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Language Against Itself: The German Universe of Walter Benjamin and his non-German Universality

By Alexander Beard

Art by Izzy Fergurson

Walter Benjamin is often perceived as a puzzle to be solved. His brilliant, ambiguous prose exists in the public consciousness as something of a muddle: a composite of Communist and Judaic influences, borne of different disciplinary approaches. The result has been an intellectual bidding war in which Benjamin is claimed as theirs, and only theirs, by multiple traditions. Each of them seeks to impose on his work a unity of meaning, to extract from his language a ‘true Benjamin’ and to dismiss all else as aberration. Tendentious reference is made to friendships with Theodor Adorno or Gershom Scholem, and thus ‘Benjamin the Marxist’ or ‘Benjamin the Jewish Mystic’ emerges.

Like countless generations of left-wing students, I first approached Walter Benjamin expecting to discover the prophet and martyr of critical theory. In many ways, his writing confirmed this presupposition: Benjamin does hold up a mirror to the stifling culture of capitalist modernity and articulates revolutionary potential against encroaching fascism in Europe. But I quickly realised that to read any of Benjamin’s manuscripts doctrinally – to extract from them simply a political ‘message’ or a prophecy inflected by mysticism – would be worse than rendering him unto historical obscurity, never to be read again. His essays oscillate at alarming speed between the material and the esoteric, and series of sleep-disturbingly cryptic, aphoristic fragments. They read neither like the words of a ‘theorist’ in the traditional sense, nor a neo-Kantian philosopher, less still a theologian. Even the label ‘critic’, of which Benjamin himself had taken ownership, is insufficient. It isn’t quite clear what he was if he ever even was only one thing.

This difficulty in categorising Benjamin is, of course, affected by the fragmentation of his archive, a by-product of the precarity of his life. Forced from the academy, a site within which he is now reified, Benjamin never held a formal post. Once Hitler came to power, he was once again forced to leave, this time from German society, which precipitated material as well as existential angst. The result was a nomadic existence, his intellectual production determined in large part by whoever would commission him, resulting in a formal range stretching from the travelogue to the radio programme. But his writing is also internally fragmented and unsystematic. Assertions of political and philosophical truth are threaded together by allegory, polemic, and irony. In other words, Benjamin’s language is rich with ambiguities of meaning which render it as literary as it is didactic.

This hybridity of language was also subversive: the words are characterised by their inherent enlightening, political quality beyond whatever message they were strung together to convey. Benjamin’s literary brilliance is reflected in the very unit of his choice in words; although premeditated, the word choice is also often tentative, leaving space for linguistic uncertainties. If the task is to identify a unity in Benjamin’s work, then the solution can only ever be the ascription of fluidity to his many references to Marx and the Messiah. The true commonality in Benjamin’s oeuvre is the idiom in which he wrote, and to which these references allude.

I had begun reading Benjamin in the original German on my year abroad in Berlin. At first, this linguistic detail was the result of practical rather than intellectual concerns: I was too proud to be seen in a coffee shop reading books in translation. Benjamin is now so widely read in English that the fact he wrote in German seemed almost incidental, though perhaps this is for altogether more sinister historical reasons. Yet if was what essential to his work was the creative manipulation of the German language, I started to wonder whether the German speaker’s appreciation of Benjamin was a privileged one.

A language is more than a sum of dictionary definitions. It is, to quote Roland Barthes, a ‘tissue of references’, embedded in its own historical moment and social context. Benjamin’s ideas are expressed in a distinctly German idiom. His essays proliferate with terms inherited from German Idealism: ‘Geist’, ‘Erkenntnis’, ‘Dasein’. He often referred to his German-speaking contemporaries, Bertolt Brecht and Karl Kraus. Less rarefied are the geographical calling cards which locate him within a German universe; appended to fragments of Berlin Childhood around 1900 are places in Berlin: ‘Krumme Straße’, ‘Steglizer Ecke Genthiner’. These are, according to Theodor Adorno, ‘as familiar to him as the names of Genesis.’

Of course, total fluency in Benjamin’s idiom would require familiarity with much more than just twentieth-century Berlin or even Germany. Descending into his biographical rabbit-hole, one would encounter the German Youth Movement, Judaism, Kant, Proust and Marx to name just a few of his lasting intellectual influences. To study Benjamin simply as a historically specific ‘German’ would be to reduce his prose to a composite of its assumed influences. This might help us make sense of why his words read the way that they do. We might find less alien a passage like ‘To the Planetarium’, the final fragment of One-Way Street. Its title is a reference to a Berlin landmark; having begun with a reference to the Talmud and detailed a brief history of cosmology, it alights on a Marxist call to arms. But such attempts at historicisation should not allow for the dismissal of the larger picture. Benjamin’s words are not merely a conduit, but a conscious manipulation of language which produces a sum greater than its parts. Furthermore, to situate Benjamin as simply ‘German’ would be erring on the side of historical erasure. The Europe of the 1930s, let alone Germany, was far from hospitable to the duality of Benjamin’s Germanness and his Jewishness. At best, he could hope to be recognised as German-Jewish, still far too Jewish for many Germans at the time.

