In Lightning Flashes
Why does Walter Benjamin haunt us so?
The figure is staged, even stage-managed, in advance of one’s acquaintance. “Dear Walter,” as some devoted fans have called him, is always already known. The details vary by account, but the key points are repeated, so often indeed that they take on an air of mythopoeia. Displaced, disregarded, despised, and rejected, fleeing the reflective embrace of politics and history, Walter Benjamin seeks refuge in Paris, leaving behind his beloved and oft-recalled Berlin. His books and memories jealously safeguarded, he embarks on a project of many beginnings and revisions, destined to remain unfinished at his death — which itself is wrapped in narrative mystery. Like a character in Casablanca, attempting to outpace Nazi security forces, he travels to the French-Spanish border, looking across the frontier to freedom in — perhaps — America.
But he is detained and so despairs. His precious suitcase, supposedly containing the single copy of his magnum opus, The Arcades Project, with its multi-layered cahiers and feuilletons, his endless gribouillage of jumbled insight and observation, is with him to the end. Celebrated and cherished by the likes of Gershom Scholem and Bertolt Brecht and urged on by the browbeating musicologist and culture critic Theodor Adorno (their correspondence makes for riveting, sometimes hilarious reading), Benjamin has ever expanded a single essay, which describes Parisian shopping arcades, into “a dialectical fairyland.” The Arcades Project has grown to more than a thousand pages, each one studded with feats of imagination and revelation unparalleled in twentieth-century letters. Yet Benjamin succumbs to his despair and ends his own life by injection, so close to and yet far from his goal of freedom. A victim of history. Miraculously, posterity rescues the now fabled suitcase from oblivion like a cache of pirate treasure, jumbled and various, a casket of scattered gems and glittering filigree; inside, the work at once mimics and updates the aesthetic pleasures of flânerie with an overlay of Frankfurt School critical theory.
His reputation will only grow with time, especially as English translations of his major works appear, creating a scholarly Benjamin industry that is a gift to comparative literature doctoral students everywhere. The output is uneven, wide in range, syncretic rather than synthetic. Some of the most familiar philosophical notions — the idea of “aura” in art and its status in an age of mechanical reproducibility, the theses on the philosophy of history, the critiques of violence — create mini-academies of their own, with objections and replies extending apparently without cease. (Jacques Derrida’s tortuous Benjaminian meditation on the “force of law” is worth a semester course all by itself.) Still, many continue to prefer the more accessible Benjamin — sometimes labelled romantic, even mystical — that’s found in his memoir exercises and the details drawn from those sparkling alleyways in Paris. There is a unity here, concerning the forces of history, memory, and political agency — or its lack. But it is delivered in a sprawling oeuvre that must be approached on its own terms. Books and translations, new and old, offer opportunities to stroll through this conceptual and imaginative city, maybe for the first time or, for the experienced reader, with a renewed sense of wonder.
Fredric Jameson, the prolific theoretician now in his late eighties, is one of the more able perambulators. He dared to approach the historical subject, and the literary figure, in The Benjamin Files. The promotional copy, never a reliable source of wisdom, claims that the book, from 2020, “offers a comprehensive new reading of all of Benjamin’s major works and a great number of his shorter book reviews, notes and letters.” Further, it presents Benjamin as “an anti-philosophical, anti-systematic thinker whose conceptual interests also felt the gravitational pull of his vocation as a writer.” Note the implicit suggestion that thinking and writing, or perhaps thinker and writer, are distinct, even contradictory terms. At the least there is a gravitational pull of one over the other. Jameson himself is more nuanced, as he deploys a metaphor drawn from Benjamin: words as sails on a ship, but the set of the sails as concepts.
“Everything in Benjamin’s work is driven by the passion for history (or at least, for the historical),” Jameson writes. “Beyond that, however, the figure grows devious, multiple implications lead us in contradictory directions, raising unanswerable questions: prevailing wind versus tidal currents, tacking against the wind, rigging, size of the craft itself.” Thus, “as our initial reading begins to disintegrate, sails flapping weakly in a waning breeze, meanings fading away becalmed, we begin to sense that what we have here is no metaphor but rather an allegory: a form that lives by gaps and differences rather than identities, and that develops in time.”
