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Walter Benjamin, the first pop philosopher

Ray Monk looks at the life of Walter Benjamin, and discovers how he found his calling.

Walter Benjamin is often described as a philosopher, but you won’t find his works being taught or studied in the philosophy departments of many British or American universities – in English, modern languages, film studies and media studies, yes, but not in philosophy.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell (who wrote a book about Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, which is hardly the sort of thing you expect an analytic philosopher to do) was invited to a conference at Yale in 1999 to celebrate Harvard’s publication of the first volume of Benjamin’s Selected Writings. The letter of invitation had asked the prospective delegates to evaluate his contribution to their respective fields. “. . . an honest answer to the question of Benjamin’s actual contribution to [my] field,” Cavell declared, “is that it is roughly nil.”

That this is so is in some respects sur­prising, because there are important points of affinity between Benjamin and one of the most revered figures in the analytic tradition: Ludwig Wittgenstein. They have many things in common, but where they connect most strikingly is in their shared suspicion of theory and their emphasis on the visual. “Benjamin was not much interested in theories,” writes his friend ­Hannah Arendt in her valuable introduction to Illuminations, “or ‘ideas’ which did not immediately assume the most precise ­outward shape imaginable.” Benjamin himself once wrote: “I needn’t say anything. Merely show.” It is a remark that could just as well have been written by Wittgenstein, who, in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, emphasised the importance of the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown, and who, in his later Philosophical Investigations, stressed the “fundamental significance” of the “understanding that consists in ‘seeing connections’”.

It would be overstating the case to say that Benjamin and Wittgenstein had similar writing styles but, linked to their shared preference for the visual over the theoretical, there is a certain similarity in their stylistic ideals, a shared aspiration to write poetically. “I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy,” Wittgenstein once wrote, “when I said that one should write philosophy only as one writes a poem.” This is exactly how Benjamin felt. When Wittgenstein writes in the preface to Philosophical Investigations that his thinking required him to “travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction” and that the philosophical remarks contained in the book “are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings”, he might have been describing the style of Benjamin’s 1928 book One-Way Street or his uncompleted masterpiece, the Arcades Project.

The similarities in the sensibilities of Benjamin and Wittgenstein are partly explained by their shared cultural inheritance. They were both, for one thing, great admirers of the 18th-century German scientist and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose work Wittgenstein often gave to his Cambridge friends, as if to spread the word of his greatness to the English-speaking world. One of the most intriguing texts collected in Radio Benjamin is a radio play that Benjamin wrote about Lichtenberg that attests to the esteem in which he held him.

There were many other writers in the German and Austrian literary tradition from which Wittgenstein and Benjamin drew their inspiration, including many who have made little impact on English-speaking philosophers, such as Franz Grillparzer, Johann Peter Hebel and Gottfried Keller. Above all, one sees in both the deep impression left on their thinking by the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Arendt writes that Benjamin’s “spiritual existence had been formed and informed by Goethe”, and one could say something similar about Wittgenstein. Both knew Goethe’s major works practically off by heart and both were profoundly influenced by his notion of morphology, a way of understanding natural phenomena, such as plants or animals, not through the application of mathematical theories but by seeing connections between different forms. It is an idea that most English-speaking philosophers find hard to take seriously but which is right at the heart of the thinking of Benjamin and Wittgenstein.

Connected with this emphasis on the role of seeing in understanding is, no doubt, another important similarity: both had a deep interest in photography and in the emerging art of the cinema, especially as practised in Hollywood. They even had favourite movie stars (Benjamin loved Katharine Hepburn, Wittgenstein adored Carmen Miranda).

Benjamin’s concern with the visual and his associated favouring of allusive, poetic writing over leaden theorising is a good way into a body of work that would otherwise be dauntingly unfamiliar. It would also, I think, make a good theme for a biography of him, one that would provide a thread to unite many aspects of his life, his thought and his very varied corpus.