This is what it means to say that Benjamin’s idiom is political. There is a subversion involved in using authoritarian ordinances like ‘Begging Forbidden’ to frame a critique of urban modernity, or the language of religious redemption to explore the revolutionary upending of assumed historical fixities. This is perhaps clearest in One-Way Street, where the linguistic landscape of the modern city – its products, slogans and regulations – is turned against the social conditions that produced it. We find here a source of excitement for the student of German: a language often uncharitably associated with harsh, humourless directives is used to undermine and ridicule those who issue them. Benjamin’s prose more broadly evidences the importance of German literature as a site of resistance to cultural conservatism in the interwar years. The idea that the nineteenth-century novel represented the apogee of literary development was rejected. Here, Benjamin the writer is inseparable from Benjamin the critic, the man who celebrated Kafka and was a friend of Brecht’s. The purpose of language for Benjamin was not only to communicate experience but was an event to be experienced in and of itself. This involves the explosion of distance between the text and its readers, grounding them in the long grass of metaphor or allegory, where meaning emerges unexpectedly. In place of aloof narrative, language is experimented with in such a way as to prompt changes in perspective, allowing for moments of clarity in historical comprehension.

Such inductivity is put to brilliant effect in Berlin Childhood. Here, elusive childhood recollections are snatched and probed to expose a wider context: the cloistered, coddling suburb of Charlottenburg in which Benjamin was raised. My personal favourite concerns the Christmas tree which occupied his parents’ house. An image so often associated with warmth and festive munificence is described in sorry terms, an alien presence torn from its natural context which at night ‘sacrificed its needles and branches to the dark’. Its lonely, decrepit figure somehow evokes those market-stall holders who imported not only their wares but also their poverty to this otherwise bourgeois neighbourhood. The reader occupies the perspective of the child, a form of naïve experience in which truths are intuited. This is achieved not least by the mimicry of childhood language, in which the outside world is uniquely internalised. For the youthful Benjamin, the area of Blumeshof is actually ‘Blume-Zof’, itself approximate to the German Blumentopf flowerpot.

For the readers familiar with Benjamin only in translation, this artisanal manipulation of the German language is absent in form but hopefully present in spirit. For Benjamin, an abiding project was rendering Baudelaire, poet of Parisian modernity and reference point of Benjamin par excellence, into German. Appended to one of these translations is an essay on the ‘task of the translator’. It explores what I consider an enduring theme in his prose: the dialectic of the universal and the specific. The construction of individual words and their relationship to one another other differs between languages, even if what is represented is identical. The job of the literary translator is not to extract and re-render a deeper meaning – meaning being fickle and often ambiguous – but rather to reproduce the means of expression specific to the original in the new language. In doing so, they elevate the texts towards the ideal, prelapsarian sphere of ‘universal language’. This ensures that its words ‘live on’ on their own terms, acquiring new meanings in new contexts.

Benjamin’s voice is a German one, but it is much more besides. It is the echo of a specific cultural context, buried today beneath the totalitarian rubble of the twentieth century. It is a voice alien not only to the English language but also, in certain respects, to modern German. If Benjamin’s words are to ‘live on’, they must be allowed to speak, in this alien voice, for themselves. To superimpose them with unchanging, essential meaning – to treat them as an inert historical curio – is to condemn them to oblivion. New contexts should bring to the surface meanings which lie hidden in the complex, manifold relationships which make his prose so special.

Benjamin was an advocate of reading history as non-linear, in which echoes from the past can be brought to bear on the present, blowing open the historical continuum. In the process, those voices which had been trampled underfoot by barbarism could be retroactively redeemed. Benjamin died prematurely. He is believed to have committed suicide following a failed attempt to flee fascist France. However, the retroactive redemption of Benjamin, or at least his voice, might recover with clarity the stakes of history for the German speaker. The brilliance of his prose guarantees this. However, the specificity of his reflections isn’t confined to a German imaginary. For those retroactively redeeming Benjamin in translation, if the translator abided by her task, readers would find the same spirit, a universality, that animates Benjamin’s writing in German.

ALEXANDER BEARD reads History & German at Univ. He is currently spending his year abroad in Berlin, where he is pursuing a long-held interest in Sternburg Export.

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