Twelve prerequisites for reading Benjamin

After a dinner conversation between George Steiner and Gershom Scholem.

One, the emancipation of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, the coexistence of the ghetto with an explosion of commercial, financial, intellectual, and artistic talent. Two, the German youth movements, the search for discipleship, Wyneken, Stefan George, the roots of Zionism and the mysticism of the Führer, both. Three, the little-known history of German pacifism, and Benjamin and Scholem’s flight to Switzerland. Four, the evolution of the German language out of the Luther Bible translations, through Silesius, Novalis, Hölderlin’s commentaries on Oedipus and Antigone — and past Benjamin’s life, through Heidegger and towards Celan’s “the language of the North in the future.” (See, with this, that B’s intro to the Trauerspiel confused even Scholem, who possessed German of such preternatural clarity as to rival Freud’s.) Five, Benjamin’s inability to get into the academic world — the rejection of his Habilitationsgesuch in 1925 that would push him into newspapers, into radio, into a marginal existence. Six, the historical place and mentality of the collector, the bibliomane, the bricoleur, the master of catalogs of sales, of secondhand shops. (This is his admiration for Shakespeare, as the picker-up of trifles, like the Parisian rag-picker, the mudlark, with an eye for the tiny, the discarded, and the unconsidered. “There will be mythology as long as there are beggars.”) Seven, graphology — without this, nothing, says Scholem: it provided Benjamin with much-needed funds, but also with his understanding of similitude over equation, over analogy, over allegory. Eight, the sociology of his drug-taking, the culture of Theophile Gautier, Cocteau, the addict and the mystic. Nine, Marxism, the Marxism for which Benjamin’s brother dies for the KPD, for which Asja Lacis leaves him, and his own hermetic Marxism which makes his emigration to the U.S. difficult and his friendship with Scholem problematic. Ten, the place of translation in the German language — with Borchardt’s work on Dante and Valéry, George on Dante and Verlaine, Benjamin on Proust, Baudelaire, Balzac — and the way in which it added to his belief in an Urtext, in a universal, pre-Adamic semiology of correspondence, of gesture and emblem. Eleven, eros in Benjamin’s life, his failure to form lasting relationships, and his elegant thought on liebe, leidenschaft, eros, sexuality. Twelve, and last, and most decisive, theology: “the blotter of theology that underlies every line I write,” that is, the inverse, the mirroring that makes possible every one of his critical ideas, from the aura to the angel of history. (Benjamin and late Heidegger are two great workers in the register of theology.)

He knew, knew utterly, like Aby Warburg (another master collector of emblems) that the most vital point was in the detail, in the local habitation, the name, of the very small.

Benjamin also stands, strangely, as the inheritor of Nietzsche’s fragmentary proposals for the elective affinities, Wahlverwandtschaften, between culture and barbarism, the humanities and the inhuman. He points to the monstrosities, the slaves, the poor, written out of history, that underlie the monuments of culture.