however, one can see the startling difference between the two critics in their relationship to modern experience and its historical antecedents. Trilling, contrasting Kafka with Hawthorne in the course of an essay on Hawthorne, has this to say about the German writer:
Of Kafka's power an impressive index is the fact that his version of man's dark odyssey proceeds without touching upon cases of conscience. In such relations between man and man as are represented in Kafka's work, it is never a possibility that one man can help or injure another. . . . What an intransigence of imagination is needed to conceive man's spiritual life as having no discernible connection with morality! . . . An imagination so boldly autonomous, once it has brought itself into being, conceives of nothing that can throw it off its stride. Like the dream, it confronts subjective fact only, and there are no aesthetically unsuccessful dreams, no failed nightmares.
Before going on to Benjamin, I might observe how peculiar a statement this is, peculiar especially in its uncharacteristic lack of accuracy. It is simply contrary to the facts of Kafka's books to say that no one in them can help or injure his fellow, and as for cases of conscience, some very intelligent Kafka specialists—Bluma Goldstein, for example—would claim that he scarcely writes about anything else. Trilling, of course, imagines the case of conscience as it would occur in a novel by Henry James, without seeming to allow that there are other, more terribly imperative or darkly submerged ways in which moral alternatives can present themselves to a character conceived by his creator as a morally responsible agent. The notion of a boldly autonomous imagination is more convincing, though even here Trilling moves a little too easily into invoking the model of the dream because he stands so completely outside Kafka's own cultural and literary context. By contrast, Benjamin's characterization of Kafka's imagination in a letter to Scholem is packed with ideas that seem utterly persuasive:
Kafka's real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its aggadic element. Kafka's writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Aggadah lies at the feet of the Halakhah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raised a mighty paw against it.
This is why, in regard to Kafka, we can no longer speak of wisdom. Only the products of its decay remain. There are two: one is the rumor about the true things (a sort of theological whispered intelligence dealing with matters discredited and obsolete); the other product of this diathesis is folly—which, to be sure, has utterly squandered the substance of wisdom, but preserves its attractiveness and assurance, which rumor invariably lacks.
This analysis brilliantly illustrates why talk about Kafka's fiction as dream and nightmare is finally loose talk. Dreamlike elements, to be sure, are abundant enough (but are they so rare in older kinds of fiction?); the close-worked structure of the parable, however, is the antithesis to the associative flow of the dream, even when the expected didactic content of the parable is obscure, or elusive, or ironically negated by the parable's narrative form. What Benjamin perceives is that Kafka, far from imagining spiritual life as having no connection with morality, writes out of a sense of desperation that the legitimating source of morality may have disappeared, and the “intransigence” of his imagination is precisely an expression of this desperation. He is a writer committed by his cultural tradition and the nature of his imagination to be, in Benjamin's sense, a storyteller, trapped in the era of the novel; language remains for him the medium of wisdom, learning, and tradition at a point in time when the chain of tradition has broken, with no certain wisdom left to impart. Because Benjamin is in some significant respects the same kind of Jew as Kafka, he is able to understand completely the strange beauty and terror of this response to modernity in Kafka as Trilling cannot. Kafka's parabolic fictions, in Benjamin's profound view of them, are not, most essentially, dreams or theological allegories or enigmatic psychograms or prophetic myths, but a body of Aggadah in search of a Halakhah, lore in quest of Law, yet so painfully estranged from what it seeks that the pursuit can end in a pounce of destruction, the fictional rending the doctrinal.
I am led to wonder whether Benjamin's analysis of Kafka has not touched on the most basic point of substantive contact between Kafka and Agnon, who has been compared so frequently to the German writer. (Benjamin, interestingly, was personally acquainted with Agnon, and in his correspondence he speaks in the highest terms of praise about the Agnon stories he read in German translation.) Agnon is much more of a ventriloquist of age-old tradition than Kafka, and so his own Aggadah has often seemed to speak for the eternally revealed Halakhah, but many of his boldest, most compelling fictions assume in their own way the masks and gestures of wisdom, learning, and tradition in a world where, manifestly, tradition has become a musty smell, wisdom a madman's guess or a bad joke, and learning a futile reflex. According to a Hasidic tale that Agnon himself, among others, has transmitted, the Baal Shem Tov used to go to a certain spot in the forest when he had something difficult to perform, where he would light a fire, then accomplish the task through prayer. His disciple, the Maggid of Meseritz, could no longer light the fire, but at least he knew the appointed place and the prayer to recite. A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had lost the secret of the prayer as well, but he still knew his way to the place in the forest. At the end of the line, Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid, could neither light the fire nor say the prayer nor find his way into the forest, but at least he could tell the story. This is very much the condition of Kafka, and of Agnon, left to tell stories when what is urgently needed is the secret path, the holy fire, the divine words. Benjamin was preeminently a critic who knew what such storytelling meant, and understood in all its ramifications the condition of being bereft of fire in the trackless dark of this world.
