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It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.

This quality of compelling elusiveness seems to have existed in Walter Benjamin the person as much as it did in Benjamin the writer. Benjamin’s lifelong friend, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, once wrote the following in his diary:

Basically, [Benjamin is] entirely invisible … He does not communicate himself; he demands that each person see him, although he hides himself. His method is completely unique … it is really the method of revelation … Surely no one since Lao-Tzu has lived this way … There is something in Walter that is boundless, surpassing all order, something that, by expending all its force, aims to order his work. This is in fact the completely anonymous quality [das völlig Namenlos] legitimizing Walter’s work.

There is a mystery in every great writer. What is it that made the writer, a mere human being like the rest of us, into a cipher for something greater? As Scholem wrote, “There is something in Walter that is boundless.” Can we track that boundlessness down? Did it appear in his actual life, in the relationships and experiences that shaped him? Can we touch it, can we wrap our arms around it, this boundless quality, surpassing all order, this completely anonymous quality that legitimized his work?

The desire to answer this question is what will drive the people who love the writings of Walter Benjamin to read the new biography published by Harvard University Press, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. The biography was written by two men, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. They were the men for the job, both having been involved in editing the definitive four-volume English-language edition of Benjamin’s Selected Essays from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Howard Eiland was also the co-translator of Benjamin’s lifelong unfinished poetic-fragmentary history of the birth of Modernity, The Arcades Project. These men know something of Walter Benjamin. They know his thinking. There is no point in writing about the life of Walter Benjamin unless you have labored to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin. And there is no way to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin unless you’ve immersed yourself in his work over long years. Which brings us back to Gershom Scholem’s quote. Can Jennings and Eiland bring Benjamin out of hiding? Can they track down the boundlessness?

The answer is no. But that was to be expected. You can never really track down boundlessness. That’s why it is boundless. We all hold a secret hope, probably, when we first crack open a biography of a beloved figure, that some aspect of the boundlessness is going to be tracked down. But the thing that keeps us reading any good biography is actually the expansion of the boundlessness, not its contraction. In a good biography, the contradictions of a human life are heightened. As we learn more about the real life of a person, the gap between mundane and genius widens into a chasm.

This is what happens in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. I can even tell you exactly where the chasm opens widest. It happens on page 315. That’s where Eiland and Jennings quote at length from a letter that Benjamin’s estranged wife Dora wrote to Scholem on June 27, 1929. The marriage between Walter and Dora had been falling apart for years. Benjamin had been chasing a Latvian woman named Asja Lacis around Europe and the USSR for some time. He’d also taken to visiting houses of ill repute with an oily character named Franz Hessel. (Hessel, by the way, was the inspiration for the character Jules in the novel Jules et Jim, made into a classic film in 1962 by François Truffaut.) This is not the gentle, harmless, wounded image of Walter Benjamin that many of us hold dear (partly, it must be said, from the two or three famous photographs of Walter that seem to capture his delicate soul, partly from his writings). The actual Walter Benjamin was self-absorbed, cruel, thoughtless, greedy, and vain. He was, in short, just like the rest of us.

In complaining about Walter’s behavior to Gerhard Scholem, Dora writes:

Dear Gerhard, things are very bad with Walter. He … does things which I can scarcely bring myself to write about… All he is at this point is brains and sex; everything else has ceased to function. … Although he has never put aside a penny either for Stefan [Benjamin’s son] or for me, he asked me—and I agreed—to lend him half of my future inheritance from my aunt. … During the winter he lived with me for months without paying anything, costing me hundreds, and at the same time was spending hundreds on Asja. For the past eight years we’ve given each other our freedom—he’s told me all about his smutty affairs and a thousand times urged me to “find a friend” myself—and for the past six years we’ve been living apart. And now he makes accusations against me! The contemptible laws of the land are suddenly good enough for him. … He cares no more for Stefan’s and my future than for that of a total stranger.

Goodbye Walter Benjamin, the wounded angel of history. Hello Walter Benjamin, sex-addled abuser of wives and children. But it gets worse.

