DECEMBER 13, 2016
ONE OF THE IRONIES of Walter Benjamin’s legacy is that his name has gained such traction in what he once called the “all-consuming and insatiable maw of culture.” It’s not so much — as is more commonly the case with dead writers — that Benjamin was mired in obscurity during his lifetime and only gained prominence posthumously, through luck and the dedicated custodianship of his literary estate. He was hardly a nobody in his own day. His writing regularly appeared in the influential German weekly Die Literarische Welt, as well as premier newspapers in Cologne and Frankfurt, and journals edited or published by distinguished figures like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Thomas Mann, and Max Horkheimer. His correspondence reads like a who’s who of the German-speaking intellectual world. Nevertheless, his body of work was always vulnerable; after the Nazis’ ascension to power in 1933, he spoke of his writing as being “sabotaged from all sides.” That stands to reason. After all, what Benjamin called the “contradictory and mobile whole”  of his thought was never easily assimilated to any institution, circle, or sect, never reducible to any single aesthetic, philosophical, theological, or political orientation. It therefore provoked resistance from every direction, along with accusations of formlessness, willful abstruseness, conceptual negligence, etc. He was repeatedly denied opportunities to publish and teach, and his advisors at the University of Frankfurt, Horkheimer among them, rejected his doctoral dissertation, claiming they were “incapable of understanding it.”
It is ironic, then, that this same body of work is so eminently serviceable to such a broad variety of ends today. Not only is Benjamin’s name to be found in countless scholarly bibliographies in the humanities and ceaselessly at the center of new publishing ventures — it has also come to be ubiquitous in the world of contemporary art. Last September, artsy.com published an editorial declaring Walter Benjamin the art world’s favorite theorist. Benjamin — his name, his work, his aura — is invoked by the art world in a variety of ways: at times flippantly, in order to impart a sense of sophistication, as a kind of philosophical incense, or as a theoretical crutch to support an otherwise precarious project. The influence can be explicit. The Arcades Project is taken as the template for a recent book by Kenneth Goldsmith and a forthcoming one arranged by Jens Hoffmann. The reference can also be furtive. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum recently hosted an exhibit whose title borrowed a line from Benjamin’s theses “On the Concept of History.” The same line (“…but a storm is blowing from paradise”) is more actively featured in Liquidity Inc., a recent video piece by German artist Hito Steyerl. Steyerl’s work is an excellent example of the genuinely fructifying ways in which Benjamin’s thought can be set in motion. In any event, Benjamin’s status in the art world can serve as an effective bellwether for the general state, or fate, of his work today.
In his Irrkunst, an exhibition showing at Berlin’s Galerie Max Hetzler, the British artist Edmund de Waal enters into thoughtful conversation with Benjamin’s legacy. Irrkunst belongs to that store of German compound words worth importing into English untouched. It has no straightforward definition, only an approximate meaning: the art of wandering, of meandering, getting lost, or even of being mistaken, ill-fated, and wrong. In this, it can stand as an epigraph over Benjamin’s life and work, encompassing both their enchanting and tragic dimensions. Benjamin invokes this art in the “Tiergarten” section of his sprawling, memoiristic Berlin Childhood around 1900. Only a short walk from Berlin’s Tiergarten, the exhibition at Max Hetzler takes Berlin Childhood and its themes — memory, collecting, loss, dreams, structures, spaces — as a point of departure. Through carefully posed arrangements of miniature ceramics, stored in specially made shelves and vitrines, de Waal’s work purports to carry out a “dialogue between tradition and modernity, blank spaces and opulence, minimalism and architecture.”
As pregnant as de Waal’s exploration of these themes may be, arguably the most engrossing — or at least eye-catching — aspect of the exhibition is one that doesn’t really aspire to the status of artwork at all. The gallery has prepared a sort of Benjamin reading room for visitors, featuring books by and about the German-Jewish literary critic. This is no gift shop; the books aren’t for sale. Nor is it some inert, orderly private library. Rather, the space is marked by an exquisite commotion: multicolored volumes of various sizes are elegantly strewn across a sleek display shelf mounted to a bare, white wall and a long, rectangular table with an inflated map of Berlin pasted atop it. Images of Benjamin’s face — brimming with thought and not a little melancholia — adorn several paperback copies.
