Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

IlluminationsThree months ago, The New Republic released a ranking of the “Top 100 Thinkers” of the 20th century, broken down into categories. The Literary Criticism section named five: Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot, Susan Sontag & Walter Benjamin. Having at least a passing familiarity with the first four and none whatsoever with Benjamin, I picked up Illuminations, an assemblage of some of his better known essays, including his hugely influential “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” curious to see if he merited inclusion with such august company – and above the likes of Frank Kermode, Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye. My edition comes with a Preface written by Leon Wieseltier, the long-time literary editor of The New Republic, and an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, who knew Benjamin in his lifetime, and both make a point of emphasizing, in different words, his absolute strangeness as a critic. “The trouble with everything Benjamin wrote,” Arendt writes, “was that it always turned out to be sui generis.” My difficulties with Benjamin were compounded by the sad fact that I am wholly unfamiliar with most of the writers commented on in this volume – in particular, Baudelaire, Brecht and Proust. And yet none of this stopped me from reading him with the profoundest enjoyment.

My first criterion for any literary critic is that they demonstrate a palpable enjoyment of literature and that they communicate this enjoyment to the reader. Absent this most basic appreciation, nothing the critic can say has any merit to the reader as a reader. Despite our pretensions to the contrary, “Is this book/essay/poem worth reading?” is still the most important question a critic can answer, and even complex analysis, of the kind Benjamin provides, has to pertain in some way to this crudely simple question. Aspiring writers are often told, correctly, that they have no business putting pen to paper if they themselves have not been moved by literature (Keats memorably boasted of looking upon Shakespeare’s “fine phrases like a lover”); I submit that this advice applies doubly to the critic (or teacher) of literature, who, unlike the aspiring writer, is often responsible for guiding future generations of readers. I begin like this because Walter Benjamin is unmistakably a lover of literature, someone whose life was not only shaped but in many respects defined by what he read. Here, for example, are his closing remarks on Proust:

For the second time there rose a scaffold like Michelangelo’s on which the artist, his head thrown back, painted the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the sickbed on which Marcel Proust consecrates countless pages which he covered with his handwriting, holding them up in the air, to the creation of his microcosm.

I have yet to read Proust but I have been fortunate enough to stand, head thrown back, underneath that divine ceiling; who could fail to respond to such an endorsement?

Part of the difficulty of reading Benjamin is his focus on what is often called the “theory” of art: what is art? how does it affect us and by what means? In “The Storyteller,” for example, he gives us this definition of a story:

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

Stories do not merely communicate ideas or information; they cannot be reduced to a single, easily digestible message. Stories contain contradictions, reversals of fortune, experiences and people; they do not so much convey ideas as embody them, and this is the key to their staying power in our imaginations. But, Benjamin goes on to argue, our ability to appreciate the distinction is in jeopardy. Globalism, newspapers, and, in particular, the advent of photography, are threatening us with an information overload. He quotes Paul Valéry: “Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated.” We have gained perspective on the outside world at the expense of our interior landscapes:

The novel is significant […] not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Life without this warmth is unspeakably lonely.

Benjamin’s brief dalliance with Marxism tainted much of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for me; the systematic thinking of the Marxist, the perpetual and tedious attempts to shoehorn ideas into tired concepts, is the antithesis of Benjamin’s original mind. And yet the same theme, of our growing alienation from ourselves, is still there. It reads to me now like a warning, unheeded, from a writer who died by his own hand, unappreciated.