A Metaphysical Materialist

A Metaphysical Materialist

Philosopher Walter Benjamin married Marxism and theology in an attempt to give hope to the hopeless.


Who was the real Walter Benjamin? Was it the otherworldly aesthete who believed, along with the German Romantics, that literature has a redemptive purpose, and who was indifferent to whether a literary work was actually read, since it is ultimately a metaphysical end in itself?

Or was the real Benjamin the self-proclaimed “strategist in the literary struggle,” the follower of Bertolt Brecht who, during the 1920s and ’30s, became enamored of Soviet literature and film, with their odes to factory work and agricultural collectivization, dismissing art for art’s sake as an unconscionable bourgeois indulgence in an age of class struggle?

Or was it the passionate Kabbalist, the friend of Gershom Scholem who proclaimed that his interpretive ideal was the Talmudic doctrine according to which every Torah passage contained forty-nine levels of meaning; who pronounced, without a trace of irony, that any philosophy that could not foretell the future by reading coffee grounds was worthless; who, following the fall of France in 1940, argued that Marxism could prevail only if it enlisted the help of theology; and who claimed that the goal of revolution was not so much the emancipation of future generations as the resurrection of vanquished ancestors?

In fact, each of these portraits captures something of Benjamin, who contained multitudes. Yet this theoretical eclecticism was not the reflection of a man who could not make up his mind. The “real” Benjamin was in fact a constellation (to use one of his favorite terms) of complex oppositions, most notably Marxism and Jewish messianism. He struggled indefatigably against conceptions of the left that risked selling short its ultimate emancipatory potential–for example, Lenin’s prosaic definition of communism as “the Soviets plus electrification” or the equally mundane social-democratic conception of socialism as state ownership of the means of production. Marxism’s fatal error, Benjamin believed, was to have uncritically imbibed the shallow and deterministic worldview of nineteenth-century “scientism”–a perspective that reflected the nineteenth-century bourgeois faith in progress through achievements in industry and technical innovation. Scientism worshiped industrialism rather than striving to transcend it. Benjamin was convinced that Fourier’s fanciful phalansteries contained infinitely more “political truth” than Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Revolution meant a qualitative leap into the future, a utopian break with a long history of class domination. After all, if socialism merely perpetuated the status quo by giving it a slightly different shape and form, what was the point?

This was one of the reasons that theological notions figured so prominently in Benjamin’s work. He believed that historical materialism could ill afford to leave discussions of Paradise or the Last Judgment in the hands of deceitful clerics and prelates. Marxism’s utopian promise, for Benjamin, had more to do with the redemption of fallen humanity than it did with equitable transfer payments or a progressive income tax. As he put it: “My thought is related to theology as a blotter is to ink. It is totally absorbed by it.”

Benjamin’s idea of a social utopia hinged on his theory of “experience.” Like many thinkers of the time, he believed that experience was among the casualties of advanced industrial society, which had rendered everyday human interaction entirely functional, utilitarian and impersonal. He shared Max Weber’s belief that the modern world had undergone a process of “disenchantment.” The march of progress had cruelly denuded life of all mystery, solidarity and human warmth. Unlike Weber, however, Benjamin urgently advocated the re-enchantment of the world.

Theological messianism was, of course, one way of re-enchanting the world and making authentic experience possible again. Another, even more important approach to re-enchantment, for Benjamin, resided in literature, which he depicted as a repository of utopian strivings. Thus did he ingeniously transpose his youthful fascination with the aesthetic utopianism of German Romanticism onto his later political preoccupations as a Marxist. Stendhal once observed that beauty contains a promesse du bonheur, a promise of happiness, and Benjamin treated this remark with the utmost seriousness. Benjamin was a socialist for whom Remembrance of Things Past possessed perhaps greater political salience than Marx’s Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. In one revealing passage of The Arcades Project, his unfinished magnum opus on nineteenth-century Paris, Benjamin wrote: “What Proust meant by the experimental rearrangement of furniture in matinal half-slumber, what [the philosopher Ernst] Bloch meant by the darkness of the lived moment, that is what this work should accomplish.” Remembrance of Things Past was Proust’s magisterial effort to furnish life with a utopian semantic plenitude that it otherwise lacked, thereby transforming it into “lived experience,” or temps véçu (literally: “lived time”). In the The Arcades Project, Benjamin, the nonconformist Marxist aesthete, sought to do the same thing for the ends of class struggle.