That strikes me as true, even if the sailing trope itself begins to tatter under the stiff breezes of logic. And the word “files” in Jameson’s title is apt and resonant, suggesting a forensic investigation, a paranormal sleuthing outfit, or the well-known mixed-up records of one Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. One reads some writers twice, even when the eyes pass over the text just a single time. Benjamin the political thinker is forever informed, if not overwhelmed, by the writer he is and must be. A dialectician by training, if sometimes a reluctant one (Adorno was forever berating him for his lack of precision), Benjamin is also, inescapably, a wordsmith — a divinely gifted noticer, a fiend for the telling detail and revelatory transition, above all a graceful stylist. The wondrous balancing act his work performs is sui generis, or almost so. There are other philosophers who write well, but Roland Barthes is probably the closest rival to Benjamin for sheer elegance of expression and warmth of argument.
The issue here is neither incidental nor trivial. Superlative writing is not some mere adjunct to good argument, a fancy vehicle for what might be expressed more starkly, like a Jaguar F-Type delivering a package wrapped in plain brown paper. Or, to extend the Benjamin-Jameson metaphor, the sails may be beautifully set but the rudder has steered the ship awry, so that the wind is abaft or athwart. Any teacher is likely to revert to a more homely, more common example: the student who claims to have a good idea but cannot find the words to express it.
When a writer excels at both fiction and non-fiction, we have special reason to pay attention to what succeeds and what doesn’t. For every Camus, executing in all forms apparently without effort, there are dozens if not hundreds of authors churning out “philosophical” novels that punish the soul with their didacticism and lack of basic writerly chops. For all these reasons, then, The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness, the collection of Benjamin’s short fiction recently reissued, is of considerable interest. The governing question here might be phrased in a variety of ways, but a good one is this: What does the Benjamin who wrote fiction have to tell us that the philosopher does not — or cannot — say? And, of course, vice versa?
The introduction to this hefty volume of short stories, novellas, fables, and reviews is a testament to fecundity. Benjamin, the editors note, wrote in practically every form possible; collected here are forty-two pieces, in three parts (Dreamworlds, Travel, Play and Pedagogy), over more than 200 pages. There is evidence, too, of unrealized ambitions. “He also long harboured plans to write crime fiction,” the editors tell us. “There exists an extensive outline for a novel, to be titled La Chasse aux mensonges, detailing ten possible chapters, including such details as an accident in a lift shaft, an umbrella as clue, action in a cardboard-making factory, a man who hides his banknotes inside his books and loses them.”
Ah, what a treat is here promised, never to be delivered! I imagine something like a cross between Eric Ambler and Georges Simenon, with theoretical foreshadows of Barthes or Paul de Man, and therefore fan-boy metafictions on the order of Malcolm Bradbury (My Strange Quest for Mensonge) or Gilbert Adair (The Death of the Author). The film adaptation would have fallen to Jean-Jacques Beineix in his sumptuous, ironic-Hitchcock, neo-neo-noir Diva style. English title: Lie Detector or, more loosely and eurythmically, Would I Lie to You?
Benjamin was well aware that the presence of lies does not imply an opposite hard truth. Like Derrida after him, writing in his posthumously published Histoire du mensonge, Benjamin was preoccupied with the unstable, simultaneously revealing truth and falsity of fables, myths, fairy tales, and fact-based fiction. Derrida suggests three linked inquiries, which Benjamin pursued in both theory and narrative: first, a history of the concept of lying; second, a catalogue of notable lies; and third, a true tale of how these lies, or lies in general, ought to be ordered. Fine. But reading Benjamin on these topics is, we must admit, way more fun.
He liked riddles and paradoxes, including the famous tale of a Cretan who remarked that all Cretans are liars — if true, then untrue; if a lie, then true — and several attributed to Bertrand Russell (the barber’s paradox, the set-of-all-sets paradox, and so on). We also catch sight in these mostly fragmentary texts of many elegant, haunting descriptions of memorable Benjaminian figures. “One speaks of people who took their secret to the grave,” one tale begins. “Not much was missing for Captain G to have numbered among them. It was his misfortune that he did not keep his secret to himself. For those who love wordplay, one might say that it was his misfortune that he did not keep his misfortune a secret, even though he had sworn to himself that he would.”