In order to define that condition against the historical background of modern experience, Benjamin repeatedly invokes a process which he calls the decline of aura. The concept is worth commenting on because it is central to his critical orientation, indeed, to what could justifiably be called his critical vision. Benjamin has a fine comprehension of the ways in which urbanization, industrialization, and the development of new communications media profoundly affect man's modes of perception, his relationship to objects, to people, and to his own consciousness. These changing relationships are alluded to frequently in his discussion of literary figures and confronted directly in a major essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The root implications of an era of global television and space telemetry are already firmly grasped in this response to the early period of the sound movie; whatever of Marshall McLuhan is worth keeping is contained in two or three sentences here of Benjamin's, though of course with a clarity of historical perspective one would not look for in McLuhan.
What is intriguing about Benjamin's view of this whole process is the peculiar ambivalence he maintains toward it. He is obviously fascinated, perhaps even excited, by the movement of modernization, from its early impact on Baudelaire with his new aesthetic of shock, to its ultimate issue in the modern art of the cinema. At times he appears to see redemptive possibilities in the processes of modernization, as when he imagines the film as the means of making the critical experience of art for the first time available to the masses. More often, and perhaps despite himself, he describes those processes as a progressive erosion of what is most preciously human in human experience.
Thus, in his essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin conveys a sequence of negative change with succint finality: “The replacement of the older narration by information, of information by sensation, reflects the increasing atrophy of experience.” And even in the essay on art and mechanical reproduction, there is a curious ambiguity of judgment. The growing impulse “to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction,” is interpreted as an “adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality,” which, for a good Marxist, should surely be an encouraging development. But Benjamin chooses to describe the process in language like this: “To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” Despite the calm tone of theoretical analysis, one gets a sense of a kind of rape perpetrated, uniqueness and separateness violated, a tyrannic perception of the universal equality of things imposing itself on a world once suffused with aura. 4
Roughly, the distance between Benjamin's hopefulness and his dismay about the modern world is the distance between his Marxism and his Judaism. Some words of explanation about his concept of aura may make this connection clearer. He seems to have conceived aura alternately, and complementarily, in psychological and anthropological terms. Psychologically, to sense the aura of things is to experience them as objects of the imagination, inexhaustibly desirable and inexhaustibly delighting; it is to see things as Wordsworth evoked them in the Immortality Ode, “Apparelled in celestial light,/The glory and the freshness of a dream” (the precise meaning of “glory” in Wordsworth's English is “aura”). Or, to suggest a more explicitly theological parallel, Benjamin talking about aura in the natural World sounds very much like Buber describing a displacement of the I-it by the I-thou: “Experience of the aura . . . rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn.” Paradoxically, when Benjamin describes the same experience elsewhere more from a viewpoint of historical anthropology, he emphasizes not rapport or intimacy but distance and unapproachability, defining aura as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The paradox is a characteristic piece of brilliant shrewdness in working with the kind of idea that would tempt many thinkers into soft-minded effusion. Aura means access to the kind of intimate closeness possible only when what we relate to relates at the same time to us, but aura also means inviolability, the awareness of a perfect uniqueness utterly beyond the realm of utility or manipulation, and so the object possessing aura has built-in distance, however close we come to it.
Benjamin thus relates aura to what he calls the “cult image” of objects, which, in direct contrast to the mechanically reproduced image, can never be separated from the object's presence, can never be distributed, broadcast, enlarged, cut up, pasted over, absorbed into the helpless world of merely used things. The existence of aura, then, presupposes a sacral, perhaps ultimately theological, view of reality. Benjamin was, it should be stressed, intensely alive to the new possibilities of art after the decay of aura, astutely observing the substitution of shock for aura and the willful destruction of empathy in Baudelaire and modern poetry after him, in Brecht's Epic Theater, and in films. But when he talks about the “atrophy of experience” he means the atrophy of aura, which thus becomes not a neutral process but an ultimate disaster of modern culture: Benjamin is perhaps closest to his spiritual kinsman Kafka in being unable, or unwilling, to accept a reality stripped of its sacral dimension.
