Walter Benjamin: the Story of a Friendship

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The friendship and arguments of two twentieth century European intellectuals are remembered by the one who survived into old age.

Mike Mosher

We already know how the story of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) turns out: sadly. He committed suicide, unable to cross from occupied France into Spain. Yet his life, like his work, continues to fascinate us. His life has been turned the novel Benjamin’s Crossing by Jay Parini. Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough wrote the opera “Shadowtime” based on Benjamin’s life, which debuted at the Lincoln Center in New York City in July, 2005. Susan Sontag affectionately sculpted Benjamin as emblematic of all melancholy in her essay “Under the Sign of Saturn”.

Why should we care? Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility” is a favorite of artists, who now mine it for insights as to the nature of digital media. The essay has recently been examined in detail from various directions by scholars and critics, in books by Hans Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan (2003) and Andrew Benjamin (2005). Along with a new English translation of Walter Benjamin’s collected writings, Harvard has recently published his unifished Arcades Project, volutes full of epiphanies and notes on readings intended for a massive study of Paris in the nineteenth century. Perhaps some writers and artists--including this review’s author--revere the Arcades Project as a world-class example that it’s OK to leave unfinished (and perhaps unfinishable) works behind us.

This story's author Gershom Scholem met Walter in 1915, when Scholem was 17 and Benjamin was 23. They participated in a vivid intellectual scene, for both were involved in political youth groups that published 'zines. They were soon giving each other favorite books by Kant, a Balzac with illustrations by Gustave Doré, or talking long into the night about Anatole France, detective stories, and avoiding military service. To Walter, Nietzche deserved credit as the sole nineteenth century thinker who had seen historical experience "where others had seen only nature", and he was uncynical towards Buddhism and other non-Western religions. The two young men criticized their assimilated German-Jewish parents and the materialism of their petit-bourgeois (Gershom’s) and haute-bourgeois (Walter’s) households. Walter lived with his parents and collected fine editions of books, including von Humbolt's Writings on the Philosophy of Language. This one prompted their arguements on philosophy, history, and their shared mystical view of language, for Gershom always greatly respected Walter's "metaphysics" or spirituality.

Divorcee Dora Pollak took up with Walter and they married, but she frequently wrote Gershom. There was apparently flirtation between Dora and Gershom, and she wrote him letters on Walter's condition but signed them with the name of their toddler son. The Benamins’ marriage began to dissolve in 1918, right after the pair recovered from the flu, in the global epidemic that year. In Germany’s difficult and inflationary years 1922 and 1923, Dora worked as English translator, advantageously paid in foreign currency. Walter lived in his own apartment amd worked as a professional graphologist, analyzing handwriting. We are not told who were his clients--the Berlin police?

Both Walter and Gershom were embroiled in Berlin's Jewish literary politics througout the 1920s, and contributed essays to specialized journals. Walter planned a journal to be called Angelus, inspired by the watercolor "The Angel of History" which he purchased from the artist Paul Klee. Gershom was a Zionist who moved to Palestine in 1923, attracted by the cultural Zionism of Ahad Haam, which sought an Israeli center of moral and spiritual renewal within Judaism, but not the poitical, nation-building Zionist program of Theodor Herzl. Gerhom writes with confidence that Walter followed the Ten Commandments as absolute, recognized the supremacy of "reigious sphere of revelation" but "did not feel bound by it, rather...undermined it dialectically" in daily life. Gershom asserts in the book that Walter never was an atheist; this reader remains unconvinced of that.

In 1924 Walter met the Latvian revolutionary Asja Lacis. Gershom laments the influence of communism on Walter's thought, how it muscled out the anarchism they shared in earlier days that gave a "gleam of ambiguity" to his best writings. Walter never joined the German Communist Party, but in 1926 spent three months in Moscow with his lover Asja. Walter's letters from there to Gershom and other friends were written in pencil on bad paper. Gershom worried about the intellectual climate there when Walter's letters contained few literary recommendations, as books were always a mainstay of their correspondence and conversations. Walter's thesis book on German tragic drama, published in 1929, was deemed by university officials unfit to secure him a position, which ended his hopes for a conventional German academic career. At this time he lived in Paris with Asca and asked Dora for a divorce. He partook of symbolic lefty gestures, and wore a red tie to demonstrate his opposition to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti at a protest march.

In 1927 Gershom arranged a meeting to introduce Walter to Judah Magnes, organizer and financer of fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a meeting that optimistically ended with plans for Walter to teach and study there. Today's reader of Benjaminiana might like to see a fiction that had Walter living and teaching in Jerusalem or the United States until a ripe old age. In Jerusalem, Gershom had pursued his interest in Kabbalah and metaphysical and theological thought, and was appointed lecturer in Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University. Though he disliked reactionary elements that dominated the Zionist Congress and would have liked to have seen the creation of a secular binational Jewish state, Gershom flourished in Israel and throughout the 1930s continued to hope that Walter would join him there.