Yet Benjamin knew that by infusing Marxist thought with the redemptive components that had been banished by the nineteenth-century esprit de sérieux, he was playing a dangerous game. For while orthodox Marxists prattled on about the prosaic ends of “scientific socialism,” “experience” (or Erlebnis) had become the exclusive province of the reactionary right–Lebensphilosophie, the German Youth Movement and literary Fascists like Ernst Jünger. Benjamin’s lifelong theoretical battle was to wrest the concept of experience from the right’s monopoly and to turn it to the ends of the revolutionary left.

The Proustian ideal of the redemption of “lived experience” lies at the heart of Benjamin’s idiosyncratic memoir, Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Benjamin was a child of privilege. He grew up in Berlin’s opulent West End, cared for by servants as much as by his own parents, and he spent his summers at the family’s vacation home in neighboring Potsdam. In Berlin Childhood he offers us a cityscape of the German capital as seen through the eyes of a precocious and impressionable youth. He revisits his favorite childhood haunts–the zoos, swimming pools, grammar schools, parks and railway terminals–and milks them for utopian potential. Early in his narrative, he recalls one of his favored sites of enchantment: the loggias that were a common feature of turn-of-the-century Berlin courtyards. In a child’s overheated imagination, at one point even the caryatids seem to come alive:

For a long time, life deals with the still-tender memory of childhood like a mother who lays her new-born on her breast without waking it. Nothing has fortified my own memory so profoundly as gazing into courtyards, one of whose dark loggias, shaded by blinds in the summer, was for me the cradle in which the city laid its new citizen. The caryatids that supported the loggia on the floor above ours may have slipped away from their post for a moment to sing a lullaby beside that cradle…sounding the theme through which the air of the courtyards has forever remained intoxicating to me.

As remembered, Benjamin’s Berlin childhood seemed to offer a buffer against life’s insecurities and misfortunes, which his family came to know well when their fortune was destroyed by the catastrophic inflation of 1923. From then on, Benjamin was left to fend for himself. At one point in Berlin Childhood, he reveals a secret childhood fantasy: to sleep in mornings undisturbed. “I must have made that wish a thousand times,” he observes wistfully. The youthful hope was eerily realized in adulthood when Benjamin, having joined the ranks of the Weimar Republic’s growing army of proletarianized intellectuals, found himself perpetually under- or unemployed.

Baudelaire famously observed that “genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will.” Benjamin, who devoted several brilliant essays to Baudelaire, collected by Michael Jennings in The Writer of Modern Life, was of the same opinion. Adulthood, by contrast, was marked by lost illusions and a fateful accommodation to the reality principle. In a sense, Benjamin regarded childhood much as he did modern literature: as an invaluable repository of utopian longings and dreams in an age of industrialized degradation. Berlin Childhood represents his own Proustian effort to recapture lost time, a time that any revolution worthy of the name would seek to restore.

The loss of childhood had a profoundly political dimension for Benjamin. He began drafting his memoir in 1932, the year before Hitler’s seizure of power and a few months before his own flight to exile in Paris. As he explains in the book’s lyrical opening paragraphs, writing was a way of inoculating a future émigré against “homesickness.” The disconsolate prospect of exile–and of far greater horrors to come–haunted the work’s composition at every step. As Benjamin put pen to paper, he sensed that he might never again set eyes on his beloved Berlin haunts: the alcoves, gardens, public squares, monuments and Hinterhöfe (courtyards).

Oddly, for a book on childhood, Benjamin’s memoir seems far less interested in people–family or friends–than in places and things. Benjamin’s Berlin is an enchanted landscape where experience is defined by chance encounters, or what the Surrealist writer André Breton called le hasard objectif (objective chance). As Benjamin remarks appositely: “Not to find one’s way around in a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way around a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.” Thereby, losing oneself paradoxically becomes a consummate act of self-discovery.

