Living the Life of Allegory

November 15, 2014   •   By Ian Balfour

Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning
of this great allegory — the world?

                                                   Melville to Hawthorne,
                                                   Nov. 17, 1851

WHAT A LIFE. And what — though one shouldn’t rush to it — a death. It’s a rare thing when the life of a cultural or literary critic is compelling enough for a full-dress treatment in the guise of sprawling critical biography. No one would balk at the (literally) weighty life of a George Eliot or a Picasso. But a freelance critic, no matter how brilliant, who spent many years hunched over books and ephemera in the Bibliothèque Nationale? Not so auspicious.

But Walter Benjamin is a beguiling, endlessly provocative figure, an eminently re-readable writer, and one whose life is worth pondering — both in itself and as a “life of allegory,” as Keats said of Shakespeare, without a whole lot to go on. And then there are the times of Benjamin’s “life and times”: history does not present many more turbulent decades than those between the start of World War I and World War II in the theater of Europe. Given that Benjamin was primed to think about history, suffering, and how things might be different, it’s no wonder his head was spinning his entire adult life. History was moving at breakneck speed, of which spiraling Weimar-era currency inflation was only an extreme index.

Hence also the need for Benjamin to pause, to catch his breath, to retreat from when he was down and out in Paris and Berlin to this or that “resort” (Capri, Ibiza, San Remo). The place-names suggest glamour and the easy life, but Benjamin was usually beleaguered, scrambling for money, some of which he literally gambled away, having a soft spot for casinos. He would live in just a room or two, rooms he thought of as a communist version of a monk’s cell, decorated with pictures of saints. He would decamp from a bad hotel to a worse one. He ate out virtually all the time. In his efforts to find a solution for permanent lack of cash flow, he seems not to have contemplated getting a job that didn’t have to do with writing or translating.

It’s tempting to think that Benjamin was born under a bad sign (Saturn, if it were a sign), but that would accord too much to the sort of astrological myth-making that fascinated him. And it would suggest a false uniformity to the life. Things had started out rather well. Born to a well-to-do family of assimilated Jews in Berlin a little before the turn of the 20th century, Benjamin, early on, didn’t appear to want for anything: the nuclear family took less of a toll on him than many, and material comforts helped him to experience an intense, playful life, thoroughly open to the splendors and mysteries of the city. Childhood would remain for him a lifelong attraction.

But before long the oppressive force of historical circumstance took hold of a disposition already prone to melancholy. Benjamin’s life would become exceedingly difficult, not least as a Jew in Germany in the lead-up to the darkest period of that history. Yet difficulty was almost as much a spur to Benjamin’s productivity as an obstacle to it. Given his preternatural gifts of insight, his Sitzfleisch, and a flair for formulation, he produced some of the most memorable and generative critical writing of the last century. There is no end in sight of the need to grapple with that writing and its legacies.

This magisterial biography by Eiland and Jennings sets that writing in its place and time with profane illuminations on almost every one of its many pages. Benjamin had scorn for people who produced needlessly “fat” books, but I think this fairly huge one hits the sweet spot of detail. Most biographical treatments to date tend to be half the length or less and content themselves with the highlights and the fairly well known, however well articulated. If one wants more, this “critical” biography is the place to look. Not every biographical treatment has had room, for example, for these cool facts about Benjamin:

 — He purchased Klee’s aquarelle of the Angelus Novus in 1920 for the equivalent of 14 dollars.

— He and Brecht planned to write a detective novel together.

— He found Katherine Hepburn “magnificent.”

And if one wants to know a little more about the hand Max Horkheimer had in rejecting Benjamin’s Habilitation thesis, effectively kicking him out of the academy, one can learn of the creepy context here.

Eiland and Jennings’s critical biography presents a wealth of material, commentary, and gloss refreshingly free of grand narrative patterns. The authors opt to home in on the event, relationship, or text at hand. Context is provided but does not swamp the object in front of them. And whenever a reference or summary is called for outside Benjamin’s work proper, two (smart) heads are better than one: if one wants to know about something pertinent in the history of photography, say, or an uncommonly read work by Hermann Cohen, the combined expertise of the co-authors makes for a more substantial and satisfying account than one is used to getting. No potted summaries or soft Wikipedia information here.