It gets worse because Benjamin’s dishonesty was not simply a matter of his private affairs. The dishonesty was part of his intellectual life as well. In another damning letter from Dora to Scholem, she accuses Benjamin of being a kind of intellectual fraud.

[Benjamin] has always made his pacts: with bolshevism, which he was unwilling to disavow … (for if he ever did recant, he would have to admit that it’s not the sublime principles of [Asja Lacis] that bind him to her but only sexual things); with Zionism, partly for your sake and partly (don’t be angry, these are his own words) “because home is wherever someone makes it possible for him to spend money”; with philosophy (for how do his ideas about theocracy and the city of God, or his ideas about violence, accord with his salon bolshevism?); with literary life (not literature), for he is naturally ashamed to admit these Zionist whims in front of Hessel and in front of the little ladies Hessel brings him during the pauses in his affair with Asja.

That’s a devastating series of accusations. Certainly, Dora was angry with Benjamin when she wrote this letter. She wanted to make Scholem an ally in her anger, thus her desire to expose Benjamin’s Zionism as a bit of fakery intended to trick Scholem into finding monetary support for Benjamin in Israel. It is also true that much of this has to do with money. Benjamin had lost his family as a means of support and was milking all of his friends, including Dora, for all the funds he could get. Some of this he would spend in the gambling halls. For a time it seems that Benjamin had a serious gambling problem. Gambling wasn’t just the intellectual interest that he portrays in some of his writings. It was an actual obsession. He would write sob-story letters to friends, begging for cash. He would then blow all the money at the gambling tables and, maybe, buy a few rare books with whatever was left.

The important question here is whether the personal failings of Walter Benjamin-the-man infect, as Dora accuses in her letter, the thought and writing of Walter Benjamin. Scholem, in a letter written to Benjamin in the early 1930s, suggests that there is much infection. Scholem writes that Benjamin’s attempts to square his bolshevism with his interest in Jewish mysticism make him, “adventuristic, ambiguous, and in some cases almost underhanded.”

Eiland and Jennings quote this letter from Scholem in their biography. But they immediately jump to qualify and explain what Scholem is saying. “Of course,” write Eiland and Jennings, “for Benjamin, ambiguity is never simply a sign of confusion, much less of irresponsibility, but rather is a virtual condition of doing philosophy in the modern world.” So say Eiland and Jennings in their loyalty to Benjamin, their need to exonerate him. But they have written a biography that reveals very much the reverse. By showing us what Benjamin was really doing while he was writing some of his now most famous essays, they have shown us a Benjamin who was not merely elusive but also often quite confused, a Benjamin who was irresponsible and often downright intellectually dishonest.

That is what is so shocking and exciting about reading Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. We learn that Benjamin’s ambiguity as a writer cannot be disentangled from his selfishness and dishonesty as a person. The more he lied to himself — the more he lied to others — the more he created layers of duplicity in his own writing. It is not — as we Benjamin-lovers would like to believe — that Benjamin always had a clear sense of the hidden unity of his work. It is, rather, that Benjamin created fragmented, ambiguous, and sometimes completely confused works out of his own genuine confusion. He was ambiguous because he was losing himself, because he was trying to serve several masters (both internally and externally), and because he was a liar engaged in multiple manipulations of all the people around him. Like every liar, he had his excuses. For Benjamin, the lies and the dishonesty were everyone else’s fault. Or sometimes, more insanely, the fault of Modernity itself — “a virtual condition of doing philosophy in the modern world” as Eiland and Jennings put it. But Dora’s letters reveal this to be a pretentious load of garbage. In one particularly egregious bit of puffery, Benjamin insists in a letter that:

I have never been able to do research and think in any sense other than, if you will, a theological one, namely, in accordance with the Talmudic teaching about forty-nine levels of meaning in every passage of Torah. And in my experience the tritest Communist platitude possesses more hierarchies of meaning than does contemporary bourgeois profundity.