Berlin Childhood recounts Benjamin’s Surrealist education. He strove to bring to bear on the German capital the same lyrical sensibility that had served Baudelaire so well with regard to Paris in Les Fleurs du mal. In poems like “A Corpse” and “The Litanies of Satan,” Baudelaire formulated one of the key ideas of art for art’s sake: An object can be of keen aesthetic interest not only despite being ugly or grotesque but because it is ugly or grotesque.

Like Baudelaire and Breton, Benjamin believed that certain objects and locations possessed talismanic significance. One senses that for Benjamin objects possessed a durability and profundity he found missing in human beings. This was not just a matter of his misanthropy, or of his isolation from other people. (According to Scholem, Benjamin was celibate from his divorce in 1930 until his death in 1940.) Benjamin’s preference for objects reflected a theoretical decision. He was enamored of Baudelaire’s theory of “correspondences,” in which objects appeared as fraternal spirits or ensouled. As Benjamin put it, such objects display a magical capacity to “return our gaze.”

It was Baudelaire, too, who inspired Benjamin’s experiments with drugs. Benjamin had long been fascinated by the “alternative experiences” championed by turn-of-the-century spiritualists–among them Chinese ancestor worship cults, hallucinations, delirium, mystical visions. In a sense, these “profane illuminations,” as he called them, were gateway drugs for a man seeking inner-worldly transcendence, for liberation from a modern world that stood under the sign of natural science. At the age of 27, he discovered Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradise, “an attempt,” as he put it in a letter to Ernst Schoen, “to monitor the ‘psychological’ phenomena that manifest themselves in hashish or opium intoxication for what they have to teach us philosophically.” He added: “It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book.”

On Hashish contains transcriptions of Benjamin’s various drug-induced experiences–with hashish, mescaline and morphine–from the late 1920s and the ’30s. He was introduced to narcotics by an old university classmate, Ernst Jöel, who had become a physician and needed subjects for his clinical research on the medical effects of hallucinogens. Benjamin eagerly volunteered, joining an illustrious list of writers–Baudelaire, Thomas de Quincey and Aldous Huxley–who tried to enhance their creative powers and expand their mental horizons via the magic of intoxicants. His drug experiences show once again how singularly committed he was to the program of the avant-garde: overcoming the limitations of the self by subjecting it to an array of pulverizing, Dionysian, ego-transcending influences.

Had Benjamin’s drug experiments occurred in the 1960s, no one would have noticed. At the time, a new breed of paisley-clad pied pipers and snake-oil salesmen, led by Timothy Leary, celebrated hallucinogens as the royal road to inner experience–the key to unlocking the “doors of perception.” Ultimately the whole enterprise fizzled; the mysteries of the universe remained undisclosed. More often than not, these counterculture experiments left their “subjects” in an inarticulate stupor.

Benjamin’s drug-related experiences were not that much different from yours and mine. (Full disclosure: Here I speak from experience; and yes, I did inhale.) He gazes across the room at an oven, which turns into a cat. A desk turns into a fruit stand. He suddenly imagines that in the next room, “events such as the coronation of Charlemagne, the assassination of Henri IV, the signing of the Treaty of Verdun, and the murder of Egmont might have taken place.” After ingesting hashish in Marseilles, he wanders into a local restaurant. As the waiter appears to take his order, Benjamin is paralyzed by indecision lest he “offend” any of the various entrees on the menu by not ordering them. Ultimately, he settles on pâté de Lyon, which he giddily translates as “lion paste.” Emerging from the restaurant, he becomes slightly disoriented. Since he still has the munchies, he enters another restaurant and orders dinner again. I was cheering for Benjamin on almost every page. There is something touching about his willingness to test his theories, his schoolboy romanticism. But it’s unlikely that any of the philosophical epiphanies he sought actually materialized.

Benjamin himself seems to have developed serious doubts as to whether such profane illuminations could “win the energies of intoxication for the revolution” and produce a break with the profane continuum of history. By his own admission, smoking hashish had proved alternately enlightening and stupefying. And as he became increasingly committed to political radicalism, he began to worry that profane illuminations might divert energies from the revolution. Hashish is not exactly known for improving soldierly discipline, any more than booze is. As Benjamin put it in a more sober passage, profane illuminations might “subordinate the methodical and disciplinary preparation for revolution…to an undialectical conception of the nature of intoxication.”

