Image by Ayala Tal
As for me, I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the nineteenth century, which I am trying to reproduce based on the characteristics that it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic. Of course, I first have to build myself this telescope.
— Walter Benjamin, letter to Werner Kraft, October 1935.
In 1942, Gershom Scholem, the oldest friend of the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin and his unofficial literary executor, wrote to Benjamin’s ex-wife Dora, in exile in London: “We are almost the last who knew him when he was young […] and who knows how much longer we will survive in this apocalypse.” Two years previously, Benjamin had committed suicide in police custody at the French-Spanish border, overdosing on morphine in fear of what might happen upon his transfer to the German authorities. But in spite of the bleakness of the moment — Benjamin dead, his library and papers scattered, his writings banned, burned, and lost — Scholem was determined to think of the future. He asked for donations of letters and other materials for his Benjamin archive in Jerusalem, for the sake of those who never knew Benjamin, but who might someday read his work: “for future friends of Walter.”
Even with his resolute optimism, in 1942 Scholem could hardly have imagined the flourishing of Benjamin’s posthumous reputation. After a slow beginning in the immediate aftermath of the war, Benjamin’s standing and influence have risen with every decade. With his associations with revolutionary Marxism now largely removed, defused or ignored, Benjamin holds an unshakable position as an icon of the academic humanities. “Benjamin Studies” is a thriving sub-discipline, comfortable with its status as a professional specialism. In German, early, limited anthologies have been replaced by two generations of Collected Works. Where the first was comprehensive, the second is forensic in the vast scope of its philological completism: including color facsimile volumes, the full run of this Critical Collected Works, due for completion in 2018, will cost over $2000. In English, the turn-of-the-century publication of an acclaimed, four-volume Selected Works and the translation of the thousand-page Arcades Project greatly expanded the Anglophone oeuvre, and introduced new generations of “Walter’s future friends” to the breadth of his writing. New French and Italian editions are in progress. And in spite of —or because of — tough times for the publishing business, there is a steady stream of Benjamin books, from scholarly and trade presses: new selections (an English Early Works last year), monographs and biographies, introductions and facsimiles, essay collections, lexicons and semi-fictional ruminations, even the occasional polemical counterblast. The marketing hook this year is the 120th anniversary of his birth. Not such a round number, but why wait for 125? One way or another, Benjamin is an intensely popular figure, and a good commercial bet.
But beyond the name and the famous melancholy face, it is not easy — it has never been easy — to sketch the contours of Benjamin’s work and thought, or for that matter his life and personality. There are various reasons for this, not least the sheer scope and diversity of his writing. Among many other things, Benjamin wrote metaphysical treatises, literary-critical monographs, philosophical dialogues, media-theoretical essays, book reviews, travel pieces, drug memoirs, whimsical feuilletons, diaries and aphorisms, modernist miniatures, radio plays for children, reflections on law, technology, theology and the philosophy of history, analyses of authors, artists, schools and epochs. His intense, precise, enlightening intellectual engagement grasped miniscule events and tiny details — a motto on a stained-glass window, 17 types of Ibizan fig — while at the same time, in the same movement, retaining a sense for history’s longitudinal waves and metaphysics’ worlds behind the world. Although he often lamented his own indolence, as both a writer and a person Benjamin was mobile, endlessly inquisitive and engaging, and exceptionally productive. Looking back on his friend’s capacity for churning experience into thought, the philosopher Theodor Adorno saw something depersonalizing, almost inhuman, in this prodigious apparatus of absorption and reflection: “Despite extreme individuation […] Benjamin seems empirically hardly to have been a person at all, rather an arena of movement in which content forced its way, through him, into language.”
