On the Death of Siegfried Lenz ? ?You have to justify your life?

Siegfried Lenz, one of the great writers of German post-war literature is dead. He died on 7 October 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 88 years old.... more more

GoetheInstitute

11/10/2010

Save Benjamin from his fans!

Author Stephan Wackwitz dissevers literature from science, holiness from genius in the legend of Walter Benjamin

In 1972 I was twenty, a supposedly not entirely untalented, deeply impressionable and utterly confused individual. One week it was Maoism, the next it was poetry or fine art. The interminable vacillations of a young man. Ersatz military service in Bad Urach, holidays in Paris, a patchwork university degree in Munich. The obligatory hitch-hiking in Italy. The effects of Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" and three cans of beer in a youth hostel in Milan. An old man holds his head in despair over the diaries of his younger self.

One day, on a marble table top in an Ulm cafe, next to a cup of coffee, lay a red and white Bibliothek Suhrkamp book. It was Walter Benjamin's "Einbahnstraße" (One Way Street). The effect it was to have on me in the months and years to come echoed that experienced by it author in the 1920's, who could only read Aragon's "Paysan de Paris" one page at a time because it made his heart race and kept him awake for nights on end.

When, after flicking through it for the first time, I returned Benjamin's "Einbahnstraße" to the marble table top in the Ulm cafe (I was waiting for the local train to take me to my home town of Blaubeuren), I knew I would never be bored again. Not because I would continue to read this book for ever, a book that my professors in Munich were unable to classify as poetry or prose, theory or fiction, diary or essay. As I mentioned, I could never digest more than one or two passages in one sitting. What I mean is that something radical had happened in my life, because from this moment on, the world of books would contain something which awed me infinitely, just as I had been awed in childhood by the toys of some of my friends, or as I felt about the glamorous older female students in the German studies seminars in Schellingstraße.

My admiration for some of Benjamin's writing, the elegance of his thinking and his language more than anything else, has accompanied me throughout my intellectual life. And this in spite of the irreparable damage I probably inflicted upon myself during my period of obsessive Benjamin reading. Because the confusion of his thinking exponentially propelled my own confusions to new heights, for many years. When you read Benjamin, you must learn to strictly separate admiration and criticism.

The history of his influence is suitabably paradoxical. Benjamin's writing, which was almost exclusively intended to be scientific in method, makes strict claims to the truth, even when it takes the form of aphorism, feuilleton, literary critique or memoir. But Benjamin today enjoys the level of worldwide adoration that is otherwise reserved for poets in Eastern Europe. He is quoted so extensively, his photograph reproduced so often, he is the subject of so many prominent congresses and meticulous exhibitions that you would be forgiven for thinking he was Germany's leading poet. This misleading (oft kitschifying) treatment of a man who throughout his life regarded himself as a theorist, is most unusual for literary life in the west. At the very least it demands an explanation.

An initial explanation lies in the biography of the philosopher who was born in 1892 as the son of Jewish art dealer in Berlin and, while fleeing the Nazis in 1940, took his own life in the mountains. Strains from saint's legends are interwoven elements of classical artist legends: an endearing ineptitude for life's practicalities, early signs of outstanding talent; the failure of his peers to recognise his genius with the exception of a few visionary individuals (Hugo von Hofmannsthal!) who pointed a prophetic finger in his direction; betrayal by women and friends; persecution by evil rulers; a sacrificial death in the service of his work (the legendary manuscript which he lugged across the Pyrenees in his briefcase); and the posthumous apotheosis. The legend even has a miracle: Adorno suggested that Benjamin's suicide in Port Bout so moved the Spanish border authorities that they allowed the remaining group of emigrants to enter the country and to escape to freedom in America.

The paradoxical entanglement of poetic consecration and scientific standards was however, prepared above all by Benjamin himself. He pursued the project of a sort of concretising theory. He believed that by describing a type of theatre, or novel, or form of architecture in as precise terms as possible, these things would be brought to life in "profane illumination" and spawn a theory of their own. Benjamin, you could say, misinterpreted a Romantic poet's dream ("And the world wakes up and sings, / If only you find the magic word") as research programme. With Joseph von Eichendorff, it was a song that slumbered "in all things, / Ever dreaming forth unheard" - whereas for Benjamin it was historical materialism. Herein lies the failure of his monumental and fragmentary lifework as scientific research and its enduring success as Romantic literature.

Benjamin's writings on German philology, history of philosophy, theology and architectural sociology had already been superseded by the time they were rediscovered in the 1960s. Only his dissertation on the early Romantic concept of poetry still has academic relevance today. But even his contemporaries could not relate to these books in scholarly terms. Benjamin's book on Baroque tragedy not only failed to get past the Frankfurt doctoral committee, whose no-name, line-toeing academics could be dismissed on grounds of bigotry; he also got the thumbs-down from pioneers in Aby Warburg circles (Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky for example). And Adorno's excoriation of Benjamin's writing on Baudelaire is famous.

So how do you explain why his writing, which fails to meet any traditional criteria, has been been so phenomenally influential since the 1960s? The content argument points to Benjamin's combination of "scientific socialism" with cabbalist and messianic motifs (most prominently in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History) which struck a chord with students' illusory hopes of revolution against all odds. And the motifs in the essay on "The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" would certainly have been useful for a generation where most people grew up wanting to become "something media-related".

The most plausible (and depressing) explanation for the triumph of Walter Benjamin's poetic theory, however, springs from the observation that his rediscovery coincided with the rise of an academic current which had abandoned the pursuit of traditional academic standards in favour of creating diffuse meaning which could not longer be verified in scientific terms. The later work of Jacques Derrida, the Frankfurt Hölderlin Edition and the books of Giorgio Agamben could be classed as classics of this academic current, and the reception of Jorge Luis Borges in the eighties and of Heiner Muller in the nineties as their equivalent in the wider world of the chattering classes.

Today the bureaucratisation, didactisation and trivialisation of the humanities in the wake of the Bologna reform have reduced the hipness factor of academic environments and careers. The "Benjaminisation" as you could call the process, of creating poetic effects through scientific means. Catalogue texts, art theoretical "essays", curatorial concepts cite Benjamin's texts ad infinitum and occupy an intellectual no-man's-land between scholarship and poetry.

I'm sure you know the reluctance to continue reading a text if the first paragraph is sat under a chunky quote from Benjamin's book on tragedy, and the remaining porridgy thoughts are generously sprinkled with words like "aura", "flaneur" or "shock". You want nothing more to do with it. The mixture of poetising process with scientific claim to truth feels impure if not downright unsavoury.

Let us instead take a few steps backwards in literary history. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the great natural scientists of his day. But we no longer read his reports of his travels through South America out of natural-scientific interest, but because he was also one of the greatest prose writers of his time. It is it the fate of scientific prose that its scientific relevance fades. The artistic relevance however, of scientists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Sigmund Freud which they undoubtedly had and still have, quite apart apart from their discoveries, are untouched by his ageing process. Dante's "Divinia Commedia" was intended once upon a time as a scientific description of the world. Outdated knowledge becomes unsurpassable poetry. And this applies not only to outdated scientific prose, but also ideas that were wrong from the outset. One famous 18th century example of this is Goethe's "Colour Theory" that was appallingly off, even at its time of creation, which does nothing to impair its artistic or literary qualities.

Benjamin's writings are the "Colour Theory" of the twentieth century. If we could agree (and science would almost certainly back us up here) to take his theories on German philology, architectural sociology, media theory and history of philosophy with a pinch of salt, his genius as a writer could get the recognition it deserves. Then the literary essay – a paradoxical case of an illegitimate species which nevertheless has rules – would shift to centre stage in his oeuvre. The "Arcades Project" suddenly becomes a forerunner to Walter Kempowski's "Echolot" and other forms of documentary literature and artistic research; his literary criticism, a subtle intellectual autobiography played out over several volumes. And his reports on interior and exterior travels which we have always been been able to enjoy without regret, as fascinating subjective documents.

This process clearly defines Benjamin – his admirers take note - as the last, most important and most brilliant representative of 20th century Jewish literary culture, a milieu so full of talent that German literature has yet to recover from its eradication at the hands of the Nazis.

Walter Benjamin should be studied and admired as the third and perhaps most original mind in a trio of literary giants of the 1920s, who all registered in erudite consciousness very late in the game: he should be placed alongside Kafka and Robert Walser. And we should stop stirring his intricately brilliant but almost entirely false theories into theoretical blancmange, condemning Benjamin to keep delivering the ingredients. Perhaps though that is the comeuppance for his own scientific hubris – although he has long done penance for that.

*

This article originally appeared in Die Welt on 24 September, 2010.


Stephan Wackwitz (1952) is an essayist and novelist.
"An Invisible Country" was published in English in 2005 (more here).

Translation: lp

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

From pasta to pyrotechnics

Monday 25 July, 2011

We should be playing more and working less, according to philosopher and author Byung-Chul Han. He argues from the standpoint of Asian thinking yet is firmly rooted in the Western tradition. Ronald Düker visits Byung-Chul Han at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe to find out how to make our minds more supple.
read more

The Freudian romance

Thursday 9 June 2011

TeaserPicSelf-analysis and great romantic literature: Sigmund Freud was separated from his bride Martha Bernays for four years. Almost entirely kept under lock and key until the early 2000s, the first volume of their correspondence, the approximately 1,500 letters of the so-called "bridal letters" has now just been published for the first time. The first of five planned volumes is discussed by Jean Bollack.
read more

The barb of variety

Tuesday 25 May, 2011

Josef H. Reichholf's large-scale study on the origin of beauty that has just been published in German describes evolution as a kaleidoscope of possibilities and productive wastefulness that relativises all mechanics of necessity. The more complex organisms become, the more they liberate themselves from external living conditions and allow the attraction of beauty to play out its anarchic game. By Horst Bredekamp. Image courtesy Jörg Hempel.
read more

Chalk and the abyss

Wednesday May 19, 2010

As rector of the Albert Ludwig University in the winter of 1933/34, Martin Heidegger gave a seminar which was said to contain decisive evidence of the total identification of his teachings with the principles of Hitlerism. Now, thanks to his son Hermann Heidegger, the secret transcripts of this seminar "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History and the State" have been published for the first time. By Alexander Kissler
read more

The attack of the 13th fairy

Wednesday 9 February, 2010

Filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge is no optimist, but he knows ways out of the present. Freitag magazine engages him in a conversation about the World Wide Web, dragonflies, the belief in better human beings and why he likes "gardener" as a job description.
read more

The origin of the world

Thursday 18 June, 2009

TeaserPicMithu M. Sanyal, a self-proclaimed "provocative feminist", has written a cultural history of the vulva. Richly illustrated and packed with knowledgeable synopses, it has directed the media spotlight into a symbolic and semantic void. By Ulrike Baureithel
read more

Good readers are cannibals

Monday 15 December, 2008

TeaserPicKurt Flasch's book "Kampfplätze der Philosophie" strides across the battlefields of philosophy from Augustine to Voltaire. After a weekend spent scribbling furiously in its margins, Arno Widmann was enlightened, exhilarated and hungry for more.
read more

Mohammed on the "straight path"

Tuesday 8 April, 2008

Did the Prophet Mohammed only become a power-conscious religious politician in Medina, where he emigrated from Mecca in 622? Author of a new Mohammed biography, Tilman Nagel has found much to indicate the absence of any genuine break in the evolution of this religious founder.


read more

A new cosmopolitanism is in the air

Wednesday 21 November, 2007

The global power of capital has no need for military force. And it is nigh on boundless. Sociologist Ulrich Beck presents seven theses for a better world.
read more

Banished to the banlieues

Wednesday 14 November, 2007

The Parisian social sciences institutes are being turfed out of their ancestral homes in the city's most desirable arrondissements and relocated to Aubervilliers. A bitter pill, but also a chance to turn theory into practice. By Wolf Lepenies
read more

Children of the sun

Wednesday 12 September, 2007

All light-generating substances, as well as the oxygen they consume, stem ultimately from trapped solar energy. The pulsing points of light in the depths of our oceans are distant offspring of the sunlight. Biochemist Gottfried Schatz follows light across time and space, from the Big Bang to the ocean floor.

read more

"The time for philosophising is over"

Monday 20 August, 2007

Ernst Tugendhat, philosopher and critic of German pseudo-profundity, talks to Ulrike Herrmann about the fear of death, Heidegger, anti-Semitism and unfounded speculations in brain research.

read more

Dumber in English

Thursday July 12, 2007

Is German academic language dying in the face of the dominant Anglo-Saxon? Well, revive it! Biophysicist and author Stefan Klein doesn't think German scholars should try to impress the world with mediocre English. He makes a case for the mother tongue, proposing incentives such as prizes for the best scientific texts. After all, everyone craves rewards.

read more

Philosopher, poet and friend

Tuesday 12 June, 2007

The American thinker Richard Rorty passed away on Friday at his home in California. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas tells what makes Rorty unique among intellectuals, and what binds Rorty, orchids, and justice on earth.

read more