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Save Benjamin from his fans!

Author Stephan Wackwitz dissevers literature from science, holiness from genius in the legend of Walter Benjamin

In 1972 I was twenty, a supposedly not entirely untalented, deeply impressionable and utterly confused individual. One week it was Maoism, the next it was poetry or fine art. The interminable vacillations of a young man. Ersatz military service in Bad Urach, holidays in Paris, a patchwork university degree in Munich. The obligatory hitch-hiking in Italy. The effects of Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" and three cans of beer in a youth hostel in Milan. An old man holds his head in despair over the diaries of his younger self.

One day, on a marble table top in an Ulm cafe, next to a cup of coffee, lay a red and white Bibliothek Suhrkamp book. It was Walter Benjamin's "Einbahnstraße" (One Way Street). The effect it was to have on me in the months and years to come echoed that experienced by it author in the 1920's, who could only read Aragon's "Paysan de Paris" one page at a time because it made his heart race and kept him awake for nights on end.

When, after flicking through it for the first time, I returned Benjamin's "Einbahnstraße" to the marble table top in the Ulm cafe (I was waiting for the local train to take me to my home town of Blaubeuren), I knew I would never be bored again. Not because I would continue to read this book for ever, a book that my professors in Munich were unable to classify as poetry or prose, theory or fiction, diary or essay. As I mentioned, I could never digest more than one or two passages in one sitting. What I mean is that something radical had happened in my life, because from this moment on, the world of books would contain something which awed me infinitely, just as I had been awed in childhood by the toys of some of my friends, or as I felt about the glamorous older female students in the German studies seminars in Schellingstraße.

My admiration for some of Benjamin's writing, the elegance of his thinking and his language more than anything else, has accompanied me throughout my intellectual life. And this in spite of the irreparable damage I probably inflicted upon myself during my period of obsessive Benjamin reading. Because the confusion of his thinking exponentially propelled my own confusions to new heights, for many years. When you read Benjamin, you must learn to strictly separate admiration and criticism.

The history of his influence is suitabably paradoxical. Benjamin's writing, which was almost exclusively intended to be scientific in method, makes strict claims to the truth, even when it takes the form of aphorism, feuilleton, literary critique or memoir. But Benjamin today enjoys the level of worldwide adoration that is otherwise reserved for poets in Eastern Europe. He is quoted so extensively, his photograph reproduced so often, he is the subject of so many prominent congresses and meticulous exhibitions that you would be forgiven for thinking he was Germany's leading poet. This misleading (oft kitschifying) treatment of a man who throughout his life regarded himself as a theorist, is most unusual for literary life in the west. At the very least it demands an explanation.

An initial explanation lies in the biography of the philosopher who was born in 1892 as the son of Jewish art dealer in Berlin and, while fleeing the Nazis in 1940, took his own life in the mountains. Strains from saint's legends are interwoven elements of classical artist legends: an endearing ineptitude for life's practicalities, early signs of outstanding talent; the failure of his peers to recognise his genius with the exception of a few visionary individuals (Hugo von Hofmannsthal!) who pointed a prophetic finger in his direction; betrayal by women and friends; persecution by evil rulers; a sacrificial death in the service of his work (the legendary manuscript which he lugged across the Pyrenees in his briefcase); and the posthumous apotheosis. The legend even has a miracle: Adorno suggested that Benjamin's suicide in Port Bout so moved the Spanish border authorities that they allowed the remaining group of emigrants to enter the country and to escape to freedom in America.

The paradoxical entanglement of poetic consecration and scientific standards was however, prepared above all by Benjamin himself. He pursued the project of a sort of concretising theory. He believed that by describing a type of theatre, or novel, or form of architecture in as precise terms as possible, these things would be brought to life in "profane illumination" and spawn a theory of their own. Benjamin, you could say, misinterpreted a Romantic poet's dream ("And the world wakes up and sings, / If only you find the magic word") as research programme. With Joseph von Eichendorff, it was a song that slumbered "in all things, / Ever dreaming forth unheard" - whereas for Benjamin it was historical materialism. Herein lies the failure of his monumental and fragmentary lifework as scientific research and its enduring success as Romantic literature.

