I’m writing this a few days before leaving for Los Angeles, a city notable, like so many American cities, for who came there in difficult times. Brecht made his home in Santa Monica, and Adorno in Los Angeles proper, in Brentwood. Brecht and Adorno made it, to write and critique; the one who vibrated between them like a tuning fork, the only one who could listen to Adorno practice Schönberg in the morning and Brecht play saxophone in the afternoon, did not. Instead, he died in Spain — a death, Adorno conjectured, which possibly resulted from his legendary physical sense of privacy and reserve: even in the greatest extremity, the people who he’d joined in fleeing the border gave him his own room, such was his need for modesty, and in that solitude he could take the overdose of morphine he’d reserved in case of imminent capture. For Adorno, Benjamin seemed “to have placed a taboo on animal warmth,” and, though their letters were filled with friendship and care, he was virtually never permitted to place a hand on his friend’s shoulder. And those letters were written in Benjamin’s handwriting, of which he, a dedicated graphologist, said that its intention was to reveal nothing. Seeing his script, minute and precise, I think of his notes on a novelist he admired, Julien Green, that his handwriting had “letters that had learned renunciation.”
Benjamin also admired Kafka, intensely — in November 1916, Kafka gave a reading of “In the Penal Colony” in Munich, where Benjamin was then living, and he missed it; the two never met, and Benjamin regrets it, and that missed evening, repeatedly in his journal. Kafka provided few titles: he used Der Prozeß and Das Schloß to refer to the story about the trial and the story about the castle, inspiring Max Brod to apply them as titles after Kafka’s death. In his notes, Kafka called his unfinished American novel, what we have as Amerika, Der Verschollene, The One Who Was Never Heard of Again. It’s a beautiful title, and one that Benjamin, who cultivated anonymous handwriting, a failed, marginal academic who wished to make a masterpiece entirely out of quotations, who regularly published from the beginning to the end under pseudonyms (“Ardor,” Detlef Holz, K.A. Stempflinger, C. Conrad) and who was buried in an anonymous grave, might have ironically assumed as his own.
Kafka’s novel was a dream on the part of one who’d never seen America — his Statue of Liberty holds not a torch but a sword. It is a sense of an impossible, far shore. It has echoes preceding it in Nietzsche’s sketched plans to emigrate to Oaxaca, and following it in the unsuccessful attempts to get Benjamin out of Europe. Erich Auerbach attempted to secure Benjamin a professorship in the German department at the University of São Paulo in Brazil (which we know only through the letter he sent explaining his failure to do so), and the Institute for Social Research tried to encourage his emigration, including a visa arranged by Max Horkheimer and a famously missed meeting with a representative in Paris. (And, of course, there were his promises to Gerschom Scholem that he would emigrate to Palestine.)
Though one can imagine Benjamin in São Paulo or Los Angeles or Jerusalem, his far shore lay in time, not space. For him, the unitary individual, face to face with a consistent and homogenous eternity, was a fallacy: his promised future was one of radical and celebratory transformation, an experiment on a cosmic, planetary scale which would take us far from “the human continent.” He caught a presentiment of that drift in Kafka. He wrote: “You can read Kafka’s animal stories for quite a while without realizing they are not about human beings at all. When you finally come upon the name of the creature — monkey, dog, mole — you look up in fright and realize that you are already far away from the continent of man.” These lines came from a published article. In his diaries of May-June 1931, he wrote an almost identical sentence on Kafka, with a different ending: “you look up in fright and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings. As far away from it as a future society will be.”
In Moscow, in December 1926, Benjamin was interviewed by a Soviet newspaper as to the state of literature in Germany. His answer, for which he was reproached by his friends for political naïveté, and reproached by himself for his “insecure and imprecise manner,” focused on the science-fantasy novels of Paul Scheerbart, with the highest praise. Defending himself to his friends, he argued that only Scheerbart had really expressed “the revolutionary character of technology” — a revolutionary energy that Benjamin saw in the Soviet focus on canals, dams, electrification, and factories. In all these things, in their “comprehensive, planetary” technological ambitions (“It is no accident that forays into the Arctic and the stratosphere were among the first great acts of the pacified Soviet Union,” he later wrote), he could discern the outline of a post-humanity, an outline suggested by “what sort of entirely new creatures, worthy of being seen and loved, our telescopes, our airplanes and rockets could make out of the former humans.”
