“Benjamin thrills me in no small measure because he does not cohere, and beautifully.”
—R.B. Kitaj, Apropos his painting
The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)
When, several years ago, I joined the gym I now go to, I kept imagining a short, stout Walter Benjamin in a black suit jacket sweating profusely on the treadmill next to me. This wasn’t the WB who had been snatched up and translated into an afterlife of often tortured academic discourse. It wasn’t the WB of a dense thesis that flunked him out of graduate school, nor of the incomparable essays. Nor yet was this the WB of hashish writings so lovely they can make you wonder if all his writing, all his thinking, aspired to that state, the state of poetry, and to ask, further, if it wasn’t the poetic, not to say stoned, immediacy of WB’s best prose that left his censorious buddy, Theodore Adorno, in the dialectical dust.
WB on the treadmill, half soft flesh, half shimmering cartoon mirage, was a WB who had put the pen down, a WB of the very last days, on his last legs, hauling a bulging briefcase over a mountain with the Gestapo on his trail. This was a WB who had come back to burn off calories if he could, and to retroactively repair a cardiac arrhythmia. He had a mountain on his mind, one he had lacked the fortitude to scale more than once in the fall of 1940, so that when guards on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees told him he would have to go back to Nazi-occupied France, he chose suicide rather than another climb.
I was drawn to everything pertaining to his last days, not least of all the particulars of Weimar heartache. It turned out that “soldier’s heart” commonly afflicted returnees from World War I who had come close enough to an exploding shell for it to permanently disrupt their car-diac rhythm. WB, who never fought in the war, seemed to have contracted a sympathetic version of the complaint, a zeitgeist arrhythmia. And I found improbabilities bordering, to my mind, on wonders about Benjamin’s last days, and also moments when his peculiar character, the character of an incessantly hounded, endlessly resolute man, shone through.
I discovered, for example, that the region of the Pyrenees Benjamin had to traverse was reputedly patrolled by wild bulls. So, at any rate, his guide, Lisa Fittko, warned him, at the end of what was meant to be an exploratory hike, when WB, pleading his bad heart, chose to remain on the mountain alone, overnight, rather than start up all over again the next day. Talk of bulls couldn’t dissuade him, so Fittko offered to stay, too, at which point “[h]e smiled,” she recalled, “and said, ‘Are you going to protect me from your wild bulls, gnädige Frau?’ ”
He had soft, large eyes, this WB of the treadmill, when I could make them out behind the mist of sweat on his thick lenses, Betty Boop eyes, so it seemed.
Another scene that haunted me from his climb: Benjamin, Fittko, and Jose, her companion, come to a particularly difficult stretch, a nearly vertical incline, which Benjamin, in “even tones,” says he can’t manage. Fittko and Jose put him between them, get his arms around their shoulders, and pretty much heave him uphill. In my mind’s eye the episode takes the form of a Chinese character poster or a mural-sized Tarot card. Fittko and Jose are hardy, smiling peasant types sporting red bandannas. Their bare legs gleam in the pure Mediterranean light as they muscle Benjamin’s awkward, strangely spongy form up toward the snorting white bull at the top of the incline, horns lowered, preparing to charge.
Just as Benjamin clutched his briefcase during this ordeal—“squinting now and again,” toward it, according to Fittko—so does he grip it on the treadmill, the x-trainer, the elliptical cross-trainer, and the exercise bike. (He cares only for aerobic fitness, ignores the free weights, and, for that matter, shuns the locker room and shower.) In 1940 he repeatedly informed his guides that the briefcase was more important than he was; he was merely its vehicle, its legs. At all costs, it had to escape the Nazis. Thus when he became dehydrated on the climb, he stopped to drink from a pool of green, stinking water—“unthinkable” water, said Fittko, that would give him typhus. Typhus was fine, he replied. Typhus would get him “after crossing the frontier.” The briefcase would be safe.
WB as Federal Express man, WB as the all-weather mail.
What manuscript was so precious? Could the briefcase, possibly, have contained the book on hashish that he once promised Gershom Scholem would be “truly exceptional,” though for the time being he wanted his plans for that volume kept to their correspondence? It’s also conceivable, given Benjamin, that the briefcase contained no manuscript at all, perhaps only the sleeping pills on which he planned to overdose, if necessary. There is an incident from Benjamin’s last days that supports the argument for a null briefcase.
Before escaping from a detention camp near Marseilles, Benjamin gave up smoking, according to Hans, Fittko’s husband and Benjamin’s companion in the camp, and bellyached endlessly about “the agonies of withdrawal.” Hans took this hapless, impractical Jew aside to wise him up, telling him that if a prisoner wanted to survive, he should “[a]lways look for gratification and not for additional hardship.” Benjamin begged to disagree. Additional hardship was exactly what he needed. Giving up smoking would be the “one great” effort, he argued, that would concentrate his mind.