No one, it’s safe to say, sits down to read the complete works of Benjamin in chronological order. One tends to piece together, as one reads unsystematically, a rough chronology of his life and work from bits of information gathered here and there, information often shaped by a narrative arc that goes, typically, from a supposed messianic mysticism to a more or less mystified Marxism. A great service provided by Eiland and Jennings is the granulated account of the contingencies of Benjamin’s writing from year to year, sometimes month to month, altogether apt for someone who thought the critic was to be a “strategist in the literary war”(“Stratege im Literaturkampf,” with “strategist” faintly recalling the Greek sense of “general”). Culture was war long before “the culture wars” because it was also, Benjamin taught us, barbarism. Benjamin conceived of all of his writing as participating in that struggle, even when pitched at an oblique angle and not overtly political. History suggests in such struggles not to bet on the oppressed, but Benjamin gambled there too. History is to be thought, written about, and enacted — so Benjamin contended — in the name of the nameless. But this history also operates, as Marx and Liz Phair teach us, with or without one’s best intentions. Indeed, Benjamin proposes the odd Proustian model of involuntary memory (mémoire involontaire) to figure the combination of retroactivity and not-consciously-willed action that informs our consciousness of the historical event as well as the event itself, for which his paradigm is the revolution.

One sometimes mistakes the strategic for the philosophical in Benjamin. Even the late, great theses on the concept of history (his last completed work) are not a philosophy of history but ideas and images that allow us to read, understand, and cite history, which is itself structured as much in terms of reading and citation as it is of action. (The French revolutionaries, Benjamin specifies, “cited” the Roman revolution.) For all of its apodictic, timeless-sounding pronouncements, a lot of Benjamin’s thinking is improvised, disposable, “strategic.” He thought of the self, a bit hyperbolically, as “a set of pure improvisations from one minute to the next,” and a lot of the writing is not far off in temperament and texture. Still, there are abiding concerns, protocols, and habits of thought that overarch distinct-looking periods in the life of this fetishist of the fetish. He’ll have an idea and it will incubate for years. The Trauerspiel book was finished in 1924, but he notes how it was conceived in 1916.

His “Jewishness,” Benjamin himself thought, penetrated to “the core of his being,” although his relation to Zionism was “entirely negative,” as he could say point blank to Scholem; his relation to Judaism consisted mainly in respect for Haggadic storytelling and modes of interpretation rather than any adherence to belief or doctrine. Perhaps most tellingly, his thought from early to late is preoccupied with structures of completion and potentiality. Each of his key categories of language, history, critique, and translation entail one thing calling out, demanding another, a future other. Hence, as Samuel Weber has shown in lavish detail, Benjamin’s concern with the dynamics of “-abilities”: reproducibility, translatability, critique-ability, and more. The messianic is only the most extreme version of this, whose potential arrival at any moment Benjamin felt or imagined as vividly as almost anyone, though there’s little evidence that he believed in a literal Messiah. Hope, too, partakes of this structure, though it can take the form, Kafka-like, of the hope of the hopeless.

Benjamin’s was a life of allegory in part because it was so often removed from so-called life: a world teeming with books and images and commodified things, the commodity being “the bias of the world,” as Shakespeare wrote well before the fiercest era of commodification. These things, literal and otherwise, are all of the order of “second life,” even if they were also a kind of life. And an intense one at that. Before he had read in 1924 Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (whose analysis of reification deeply impressed him), Benjamin already had a sense, via Novalis and the Romantics he read for his doctoral dissertation, that the object can eerily return our gaze. When Marx, in Capital, has commodities talk, it’s pretty darn funny. Benjamin lets Marx’s serious point kick in and re-orient some of his pre-Marxist but “romantic anticapitalist” leanings more concretely to the left.[1]

When Keats said of Shakespeare that he led “a life of allegory,” he meant partly that the great dramatist could do the voices of others, able to imagine, in negatively capable fashion, what it was to be in another’s head and skin and to speak just like them. There is something of this chameleon-like behavior in Benjamin, as he exposes himself differently to different friends, most famously to the not-so-compatible forces of Gershom Scholem, Asja Lacis, Brecht, and Adorno. So it is good to know, apropos of any project, with whom Benjamin is hanging around, corresponding, or reading. Not that Benjamin was incapable of drawing the line or bristling (or worse) at this or that suggestion or critique from another. He was a difficult friend to many friends. And mostly unsatisfactory as a lover, despite the fascination he could evoke. One woman who got close described him as “incorporeal.” According to his first and only wife, this historian of the historicity of perception was, around the time of their divorce, “all brains and sex.”