Benjamin's writings on German philology, history of philosophy, theology and architectural sociology had already been superseded by the time they were rediscovered in the 1960s. Only his dissertation on the early Romantic concept of poetry still has academic relevance today. But even his contemporaries could not relate to these books in scholarly terms. Benjamin's book on Baroque tragedy not only failed to get past the Frankfurt doctoral committee, whose no-name, line-toeing academics could be dismissed on grounds of bigotry; he also got the thumbs-down from pioneers in Aby Warburg circles (Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky for example). And Adorno's excoriation of Benjamin's writing on Baudelaire is famous.

So how do you explain why his writing, which fails to meet any traditional criteria, has been been so phenomenally influential since the 1960s? The content argument points to Benjamin's combination of "scientific socialism" with cabbalist and messianic motifs (most prominently in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History) which struck a chord with students' illusory hopes of revolution against all odds. And the motifs in the essay on "The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" would certainly have been useful for a generation where most people grew up wanting to become "something media-related".

The most plausible (and depressing) explanation for the triumph of Walter Benjamin's poetic theory, however, springs from the observation that his rediscovery coincided with the rise of an academic current which had abandoned the pursuit of traditional academic standards in favour of creating diffuse meaning which could not longer be verified in scientific terms. The later work of Jacques Derrida, the Frankfurt Hölderlin Edition and the books of Giorgio Agamben could be classed as classics of this academic current, and the reception of Jorge Luis Borges in the eighties and of Heiner Muller in the nineties as their equivalent in the wider world of the chattering classes.

Today the bureaucratisation, didactisation and trivialisation of the humanities in the wake of the Bologna reform have reduced the hipness factor of academic environments and careers. The "Benjaminisation" as you could call the process, of creating poetic effects through scientific means. Catalogue texts, art theoretical "essays", curatorial concepts cite Benjamin's texts ad infinitum and occupy an intellectual no-man's-land between scholarship and poetry.

I'm sure you know the reluctance to continue reading a text if the first paragraph is sat under a chunky quote from Benjamin's book on tragedy, and the remaining porridgy thoughts are generously sprinkled with words like "aura", "flaneur" or "shock". You want nothing more to do with it. The mixture of poetising process with scientific claim to truth feels impure if not downright unsavoury.

Let us instead take a few steps backwards in literary history. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the great natural scientists of his day. But we no longer read his reports of his travels through South America out of natural-scientific interest, but because he was also one of the greatest prose writers of his time. It is it the fate of scientific prose that its scientific relevance fades. The artistic relevance however, of scientists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Sigmund Freud which they undoubtedly had and still have, quite apart apart from their discoveries, are untouched by his ageing process. Dante's "Divinia Commedia" was intended once upon a time as a scientific description of the world. Outdated knowledge becomes unsurpassable poetry. And this applies not only to outdated scientific prose, but also ideas that were wrong from the outset. One famous 18th century example of this is Goethe's "Colour Theory" that was appallingly off, even at its time of creation, which does nothing to impair its artistic or literary qualities.

Benjamin's writings are the "Colour Theory" of the twentieth century. If we could agree (and science would almost certainly back us up here) to take his theories on German philology, architectural sociology, media theory and history of philosophy with a pinch of salt, his genius as a writer could get the recognition it deserves. Then the literary essay – a paradoxical case of an illegitimate species which nevertheless has rules – would shift to centre stage in his oeuvre. The "Arcades Project" suddenly becomes a forerunner to Walter Kempowski's "Echolot" and other forms of documentary literature and artistic research; his literary criticism, a subtle intellectual autobiography played out over several volumes. And his reports on interior and exterior travels which we have always been been able to enjoy without regret, as fascinating subjective documents.

This process clearly defines Benjamin – his admirers take note - as the last, most important and most brilliant representative of 20th century Jewish literary culture, a milieu so full of talent that German literature has yet to recover from its eradication at the hands of the Nazis.

Walter Benjamin should be studied and admired as the third and perhaps most original mind in a trio of literary giants of the 1920s, who all registered in erudite consciousness very late in the game: he should be placed alongside Kafka and Robert Walser. And we should stop stirring his intricately brilliant but almost entirely false theories into theoretical blancmange, condemning Benjamin to keep delivering the ingredients. Perhaps though that is the comeuppance for his own scientific hubris – although he has long done penance for that.


This article originally appeared in Die Welt on 24 September, 2010.

Stephan Wackwitz (1952) is an essayist and novelist.
"An Invisible Country" was published in English in 2005 (more here).

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