About nine years prior to that injudicious interview in Moscow, in April 1917, Benjamin married Dora Kellner. He’d invited his younger friend Scholem to the wedding party, and Scholem’s gift to the intensely literary couple was a copy of Scheerbart’s “asteroid novel” Lesabéndio, ein Asteroiden-Roman (an edition with plates by the visionary, depraved artist Alfred Kubin, about whom more later). It was, it seems, the start of Benjamin’s work on Scheerbart, a project that would culminate three years later in the outline (the project itself being partially lost and partially, possibly, unfinished) for an extended study called “Die wahre Politiker”, “The Total Politician.” Doubtless Benjamin had heard of Scheerbart before. He and Dora had lived next door to Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in Berne in 1916 (though they didn’t cross paths much; Dora was far more outgoing than her boyfriend), and all the Dadaists seemed to share a fondness for Scheerbart. (Hannah Hoch had an extensive library of his works, and in 1919 Hausmann and Baader renamed Club Dada “Club zur blauen Milchstrasse” in Scheerbart’s honor.) If it wasn’t through literary circles, Benjamin might likely have come across his name in the publicity surrounding glasarchitektur, of which Scheerbart was a proponent (Bruno Taut’s exquisitely bizarre glass pavilion for the 1914 Cologne exposition incorporated Scheerbart’s aphorisms).
Scheerbart, an heir who quickly spent his fortune and passed much of his life impoverished and malnourished, was a very cheap drunk: after a few glasses of beer, as a rule, he would fall off his chair to the floor, and beat the boards with his fist, crying out “Weltgeist, wo bist du?”, World-spirit, where are you? A utopian in every aspect of life, he argued in his architectural writings and artwork for the arrival of world peace and enlightenment through the exclusive construction of buildings from colored glass, and he spent the royalties from his writings and gifts from friends on attempts to construct a perpetual motion machine, a tap on the unlimited energy of the universe. His visitors and correspondents were subjected to long discourses on the current and prospective state of the machine, like friends of the increasingly demented Arnold Böcklin listening day after day to his intricate plans for a flying machine he would build. In his mystical science-fantasy novels, set on asteroids and in deep space, he described allegorical races that Benjamin summed up as “humans … as the creators of an ideal technology.” Scheerbart’s characters in Lesabéndio, living on the asteroid Pallas, create technologies that allow them to fuse in ecstatic unity, both with each other as a society, and with Pallas itself, with space, with the universe.
It is on Pallas, looking back at Earth, that we can accurately read lines of Benjamin’s like the following, from the final, visionary section of Einbahnstrasse, a collection of fragments dedicated to Asja Lacis, one of the friends who reproached him in Moscow for his remarks on Scheerbart:
“… Technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and mankind. Human beings as a species completed their evolution thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species stands at its beginning. In technology a physis is organizing itself in which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes on new and different forms from those it assumed in nations and in families. One need merely recall the experience of velocities whereby mankind is now preparing itself for incalculable journeys into the interior of time, there to encounter rhythms from which the sick will gain strength, as they once did on high mountains or Southern seas. The big dippers anticipate the sanatoria of the future. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call ‘Nature’.”
This is how a future society can be sensed in the shock of realizing, midway through a Kafka tale, that one is not reading about a person but about a burrower or a mysterious Odradek, a thing like a spindle or a spool with “a laugh like the rustling of dry leaves”: the society of the future, whatever its shape, will be a development of the bio-technical society of mankind, into which the being of the human will have been incorporated. In the remediation of the relations between humans and nature through refinements of technology, the first of those terms will become increasingly “the former humans.” As early as 1917, in a youthful essay, he had taken a stand against the idea that human consciousness was closed, stable, unified: “We know of peoples of the so-called preanimistic stage who identify themselves with sacred animals and plants and name themselves after them; we know of insane people who likewise identify themselves in part with objects of their perception. … We know of sick people who relate the sensations of their bodies not to themselves but rather to other creatures, and clairvoyants who at least claim to be able to feel the sensations of others as their own.” We are at every point interpenetrated with the world, in Benjamin’s analysis, and in the future he projected, each technological transformation in our environment will reach the inmost place of our experience and understanding. He saw it (again, as a devotee of Scheerbart) in glass architecture, in buildings (such as those of Le Corbusier and Mendelssohn) made into “the transitional spaces of every imaginable force and wave of light and air.” As a graphologist, for whom each line of handscript testified to hidden influences, a human was already something of an expression of a place and a time. For him, in Rimbaud’s words, “the man of the future will be filled with animals”; the medicine of the future, Benjamin suggested, in contrast with the Fascist futurism of purity of blood, would be “a playground for all microbes.” What “we are accustomed to call ‘Nature’” would reveal its semantic inadequacy, not least because what we are accustomed to call human would have dissolved into it.