This underlying commitment to a vision of life rooted in theological values helped Benjamin to comprehend modern processes of cultural breakdown more vividly Chan he might otherwise have done; at the same time it is a chief source of a quality in his own work that he once attributed to Kafka, a strange “radiant serenity” that informs his writing even in its chillingly apocalyptic passages. This is a surprising enough quality to find in any writer with such a raw nerve of response to the disturbing nature of modern experience, even more surprising in someone at his time and place. For the entire span of Benjamin's literary activity is less than two decades, and his most productive, original period was from 1933 to the last months before his death. One marvels at the man's dedication to his calling, the way he could in grim exile patiently pursue the definition of European culture, of art and language, at a time when a new mobilized barbarism threatened to engulf everything he cared about and sought to understand. Scholem, in a recent reminiscence,5 has suggested that the reason Benjamin could not bring himself to leave Europe for Palestine, even at the eleventh hour, was that he could not abandon his work at the Bibliothèque Nationale on the book he would never complete, Paris, Capitol of the 19th Century.
As a Jew, Benjamin was never fully part of an indigenous stream of European culture—thus the logic of his Zionism—but for the same reason he was of European culture as a Whole, committed, one might say, to the idea of European culture. “Even in the hour of death,” according to a Talmudic dictum, “you should devote yourself to the study of the Law,” and the statement could serve as an apt image of Benjamin in his last years. His writing, that is, implicitly affirms the ultimate importance of the kind of “study” he had set as his lifework, and its radiant serenity derives in part from that affirmation, made as it is by an extraordinarily supple and original mind confidently aware of its own powers even when delineating the dimensions of chaos.
Benjamin is acutely conscious of the forms assumed by chaos in our political, moral, and spiritual lives, but, unlike so many modern writers, he is not secretly enamored of chaos in any way, and that is the other source, to which I referred first, of his paradoxical serenity. As a thoroughly modern imagination, he devoted most of his critical attention to those writers and those cultural phenemona through which he could trace the decline of aura, through which, that is, he could honestly confront the world around him. Yet what attracts him most profoundly is the possibility of life imbued with aura; it is a possibility that the literature of the past and the exercise of the imagination keep alive for him. And what fascinates him most about modern writers is the ability of a few of them to devise strategems for recapturing at least an oblique glint of aura, or for creating the simulacrum of it. Thus, he is drawn to Valéry both for the critical statement and the poetic application of the idea that “artistic observation can attain an almost mystical depth”; to Kafka, who surrenders truth to retain its transmissibility, in whom storytelling assumes its old Scheherazadean purpose of postponing the future, fending off death; to Nikolai Leskov, whose fiction preserves something from the immemorial wisdom of the traditional teller of tales.
Benjamin's quest in literature for even the bittersweet residue of bliss is clearest of all in his involvement with the work of Proust. He is, to be sure, aware of Proust as a critic of society and a poet of decay, but his own persuasively stated emphasis is on what he describes as the “elegiac form” of a “will to happiness” in Proust. The intricately elaborated, sensuously realized image in Proust is the French novelist's way of rescuing fragments from a remembered world bathed in aura: “He lay on his bed racked with homesickness, homesick for the world distorted in the state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence breaks through. To this world belongs what happens in Proust, and the deliberate and fastidious way in which it happens.” As elsewhere, Benjamin perceives so well because he himself feels much the same thing. His sense of homesickness, cultural and, ultimately, theological, makes more intelligible his attachment to Marxist messianism, to Zionism, to the Jewish past, and to the 19th century. Homesickness, however, is the etymological equivalent of nostalgia and all too easily leads to nostalgic excesses. Benjamin's greatness as a critic is, finally, his ability to preserve an absolutely unsentimental lucidity in his existential homesickness, and thus to perceive through it both the precise configurations of modern experience and the shape and substance of a wholeness to which the human spirit, even as it plots its own subversion, still stubbornly aspires.
1 Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Harcourt, Brace & World, 281 pp., $5.95.
2 “Walter Benjamin,” Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute, 1965.
3 “L'Eclat et le secret: Walter Benjamin,” Critique, August-September, 1966.
4 As a fascinating gloss on Benjamin's essay, I would recommend Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, written in Berlin just a year earlier (1935), in which photography is used as the most perfectly appropriate art form in an ideal model of the totalitarian state.
5 “Erinnerungen an Walter Benjamin,” Der Monat, September 1966.