The camp, bad as it was, wasn’t adverse enough for him, or was adverse in too many small, unrelated ways. He needed to customize adversity, get it all in one place, compact it. This may seem like sheer perversity on his part, but it may well also have reflected profound self-awareness, considering how many different kinds of intellectual stimuli he was susceptible to—how, as we might see it now, “distractible” he was. If he had to give up tobacco to survive internment, it’s just possible that to get himself over a mountain, he needed the added burden of an empty briefcase or a briefcase stuffed with soil and stones.
Still another possibility suggests itself, namely that the briefcase was crammed with smut. The argument for a porn briefcase goes like this: Benjamin was famously, and also somewhat helplessly, a collector, and not just of books. He was a serial collector, migrating from one kind of collectible to another. In Moscow Diary he notes that “as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation.” And so, in the bitter Moscow winter of 1926, instead of replacing his old gloves—useless and “full of holes”—he squandered rubles on lacquer boxes. Perhaps, then, the briefcase was filled with the fruits of a longer and more intense infatuation than he had with lacquer boxes, and represented the shadow side of a mostly thwarted, or covert, sexuality. Yes, he was married for a time, and had a son, but one wonders, apart from that, where did his love go?
Again in Moscow Diary, he takes notice of a moment when Asja Lacis, his maddeningly elusive beloved, straightens out his coat collar as they leave a theater. “At this contact,” he writes, “I realized just how long it had been since any hand had touched me with gentleness.” When I read this, my heart breaks for Benjamin. But the statement makes me all the more willing to reconsider the implications of his gorgeous allusion to “that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.” And I can’t help but entertain the idea that his briefcase disappeared because Benjamin made sure his last, most profane collection would not be the one he would be remembered by. Therefore, before overdosing, he tossed the briefcase into a Spanish garden, where it has served as a planter for flowers or tomatoes, and its contents have merged into the muck of a compost pile.
It’s not just Benjamin’s briefcase and the alleged manuscript that have disappeared. So has his body. It’s true that Spanish tour guides routinely refer visitors to his grave. But Gershom Scholem has definitively pronounced, as if upon a fraught matter of Jewish mysticism, “Certainly, the spot is beautiful, but the grave is apocryphal.”
WB on the treadmill divulges nothing about these matters. But he’s fascinated by the row of televisions arrayed opposite the machines. “Television,” he confides, “is antimatter.” Maybe he means something deep by that, or maybe he thinks the afternoon soaps are an added burden that will help him lose weight.
This fix on Benjamin—treadmill, briefcase, and all—is of course not the orthodox one. Except, in another sense, it couldn’t be more orthodox. It is cultic; it converts Benjamin’s final days into a bungled Calvary consisting of garbled Stations of the Briefcase. Gershom Scholem has observed that Benjamin’s “critical and metaphysical prose” had an “enormous suitability for canonization…for quotation as a kind of Holy Writ.” But Benjamin’s “suitability for canonization” extends beyond the prose. It’s the life, too, that pulls one toward commentary and interpretation—toward midrashim, as Scholem might have put it—more, say, than Scholem’s own life, or that of Adorno, Brecht, or Asja Lacis. They were all key interlocutors for Benjamin, essential to him, at the heart of his most prized collection, that of formative dialogues, but they share one attribute that sets them apart—they escaped. Thus they can never stand in for and summarize the fate of all those who did not escape. They could never have inspired Herbert Marcuse to words like the following, with which he concluded One-Dimensional Man: “At the beginning of the fascist era Walter Benjamin wrote: ‘It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.’”
These words, which I read in the sixties, were my first rumor of Benjamin. Who was he, I wondered, that Marcuse would reverently give him the last word? At the time, my sixties utopianism was at its height, Marcuse having played no small part in fomenting it. When I finally read Benjamin himself, almost a decade later, it helped put that utopianism to rest, folding it into a broader view of things. Everything I have since read by or about Benjamin has deepened the sense of pathos Marcuse instilled at the start. Failure to escape, after all, was only one of Benjamin’s failures, each compounding the others. He failed at love as well. He failed to secure any university position and, with it, any semblance of financial security. Larry McMurtry reproaches him for failing, finally, even at literature.
In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, McMurtry describes Benjamin as laboring under “the curse of the exaggerated expectation which his own early brilliance had created.” He believes Benjamin to have been dogged all his days by failure to “produce a masterwork.” Perhaps. Or perhaps Benjamin resisted the urge to produce a “masterwork,” much as he warded off the temptation to write the sort of thesis that would have won him a university position. A tenured WB, his intellectual contours stabilized by a “masterwork”—the one in the briefcase?—is not so easy to imagine, maybe least of all for Benjamin himself. Besides, when scouring Benjamin’s collected writings for signs of a masterwork, McMurtry is clearly looking for something large (else he would have been content to certify “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” the essay that initially drew him to Benjamin, as masterwork enough.)
In measuring a masterwork by size, McMurtry runs counter to Benjamin’s own sensibility. For Benjamin, smallness gave the finishing touch to a masterpiece. If he was disappointed in his own output, it was likely because he could not produce a work so small that it hovered near invisibility. Scholem notes the “rapture” that seized Benjamin when, at a museum, he pointed out “two grains of wheat” on which the Shema Israel, Judaism’s basic prayer, had been inscribed. Think, then, of Benjamin’s rapture had he been able to inscribe the whole of, say, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” on a single frame of film.