Alas, Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings have chosen not to structure their book in this way, nor indeed to make any attempt to shape their enormous body of research into a single narrative. The result is that, though there is a great deal to learn from their book, it is not a satisfying read. It is not that they, like Benjamin and Wittgenstein, prefer to present the reader with an album of sketches rather than a consecutive piece of prose. Unlike their subject, they do not aspire to poetry. Nor, indeed, do they show very much concern or proficiency with narration.

It is a great pity, because the story of Benjamin’s life could have been a very engaging and, at times, deeply moving one. He was born in 1892 in Berlin into a wealthy and thoroughly assimilated Jewish family (this being yet another thing he had in common with Wittgenstein). His father, Emil, was a successful businessman, a partner in an auction house. Somewhat against the wishes of Emil (who wanted his son to learn a useful occupation such as medicine or law), Walter decided upon leaving school to study philology and philosophy in Freiburg, which in 1912 was beginning to establish itself as the centre of the new phenomenological school of thinking led by Edmund Husserl. One of Benjamin’s fellow students at Freiburg was Husserl’s best-known follower (and later detractor), Martin Heidegger. Benjamin was not entirely happy with the education on offer at Freiburg and switched between there and the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he enrolled to study philosophy.

The First World War threatened to interrupt Benjamin’s studies but he succeeded in failing the medical examination by drinking large quantities of black coffee the previous night in order to simulate the symptoms of a weak heart. He then spent much of the war in Munich, where he continued his philosophical studies and formed the ambition of becoming a university lecturer in philosophy. During this period, he wrote an essay on the nature of language which, Eiland and Jennings claim, “provides fundamental perspectives on the problematic of language that dominates 20th-century thought”. (They devote three pages to summarising these “fundamental perspectives”, but what they say is, to me at least, incomprehensible. For example: “The ‘nameless language of things’ passes through translation – at once reception and conception – into the ‘name-language of man’, which is the basis of knowledge.” If this sentence has a meaning, I cannot fathom it.)

In early 1917, the draft board ordered ­Benjamin to report for duty, but he refused, this time on the grounds that he was suf­fering from a severe case of sciatica. His ­girlfriend, Dora, had put him under hypnosis in order to produce sciatica-like symptoms; these were convincing enough to fool the military doctors, leaving Benjamin free to stay in Berlin, where he married Dora the following spring. The couple then fled to the safety of neutral Switzerland. There, he enrolled at the University of Bern, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism”.

While living in Switzerland, Benjamin and his wife had their first and only child, Stefan. For the most part, Benjamin was a neglectful father and he was never particularly close to his son. For many years, however, he did write down in a notebook the words, phrases and thoughts uttered by his son. This survives and is one of the things reproduced in the charming and beautifully produced collection Walter Benjamin’s Archive. The notebook makes wonderful ­reading, far more engaging than the author’s early philosophy. One example, chosen more or less at random:

“Mummy, tell me a story.” Oh, but I don’t feel like it right now. “Oh go on, tell one, I feel like it.” Well then, you tell one? “No—but—there—I have just thrown the feeling into your mouth—now you tell it.”

In 1919 Benjamin, Dora and Stefan left Switzerland and moved a few months later to Berlin, Benjamin still hoping to secure an academic position, first in Heidelberg, then in Frankfurt. His relationship with his wife came under pressure during this time, and they both had affairs. Eiland and Jennings, however, keep their focus mainly on his ­academic work, and by jumping around in the chronology they make it even more confusing than it would otherwise have been. The result would have been extremely difficult to follow even if Benjamin’s original prose had been transparently clear, which it emphatically was not.

The book is rescued from turgid incomprehensibility only when Benjamin, accepting that he would never get a job as an academic, starts writing in a different style. In place of unfathomable reflections on language, he started in 1924 to write about contemporary culture, with an emphasis on its more popular forms. Among other things, he wrote about film, photography, children’s literature, gambling and pornography. These pieces were sent not to academic journals, but to newspapers and general publishers. Beginning in 1927, he started to write and deliver the radio broadcasts collected in Radio Benjamin, many of which were aimed at children. The transformation is extraordinary. Suddenly, his writing becomes engaging, vivid and, above all, understandable. One can’t help feeling the best thing that ever happened to the man was his failure to land a lectureship.