Indulge me, please, in a reminiscence about Benjamin. It features city spaces, travel, fantasy, and politics of a kind. It is an amalgam of fact and fantasy, a species of dreamscape composed of both manifest and latent content. I suspect many readers of Benjamin’s essays have personal stories to tell about their intellectual encounters with his writing. I also imagine that most of these take place in undergraduate dorm rooms, faculty offices, or seminar meetings. I’ve had all of those, but also one that was more dramatic.
In 1999, when I was on sabbatical at Clare Hall, Cambridge, I enjoyed the closest thing to my best life I have so far known in six decades of existence. True, my first marriage was on the brink of dissolution, but that was largely by mutual agreement and with a minimum of acrimony. There was no longer love in that air. On the other hand, I had steady work, some success both before and behind me, and a routine that still stands as pretty ideal. In the mornings, I worked on a book that was under contract to a reputable publisher who had paid me an advance I would have considered staggering just a few years earlier. After a morning at my chunky grey Macintosh, I went running along the Cantabrigian canal system to counter the previous sedentary hours. On to lunch, maybe ham and pickle and a pint at the Free Press pub around the corner, followed by attendance at random lectures, open to all students and visitors. Art history was my favourite avocational pastime, especially the talks offered by a famous Renaissance expert who had a penchant for cute dogs depicted in otherwise serious circumstances. “And here,” he would say, flicking his laser pointer, “one of the most charming pooches of the Quattrocento. The very symbol of Venetian fidelity, devotion, love. I ask you!”
The East Anglian sky would be growing dark as I made my way home, church bells tolling the hour. My turn to make dinner. A shared bottle of wine. Emails to check. Some time with a novel from the public library. And so to bed, as the man said. A daily cycle to comfort the wrinkled brow of any scholar.
Into this idyll came a request. My editor at Harper’s Magazine, Roger Hodge, knowing I was already a dedicated Benjaminian, sent me an advance reading copy of the new complete English translation of The Arcades Project. It had a flimsy yellow paper cover and was soon pen-stained and dog-eared by my daily engagement, my own manuscript momentarily forgotten. “Why don’t you go over to Paris?” Roger said to me. “Walk in the streets, explore the arcades, drink some wine. Write a review essay.” Harper’s, run perpetually in the red, isn’t big on travel expenses. (The only other time I went on assignment for it, I took a trip to Shanghai, achieved by many cramped hours in coach but with some nice hotels and delicious street food every day.) This wasn’t going to be a National Geographic or Condé Nast Traveller gig, but who can say no to even a partly subsidized trip to Paris?
I took the branch line to King’s Cross, then the Tube to Waterloo, and caught the Eurostar, still glittering with novelty and airport-style luxury. I was dressed in a black Armani suit that I would wear for the weekend. The Chunnel passage was fast and uneventful, except for one vertiginous moment when I went to the café car for coffee and a sandwich. At that moment, I was acutely conscious of the massive tonnage of soil and water braced over my head, flashing past in windows that illuminated my drawn reflection.
In Paris I was staying with a friend who possesses striking looks and a chic au courant fashion sense. She volunteered to accompany me on my walks around town. She turned heads along the Champs-Elysées and in the Tuileries, mostly other women’s. They ignored me and my sharp tailoring in favour of purely aesthetic appreciation, maybe rivalry. Or so I reasoned, self-protectively. We visited the Place des Vosges, a favourite of the Situationists. And then, near Les Halles, we entered some of the original corner-cutting arcades that so seized Benjamin’s imagination. These covered passageways, with inserted shop windows and tiny merchant storefronts, slice through blocks of typical Parisian vernacular buildings, creating miniature malls. Examples of the technique can be found in parts of London and Buenos Aires, even as the finest examples I have ever seen are, maybe unexpectedly, in Sydney. Gorgeous tiled floors, soaring glass ceilings, and wrought-iron balustrades instantly transport the visitor to a nineteenth-century wonderland. Whether they are dialectical, and what that might mean — a distinctive kind of materialism, perhaps — is for the dedicated Benjamin reader to decide.