Taken together, these books convey a story of Benjamin’s afterlives — of the byways and avenues of his improbable posthumous fame. On display are books from various divisions of German publishing giant Suhrkamp Verlag (who, in the early 1970s, began releasing the first comprehensive set of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften, or collected works); the German-Jewish Schocken house (whose Hannah Arendt–edited, reddish-orange and white Illuminations thrust Benjamin’s work to the fore of the Anglophone intellectual world in 1969); and the boutique publisher Verso (who, along with its British parent company, New Left Books, have produced some exceptional Benjamin-centered volumes); as well as sundry university presses, including Cambridge and Harvard, the latter of which has put out what remains the definitive English-language collection of Benjamin’s work, the five-volume Selected Writings edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Interspersed throughout are translations into Japanese, Portuguese, and many other languages.
For his admirers, this array of Benjaminiana might seem endowed with an indefinite glow. The images of his face that grace every few book covers could appear to have a certain energy about them. Benjamin once wrote: “To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.” In this way, in an experience of aura in all its fullness, perhaps the gaze that devoted visitors bestow on these books might be returned by that of Benjamin himself.
Others might be inclined to resist the spell. This camp is likelier to recoil from the starry-eyed hagiography and wreath-laying at the image of this German Jew, this Marxist rabbi, eating hashish and playing flâneur, snatching his gnomic speculative treasure from the heart of catastrophe. They respond, rather, with fatigue and cynicism to the burgeoning “Benjamin Industry” — the reconfigured essay collections, contending translations, and endless commentaries and critical anthologies, all promising something new, or, at the very least, justifying themselves as much-needed reassertions of the neglected. The pejorative term “industry” is meant to arouse misgivings about the use and abuse of Benjamin’s work — the sense that this custodianship can at times have ulterior, even exhausted motives: personal ambition, professional opportunism, academic vanity, all attached parasitically to the nimbus around Benjamin’s name. In 1981, years before this “industry” got going in earnest, the French writer Pierre Missac argued for the importance of rescuing “Benjamin’s work from the tide of exegesis,” of rescuing it, in other words, from the hex of canonization.
In an essay remembering his late friend, Theodor W. Adorno notes Benjamin’s “fondness for what was off the beaten path,” what — in the cultural domain — had “not yet been ground to bits by the official life of spirit.” One wonders, then, how Benjamin would have reacted to the so thorough acculturation of his own work and legacy. How would he comport himself, for instance, standing in the space of Galerie Max Hetzler, perusing Verso’s hardcover Walter Benjamin’s Archive, an assemblage of arguably the most meager scraps of his archivable life, elevated to an object of fascination and philological plunder? How might he react to seeing his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility,” reproduced in 15 different volumes standing more or less side by side? Indeed, one could assess Max Hetzler’s movable Benjamin archive — idling away in an art gallery — as being decisively separated from life, estranged from any encounter with the world. One could then accuse these books of being something like a scale model of the “Benjamin Industry.” One could even seize onto the affinities between “museum” and “mausoleum,” suggesting that these books have something cadaverous or embalmed about them, that their purpose is purely ornamental. Finally, one could posit that this reflects the status of the work itself. Benjamin himself might have indulged in this kind of thinking, given his penchant for what he called physiognomic criticism (“Reading is only one of a hundred ways of gaining access to a book”). He was, after all, deeply attuned to the stultifying effects of over-admiration and over-publication. He not only disparaged publishing attempts intended largely to “gratify either philological ambition or a dubious need for culture” but also often lamented what he called the “enshrinement as heritage” (Würdigung als Erbe), a death sentence for the living work.
As it happens, de Waal’s exhibition explicitly, if coincidentally, echoes these very funereal themes: just a few paces from the reading room stand imposing black monoliths, tomb-like in their bearing, signaling departure and loss. But if certain aspects of Irrkunst play up the pall of death or mourning, others are very much alive. The airy, brightly lit gallery housing the work, for instance, occupies the space of a former post-office. Even if the setting is somewhat crypt-like, it’s also a place of sending and receiving — or, to use language favored by Benjamin, of transmission and transmissibility.
In his recent book Inheriting Walter Benjamin, Gerhard Richter weighs the meaning and possibility of transmission and inheritance — of what he calls the “ghostly conversation with the dead” — as it pertains to the passing down, or survival, of Benjamin’s work. What are the conditions under which his work may be received, held onto, or accessed, bypassing all the pitfalls and obstacles inhibiting our rapport with them? Richter identifies not only the fatal mode of inheritance, the Würdigung als Erbe, but also its corrective — the right and true way, which Benjamin termed a “rescue” (Rettung):
For Benjamin, a catastrophic form of receiving and transmitting an inheritance occurs when the stability and self-identity of the inheritance is taken for granted, that is, when an heir is deaf to the specific and highly instructive ways in which the phenomenon, entity or archive to be inherited resists appropriation. To “rescue” a phenomenon in the Benjaminian sense means to inherit it as the irreducible enigma that it is — and to attempt to interpret it always one more time. What remains in this particular form of rescuing is an interminable resistance to closure and completion, in other words, the never-ending act of inheriting.
This never-ending act of inheriting, the sustained effort of interpreting Benjamin “always one more time,” is alive to new exigencies — be they worldly, political, philosophical, or literary-critical. Interpretation, here, is a kind of necromancy: different aspects of the Benjaminian archive flash up in original constellations, yielding new illuminations of his person and work. In a recent essay, Esther Leslie recasts what others decry as the “Benjamin Industry” in positive terms, as a source of these new illuminations: “new Benjamins emerge from publishing ventures, from the effort to recut the existing fabric and repackage it, as well as to extend it, finding pieces that have remained in the shadows or were unvalued.” Indeed, recent years — especially anniversaries of Benjamin’s birth and death — have witnessed the release of books that accent different angles of the thinker’s work. These include rigorous biographies (Esther Leslie’s Walter Benjamin – Critical Lives  and Jennings and Eiland’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life ), philosophical readings (Samuel Weber’s Benjamin’s -abilities  or Eli Friedlander’s A Philosophical Portrait ), and studies that concatenate more disparate elements (dreams, images, technics, aura, media) with whatever falls under the rubric of the Benjaminian.
Harvard University Press and Verso Books are adding to the fray with, respectively, a new edition of One-Way Street (featuring an original preface by Greil Marcus) and The Storyteller, a collection of Benjamin’s “short stories” dating from 1906 to 1939, translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski. These books bring Benjamin’s shorter pieces out from under the shadow of his more discursive, monumental essays, alongside which many appear in Harvard’s Selected Writings and elsewhere (although a good portion of The Storyteller is appearing in English for the first time). For all their differences, both books conjure a similar Benjamin. He appears in all his familiar aspects — the audacious prose stylist, the inveterate dreamer, the incisive cultural and social critic. In fact, it is in these more or less experimental pieces that his intellectual vagabondage — his most fundamental attribute, part and parcel of his “contradictory and mobile whole” — shines through most forcefully. Here Benjamin pursues the extremes of both his imagination and the material world, the latter mediated by the former. It is perhaps this Benjamin, more than any other, that can always be interpreted one more time.
The Storyteller borrows its title from Benjamin’s 1936 essay, in which he presents his observations on the work of Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895), the craft and tradition of storytelling, and the impoverishment of experience in capitalist modernity. “The Storyteller” of 1936 isn’t to be found in its 2016 namesake. The omission is an entirely reasonable one, as the essay falls well outside the organizing logic of the book, which is made up of shorter, lesser known, and more creatively bent pieces. More questionable is the volume’s subtitle, Short Stories. While the contents of The Storyteller are indeed uniformly short, only a minority could confidently be labelled stories. But that its offerings could much more accurately be characterized as miscellania isn’t at all to the book’s discredit. Miscellania, or, still more precisely: sketches, scenarios, dream protocols, book reviews, pastiches, feuilletons, the occasional radio broadcast (quiz, riddle, or joke), parables, letters, travel writings, tall tales, youthful fantasies, ruminative or neurotic self-portraiture, and so on. Anyone familiar with the grain of Benjamin’s writing knows that these aren’t merely the leisurely scribblings or divertissements of an otherwise serious mind, but are in fact the very laboratory of his philosophical imagination. The raw materials of Benjamin’s best work are often to be found not in sustained, organized, or systematic exposition, but in a mélange of reflection — in experimental, miniature, diaristic, epistolary, or similarly diffuse forms. The magic of Benjamin is that this diffuseness of genre never blunts the piquancy of his thought; its suggestive power remains untrammeled even in tattered, fragmentary form.
Accordingly, even the most marginal of The Storyteller’s entries have something redeeming about them, if only to the extent that they disclose some beguiling biographical morsel. The book opens with “Schiller and Goethe,” an unpublished fragment written sometime between 1906 and 1912, during Benjamin’s student years. It begins with a pastoral, Teutonic wholesomeness more becoming of a Gotthelf or a Stifter than Benjamin, the Berliner Jew: “The sky had spread out a select German summer night between the trees.” The narrator goes on to recount a fantasy — a trek along a picturesque, wooded black mountain, the prototypical setting of those Märchen, or folk tales, that every German child of Benjamin’s generation knew so well. But instead of witches, faeries, or talking animals, the narrator encounters a forbidding magical terrain, flush with the giants of German literature — E. T. A. Hoffmann and Klopstock, Lessing and Hölderlin, Goethe and Schiller. This enchanted forest is also a literary pantheon.
By no means brilliant, “Schiller and Goethe” is nevertheless a whimsical, delightful little thing. One imagines the writer as a teenager, spurning his schoolwork, daydreaming with pen in hand. The piece, though, gains greater significance in the broader context of Benjamin’s life. Dream sequences such as this one — fantastical or quotidian encounters with Goethe, Schiller, and the like — recur frequently throughout Benjamin’s writing. He relates a very similar scenario in a dream protocol from the mid-1930s, coterminous with his period of exile from Nazi Germany. Once again wandering “through ash or alder trees,” the narrator arrives at “a green, leafy arbor,” and encounters “Balzac, who was sitting at a table smoking a cigar and writing one of his novels.” These recurring sequences are a testament to Benjamin’s erudition and inveterate bibliophilia, which accompany him — like a tonic against the drudgeries of everyday life, or a narcotic against its terrors — over the threshold of sleep, deep into the domain of dreams.
Elsewhere, the long shadow of literature intrudes on Benjamin’s waking hours. Published in 1929 in Die Dame, an illustrated journal for women, “Palais D…y” is a brilliant pastiche of Balzac, on par with Proust’s famous literary imitations of the 1910s. Benjamin inhabits Balzac’s barbed, ironical voice to uncanny — at once haunting and hilarious — effect. He hits upon what he would later call the “ruins of the bourgeoisie” depicted in Balzac’s tales: opulently decorated boudoirs devoid of human life and secretive Barons who slip imperceptibly between riches and poverty. Benjamin even reproduces Balzac’s manner of striking out certain proper names in order to “avoid scandal.” His knack for mimicry is undeniable — a faculty that testifies to his aptitude as reader and critic. And while The Storyteller succeeds in showcasing Benjamin’s critical side — including reviews of works by Franz Hessel, J. J. Bachofen, and others — more impressive, or at least more noteworthy, are the pieces that speak to his original poetic imagination, such as “The Hypochondriac in the Landscape.” This very early piece, written when Benjamin was still an adolescent, exhibits a remarkable precociousness. Benjamin not only anticipates Thomas Mann’s scathing portraits of the neurasthenic decadents that people the sanatoria of Mitteleuropa (as in Mann’s The Magic Mountain), but also captures Kafka’s laconic delivery, especially in the clinical depiction of monstrous or subtly deranged rituals: “After dinner, physicians and patients organize germ hunts in the park. Oftentimes it happens that a patient is accidentally shot. In such cases a simple bed of moss and forest herbs is prepared as the patient sinks to the ground. Bandages lie ready in the tree hollows.”