Second, much of his writing was unpublished during his lifetime and comes in fragmentary, draft or multiple forms. More than most, Benjamin’s oeuvre forms an open system: ideas and passages migrate between different texts, letters morph into essays and vice versa, texts are so heavily rewritten that they contradict their previous versions. There are unfinished books, unstarted books, abandoned books, aborted books. Even the more settled and public texts — the semi-autobiographical vignettes of Berlin Childhood around 1900, say — rarely fit their own apparent genre; they are often curiously loose and modular, parts not quite subordinate to the whole. Moreover, Benjamin’s startling mental and verbal facility has had its own decompository effect. His writings contain ideas and images which are both memorable and ambiguous — the artwork’s aura, the flâneur in the streets, the angel of history, the decay of experience, the flash of messianic Jetztzeit, among many others — and which have, as a result, readily taken on a life of their own. Finally, throughout his writing, Benjamin continually reflects on these questions: on text and context, author and oeuvre, reading and writing, language and history, on the production and collection of texts, on their fragmentation and decay, reconstitution and re-constellation. Think about Benjamin, the writer or the thinker, and he has almost always been there first, and written ahead of you.
So, for example, we find Benjamin in 1919, in a letter to his former school friend Ernst Schoen, discussing the autonomous life of published correspondence. Individual letters, he says, can detach themselves from their authorship, becoming abstract, but collections of letters have a different kind of posterity. A writer’s letters are an index of a life as it unfolded, but the telescoping of events into a few pages, and the compression of lived time into short minutes of reading, brings something else into existence. The letters contain the author’s afterlife, but an “afterlife that is already embedded within the life,” something which in one sense is already there, but in another, is produced in the unknowable and never-finished encounter between writer and his unknown later readers, between a fluid now and a fluid then.
Two closely-related themes are at work here: first, Benjamin’s abiding preoccupation with the complexity of temporal experience and form, with how past and future communicate through the present, but do so, in a sense, behind the present’s back; and second, his strong sense for the de- and re-composition of phenomena in time, with bits and pieces detaching to form themselves anew, accumulating in new configurations, working to rhythms and by dint of forces unknown to the momentarily stable world of beings and things. In addition, and again this is typical Benjamin, the idea of letters’ afterlife is graced with an unusual self-reflexivity. His letter, in making a general point about the life of letters and of letter-writers, seems to invoke — indirectly but knowingly — specific past futures and future pasts, both its own and that of its author.
But the complex temporality of experience is just not a private matter; it unavoidably coincides and intersects with public, historical time. This crossing of public and private temporalities can be seen in Benjamin’s own editing of authors’ letters: nearly twenty years later, his last German publication (pseudonymous, to circumvent his status as a banned author) was an edition of letters between German writers, a collection of minor texts tracing a counter-historical line through the nineteenth century. The book is often seen as a letter in its own right, an exemplary message sent to Germany from exile, under the ironic, quietly admonitory title of Deutsche Menschen (translated as “German Men and Women”). As well as preserving small, intense moments of friendship and lived affect, the letters often — like Benjamin’s introductions to each exchange — combine learning with a wise, unpretentious, ethical sensibility: a posthumous portrait of civilized living, sent anonymously to a culture now defined by hero cults, brutality and murder.
Benjamin’s own letters were first collected in the late 1960s, under the joint editorship of Scholem and Adorno. His correspondence, like all of his writing, was immediately drawn into the agonistic political culture of the time, as the mutual suspicion and incommensurable standpoints of Benjamin’s interwar friends — caricatured as Scholem the Jewish mystic, Adorno the prissy dialectician-aesthete, Bertolt Brecht the manipulative leftist bully — were replayed in highly politicized responses to the work. Adorno, back from American exile and head of the reconstituted Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School), was mistrusted on the left, who saw his mandarin Marxism as quietist collusion with the ruling class. At the moment when Adorno was publishing his correspondence with Benjamin, radical students were appropriating his friend’s name: the Frankfurt University literature department was occupied and temporarily renamed the “Walter Benjamin Institute.” (Adorno’s own institute was occupied too; famously, he called in the police.) Samizdat copies of the then-little-known 1930s essays — “The Author as Producer,” “Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theatre,” “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” — carried slogans on their covers aligning Benjamin with contemporary political and psychochemical revolt. In this climate, Scholem and Adorno were accused of abusing their position, downplaying Benjamin’s sharp left-political turn, editing out correspondence with Brecht, even of deliberately suppressing late work, supposedly too explosive to be released from the archives.