He also began to develop a literary form all his own – the Denkbild, the “figure of thought”. This is a form of writing that replaces discursive argumentation with short observations and reflections, producing something like the “album of sketches” described by Wittgenstein. It is no surprise to discover that Benjamin had a special fondness for, and proficiency in, writing picture postcards. “Don’t take offence [at being sent a mere postcard rather than a letter],” he wrote to one correspondent, “my speciality is precisely such antiquarian postcards.” A selection of these is vividly reproduced in Walter Benjamin’s Archive.

It was in 1924 that Benjamin met Bertolt Brecht, who became one of his closest friends and one of the most important influences on his thinking. It is customary to describe Benjamin as a Marxist, yet it is difficult to discern in his writing much influence of, or even interest in, Marx’s works. What Marxism there is in his thinking seems to have come mainly through the filter of Brecht. That ever-perceptive observer, Arendt, remarks: “Benjamin probably was the most peculiar Marxist ever produced by this movement, which God knows has had its full share of oddities.”

In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, Benjamin produced a rich variety of articles and books. One notable feature of his work from this period is its engagement with the intellectual and cultural currents of his time in a dazzling range of disciplines. Of lasting significance is his 1931 essay “A Little History of Photography”, in which he provides a subtle and technically informed discussion of what makes early photographs so alluring. It is, to my mind, much better than the better-known essay from 1936, reproduced in Illuminations, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. The latter was written for the Zeitschrift für ­Sozialforschung, the house journal of the Institute for Social Research, and in it one can sense him straining to write something that fitted into the critical theory espoused by the Frankfurt School.

Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 made it impossible for Benjamin to continue living in Germany and from then until his death in 1940 he was an itinerant scholar and journalist. He lived in Ibiza, the Riviera, Denmark and (mostly) Paris. He continued to write essays, books and scripts for radio, but getting paid was increasingly a problem and for much of this time he was desperately poor. He received much-needed support from the Institute for Social Research, led by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, but seemed often to feel that the price demanded for such support – allegiance to their particular brand of dialectical Marxism – was too high. Nevertheless, in 1940, as it became impossible for him to continue to live and work in Nazi-dominated Europe, his only hope of escape seemed to lie in the visa that Horkheimer (who had relocated his institute from Frankfurt to New York) had secured for him to enter the US.

Unenthusiastically, Benjamin – nearly 48 but looking very much older – accepted he would have to leave Europe, and in May he decided to make his way from Paris to the south of France and on to Lisbon, from where he could sail to the States. Over the French border, however, Spanish officials refused to allow him and his travelling companions to transit through the country. Benjamin had prepared himself for this eventuality. Throughout his life, he had struggled with depression and had often talked about committing suicide. Among the few possessions he had packed for the anticipated trip to the US were 15 tablets of morphine – “enough to kill a horse”, as he remarked to Arthur Koestler before he set off.

In the early hours of 27 September 1940, he used that morphine to take his own life. He left a note that read: “In a situation presenting no way out, I have no choice but to make an end of it. It is in a small village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me, that my life will come to a close.” The next day, the border was reopened.

Ray Monk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton. His books include “Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius” (Vintage)

Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life by Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings is published by Harvard University Press (768pp, £25). Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz and Erdmut Wizisla and translated by Esther Leslie is published by Verso (288pp, £12.99). Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, edited by Hannah Arendt, is published by The Bodley Head (272pp, £16.99). Radio Benjamin by Walter Benjamin is edited by Lecia Rosenthal, translated by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese and published by Verso (320pp, £20).

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy

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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.

 

22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-
dropping.

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?

 

24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.

 

25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.

Goodnight.

Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad