Thinking Past the Nazis

Berlin Childhood Around 1900 By Walter Benjamin, translated by Howard Eiland Harvard University Press, 208 pages, $14.95.

If you have ever heard of the great German literary critic and theorist Walter Benjamin, you probably know something of his suicide. In 1940, Benjamin tried to flee from France to Spain, only to be turned back with his party at the border. That night, in despair, he killed himself. The next day, his companions were allowed to pass over into Spain and safety.

No doubt Benjamin, who had a genius for catastrophe, would have appreciated the ironic senselessness of his own end. If only circumstances had been just a little bit different — and they easily could have been — the final result would have been very different indeed. This sense of the contingency of our personal and collective fate is the melancholic flip side of that talmudic dictum (one that Benjamin knew and quoted) that in the days of the messiah, the present order of things will be transformed, but only slightly. The conditions of our existence might be separated from redemption by nothing more than a hair’s breadth, but that minuscule distance makes all the difference in the world.

Benjamin was a great scholar of melancholy. On top of innumerable reviews and articles, he wrote a major study of the German Baroque Trauerspiel (mourning play) and devoted the final decade of his life to Charles Baudelaire, the pre-eminent poet of spleen. Nevertheless, he was also a great if pessimistic theoretician of hope. For Benjamin, melancholy flows from two sources: the inevitability of loss, and the apparent impossibility of earthly change. But these twin fonts of despair can be made to work against each other, and when they do we are able to catch glimpses of redemptive possibility.

A strong stream of good, old-fashioned anarchism runs through Benjamin’s work. According to him, we are not cursed by destiny to live under conditions of violence and constraint. The fatefulness of suffering is nothing but an illusion. Social institutions — like all forms of human endeavor — are susceptible to destruction and transformation. We must learn to see in them the emancipatory traces of decay.

It is the task of Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood Around 1900,” finally available in English in this handsome, well-translated little edition, to discover such foreshadowings of messianic catastrophe, to track hints of possible futures in even the smallest details of the author’s extraordinarily comfortable, supremely bourgeois childhood. In the retrospect that the book provides, even the untimely ringing of the telephone — a new contraption in 1900 — turns out to have been a portent of an unseen revolution, “an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped that siesta.” The avowed aim of “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” is to nail down the “social irretrievability of the past” to show that change does occur. Its trick is to engage the reader in rather precise evocations of the streets, monuments and apartments of late Wilhelmine Berlin. Then Benjamin, who is justly famous as a stylist, takes unexpected leaps, as when he suddenly claims that the long process of a child’s waking up, which he has just lovingly called forth, is nothing less than a portent of his present unemployment. He inverts our common sense to reveal hidden potentials, such as when he suggests that déjà vu represents an echo not of the past but of what is to come. The power and subtle strangeness of his technique can be seen in this description of a child’s alienated response to his room at night: “With amazement, I realized that nothing in it could compel me to think the world. Its nonbeing would have struck me as not a whit more problematic than its being…. The ocean and its continents had had little advantage over my washstand set while the moon still shone. Of my own existence, nothing was left except the dregs of its abandonment.”

Benjamin’s method might be described as fundamentally rhythmic. He syncopates precise description with quick turns and daring, if hermetic, metaphor.

The motivation behind Benjamin’s little book of oddly impersonal reminiscences is obliquely, and thus quixotically, political. Benjamin wanted to surprise his German-speaking contemporaries into seeing in a new way. He wanted them to think past the Nazis. But he was unable to find such readers immediately. He wrote the short, discontinuous sketches of “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” in exile during the early 1930s. While he managed to see some of them into print in newspapers and periodicals, he could not get anyone to publish either of the two versions of the book he put together. “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” did not appear in Germany until 1950, and although it was then, in its way, doubly dated (a view from the 1930s of the turn of the century), it was, and remains, a strong seller.

It is not hard to see why it has done so well in the Federal Republic. It is a beautiful memorial to a German-Jewish world that the Nazis destroyed, written by a leftwing intellectual whom the Nazis hounded to death. It therefore encapsulates a potent, if unfulfilled, cultural legacy and serves as a reminder of a grim and equally potent reality.

Of course, as Peter Szondi points out in the excellent essay on Benjamin that is reprinted here as an introduction to the book, Benjamin did not want to write a memorial as such, because he was not interested in perpetuating the bourgeois world that had produced him. In this, he differed from Proust (whom he translated), even though it is very tempting to call his work Proustian. In fact, Benjamin was, as Szondi shows, something of an anti-Proust, listening not for the resonance of times past but “for the first notes of a future that has meanwhile become the past.” It is on that complicated — even paradoxical — sense of time that Benjamin pinned his hopes.

Such a taste for paradox and nuanced complication renders Benjamin’s work difficult — even enigmatic — and almost infinitely suggestive. This aspect of his writing accounts in no small part for its remarkable durability. (It also explains why it is frequently interpreted so badly.) Benjamin’s success has also depended on his vast literary skills. “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” is beautifully written, its tone moving easily from irony and wit to the beguiling pathos of a knowing melancholy. While the results can be infuriating, they are also compelling. It goes without saying that no one could write like this anymore — the book belongs to another era and another place. But it is Benjamin’s peculiar gift to be able to command our attention, even though — and especially because — his time has truly passed.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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Thinking Past the Nazis

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