Suspicions of censorship waned as scholarly editions were published in the following decades, including a six-volume German Collected Letters. It became clear that the limitations of the earliest volumes of correspondence were mostly attributable to the simple unavailability of material. A revised single-volume Letters appeared in the late 1970s, incorporating newly available material; it soon came out in an excellent English translation. This volume, now published in English paperback for the first time, offers a generous sampling of Benjamin’s life and correspondence in over 600 pages. Beginning before the First World War — Benjamin in 1910, 18 years old, traipsing around the Alps near Liechtenstein, writing to school friends, full of beans, full of opinions, fond of exclamation marks (!!) — it runs until just before his death in 1940, its last pages documenting the years in France, colored by poverty, illness and internment, but dominated by an unchanged devotion to his work. Largely made up of letters to male friends and colleagues, the collection is testimony to passionate intellectual engagement and to sheer epistolary stamina: Benjamin seems never to have stopped writing words on paper. But there are limits to the collection: no correspondence with his family, nothing from his love affairs or his marriage. (Benjamin married Dora Pollak in 1917. They had a son in 1919 and a bitter, expensive divorce in 1930.) The closest to love letters are some mildly flirtatious notes to an ex-girlfriend, the sculptor Jula Radt. Many rediscovered letters published separately are not included; while we can read some of the chatty letters to Adorno’s wife Gretel here, there is none of the correspondence with Siegfried Kracauer, fellow analyst of popular culture and later his fellow exile in France. (In a prefatory note, the publishers point out restrictions on revising the original German Letters.)
Letters formed an extension for Benjamin’s undoubted gift for friendship, but they were also a particular mode of thought, driven and shaped by what Adorno, in his introduction, calls their “mediated, objectified immediacy”: letters’ particular compound of absences and presences, at once temporal, spatial and communicational. In the letters, ideas appear, form and develop at different rates and in different registers. Writing to Scholem and Florens Christian Rang in the earlier years, and in the scintillating later correspondence with Adorno, there are pages of sustained theoretical reflection, rehearsing arguments and sometimes drafting passages he will use in the work “proper.” But at times, a single word, an observation or an aphorism announces the tiny presence of a germ of thought. For the reader of the “afterlife,” knowing what is to come, these moments of emergence can have the force of dramatic entrances, as when, in January 1928, he tells Scholem in passing that he intends a short piece on the nineteenth-century arcades of Paris. The topic, in all its ramifications, would dominate his work for the rest of his life.
Benjamin’s letters to Scholem form the basis of the collection. The two had been students together, neighbors in Basel and Munich during the war, passionate co-readers of philosophy and literature. Their long, affectionate letters contain fascinating quotidian stuff — malicious gossip, complaints of bad luck, apologies for poor handwriting, accounts of illnesses and travels — but above all, they teem with collaborative thought: to no one else does Benjamin write of his work with such ease and excitement. The fervent discussion of books and ideas is inseparable from a more material bibliomania. Famously, Benjamin was a collector; above all else, he was a collector of books. His library was an extension of his self, its condition an index of his fortunes, its maintenance a central task of his existence. It would be, he writes to Scholem, the sole “material epitaph of my existence.” Early on, confident in the future, he constantly visits dealers and auctions, buys first editions with money he doesn’t have, complains about inflation-hedgers distorting the market. Later, biographical vicissitudes take their toll. In the divorce, he loses his beloved collection of nineteenth-century children’s literature (he wrote later: “it is growing steadily even today, but no longer in my garden.”). He manages to have half his library shipped out of Germany, but is then forced to sell it off bit by bit. The text “Unpacking My Library” — among his most charming essays, an account of the pleasures of re-finding books, of sorting and ordering them — is, in part, a fantasy of his books’ homecoming, and his own.