Yet Benjamin didn’t merely gauge, or even anticipate, the latest literary trends — he also bucked them. One might expect Benjamin, a Weimar intellectual through and through, to write in the style and spirit of literary modernists like Alfred Döblin or Robert Musil, or to employ a form more receptive to the sensorium of the mechanized, capitalist urban milieu. It was, however, precisely the rhythms of modernity that Benjamin found so inimical to the possibility of storytelling: “people who are not bored cannot tell stories [and] there is no longer any place for boredom in our lives.” It’s no surprise, then, that the actual stories in The Storyteller are rather deaf to the modern metropolis. Pieces like “Sketched into Mobile Dust” and “The Voyage of The Mascot” lie in the realm of lore, like the yarns of itinerant journeymen and wayfaring strangers, or the tales of the Jewish oral tradition. They foreground ship captains and lasso-throwers, an underground conference of expert gamblers, or a village cocotte whose name etched in stone acquires talismanic power. “The Cactus Hedge” — an exceptional story from early 1933 — revolves around a misfit Irishman who settles in Ibiza after a stint as farmer and hunter in East Africa, and initiates the narrator in the art of knot-tying and the secret to warding off evil dreams. In these pieces, the most scintillating in the volume, Benjamin seeks to revivify the tradition of storytelling, whose demise he laments time and again. With these pieces, it also seems as though Benjamin is erecting a membrane between the world and himself — that is, shielding himself from the ravages of his time.
If the bulk of The Storyteller seems uncharacteristically depoliticized, exuding an air of timelessness or even an elegiac defeatism in face of Europe’s looming catastrophe, the prose in One-Way Street is positively electrified by the historical moment. One-Way Street — originally published by Rowohlt Verlag in 1928 — announces its difference from The Storyteller in its opening section, “Filling Station.” Here, Benjamin declares that “true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework.” He goes on to impugn the “pretentious, universal gesture of the book,” contending that “true literary activity” occurs in “leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards”: “only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.” The paradox of Benjamin, a compulsive lover and collector of books, putting his greatest passion in the firing line, is entirely consistent with Adorno’s observation that Benjamin preferred to “incorporate elements from a thought that was alien and threatening to him, like a vaccine, rather than entrust himself to something similar to him, in which he unerringly noted a complicity with the status quo.” And it is precisely the feeble bulwarks of the status quo that Benjamin takes aim at in One-Way Street. The section “Imperial Panorama,” for example, might be the most unswerving, sustained item of social criticism in Benjamin’s entire oeuvre. In it, he inveighs against “the amalgam of stupidity and cowardice of the German bourgeois” at the time of the Weimar Republic. His critique of progress is astonishingly salient:
[B]ecause the relative stabilization of the prewar years benefitted him, [the German bourgeois] feels compelled to regard any state that dispossesses him as unstable. But stable conditions need by no means be pleasant conditions, and even before the war there were strata for whom stabilized conditions were stabilized wretchedness. […] Only a view that acknowledges downfall as the sole reason for the present situation can advance beyond enervating amazement with what is daily repeated.
Benjamin’s jabs can also take on more sidelong and impish form, as in the section sarcastically entitled “Germans, Drink German Beer!” — an injunction shot through with the same nationalist bombast whose clang can again be heard in the flush-faced appeal to “make America great again.” Elsewhere, Benjamin’s words are tinged with doom, as when he describes the corrosion of sociality under capitalism during the great German hyperinflation of 1923: “unreflecting trust, calm, and health are disappearing. […] Warmth is ebbing from things.”