Franz Kafka's fiction impressed the two friends, whose study Gershom said must acknowlege Kafka’s moral roots in the Book of Job. Walter thought Kafka "the only true Bolshevist writer". He missed meeting Kafka on a visit to Prague, and forever regretted it. He was pleased at his communist friend Berthold Brecht's positive attitude towards Kafka. Walter turned 40 in 1932 in Ibiza, living living alone simply and very cheaply. Walter finally left Germany in March 1933 for Paris, where he lived in near-poverty but was comitted to work on his big book on Paris (the "Arcades"). The next few years were punctuated with visits to Brecht in Svendborg, Denmark and to his ex-wife Dora, who now ran a pensione in San Remo. Brecht wrote in his journals of his frustration with Benjamin's "Judaisms" and "mysticism in spite of an antimystical attitude"...which is exactly what Gershom liked about Walter. Gerhsom appreciated Walter's "urbanity" and "simplicity of expression" in his essays, maintained despite the profundity of his ideas. When the two friends finally reunited in1938 Gershom found Walter more Marxist than theological, but Walter insisted his Marxism was more "heuristic and experimental" than dogmatic.

Walter had once inscribed a book to Gershom with an allusion to them both riding a Jewish ark escaping the fascist flood. As liberties were curtailed in Europe, first in Germany then in France, Scholem urged Benjamin to join him in Palestine, then under British mandate. Much as George Orwell originally considered giving his novel 1984 the title The Last Man in Europe, Walter Benamin joked in response to his friend’s Zionism that he would remain “the last European”. Scholem offered his old friend a faith-based life in Jerusalem which Benjamin did not choose to embrace. Gershom’s main intellectual difference with Walter was his own privileging of religion over what he called Walter's “self-destructive communism”. Towards the end Gershom could detect Walter's mystical strain remaining only in his theory of language. Their shared interest in kabbalistic texts was purely typographic and bibliophilic--not religious--for Walter.

The Institute for Social Thought had supported Benjamin since 1934, and provided his sole income for the rest of his life. Despite the assurances of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Walter feared this income was in jeopardy, but it wasn't. Gershom worries in the book that he should have paid more attention to a suicidal impulses in his friend. Evidently Walter made at least one suicide attempt in the early 1930s, and had expressed in a letter to Gershom that all his life's work was completed. Walter wrote the draft of a will, found posthumously in his papers, that gave manuscripts to Scholem to deposit in a library in Israel or (that "last European" again!) Prussia. WIth it was a note for Jula Radt, who was his life’s third great love after Dora and Asja, though he had several other romantic affairs with women in the last decade of his life. Gershom laments in the book that he had no heart-to-heart talks with Walter during the years of greatest difficulty for him, though their letters were full of rich ideas that they planned to develop "over a bottle of burgundy" together in the future. When in 1940 the chubby bookworm Walter had difficulty hiking across the Pyrennes to Spain in his city shoes, a bureucratic setback (which may have only been temporary) so disheartened him that he took a fatal overdose of morphine.

The last word in the book's Appendix, an exchange on historical materialism, is Gershom's. One senses that septegenarian Gershom Scholem, respected Israeli academic, wrote this book in his seventies to answer questions "Why didn't you try harder to get Walter Benjamin out of Europe?" He couldn’t, for Walter was his own independent, maddenning man.

Perhaps that is a part of his underlying appeal to artists. Benjamin had visited his friends the Berlin Dadaist artists Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings at their Cabaret Voltaire, and appreciated Expressionist paintings by Chagall and Ensor as well as the non-representational canvases of Kandinsky. The cover of this handsome New York Review Books paperback is a detail from "The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin)", a 1973 painting by R. B. Kitaj. Kitaj is a Jewish American, born 1932 in Ohio who has lived and painted for the past four decades in London; he is also author of The First Diasporist Manifesto, a meditation on the effects of exile and migration upon artists and others. In "The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin)", Kitaj has painted a glimpse of the melancholy cultural critic Benjamin wearing his events-driven rootless cosmopolitanaeity on his sleeve. Walter would appreciate how his friend Gershom's memoir of their days and words together has reappeared, urbanely wrapped in Kitaj's arresting visual of midcentury urban life.

For more information, see New York Review Books, Shadowtime, this author's reviews of Gumbrect and Marrinan’s book and on Andrew Benjamin’s book on "The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility".

Mike Mosher compared hypertext to wandering Walter in Bad Subjects #44 Writing issue.


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