In the last five years, more than 300 books and articles on Walter Benjamin have appeared in English alone. Not bad for a man who was virtually forgotten when he committed suicide in 1941.
It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.
Uwe Steiner’s new book on Benjamin—which attempts to put Benjamin in his historical place—doesn’t really do him justice either. Steiner traces Benjamin’s mature work to the thinker’s early days as a radical student before the First World War, when Nietzsche was all the rage. Fair enough. Steiner also has a larger goal: He wants us to stop trying to bend Benjamin to our intellectual will—be it Marxist, deconstructive, or religious. A laudable goal but also slightly perverse, because Benjamin had no trouble trying on others’ thoughts to see if they fit. Even worse, Steiner’s approach scants Benjamin’s intellectual and emotional allure.
Benjamin’s remarkable endurance derives as much from his style as from his ideas. Or rather, his brilliant, damnably esoteric critique of capitalist culture is one with the pathos and indirectness of his prose. His sentences suggest. They imply. At their best, they radiate. Hence the remarkable bursts of scholarship his work has seen over the last few decades. He reminds people of what they might think.
His most famous set piece comes from his last work, a series of aphorisms called “On the Concept of History.” Written in the short period before he killed himself while trying to flee from the Nazis, this paragraph gains some of its considerable melancholy from retrospect, from the fact that it has been taken as his last will and testament:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
A beautiful piece of writing that gets an extra kick from its pessimistic counter-intuitive punch line. Progress doesn’t progress in the slightest. It is a steady march through disaster. And there is nothing, it seems, we can do about it.
Bleak stuff. But Benjamin’s ability to arrest you with the solidity of an abstraction can tempt you away from the thin thread of his argument. On its own, this paragraph presents us with a picture of fallen and unredeemable history. In the context of the other paragraphs of the essay in which it appears, we can see that the Angel of History does not have the last word. History, Benjamin maintains, is permanently, if elusively, susceptible to revolutionary change.
Benjamin claimed that his work was saturated with theology, even—or rather especially—when it appears to be at its most secular. In the piece that contains the Angel, the revolution fulfills a theological mandate by making “whole what has been smashed.” Benjamin imagines that it will enact tikkun olam in a very literal sense. Benjamin’s colleague, the philosopher Max Horkheimer, once accused him of believing all too squarely in the Last Judgment. Though Benjamin tried to recast his thought into more acceptably materialist terms, Horkheimer had a point. Benjamin might have talked about redemption as the historical fulfillment of squandered hopes, but at heart he was always listening for the final trump. He was waiting for the glorious resurrection of the dead.
Benjamin’s thought was essentially religious. It clung to the twin promises of redemption and transcendence. The man worked from the clearly Jewish intuition that justice cannot be derived from the world as it is. Justice is precisely that small break from nature instituted by the Law. Our problem is not that nature is sinful. Our problem lies with the fact that on its own, nature just isn’t enough. It needs to be transcended, if only just a bit. As his friend T. W. Adorno was fond of reminding us, the Talmud says that the redeemed world will be like this one, but a little different. And that tiny shift means everything.
But what happens when we, as the children of modernity, have lost the Law? That is where Benjamin’s messianic politics slip in. Gershom Scholem, the magisterial historian of Kabbalah, always maintained that Benjamin was a Jewish thinker and not really a Marxist. For his part, Benjamin argued that he pursued a single goal—the radical transformation of the world, a utopian strike against suffering. His was not the tikkun olam of good deeds and incremental improvements, but of bold risks and decisive moves.
Sure, sure, there is a great deal of Romanticism in all this (as Steiner would be the first to point out) and a sentimentalizing anarchism that speaks of another era. Even so, Benjamin proposes a heresy we might want to consider: redemption without faith. He refuses to give up the rigors and promises of theology for a more amenable, even amiable ethical Judaism. He therefore cuts a different path for the post-religious. Just as Scholem, however unwittingly, presents us with a Kabbalah without halakhah, so Benjamin quite wittingly addresses a theology without God. An intractable contradiction? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is a historical conundrum that we have yet to overcome.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.