And yet, like The Storyteller, One-Way Street also belies a serious attentiveness to literary presentation. Its aphorisms, for instance, call to mind the work of past masters like La Rochefoucauld and Lichtenstein: “He who observes etiquette but objects to lying is like someone who dresses fashionably but wears no shirt.” Benjamin’s spirited send-ups of a uniquely German scleroticism, meanwhile, can be traced back directly to those of Nietzsche and the polemicist Karl Kraus. And several strikingly elaborate and unusual similes were no doubt composed under the influence of Proust; one of these, appearing in the section “Chinese Curios,” is nearly a paraphrase of a sequence from the French writer’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, on whose German translation Benjamin was at work at the time. Far more important than any residues of past literature, however prevalent, are the ways in which One-Way Street ushers in a wholly original literary aesthetics. Its formal daring is unmatched by any of Benjamin’s earlier work. This radical quality was, in part, precipitated by Benjamin’s 1924 encounter with Latvian revolutionary (and Brecht’s one-time collaborator) Asja Lacis, to whom One-Way Street is dedicated — and for whom Benjamin left his wife, only to be rejected:
This street is named
Asja Lacis Street
after her who
as an engineer
cut it through the author
Lacis, who would eventually settle in Moscow, trafficked in a more militant brand of Marxism, one that may ultimately have been inhospitable to Benjamin’s more rarified sensibility. Flying in the face of any doctrinal officialdom, the radicalism of One-Way Street is rather more indebted to the experimental optics of left-wing French Surrealism. Benjamin was fond of a quote of André Breton’s: “The street … the only valid field of experience.” These words are a suitable motto for the volume. One-Way Street is dead set on a new mode of materialism, one that shares with Surrealism an esteem for everyday objects, debris, junk, and dross — for whatever is marginal, marginalized, outmoded, or fleeting. This edition’s index testifies to the dizzying thematic diversity of Benjamin’s undertaking: children’s toys, capital punishment, money, mobs, utopia, fancy goods, misery, souvenirs, beggars, and red neon advertising signs reflected in pools of dirty rain. Form in One-Way Street is no mere envelope, but the very arena in which these objects and phenomena clash and generate their sparks. Benjamin’s aphorisms mimic the rhythms of the street, instantiating the experiences most proper to it: distraction, reverie, shock, haste, detour, etc. Scathing critique is mixed with imagistic commentary and surrealistic prose poetry — all broken into shards and scattered like a mosaic of fragments. But however atomized and heterogeneous, the little pieces of One-Way Street pursue a common goal: an idiosyncratic exposé on history (specifically, the disintegration of culture) as deciphered in the most concrete of its artifacts and rituals. As artist Hito Steyerl puts it, for Benjamin, “modest and even abject objects are hieroglyphs in whose dark prism social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They are understood as nodes, in which tensions of a historical moment materialize in a flash of awareness or twist grotesquely in the commodity fetish.”
If Benjamin reads the quotidian like a text in One-Way Street — deciphering “tensions of a historical moment” in the most mundane — it is because of the estranging vision that Benjamin adopts at every turn. The section “Articles Lost” thematizes the loss of this sort of vision. The stated adversary is habit — or “a constant exploration that has become habit”: “As soon as we begin to find our bearings, the landscape vanishes at a stroke, like the façade of a house as we enter it.” And just as habit impairs the capacity to read the city as a text, so too habituated readings rob literal texts of their richness. To read Benjamin fully one must be a Benjaminian, sidestepping the slogans, mantras, and well-worn codifications, and always returning to the text afresh, interpreting it always one more time.
 This line appears in a letter Benjamin wrote to his longtime friend, Gershom Scholem. In their 2014 biography of Benjamin, Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland cite this line on numerous occasions. Through its repeated use, the “contradictory and mobile whole” becomes a kind of a motto for the intellectual portrait of Benjamin that this biography pursues.
 To these reflections we might add T. J. Clark’s impish remark, in a review of the English translation of The Arcades Project: “How Benjamin would have loved the embossed lettering and the peek-a-boo portrait of himself! How cunning of Harvard to market the Arcades as another John Grisham or The Jewel in the Crown.”