For someone raised in suburban Winnipeg, where “arcade” meant a cramped, dimly lit video game emporium in some parking-lot-encased shopping mall, somewhere between the pet store and the athletic clothing franchise, this was nothing short of miraculous. To find wonder, let alone dialectic, in these quarters seemed unlikely, even if I had the vocabulary and conceptual equipment to attempt the feat. But this is not about shopping, as one dull reader of my subsequent report complained. Benjamin offers us a critical lens to see both the attractions and the dangers of commodification. He really is Baudelaire’s late-model envoy, armed with a Marxist sensibility that may not have been tough or exclusive enough for Adorno but that suits the natural storyteller far better — and, along the way, communicates to later generations his warm appreciation doused with philosophical skepticism. Flânerie is here radicalized, narrativized, enhanced by every detail.
I returned to Cambridge, still sporting my undiminished Italian ensemble and with memories of several mouth-watering dinners. But the London Tube was in full-throated rush that afternoon, every platform jammed. I had to wait for three trains at Waterloo before I could start moving north toward King’s Cross. I was in danger of missing the last departure to Cambridge. Finally landed at the station, I dashed up the stairs and sprinted toward the British Rail platforms. (This was a quarter century ago; I don’t do much dashing or sprinting lately, let alone suit wearing.)
It was the closest I’ve come to a James Bond moment. Still sprinting, I glanced up at the big elevated timetable and somehow spotted my platform number. Veering to the left, I increased speed — who knew I had another gear? — and made my way down the deck. The train, I saw with dismay, was starting to move. Just as I was about to give it up, already thinking about where I might stay the night, the conductor leaned out of his van, the last car, and beckoned me to the open door. The train was gathering speed, but I thought I might just reach it.
Which I did, leaping at the very end, black vent flaps horizontal, my necktie flung out over my shoulder, and landing squarely on the van’s floor, whereupon the conductor grabbed my arm and made sure I was aboard. Breathing heavily, I thanked him. “Nicely run, lad,” he said, grinning. “I didn’t think you’d make it.”
Is that story true? Well, true enough. I’ve left out some details, like trying to squat effectively, in my suit, over a primitive toilet in one expensive Parisian restaurant, which consisted of a hole in the floor and two metal foot-guides riveted on either side. Also the encounter with a naked woman waking me from my tortured sleep on a short couch, inviting me to her comfortable bed. I had a girlfriend as well as a wife at that moment, so it was not to be. The next day, I saw Catherine Deneuve in the Luxembourg Gardens, stately in her wraps, her classical face radiant. That seemed to augur something, but I wasn’t sure what.
I have likely fallen prey, in this telling, to all the usual temptations toward embellishment and self-aggrandizing. I later gave away the suit, plus two others that no longer fit, to a charity supporting down-on-their-luck men who needed clothes for job interviews. True! But so it goes with stories, based on whatever experiences or visions we may entertain. (Adorno: Truth is to be found precisely in exaggeration.) The point is that, even for professional philosophers — itself a risible term to some ears — experience and memory can matter far more than logic. Human consciousness is our basic terrain, to be excavated by any means necessary. (Aeschylus: Memory is the mother of all wisdom.)
Even as I was encountering Benjamin’s short fiction and Jameson’s quixotic attempt to submit an “anti-systematic” thinker to systematic categories, I found myself rereading a book I first encountered well before either: Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words, which appeared in 1981, my second undergraduate year. This layered meta-tale, with the troubled protagonist Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Ezra Pound’s invented poet, is a masterly fiction about the urge to tell stories, to set events down in words. In Pound’s eponymous poetic work from 1920, Mauberley is a double or shadow of the poet himself; its eighteen short sections constitute a series of autobiographical aperçus about ambition, failure, versifying, and politics.
Famous Last Words is often considered a companion, or mirror, to Findley’s excellent First World War novel The Wars, but I prefer to align it with his uncanny political mystery The Telling of Lies, which features a fictionalized version of a somewhat notorious incident involving Sondra Gotlieb, the wife of Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Allan Gotlieb. In 1986, at an event to honour George H. W. Bush, then the vice-president, Sondra slapped her social secretary, Connie Connor, across the face in full view of many guests. (I did not meet the Gotliebs until almost ten years later, after which Sondra’s claim that she was “hungry and tired” that night in Washington — these days we’d say “hangry”— always made me think of Private Eye ’s wry euphemism for social overindulgence, “tired and emotional.”)
