AKG-IMAGES/IMAGNO
Show Hide image

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

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
Show Hide image

“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge