15 December, 2006Issue 6.1EuropeLiteratureNorth AmericaPhilosophy

Email This Article Print This Article

Unravelling Walter Benjamin

Will Norman

Walter Benjamin
Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (translated by Howard Eiland)
Harvard University Press, 2006
192 pages
ISBN 06702222X

Walter Benjamin
On Hashish (translated by Howard Eiland et al.)
Harvard University Press, 2006
180 pages
ISBN 067402211

Until recently, Walter Benjamin was a figure many had heard of, but few had read extensively. In 1968, twenty-eight years after Benjamin took his own life while evading Nazis on the Spanish-French border, his friend Hannah Arendt edited a translated volume of his essays named Illuminations. It contained what is probably his most famous piece, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ along with meditations on several of the subjects that occupied Benjamin: modernity, time, memory and history as refracted through the lens of modernist literary experimentation by Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka and the Surrealists. Benjamin’s intellectual eclecticism was on full display, and he happily married Marx, Freud and Nietzsche with delightful irreverence.

If this volume served to whet the appetite of English-language readers, then Harvard University Press’s mammoth project to translate and edit something approaching a complete works has revealed an oeuvre of formidable depth and richness. Alongside the four volume Selected Writings, and the vast, unfinished Arcades Project, have arrived two relatively slim, but precious new volumes. One is a fragmentary collection of autobiographical reflections called Berlin Childhood Around 1900, long planned by Benjamin but unpublished in his lifetime, and never before translated into English. The other is an extraordinary collection of his writings about his prolonged interest in and experimentation with cannabis, On Hashish.

Deeply attracted to the myth of Ariadne, Benjamin saw reading and writing (and getting stoned) as a process of unravelling, and these cryptic, seductive texts lead us into a labyrinth in which we discover the author’s perceptual consciousness reflected in a strange, distorted glass.

Baudelaire, a writer with whom Benjamin was genuinely obsessed, wrote that ‘genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.’ What Baudelaire meant by this was that in childhood we possess an artistic sensibility based on a freshness of perception, which is usually lost in adulthood. Innocence and curiosity are requisite to great art, and there is an element of this to be discerned in Berlin Childhood. With painstaking care, Benjamin renders the objects and places which surrounded him as a child as repositories of hidden meanings.

My favourite of these moments is ‘The Sock,’ in which a mundane item is transformed into a lesson in modernist aesthetics. Benjamin’s socks were stored in the traditional fashion—rolled up together and then turned inside out—and as a child enjoyed thrusting his hand into the interior: ‘It was the “little present” rolled up inside that I always held in my hand and that drew me into the depths.’ On drawing his hand out again, however, ‘something rather disconcerting would happen’:

I had brought out “the present,” but “the pocket” in which it had lain was no longer there . . . It taught me that form and content, veil and what is veiled, are the same. It led me to draw truth from works of literature as warily as the child’s hand retrieved the sock from “the pocket.”

Much of what is told in Berlin Childhood is allegorical. Not allegorical in that dull sense of tiredly arranged representative figures, but in Benjamin’s own sense, which tells us that the future is contained within the past. So although Baudelaire’s childlike perceptive freshness and curiosity are preserved in Benjamin’s autobiography, the innocence is not. Indeed, one passage in Berlin childhood refers directly to what is called the ‘counterpart’ of déjà-vu:

the shock with which a word makes us pull up short, like a muff which someone has forgotten in our room. Just as the latter points us to a stranger who was on the premises, so are the words or pauses pointing us to the invisible stranger—the future—which forgot them at our place.

This passage occurs in a fragment called ‘News of a Death.’ Benjamin’s father comes into his bedroom in order to explain (haltingly) that a cousin has died. At the time, the child displays an unnerving indifference, for he hardly knows the man in question. He does however, take great care in noticing his surroundings, ‘just as a person pays closer attention to a place where he has a presentiment that, one day, he will have to retrieve from it something forgotten.’ Only years later, as the final sentence discloses to us, does Benjamin discover the truth behind has father’s obfuscations: the cousin died of syphilis.

Benjamin’s casual ‘just as a person,’ a mannerism he learnt from Proust, makes very little sense really, for logic tells us that, if we had this presentiment of forgetting, we would presumably remember rather than forget. Only, for Benjamin, this is a necessary forgetting; a forgetting in order to remember. To use experience to create a fresh connection between the past and the future across time is to effect a short-circuiting of history, which redeems that past from effacement.

It is not clear to us why this syphilitic death should be important to Benjamin’s future. There are a number of hints and traces of sexual awakening patterning Berlin Childhood, but little indication of where they might lead us. This ambiguity, or more precisely unfinishedness, is highly characteristic of Benjamin’s writings, relatively few of which reached publication (remember, it is the unravelling of the prose that gives pleasure). In fact, the fragment named ‘Sexual Awakening,’ the final part of Benjamin’s projected volume, tells us ostensibly very little about its promised subject. Rather, we are given an anecdote about a child getting lost in the city on a day he was supposed to be attending synagogue. Typically, this fragment (and the entire autobiography) are cut short at the point where the awakening takes place.

Autobiography is conventionally expected to be an exploration of origins, yet Benjamin seems most interested in the point of dismemberment, where the indeterminable space between past and future is to be negotiated. According to his own perspective, all of this is as it should be. In his study, Origins of German Trauerspiel (Ursprung der deutschen Trauerspiels, 1916), he writes that the concept of origin ‘wishes to be known, on the one hand, as restoration and reinstatement and, on the other hand, in this very reinstatement, as uncompleted and unresolved.’ This is the temporal space that Benjamin felt needed to be reoccupied by experience, in resistance to the brutal, impersonal, historical force which manifested itself in western Europe (and more than anywhere else, in Benjamin’s Berlin), during the late twenties and thirties. Unfinished is, after all, provisional, negotiable and most importantly open to the fluxing potential of the future. It is anti-totalitarian, in fact.

The historical location of Berlin Childhood’s composition is absolutely crucial to its design. ‘In 1932, when I was abroad,’ it begins, ‘it became clear to me that I would soon have to bid a long, perhaps lasting farewell to the city of my birth.’ This was because, as a Jew, Benjamin’s existence in Berlin had been under threat from a steadily growing tide of public anti-Semitism, and he spent most of 1932 in Spain and Italy. The words of this introduction themselves were written in 1938, just after Krystalnacht, when the residents of Berlin ransacked Jewish homes and businesses. Once again, presentiment plays the key role in the autobiographical project. Benjamin conceived of Berlin Childhood as a kind of inoculation against the forthcoming destruction of his past by history:

My assumption was that the feeling of longing [for the past] would no more gain mastery over my spirit than a vaccine does over a healthy body. I sought to limit its effect through insight into the irretrievability—not the contingent biographical but the necessary social irretrievability—of the past.

Berlin Childhood could only have been written by an exile, knowingly based as it is in this experience of loss. The directionless wanderings of the young Benjamin through his apartment and the city he lived in not only recall Baudelaire’s, and later Proust’s, fl√¢nerie, they also anticipate their author’s later exile in Paris, rehearsing a defensive strategy based on fluidity of purpose, and of identity.

Reading this autobiography it becomes clear that Benjamin consciously placed himself in this tradition of fl√¢neurs and dandies, with Baudelaire once more providing a conspicuous model. In fact, Baudelaire published a book about eating hash called Artificial Paradise (Paradis Artificiels, 1860), which Benjamin read and found unsatisfying. He told his friend Ernst Shoen in 1919 that it was ‘reticent’ and ‘unorientated.’ ‘It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book,’ he wrote. Baudelaire’s study is thoroughly entertaining, partly due to this reticence. He claims early on, rather unconvincingly, that the detailed accounts he gives of cannabis-induced intoxication are based on interviews with addicts. Benjamin, on the other hand, is perfectly candid about his consumption of vast quantities of high-grade hash.

A large section of the volume On Hashish is taken up with notes made, with pseudo-scientific seriousness, on the psychoactive effects of these sessions. Needless to say, Benjamin was often incapable of moving, let alone writing, and so appointed a dutiful friend to write down his observations, while the patient did his best to articulate his thoughts. Also included are several brilliant, anecdotal essays on Benjamin’s stoned wanderings in Marseilles, and excerpts from letters and other essays that deal with intoxication.

Getting stoned is the occupation par excellence of the fl√¢neur. For Baudelaire, this figure is bound to temporality, a perspective that provides one of several connections between Berlin Childhood and On Hashish. The fl√¢neur is, for example, ‘the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity it contains.’

The experience of loss, in other words, or even the loss of experience, is reified. In Berlin Childhood the past is remembered just as it is forgotten, its ‘irretrievability’ caught and dramatised in articulation. In his hash trances, Benjamin describes something very similar, a state of perception he called ‘the colportage phenomenon of space,’ in which ‘we simultaneously perceive all the events which might conceivably have taken place here.’ Here, history is made material, distilled into a single spatial entity to be apprehended by the subject. What separates this from the autobiographical strategy is the lack of experience, the absence of the subject from history, which becomes characterised as an empty and homogenous medium:

In the end, things are merely mannequins, and even the great moments of world history are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances of complicity with nothingness, with the petty and the banal. Such nihilism is the innermost core of bourgeois coziness—a mood that in hashish intoxication concentrates to satanic contentment, satanic calm, satanic knowing.

For neither Benjamin nor Baudelaire believed the satanic was necessarily something to be shied away from. Benjamin called this state ‘profane illumination’ and saw in it the potential for a transfiguration of modernity. This was also what attracted him to the surrealist project: the attempt to ‘win the energies of intoxication for the revolution.’ In addition to seeing the potential offered by this revised historical consciousness, he was also seduced by the transformative power manifested in language when under a hash trance. As Berlin Childhood shows, Benjamin was always attracted to the potential for correspondence (or, using his French terminology, ‘mêmité,’ same-ity) between objects as offered by their names. We read, for example, about how the young Benjamin discovered the value of tinkering with words, sounds and meanings in his play, transforming the mundane ‘Kupfersticken’ [copperplate engravings] into his own neologism, ‘Kopf-verstick’ [a head-stickout]: ‘if, in this way, I distorted both myself and the word, I did only what I had to do in order to gain a foothold in life.’

Predictably then, in On Hashish, this metonymic instability reaches new levels, as Benjamin immerses himself deeply in particular words and phrases, repeating and admiring them with childlike wonder, only to discover they are not what he thought and that they lead to the most unexpected of meanings. Benjamin’s fascination with Surrealism makes much more sense having explored On Hashish, and this seems particularly appropriate given that it was Georges Batailles, a one-time friend and later vociferous critic of the Surrealists, to whom Benjamin entrusted his writings when fleeing Paris in his last weeks.

Reading On Hashish, it is often difficult to take much of the material seriously. Some of the observations Benjamin makes, together with the (mock?) seriousness with which they are recorded, are simply hilarious. From the casually recorded ‘oven turns into cat’ (observation no. 13), to Benjamin’s digression on the merits of gigantic cakes, and his resolution, one stoned night, to order every single item on a café menu before going to another restaurant ‘to dine a second time,’ there are many humorous moments. However, despite the apparent gap between Benjamin’s enthusiastic recruitment of hash for the revolution and his skewed observations, he insisted that his experiments ‘may turn out to be a very worthwhile supplement to my philosophical observations, with which they are intimately related.’ He is absolutely right about this, and On Hashish, as well as Berlin Childhood, slot unexpectedly well into the expanding Benjamin oeuvre, providing fascinating new contexts for addressing and engaging with this expanding body of translated work.

Will Norman is a DPhil student in literature at New College, Oxford. His work focuses on Vladimir Nabokov and modernist figurations of time and history.