The copy of Lesabéndio that Scholem gave to Dora and Walter Benjamin featured illustrations by Alfred Kubin. Kubin, who lived much of his life in seclusion in a castle in Zwickledt, producing images and texts which retain their quality of profound and queasily intimate psychosexual disturbance, was a prophet of terminal decline: universal pandemics, war without end, a fundamental dysfunction within living things, particularly between men and women. He brought this vision to its apogee in Die andere Seite, The Other Side, a novel about the city of Pearl, constructed in isolation somewhere in Central Asia by Claus Patera, the richest man in the world. Patera wishes to bring time to a standstill: in a remote location, behind walls and fortifications, he has had Pearl made entirely from elements of other cities with a historical quality; this being a Kubin novel, it is generally a violent and grotesque history. A city of old buildings, old silverware, old clothes — and new imports are forbidden. In this zone of stilled time, the sky is permanently overcast, the streets filled with a sullen grey-green light. The stasis of history gives actions and gestures a meaninglessness that implies their control by some other, alien force. Pearl begins to tilt into catastrophe: there are plagues of insects, domestic animals turn feral, and the citizens turn on one another; an American millionaire starts a revolt and calls in an outside army to seize the city; the population is swept with plague under a sky crackling with heat lightning. The buildings themselves are dying, and the entire city finally, utterly collapses and is annihilated.
Discussing Die andere Seite with Scholem, Benjamin said — “whispered,” in fact, according to Scholem — “I have had similar dreams.” He was at ease with contraries, often reasoning by a kind of mutant dialectic in which he turned a prior belief inside-out. It wasn’t the assumption of a direct antithesis, the ice-skater’s spin of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, where gazing into the abyss means the abyss gazes into you: it was about finding the concealed ragged edges of a thought with a quick reversal. “In any case,” he wrote in a marginal note to the Passagenwerk, “the eternal is more like lace trimmings on a dress than like an idea.” A recurrent symbol of his thought was the childhood mystery of the balled-up socks in the wardrobe: each pair, so folded, had the appearance of “a little pocket,” and within the pocket, for the child Walter, was das Mitgebrachte, “what it comes with,” the gift. But, in extracting the gift, the pocket disappeared, the container becoming the contained: “It taught me that form and content, veil and what is veiled, are the same.” (He could see in Proust, whom he translated into German, a writer who sensed the gift within the pocket of his memory, and repeatedly tried to extract it, pulling his past inside-out to find neither gift nor pocket but “the third thing,” the skein of literature.) Form and content, mind and body, human and nature: in the process of finding one within the other, he could make both vanish into a third, a simple thing, a sock, the “profane illumination” of the covert mystery being what is before us in broad daylight. Profane illumination: an apocalypse, the great revelation, taking place inside a snow globe (as Adorno recalled, “Small glass balls containing a landscape upon which snow fell when shook were among his favorite objects”). He had no difficulty reversing his stellar, post-human future into an all-too-human future, in which the borders drawn out between human and nature, beginning to dissolve, become militarized free-fire zones, the society of constant experiment becomes a biopolitical cartel, and, as he wrote of the Fascist adoption of new technology, flight is “realized only by the type of man who ascends into the stratosphere in order to drop bombs.” He could pass, in the same essay and sometimes in the same thought, from Pallas to Pearl.
(Once, when Scholem frankly expressed his dislike of Brecht to Benjamin, he replied: “I don’t understand you. You were the one who so highly commended Scheerbart to me some years ago. You could not praise him enough, and I am sure you were right in doing so. And now that I commend Brecht to your attention, who is completing what Scheerbart started so well — namely the writing of a completely unmagical language, a language cleansed of all magic — you show no interest!” A language cleansed of all magic? In 1897, Scheerbart published Ich liebe dich! Ein Eisenbahn-Roman mit 66 Intermezzos — I Love You! A Railway Novel with 66 Intermezzos — a novel of stations in the railway experience, many phonetic renderings of hissing and clattering which would have passed, a few decades before, for magic spells; the same sounds can be found in Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, ten years later, and even, readopted as black magic, in Artaud’s attempts to wound his enemies with words. But Benjamin means something more refined by “magic.” …)