On one level, Scholem’s emigration to Palestine cemented the separation from Benjamin. On another, their relation took on new and deeper form: in Jerusalem, Scholem appointed himself Benjamin’s archivist and first reader, the keeper of his thought; his letters contain the earliest attempts to grasp the shape of Benjamin’s work as a whole and assess its historical significance. Back in Europe, Benjamin is a loyal correspondent, but not always a perfect friend. He takes advantage now and again: Scholem arranges a stipend to learn Hebrew, Benjamin takes the money, but not the classes. Scholem continually suggests a move to Palestine: Benjamin doesn’t want to go, but won’t come straight out and say so. By the 1930s, the relation in letters remains immensely important for both, but on Scholem’s rare visits to Europe, Benjamin seems to be going out of his way to avoid him.
Disagreements over politics and Benjamin’s friendship with Brecht were the biggest problem, disagreements that are both the theme and the reason for the small number of letters to Benjamin included here. These, by Scholem and by Adorno, ultimately turn on the place of politics in Benjamin’s work and his life: their inclusion is partly a response to the 1960s disputes, the editors’ gesture of retrospective self-justification. Scholem thought Benjamin’s deepening Marxism a desperate and masochistic self-delusion, with isolation and frustration underlying what he saw as a profound betrayal of intellectual principles. “You issue a currency in your writing that you are […] simply incapable of redeeming,” he writes, “…your desire for community places you at risk, even if it is the apocalyptic community of the revolution that speaks out of so many of your writings […] [in] imagery with which you are cheating yourself out of your calling.” Adorno took a similar, if more nuanced line, and certainly shared Scholem’s distrust of Brecht. For him, Benjamin’s turn to history and to politics risked robbing his work of philosophical force. Worse still, his new-found and insufficiently dialectical enthusiasm for technology, popular culture, and the masses ultimately ran the danger of “identification with the aggressor”: collusion with historical forces of untruth, reification and delusion.
This tension between religiously-infused metaphysics and radical politics coalesces with a second tension in Benjamin’s life and work — between philosophy and literature, as modes of writing and understanding and as academic disciplines. For many of Benjamin’s biographers, the year 1924 is both a biographical turning point and the moment when these tensions begin to ratchet up. The more dramatic accounts of the shift have Benjamin vacationing on Capri, where, in quick succession, he reads Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and falls in love with the “Latvian Bolshevik” Asja Lacis, Brecht’s former stage manager, whom he then pursues to Riga and then Moscow. The current scholarly consensus, well summarized in Uwe Steiner’s introduction to Benjamin’s thought, downplays notions of epiphanic readings and life-changing encounters, suggesting instead the expansion of intellectual horizons, and the application of existing metaphysical methods to concrete historical themes, with spectacularly productive results.
What is clear is that Benjamin’s mid-twenties “turn” was as much a becoming-worldly as it was a straightforward politicization: it involved new ideas and new identifications, but also new geographies (his appetite for travel only intensified as the years went on) and a new professional identity. Benjamin had trained both as a literary scholar and a philosopher; it was as the former that he first sought professional advancement, and spectacularly failed to achieve it. Steiner sketches a vigorous portrait of Benjamin as an experimental and philosophical philologist, at odds with his institutional and cultural surroundings. Problems came to a head around his university Habilitation candidacy — a process somewhat akin to academic tenure — which centered on his study of Baroque theatre, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama. While the book carefully fulfilled academic convention, it was dense and demanding, its unorthodox conceptualizations of “origin” and “allegory” going far beyond the bounds of humanist belles lettres. In professional terms, it was a disaster. Benjamin was rejected even before his formal application.
Steiner describes the refusal as a combined result of academic politicking, anti-Semitism and blockheaded philistinism, and as a “tragedy for the German university.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a tragedy for Benjamin himself though: the refusal steered him all the more surely towards the avant-garde and the arcana of nineteenth-century life, in the direction of the Arcades Project. In any case, they would have kicked him out in 1933. As it was, his dismissal was yet another event marking a fork in the biographical path, if not a rupture in the structures of his thought. From here on out, Benjamin was a professional writer, his increasingly itinerant lifestyle matched by the eclecticism of his subject matter and the variousness of his publishers. As a freelance essayist in Germany, he made a good enough living; he had friends who commissioned for the newspapers and radio stations. Later, exiled in Paris and elsewhere, he continually struggled to make a living at all.
As his engagement with literary history had made clear, Benjamin’s philosophical formation — marked above all by Kant, encountered directly and through the various post-Kantianisms of his day — suffused his writing across many topics. But as with Nietzsche, Benjamin’s occasionalism, the quality of his prose and the breadth of his subject matter have cast doubt on his philosophical status. The question has continually been asked: what is the philosophy, and what exactly is philosophical, in his work’s busy “arena of movement”? One approach, taken by two prominent recent Benjamin monographs, is to emphasize Benjamin as a philosopher of time. As implied in his comments on the temporality of published letters, for Benjamin, time can be seen — and should be written, and must be lived — as something more complicated and denser with potential than the homogenous, evenly sequential temporality to which we conceptually and experientially default. Hidden and possibly secret relations bind together the apparently personal time of inner experience, the larger-scaled, historical time of societal and anthropological existence, and the transcendent time of messianic intervention.
Peter Fenves’s The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time traces Benjamin’s rethinking of experience and temporality to his formative years as a student of philosophy during and after the First World War. This Benjamin, not yet much taken with vernacular culture or avant-garde experimentation, writes in a difficult, abstract voice, but is fully and confidently engaged in the philosophical debates of his day. (Although Benjamin wrote prolifically while very young, he wrote almost nothing considered juvenilia, apart, maybe, from the Alpine letters.) Fenves’s reading of Benjamin’s early texts locates them in a dense network of influences and dialogues, a complex force field encompassing contemporary mathematical theory, various strands — Cohenist, Rickertian, Cassirerite — of neo-Kantianism, and, more unexpectedly, the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and his followers.
Benjamin’s stance towards all these, and his readings of Husserl in particular, are already colored by the modernist messianism that became a hallmark of his later thought. The messianic, for Benjamin, was nothing so simple as a redeemer arriving to call time and distribute justice at the end of days. Rather, it referred to something like a structure of temporal experience, but an “experience” that goes beyond the individual and even the social. To use the Benjaminian terminology that Fenves brings into sharp relief, it is the immanent tension that is the fact and the force of divinity in the world, permanently present, endlessly mutable. This belief was the basis of Benjamin’s particular take on Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction,” the program of rigorous mind-clearing phenomenology used to set aside the default “natural attitude” of consciousness, with its preconceived notions of causality, subject-object relations and mind-world distinctions.
For Benjamin, the “reduction” mediated a sphere of experience beyond the conditioned framings of conscious thought. But, as Fenves reads him, Benjamin granted this subjectless experience of pure receptivity a near-mystical valence. The “reduction” was an opening onto a kind of paradise; the stubborn “natural attitude” was both analog and agent of the fallen, guilty state of mankind. This also underlay Benjamin’s disagreement on questions of method. Unlike Husserl’s willed “bracketing” of philosophical assumptions — a carefully prescribed method for dismantling the self-evident — for Benjamin, getting beyond the “natural attitude” was not a matter of decision, for the philosopher or anyone else. Not that the impossibility of a chosen path implies the non-existence of the divine, or even, strictly speaking, its inaccessibility: the divine is something that can be thought and experienced, but always as the irruption or appearance of an outside, never commanded forth by a direct action of human will. The “reduction” was done to the philosopher, not by him.
The Messianic Reduction’s difficult, but ultimately revelatory, analyses track the early Benjamin as he searches for islands of “reduced” experience within the fallen world. In his very early essays and fragments, Benjamin hones in on phenomena where experience is loosed from the wretched ballast of subjecthood and causality. Hölderlin’s poetry is one privileged place. The practice of painting, with its relation of spatiality, perception, fantasy, and color, is another. The child’s experience of color, as seeing subject and biological being, is a third. Notwithstanding its highly abstract idiom, Benjamin’s writing here is often breathtakingly intense and original. There are extraordinary pages in which Benjamin — as if to look sentimentality full in the face — reflects on childhood innocence, transforming the theme into a bizarre and brilliant reflection on the paradoxical phenomenology of blushing. (For Benjamin, involuntary physical coloration does not express subjective interiority, it locally abolishes it.) Most abstractly, Fenves finds traces of “reduction” in Benjamin’s — rather vague — references to advanced mathematical theory, which he encountered through his great-uncle Arthur Schoenflies, an early set theorist, and through Scholem, a student of mathematics. If phenomenology strengthened Benjamin’s nascent critique of Kant’s narrowly-drawn ideas of experience, avant-garde math seemed to offer new images of temporality, beyond the homogeneity of calendric sequence, beyond the this-then-that of simplistic causalities — images of time as cycloid, or planar, or, alluding to an early theory of fractals, as a continuously turning, tangentless curve.
In a coda, The Messianic Reduction fast-forwards to the 1940 essay, “On the Concept of History,” finding the non-linear “shape of time” writ larger here in the late philosophy of history: now the messianic is the making-congruent of the local shape of time and the larger shape of history, and the messiah is a name for the force that accomplishes this temporal structuring. This soterio-temporal formalism, linking the early and the late work, also features in Eli Friedlander’s Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait. But here things go the other way round. Friedlander’s analysis centers on the Arcades Project, the vast, uncompleted — for some, uncompletable — work which consumed Benjamin in the 1930s, and which, in the form of sketches, sub-projects and spin-offs, gave rise to many of his best known essays and images. Friedlander reads the Arcades Project as the cohering, sense-making culmination of the oeuvre, its logical as well as its chronological terminus, which can — if the direction is reversed — reveal the coherence of Benjamin’s philosophy, and the “unique spiritual character” of his thought. In the rigor and sobriety, but above all the unity and systematicity unveiled by this method, so goes the claim, inhere the fundamentally philosophical character of Benjamin’s work.
For Friedlander, the Arcades’ “convolutes,” at first sight a sprawling taxonomy of notes and excerpts on nineteenth-century Paris, in fact respond to, and keep company with, the work of the greatest of philosophical system builders: Plato and Leibniz, Kant and Hegel. Interpretations of Benjamin’s work as a compendium of brilliant, disconnected images and thoughts — epitomized by Hannah Arendt’s image of Benjamin as a “pearl diver” rescuing strange thought-artifacts from the deep — are more than just wrong, they are “catastrophic misreadings.” The eye-opening implication, in other words, is this: for all his vast, appreciative reception, Benjamin remains severely underestimated. Transcending every peer group except the most rarified philosophical canon, Benjamin is not, for Friedlander, just a writer or a thinker, he is a philosopher of world-historical significance, and his work is a vessel of the highest truth.
The book’s title is accurate, but potentially misleading. This is not a “life and works” intellectual biography; it has no interest in what Benjamin looked like, where he lived, what he felt or ate, whom he loved or who he was: Friedlander wastes no time on Scholem’s suggestion that one key to Benjamin’s writing lies in his encoding of personal experiences. This is a very different kind of method than Fenves’s dense net of readings, encounters and influences, the reconstruction of micro-capillaries in the social body of thought: the distinction between intellectual history and the history of ideas could hardly be clearer. “Walter Benjamin” in this second study should not be considered a person, but, first, as a prodigious structure of capacities, capable of gathering thought into form, creating written images which address, absorb and ultimately reshape historical time, and, second, as the corpus of significant texts made in the crucible of this knowledge. All that matters is what has been read and what comes to be written. There is no need, in this analysis, for Berlin or Port Bou, Dora or Asja, the angry father or the neglected son.
If the content of the life is irrelevant, the content of the late work — the Arcades Project and its accompanying train of essays and studies — is abstracted. On one level the Arcades can be seen to mark the furthest development of the shift — begun around 1924, where Fenves breaks off — away from philology and pure philosophy, and towards a new form of cultural history, both experimental and, in a complicated way, monumental. This entailed archaeology of modernity — its urban spaces, temporal structures, emergent media, dreamworlds of commodities and crowds — based on a much broader conception of experience and thought than normally accepted within philosophy’s walls. But, like Adorno — or at least like one side of Adorno — Friedlander does not regard the Arcades as primarily or ultimately an investigation of Parisian history, commodity capitalism or phantasmagoric urban modernity. He takes his cue from a comment in Adorno’s 1935 correspondence with Benjamin: “I openly confess to regarding the Arcades not as a historical-sociological investigation but rather as prima philosophia in your own particular sense […] I regard your work on the Arcades as the center not merely of your own philosophy, but as the decisive philosophical word which must find utterance today; as a chef d’oeuvre like no other.”
For Friedlander, the Arcades Project’s material and formal heterogeneity is no obstacle to the recuperation of its systematicity. The perfectly chosen cover photograph presents a visual manifesto for his profoundly ambitious essay: the photo shows one of the famous Parisian arcades, but only its framework, looking through the iron-and-glass grid of its roof to the sky beyond. The book’s aim, accordingly, is ultimately to pass through the Arcades itself, to grasp the formal armature that gathers and shapes the content (its Darstellung, which Friedlander rightly stresses as “presentation” not “representation”), and divine its structure and philosophical significance. However, the form that, for Friedlander, bears the book’s truth is not to be found in the actual arrangement of Benjamin’s material. His analysis does not address particular taxonomies or juxtapositions; there is no investigation of the strata laid down by the book’s successive organizational conceptions, from the original impulse lent by Benjamin’s reading of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, to the infusion of deepening historical horror, and more explicit political reflection, as the 1930s wore on. Rather, the “presentational form” is a secondary formation, a constellation of concepts transcending the Arcades’ content, as Friedlander’s intricate presentation systematically reconstructs Benjaminian idea-material in dozens of interlocking sub-chapters.
Given the systematizing impulse, all here is connected to all else. But one concept stands out in the formation, the point towards and through which every path runs: the dialectical image. This difficult concept is central to the double task of Benjamin’s late political-historical epistemology: first, understanding the relative motion of history and knowledge, and second, gathering past and present in an explosive interrelation, generating a flash of Jetztzeit, the time of the now. Concretely, it is clear that Benjamin wanted to apply the surrealists’ “profane illumination” to historical writing, to deploy the alienated artifacts of a recent past to break up conventional historiography’s commonsense epistemologies and inert temporal imaginaries, stupid and stupefying. But a stable definition of the “dialectical image” has proved elusive: generations of Benjaminians have struggled with the term as it oscillates between singular and plural, subjective and objective, method and metaphor, materialist construction and autonomous historical emanation. Moreover, the stakes for the dialectical image are set so high that Benjamin’s own thought-images and historical objets trouvés — the July Revolutionaries turning their guns on the public clocks, say, or the flâneur at Notre Dame de Lorette, remembering with the soles of his feet, “like an ascetic animal” — have seemed inadequate, even paltry, next to the vaunted concept.
Friedlander’s interpretation here is radical and univocal. There is one dialectical image, and its name is The Arcades Project. In Friedlander’s reconstellation of Benjamin’s work, the concept becomes the capstone of a metaphysical system, an homage to and elaboration of Benjamin’s famous, near-posthumous observation:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
Reflecting on his method, Friedlander alludes to Benjamin’s notion of “origin,” developed in The Origin of the German Tragedy: not the start of a linear development, but an intense vortex of transformation, in which elements of the past undergo a complex process of rearrangement and recognition, disappearance and endurance. Via restructuring, the dialectical image — Benjamin’s work — appears as a higher form of origin, a node of immanent intensity in which the potentiality of created nature is made manifest, and truth and life are concentrated and brought forth anew. Time is crucial in this reading: it is more than the subject of Benjamin’s philosophy, it is the medium in and with which it works. The Arcades Project, dialectical image of history, is a temporal artifact, first by virtue of the time crystallized in its monadic dream-images, and second as the arrangement of preserved time “held out into the stream of homogenous time,” a material intervention in an overwhelmingly historicist episteme.
