In 1921, the pioneering sexologist Charlotte Wolff described her young friend Walter Benjamin as a man with a face made for radio. “The rosy apple-cheeks of a child, the black curly hair and fine brow were appealing,” she wrote, “but there was sometimes a cynical glint in his eyes. His thick sensuous lips, badly hidden by a moustache, were also an unexpected feature, not fitting with the rest. His posture and gestures were ‘uptight’ and lacked spontaneity, except when he spoke of things he was involved in or people he loved.” In short, he liked when people could hear him, but he wasn’t much to look at. Nor did Benjamin have much interest in seeing others. Susan Sontag, who called him “almost handsome,” spun a whole essay out of his unsociable demeanor. In his later years, Benjamin recalled the way the telephone flourished in the homes of his peers, the first generation to grow up with the new tool. “It became a consolation for their loneliness,” he observed. “To the despondent who wanted to leave this wicked world, it shone with the light of a last hope.” Is it really any surprise that not long after another technology, the radio, was introduced in Germany in 1923, the homely critic and scholar, guarded but talkative, began telling stories on the airwaves?
One Monday afternoon in 1930, Benjamin brought his sensuous lips close to a microphone in a Berlin radio station and told an audience of adolescents and some adults about an artist named Theodor Hosemann. A dimly remembered painter of the 19th century, Hosemann illustrated street scenes in Berlin: a dandy in a top hat absorbed in a newspaper, workers laying pipe for the city’s first streetlights, a woman leaning into a carriage for a kiss. The broadcast focused on laborers—“the common people,” Benjamin called them—and on Hosemann’s encounters with lithography, a recent invention that let the artist quickly and cheaply print his scenes in books small enough to carry in a pocket. Their size made them easy to conceal from government censors on the lookout for subversive messages that even illiterate “common people” might see.
In many ways, Benjamin and Hosemann, the two Berliners, led very different lives. Hosemann never traveled far and was buried in the city; Benjamin never stayed anywhere for long and, in 1940, after a failed attempt to escape Europe, took his own life near the French-Spanish border. But the world around them churned in a similar way. They both witnessed the calamities of war, the glimmer of democracy extinguished by censorship, and the ascent of new technologies to reproduce art and information. The thinkers of their day pondered similar questions: Should one address only the headline events of history and high culture, battles and coronations? Or was it OK, thanks to the flow of words and pictures from mechanized news outlets, to lean back on the divan and enjoy the urban adventures of pipe layers, too?
Most accounts of Benjamin’s life paint him in a historical tableau, a tragic hero caught in the battle between continental Europe’s bohemian intelligentsia and the fascism that ultimately crushed it. They don’t bother to fill in the ground-level culture, Benjamin’s everyday work, his idle fascinations. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, whose Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is the most comprehensive biography of the melancholy writer to appear in English, devote many pages to his more mandarin texts for scholarly readers—and even quite a bit of attention to his romantic entanglements and predilection for collecting old toys—but they skirt his more pedestrian radio broadcasts for a popular audience. In considering his legacy, Benjamin himself dismissed the importance of these broadcasts, even though, as Eiland and Jennings point out, when he considered other intellectual figures like Heinrich Heine, mostly known for his poetry, he would take the contrary route and focus on their more prosaic interests (literary journalism, in Heine’s case, a form that he helped popularize in the 19th century). The Zionist historian Gershom Scholem, who knew Benjamin as a fellow student and would later edit collections of his writings, noted after his friend’s death that the broadcasts for children “contain sediments of his decidedly original way of seeing.” Luckily, despite their author’s dismissal, most of the radio transcripts survived, hidden in various archives, and are now available in English translation in the recently published Radio Benjamin. There is much to hear, and to see.