The incompleteness McMurtry sees in Benjamin is inseparable from his perennial appeal, even to McMurtry. A more fully realized Benjamin would likely not have been the character McMurtry felt so comfortable taking with him to a Dairy Queen in Texas and consulting about the “emptiness, geographical and social, that my grandparents faced” when they arrived. It’s hard to see McMurtry picturing such a Benjamin “in the wagon with [his grandparents] the day they stopped and unloaded by the fine, seeping spring,” or picking Benjamin’s mind about everything from cattle-ranching to angiograms.
Benjamin fought hard for incompleteness. He held on tight to it when others tried to pry it away. With Scholem, for example, he fought for Marx. With his Marxists peers, he fought for (or camouflaged) some version of the Messiah. Against Adorno’s insistence on towering dialectics, he fought for a direct, intense immediacy. Lacis pulled him toward Moscow, Scholem toward Palestine, and Adorno toward America, where he feared being displayed, with a pile of thick books, perhaps, as “The Last European.” Apropos the Biblical story of Exodus, Kafka once referred to himself as wandering in the desert in the reverse. Benjamin’s trajectory was more complex. He had many Egypts, many wanderings, many Promised Lands and reverses—if they were reverses at all.
Benjamin had the peculiar ability to miniaturize every totality, to boil it down to a fragment, an essence, and to put it into play against other essences. His most elegant works are like networks, switching stations among these elements. The way he overlays Marxism and Messianism in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” for example, helped me, at the end of the sixties, see that fading era as one more spike on a graph with many eruptions, religious or not, of what he labeled the “messianic urge.” Similarly, to read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as only a lament for a lost age is to badly underestimate what may in the end be nothing more than the extent of Benjamin’s intellectual greed. In that work, in particular, he wants to hold onto both the past and the future, both the original and its reproduction, both eternity and time sliced to the tune of twenty-four frames a second by film. He never wants to give anything up. He’d have kept one foot in Egypt and the other in the Promised Land if he could. The collection he aspired to was infinite.
His fate, the charged field of his openness, and his cardsharp’s way of shuffling themes such as sacred and profane, have kept artists of all kinds, not just writers, coming back to him. There is, for example, an opera waiting to be written about the battle for Benjamin, in which Scholem sings an aria to Palestine, damning Europe, hailing Messiah; Adorno comes in with a bristly recitative; and Lacis wails like a twelve-tone Valkyrie. One composer has already written some of this music. In Jewlia Eisenberg’s Trilectic, a song-cycle based on Benjamin’s Russian winter, Lacis brags to Scholem, “You’ll never get this man to Palestine. I’m the Queen of Moscow and he is mine.” As Lacis dares Benjamin to join the Communist Party, he wonders if he is doomed always to think of her when he sees the moon, and dreads being cuckolded by “a Red Army general and the exigencies of this revolution.”
Laurie Anderson has written one of her most haunting pieces about Benjamin’s angel, the one he describes in “The Theses on the Philosophy of History” as being stuck in reverse, heading ass-backwards toward the future. The angel’s tale is told by Hansel, now living in Berlin—“He had a part in a Fassbinder film”—to Gretel—“a cocktail waitress”—after she groans, “Hansel, you’re really bringing me down.” Hansel explains that he’s tired of their “stupid legend.” Anyway, his one and only true love was the “wicked witch.” That witch turns, dream fashion, into a grounded version of the blighted angel, agent of an ironic God who, facing “a pile of debris,” longs “to go back / and fix things / repair the things that have been broken.” He can’t, though: he’s sucked backwards by a storm blowing from Paradise. That growing pile of debris, intones Hansel, is called history. And the storm? It’s called progress, he sings, stretching the final word.
Time hasn’t come close to using Benjamin up, and academic discourse can never contain him. In his recent book Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, Daniel Pinchbeck pairs Benjamin up with Gurdjieff and with Yage drinkers who “vomit and shit, shiver and sweat, and at the same time receive outrageously beautiful visions.” Pinchbeck’s Benjamin is a Timo-thy Leary with a full complement of brain cells and a strong argument for the ritual high. He escorts Pinchbeck to the Burning Man Festival and advocates the psychedelic cure for capitalism. Is Pinchbeck playing fast and loose with WB? Well, he appears to be unique in attributing a mescaline trip to him. On the other hand, you’d have to read Benjamin very badly not to notice the pleasure he takes, both in works for children and in deadly serious pieces, in turning the secular inside out and finding the sacred.
His grave is empty or lost, his whereabouts unknown. This most remote and distanced of men, who hid himself behind layers of “Chinese courtesy,” is available, at large in our culture, peculiarly accessible in his afterlives. I think Zadie Smith gets him right in her new novel, The Autograph Man, when she introduces him to the twenty-first century as “that popular wiseguy.” He knows where the cultural goods are stored. He’s the one you want to talk to about their worth.
How could I ever have assumed WB on the treadmill was training only for the past?