In Findley’s second-order play of figures, both Pound and Mauberley appear as characters, the former a sarcastic and difficult mentor to the younger writer. They share the right-wing politics underlying Pound’s notorious pro-Fascist radio broadcasts, though we’re told that Mauberley prefers the older medium of newsprint: his screeds praising Benito Mussolini and the Black Shirts appear in Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid.
Incidentally, Benjamin was also an avid broadcaster, though on more light-hearted and various topics than Pound. “Benjamin undertook his own experiments in pedagogy,” the editors of The Storyteller note. He appeared regularly on German radio to discuss “topics such as liquor bootleggers, Berlin dialects, the petrification of Pompeii, counterfeit stamps, slum housing, manufacture, the legend of Caspar Hauser, the history of the Bastille prison, witch trials and the history of toys.” Sadly, recordings have not survived.
But back to Findley’s novel. The setting shifts between the 1930s, when Mauberley is still admired and famous for his fiction but reviled for his ideological leanings, and the late stages of the Second World War. In the latter frame, American soldiers traumatized by their liberation of Dachau have discovered his final resting place in the Grand Elysium Hotel, a nearly abandoned luxury resort in the Austrian Alps. Mauberley has made his way there pursued by SS troops seeking deserters and by a mysterious woman who wants to steal his briefcase of notes. Having wounded him with a razor blade, she may also be the one who eventually finishes the job with an ice pick to the eye.
It is easy to see in Mauberley’s cardboard-sided case an echo of Benjamin’s celebrated piece of luggage. But instead of containing the arcades manuscript, his cheap valise is filled with detailed accounts of his life. Findley’s masterly twist is to make Mauberley a witness to world history, a close friend of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor, the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Charles Lindbergh, and many other celebrities of the time. This multinational group of friends and colleagues forms a close society of fascist conspiracists of which he is destined to be the surviving recorder. But not on paper: ensconced in the hotel, in fear for his life, Mauberley writes out his damning testament on the walls of his rooms, in pencil — a writing instrument stolen by an American infantryman as loot.
In a passage that could have been about Benjamin, the narrator offers this assessment of Mauberley’s motivation: “Whatever else he was, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was a compulsive witness. In all his life he had never been able to refrain from setting things down on paper, recording the lives of those around him, moment by moment — every word and every gesture instantly frozen in his private cipher.” And so: “To those who knew of their existence, Mauberley’s notebooks were feared like a morgue where the dead are kept on ice — with all their incriminating wounds intact.” Nor were these ordinary tales out of school. “Mauberley’s friends were anything but anonymous. All his testimony had been drawn from years of privileged relationships with people whose lives could now be ruined — or ended — by the information contained in his notebooks.”
Benjamin’s strolling convolutions of observation have no such power, but they are world-historical after their own fashion and just as searching on the mysteries of truths told by victors, historical force, and the twisted interplay of politics and aesthetics — topics well known to the Nazis too, as Benjamin’s theses on the aestheticization of power through mass media demonstrate. Try to imagine a world deprived by circumstance of this argument or, indeed, of The Arcades Project. We would not stop walking in cities, gleaning wisdom from our perambulations; we would not cease our critical engagements with culture. But the realm of human meaning would be grossly and sadly diminished.
In Findley’s novel, Mauberley briefly considers destroying the pages that have made him a mortal target. Indeed, at one point during his chilly flight, he sets fire to them. Then he thinks better of it and smothers the flames, planning instead his final, semi-permanent installation. The notebooks are later burned anyway, presumably by his assassin; the soldiers debate whether to destroy the pencil-etched version of the record. Such is the strange conflict and reward of those who feel the compulsion to witness and to set things down in words. Is there anything more distinctively human than this?
I’m told there is a cocktail bar in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood called Famous Last Words. All the drinks are named for novels. Sign of the times: some of the fancy mixes are non-alcoholic. Scrabble tiles are embedded in the bar top and books line the walls. Sipping a tasty concoction, there or anywhere, you might want to consider Elizabeth Hardwick’s counsel that the only reasons to write are “desperation or revenge.”
Is that true? Possibly, possibly. It feels true.
Walter Benjamin, Edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski
Clarke, Irwin, 1981