“Sex” — or what he called “the abyss of sex” — but not necessarily love. He had, his wife lamented, “a sterile heart.” One of his maladies late in life came from a (literally) “enlarged heart,” but the corresponding figure in his emotional life seemed sometimes lacking. Often what one would expect to be momentous events in someone’s psychic life — the death of one’s mother, say — are passed over without comment in the written record (though this is not to say that Benjamin recorded everything of psychic moment in his letters, which tend to the formal, nor that everything crucial survived). Living from hand to mouth after being cut off from his parents and never successful at landing a steady job, he was vitally dependent on friends, perhaps so much so that it became hard for him to be a friend. As for lovers, his preferred or at least de facto prime configuration was the triangle, maybe because he knew there would always be a way, even if an uncomfortable one, out. (He was looking for love, Elissa Marder once noted, in all the wrong places.) For all that, Benjamin was loyal to some and valued immensely by those who stuck by him. His judgmental friend Scholem opined that Benjamin was “not a righteous man” but I think the record (as most fully rendered in the book before us) indicates that he was more awkward and inept in some interpersonal relationships than not righteous, much less a bad person.

Until 1923 or 1924 Benjamin seemed on track for a conventional and possibly stellar academic career. He had achieved summa cum laude on his doctoral exams and might have proceeded apace to the second dissertation or Habilitation that should have paved the way to being the equivalent of a professor in America. All that was derailed with his brilliant but slightly ill conceived and possibly self-undermining thesis on the Baroque Trauerspiel. That Benjamin did not receive this degree is a stinging indictment of the (German) academy marred by institutional rigidity and a bogus system of patronage, in which one’s whole career can turn on the good or bad disposition of only one, powerful person. It’s a bad irony that Horkheimer — (an intellectual not remotely in Benjamin’s ballpark), who, as a soon-to-be Assistant (not a minor position) of Professor Hans Cornelius and not yet finished his own Habilitation — helped to tank the thesis. (Cornelius had sub-contracted some of his work and sought two judgments from much younger academics.) Horkheimer pleaded his inability to understand Benjamin’s text. Sure, it’s a difficult read but its occasional genius and penetrating insights should have commanded some respect and benefit of the doubt. It didn’t occur to Horkheimer to consider that maybe the problem lay as much or more with him as with Benjamin’s obscurity.

Benjamin had already proved himself rather unconventional in his writing. Few of his essays prior to the Trauerspiel play by the rules of academic or scholarly writing. Aside from the first dissertation on Romantics, Benjamin wrote with his object of study in mind far more than with any sense of scholarly convention. His astonishing essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities from 1922 reads like nothing else. Hannah Arendt was right to call attention to how this essay, and much else in Benjamin, was sui generis. An essay of some 100 pages on a single novel, the analysis of Elective Affinities had a tenacity and intensity and speculative (but not ahistorical) texture unheard of in academic prose. Hofmannsthal could call it “absolutely incomparable” and “epoch-making in [his] life.” Benjamin would not always find such congenial reception.

Benjamin is one of the patron saints of rejects, and not just because of the epic fail of his second dissertation. It’s both disheartening and strangely uplifting to learn here how many of his essays, reviews, books, and book proposals were rejected by publishers and editors whom he pitched with polished texts and parboiled ideas. Many pieces that were flat-out rejected are now lovingly edited and annotated, some of them forming part of the critical canon. But it has to be said that Benjamin’s writing was uneven, and that sometimes he relied on metaphorical bravura — with serious shock value — over more straightforward modes of proof or persuasion. Not every editor was persuaded in advance or after the fact and there was no imperative to defer to his proper name. Had he lived into the ’60s, presses and journals would have fallen all over themselves to publish Benjamin. In the ’30s — with the ongoing economico-political debacles not helping the publishing industry one bit — Benjamin had no such luck.