Nevertheless, Benjamin tried to persuade his friends in the Frankfurt School that intoxication (dialectically conceived, of course) could serve the cause of liberation. In 1938, the year of the Munich crisis, he wrote to Max Horkheimer, director of the New York-based Institute for Social Research, imploring him to “recognize how deeply certain powers of intoxication are bound to reason and its struggle for liberation.” In a passage that uncannily anticipates attempts in the 1960s to fuse politics and countercultural hedonism, Benjamin continues:

What I mean is, all the insights that man has ever obtained surreptitiously through the use of narcotics can also be obtained through the human: some through the individual–through the man or through the woman; others through groups; and some, which we dare not even dream of yet, perhaps only through the community of the living. Aren’t these insights, by virtue of the human solidarity from which they arise, truly political in the end?

Horkheimer, a bourgeois Marxist of consummate sobriety, was unmoved.

Benjamin, however, was no flower child avant la lettre. For he possessed something that the counterculture radicals of the 1960s notably lacked: an awareness that things could go disastrously wrong, that one’s own life could go up in smoke. Benjamin’s family had been reduced to penury in an instant, and Fascist barbarism was tearing apart his world. Not surprisingly, catastrophism went hand in hand with his utopianism. They were the flip sides of a steep, all-or-nothing wager on the imperative of inner-worldly redemption. In One-Way Street (1928), his Surrealist-inspired meditations on contemporary cultural politics, there is an aphorism called “Fire Alarm” that perfectly illustrates this dialectic. Michael Löwy has taken “Fire Alarm” as the title of his splendid reflections on Benjamin’s philosophy of history. Löwy, a Paris-based, Brazilian-Jewish thinker of Trotskyist bent, is an accomplished historian of ideas who has written extensively on twentieth-century Jewish political messianism. He sees keen parallels between the development of interwar Central European utopian thought (Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács) and contemporary Latin American liberation theology–the movement that formed him.

In “Fire Alarm” Benjamin offers a critique of the nineteenth-century doctrine of progress. Marx, he notes, suggested that revolutions were the locomotives of history–a characteristically nineteenth-century vision of progress. But what if, Benjamin conjectures, the train we’re on isn’t headed to a classless society but to a preordained catastrophe? In that event, shouldn’t we reach for the emergency break and stop the train? The same critique of progress forms the core of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (1940). During the 1930s, many on the left believed the Soviet Union represented the West’s last best hope against Nazism, particularly after the Spanish Republic was abandoned by the Western democracies. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact brutally crushed those expectations. “On the Concept of History” is Benjamin’s response, an explicit and heretical attempt to fuse Marxism and theology. Benjamin develops his ideas over the course of eighteen “theses.” Löwy’s Fire Alarm presents us with a paragraph-by-paragraph exegesis.

Among Benjamin devotees and admirers, “On the Concept of History” has acquired canonical status. It has had an enormous methodological impact on the fields of history and cultural studies. For it is here that Benjamin urges the historian to “brush history against the grain” by writing history not from the perspective of the victors but from the standpoint of the oppressed–a call that, in a sense, anticipated a whole school of history written from the bottom up. “On the Concept of History” is also where Benjamin recommends that the historian actively “blast open the continuum of history” rather than merely passively chronicle events.

Thesis I opens with a memorable allegory in which Benjamin cryptically suggests that since Marxism wasn’t up to the historical fight against Fascism, it must take theology into its service, in which case it would “win” every time. The text is suffused with suggestive theological insinuations and tidbits. Löwy provocatively suggests that Benjamin’s messianism reveals an anti-evolutionary, activist dimension that renders it compatible with the Marxist notions of revolution and class struggle.

I am not so sure. For all its rhetorical allure, it seems to me, Benjamin’s resort to theology evokes the desperate musings of a man on the run who has run out of political options. A few months later he would take his own life, ingesting a massive dose of morphine on the Franco-Spanish frontier in order to avoid deportation to Vichy France as a “stateless person.” Eighteen years earlier Benjamin concluded his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities by remarking, “Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope.” The recourse to theology in “On the Concept of History” was Benjamin’s way of hoping against hope.

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