The insertion of “if you will” suggests even Benjamin was aware he was pushing the limits of good taste. At the time Benjamin was writing these lines, Stalin was throwing millions of human beings into the GULAG system of forced labor camps. Intellectually honest men, like Aleksander Wat — men who had been the intellectuals of Communism, men otherwise very much like Walter Benjamin —were being tortured in Soviet prisons so that they might fully accept “trite Communist platitudes.” These platitudes always boiled down, as Wat explains in his incredible memoir, My Century, to the formula, “the vanguard of humanity = the working class = the vanguard of the working class = the party = the leadership of the party = the leader.” Forty-nine levels of meaning, indeed. But they all led to Stalin. It is no wonder that Dora and Scholem balked. They knew an intellectual sleight-of-hand when they saw one. And they knew that Benjamin went out gambling with Asja Lacis the night he wrote those lines about Talmudic teaching and the hierarchies of meaning.

After reading Dora’s letters and learning more about Benjamin’s life in the 1930s, it becomes painfully clear what an utterly compromised piece of writing is Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.” Much of the essay is dedicated to proving that the medium of film represents an opportunity for a revolutionary transformation of proletarian sensibilities. Benjamin writes that, for the masses, “the extremely backward attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film.” This sentence is not only laughable now, it was laughable when Benjamin wrote it. It manages to be insulting to Picasso, the masses, and Charlie Chaplin all at once.

But then, within a few paragraphs of that silly sentence, Benjamin writes of film, that:

Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. “Other” above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. Whereas it is commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the split second when a person actually takes a step. We are familiar with the movement of picking up a cigarette lighter or spoon, but know almost nothing of what really goes on between hand and metal, and still less how this varies with different moods. This is where the camera comes into play, with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching and compressing a sequence, enlarging or reducing an object.

Suddenly, in these lines, Benjamin shifts to a different register. His focus on the cigarette lighter and the spoon snaps the analysis into sharp focus. We immediately picture the beauty and fascination of what a film can show us, with its swooping and rising, its stretching and reducing of objects. Benjamin, when he writes like this, mimics the effects he describes so well in the movie camera.

Why was Benjamin able to do this? We still don’t know. Even after reading his biography, we still don’t know. We can’t even say whether the series of lies and manipulations that Benjamin stitches together in the “Work of Art” essay are essential to the text. Is the absurd Soviet propaganda of the essay the part that is a love letter to Asja Lacis? Was Benjamin’s mind such a mixture of divided loyalties that he was simply unable to recognize his own bullshit?

Benjamin’s final days are sad and sobering. Our anger at his manipulations and lies fades as we read of him boxed in, trying to find a way out as the Nazi trap closes in on Europe. Benjamin is stuck in Paris — largely through his own inability to act, true. But, increasingly, it is no longer a game. Being Jewish, he cannot publish in Germany. He’s broke. His friends and family are dying, being killed. He is swamped in a tide of refugees pushing west, a few steps ahead of the Nazi war machine. At one point, he is picked up and dropped into a French internment camp for German nationals. He can barely care for himself in there. A young kid takes pity on the broken professor and gets him food, helps him around the camp. Benjamin begins to revive and even organizes a journal for the camp, collecting writing from the inhabitants about all manner of camp life. After a few months, Benjamin was released.

He immediately got back to work on an essay about Baudelaire. As Eiland and Jennings explain it, Benjamin saw Baudelaire not as “an Olympian genius who ‘rises above’ his age and captures its essence for posterity. For Benjamin the greatness of Baudelaire lies in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life; this masterly writer was possessed of an extraordinarily ‘sensitive disposition’ enabling him to register, through cold reflective empathy, the character of his age.” Is that what Benjamin, too, had become, a character of his age?

By 1940, the contradictions of Benjamin’s life had landed him in Port Bou, a tiny fishing village on the rail line between France and Spain. He was trying to flee across the Spanish border with a group of refugees. They were stopped by Spanish officials. That night, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine he had brought along just in case. The next morning, the group of refugees was allowed to cross the border after all. But it was too late for Benjamin. “In a situation presenting no way out,” Benjamin wrote in his brief suicide note, “I have no other choice but to make an end of it.” Even these last words from Benjamin were something of a lie. He had plenty of other choices. Then again, he did not. The obscure suicide is his final act of hiding. • 13 January 2014