The failure to find a place in the academy was certainly a boon to Benjamin’s writing. It’s less likely that masterpieces such as Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (our authors’ favorite and unpublished in his lifetime) or One-Way Street would ever have been written had Benjamin been caught up in some academic grind. He was freed up to write in a variety of modes, though often forced, by economic and political circumstance, to write journalistically when, left to his own devices, he would have written at a more leisurely pace and at any odd length. The principal shift in “subject matter” was from texts (mainly literary) to his own life and analyses of social and historical configurations, of which the grand, virtually impossible project on the Paris arcades would be the most consuming.

Benjamin was the first student of his own life. His “narcissism” — if it was that — was not of a run-of-the mill sort. At the same time as he was intensely interested in himself (and why not?), he adopted a distanced, observational stance — precisely what he advises for the historical materialist, in the final text of his life — on his own doings and dreamings. At an official level, there’s a sharp distinction between his autobiographical writings and his critical ones. He prided himself on not using the word “I” in his criticism. Yet moments of personal investment and involution infuse and are encrypted in his critical writing. His great essay on Elective Affinities is dedicated to his mistress, Jula Cohn, precisely when the novel is about adultery and even portrays a configuration of four pair-switching people that parallels Benjamin’s own life. (Eiland and Jennings chart well the intricacies of this.) And he will pause in that essay, with no apparent need, to quote a passage about a kind of nymph named Schoenflies, when almost the only plausible explanation is that Benjamin’s full name is Walter Benedix Schoenflies Benjamin. A buried “note to self.” It was a conundrum legible almost only — before the advent of philological work on Benjamin — to himself.

But the writing (for money) of the late ’20s and ’30s is vastly more than notes to self. Benjamin embeds his subject, even when it is himself, in a web of societal, historical forces, and crafts texts responsive to the dialectics of those relations. The aphoristic chutzpah of One-Way Street owes less to his great predecessors in one-liners, such as Lichtenberg or Schlegel, and more to the language of signage, advertising, placards, and leaflets. His experiments with drugs, mainly hashish, are in their texture a far cry from hippie culture’s desire to space out or the “party on” mantra of Wayne’s World. They result in textual self-scrutiny of experiences in which pleasure seems almost incidental: drug experimentation, rather, was the occasion for dogged observations of consciousness (and the lack thereof). But they radiate outward from the mere self and come to resemble Benjamin’s writing about his experience of cities (Marseilles, Naples), for which he had applied measures of dialectical negativity that set it apart from the tired tropes of travel literature.

The change in the texture of Benjamin’s writing corresponded to and was partly driven by macro-and micro-political change. The late ’20s and early ’30s was a good time to be a communist. The real horrors of Stalin were at first not on the horizon and fascism was establishing its European profile as the clearest and worst enemy in modern memory, maybe ever. Liberal and especially parliamentary democracy in Germany had not been remotely up to the task of good governance, and the invisible hand of capital had delivered a self-inflicted wound with the crash of 1929 and its depression-inducing aftermath. Moscow in 1927 made sense, quite apart from the mostly ill-fated attraction to Asja Lacis who was the immediate occasion for his going there. And that in turn lead to the decisive encounter with Brecht.

Benjamin is not always at his best when writing about what is politically unambiguous or the most pressing for him, as with the writings on Brecht and related matters. Little pieces on proletarian theater or communist pedagogy don’t count among the most dazzling things he wrote, yet the issues were for him as compelling and congenial as could be. The causes mattered an awful lot, in themselves and in the struggle against fascism. Benjamin just didn’t operate quite as well in anything approaching Brecht’s mode of plumpes Denken (crude thinking), perhaps being constitutionally indisposed to it. All the more of a shame that we don’t have the Arcades project in something closer to what Benjamin projected as its final form. Though we can read the endlessly suggestive essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” and the polished parts of the Baudelaire material, there is no very extended work in the mode of historical materialism on which Benjamin was working away for the whole of the ’30s. Such truly dialectical work, of which the Arcades project is a skeletal version, is easier imagined than done.

