Posts Tagged ‘Intoxication’

“The act of emerging from an egg”: Walter Benjamin on Marseilles

In Metaphysics on February 17, 2009 at 12:40 am

redlightM. Standfast Thomas, Kyoto

It was in Pittsburgh
late one night
I lost my hat
got into a fight

Bob Dylan

This post represents the first salvo in the grand battle of coming to terms with the writing of Walter Benjamin. Here, I will tackle his two essays on Marseilles (the English versions of which are both collected in Reflections), but not before offering the briefest of outlines of the contours of his mental landscape. Benjamin is sometimes still categorized as a “Marxist,” but, as even the most cursory glance at his work makes apparent, he had many other concerns, some of which aligned very uneasily with any form of Marxism the reader might previously have encountered. As is noted by both Peter Demetz and Leon Wieseltier, Benjamin’s Marxism overlaid his religious and metaphysical concerns, and these competing interests complement and/ or contradict each other–making either for a highly unusual synthesis or some kind of beautiful mess. Benjamin’s friend, the Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem, who dedicated his “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” to Benjamin, thought that Benjamin was “tempted against the grain of his sensibilities, to superimpose the terms of Marxist discourse upon his metaphysical vision of God, language, and a society ontologically in need of salvation” (Demetz, xv), and indeed careful reading of Benjamin’s best work does suggest that Jewish metaphysics was as or more central to his thinking as was Marxism.

The intellectual weight that Benjamin brings to bear in his attempt to synthesize his three major concerns: i) symbolism and semiotics especially as deciphered through everyday objects and the landscape of cities; ii) Jewish flavored mysticism with a messianic, almost apocalyptic tone; iii) Marxism, goes a long way toward convincing the reader that his obsessions are of a piece, but there can be no doubt that his mystical strain in particular, coupled with some of his more esoteric interests such as handwriting analysis and palm-reading, did not always sit well with more doctrinaire Marxists, or indeed with some garden-variety liberals. While some of his friends felt that he wandered a little too far afield from the party-line, Wieseltier, in his preface to the 2007 version of Reflections, argues that Benjamin’s Marxism was “the most embarrassing of his mental wanderings” (viii). Admittedly, from where we sit Benjamin’s Marxism does generally seem the most dated aspect of his thought, but his application of historical materialism in “On the Concept of History” is tremendously fruitful. But that is a subject for another post.

What is clear is that Benjamin was never able to toe the party line, even when it might have been in his material interest to do so. This inability, I think, was both a matter of temperament and of Benjamin’s relentlessly imaginative oddness that insisted on reading between the lines of material culture as manifested in everyday items and structures to unearth the splendor and wonderment of the prosaic. Demetz has it this way: “the failure of the systematic thinker constituted the true triumph of the master of hermeneutics who, in ‘reading’ the things of the world as if they were sacred texts, suddenly decodes the overwhelming forces of human history” (xxii). Continue Reading