It is the forceful insistence of these metaphysical claims that, more than anything else, distinguishes Friedlander’s book from other recent unpackings of Benjamin’s philosophical baggage, as his intervention commits itself to an extraordinary degree, venturing far beyond the safe ground of academic analysis. In this reading, Benjamin’s amalgam of temporalities fabricates a framework for the manifestation of “divine force,” the display of “divine power.” The divine here, as with the “messianic reduction,” is not a transcendent or static godly presence; it inheres in the weave of earthly existence, immanent and intensive. Crucially, however, Friedlander’s reparative vitalism is also a work of memory. The creation of the dialectical image bids farewell to the past in order that life — bare life, creaturely life, inorganic life, historical life — can go on. To put it in terms worn down from overuse — and at the risk of banalizing a book that is, whatever else, hardly banal — the force within Benjamin’s work enables a coming to terms with the past. While never made entirely explicit, it is not hard to read Friedlander’s book, above all his concluding chapter, as a response to the concrete atrocities and losses of twentieth-century history, with theories of trauma and memory wrought into a philosophy of history in which Benjamin’s work serves as the central mediating device.
Friedlander’s apparatus of mediation, with its intricate internal workings, is passionate testimony to the enduring generative power of Benjamin’s writing. But it is impossible not to notice everything absent or removed from the system built here. Among the absences is the Arcades Project’s concrete content: those who haven’t read that book will learn little about its historical subject matter, whose dialectical passage into conceptuality seems uniformly and problematically smooth. Neither the reasons for Benjamin’s choice of material, nor the political stakes of his work, then or now, ever becomes clear. Granted, it posits a construction of truth in one sense — located in the dialectics of recognition that passes between past and present — but historically specific regimes of truth are neither a fact nor a problem. The power that invests knowledge here is of a spiritual and divine order, emphatically not a social or socio-epistemological one. And as truth is re-enthroned, problems of textuality evaporate. In Friedlander’s systematization, Benjamin’s prose is put through an ascetic filter, its conceptuality emerging largely without remainder, its language tending always towards a higher univocality. Most of Benjamin’s thought-images are stripped away or stripped down to their semantic core: when they occasionally sneak back in, they are often newly startling.
Profane aspects of Benjamin’s work cannot survive this angelic atmosphere. As the work becomes the oeuvre and the oeuvre becomes the system, it becomes unimaginable that Benjamin could sometimes have changed his mind, or occasionally might have been wrong. Benjamin becomes a great natural given, to be explored like a cave system or a new continent. The writings of the author of “The Author as Producer” have no — and can have no — context of production here. Maybe none of these mere particularities, the shabby concrete stuff, count as “philosophical.” But if so, it is because the term is defined to exclude them. The multiple begging of the question “what is philosophy?” comes to look like a rappel a l’ordre, as all the materiality of Benjamin’s works, and all their worldly imbrication, are de-constellated, sublated out, remembered away. We can guess at Brecht’s sardonic reaction: that the “divine force” discerned in the Arcades Project is nothing but the quickening pulse of the philosopher, hot on the scent of yet another interpretation of the world.
One odd fact of Benjamin’s peripatetic life is that he never crossed the English Channel. (He sailed down it once, en route from Hamburg to Spain.) All the many journeys, all the years in Paris, and he never once went to Calais and took a boat for England. He was never in London, the rival “capital of the nineteenth century” just a couple of hundred miles away. In the last months of his life, his ex-wife Dora begged him to come over: it would have saved his life, but instead he went south, waited around in Marseilles with the other transitoires, stopped in Lourdes for a while before heading for the Pyrenees. But in one way at least, London was his future. In the late 1930s, along with Dora, Benjamin’s twenty-year old son Stefan had also come to Britain. Their escape was a relief to Benjamin, whose late correspondence worries about their fate, first in Italy, later in Austria. London seemed for the moment like a much safer refuge, where Stefan could complete his disrupted education, and maybe even, Benjamin hopes in a letter to Scholem, be given a British passport. For Dora, things worked out — until her death two decades later, she ran a boarding house in Notting Hill. But some anomaly in Stefan’s case led to a mysterious turn of events. A footnote in the Letters reports that in 1941 he was expelled from the country as an “enemy alien.” He was deported by ship to Australia, a journey on which he was placed, according to Scholem, under “German Nazi” authority and traumatized by their brutal mistreatment. After the war, he somehow returned to London, where he became an antiquarian book dealer: the son taking up, professionally, the father’s amateur bibliomania. He died in 1972, Benjamin’s other posterity.