But it’s not as if even the completed, honed works present easy formulae or programs for the work of others to follow. Benjamin’s texts sometimes seem all but organized around enigmatic formulations that arrest one and cry out to be quoted. Such sentences and phrases — One Way Street is full of them, as is the short Proust essay on a vast novel — are nothing if not seductive. Benjamin’s writings glean from and re-stage the enigmas of the works that fascinate him, such that he almost eases into a parabolic mode when elucidating the parables of Kafka and writes allegorically when addressing the allegorical veins of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. The riddling layers need to be read like the work of few other critics.

The relation of work to life can be enigmatic in its own right. Benjamin records (something not rehearsed by Eiland and Jennings) that on one of his stays with Brecht in Denmark, BB had just been reading Elective Affinities and brought it up in conversation with Benjamin, a Goethe “expert.” Brecht had thought the novel adventurous and unbourgeois and, on querying Benjamin and getting a response, found it hard to believe that Goethe could have written such a radical novel at the (over)ripe old age of 60 or so. The text was at odds with at least the presumed trajectory of the outward life. In Benjamin’s own case, it’s good to suspend one’s presumptions, as I think our authors successfully do, paying close attention to the texture of any given, complicated present in his involuted life. That’s not to say such attention resolves all interpretative difficulties. There are some texts, such as the “Theologico-Political Fragment” which can’t even be pinned down to one approximate date, with the plausible candidates lying 20 years apart, so oddly continuous and discontinuous is the writing.

Partly as result of their no-nonsense attention, Eiland and Jennings produce a sensible, solid, and sober critical biography. Those virtues are not eminently Benjaminian ones: Benjamin, by his own admission, operated at extremes. But if one wants a solid base from which to reconsider the life and the works and their tangled relations, Eiland and Jennings provide just that. Extremity can be indulged in reading Benjamin again on the far side of the biography.

One knows in advance, alas, the ending of the life. It’s not aesthetically satisfying, like those Billy Wilder noirs that give away the death at the start of the film and then wind their way back to it. One does not want the book to end nor the death to come. My heart pounded throughout the last chapter and perhaps yours will. Benjamin famously, on his way to America and for once with all the proper documentation and visas, save for an exit one from the French authorities, was turned back from the Spanish border and then committed suicide a day before the border was reopened to refugees from France, including those who had helped him to the border — sometimes literally dragging him up a hill. It was the most catastrophic instance of bad timing in a life beset with bad luck and worse politics. One of the many virtues of this critical biography is to highlight how suicide had been on Benjamin’s mind for a good decade before he made his not-at-all rash decision to take his own life (something most states still disallow, while reserving the right to kill people who have not chosen to die). Benjamin had intermittently thought long and hard about his own suicide (to the point of sometimes writing farewell letters to those close to him) and about suicide as a sign of modernity of the big-city, 19th-century variety. To kill oneself was, if nothing else, a preeminent exercise of freedom in a Hitlerized world of vanished freedoms.

Benjamin’s incessant work was directly and obliquely dedicated to making things better, for just about everyone, and mainly, despite his position at a remove from the working-class fray, for oppressed people(s) of every sort. Late in his life he could say: “Every line we succeed in publishing today — no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it — is a victory wrested from the powers of darkness.” Surely there is still a lot of darkness around, at the edge of town and in the center of the city, at border crossings, in the favelas of Rio, in the warrens and even on the beaches of Gaza, and in the incandescent world of the world-wide-web. Benjamin, despite his work receding a little in time and becoming of “historical interest,” remains one of the best guides for negotiating what he invoked, in the opening passage of One-Way-Street, as the rigorous alternation between writing and action.


[1] Benjamin did not read an awful lot of Marx. He knew the highlights and Marx was certainly crucial in his intellectual and political orientations from after about 1924 (and more so as of 1929) though the signal document in that “turn” was his reading of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which primed him to think about reification and commodification in literal things and reified people, having immediate consequences even for how he understood Baroque tragedy. When Benjamin was reading Capital in Denmark in the mid-’30s as Brecht’s guest, Brecht though it was a good idea for its very untimeliness, Marx having been out of fashion but “now” suddenly important to bring back.


Ian Balfour teaches English at York University. He is the author of several books including The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy and editor of collections on human rights, the “foreignness of film,” Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida.