In Mosaic Magazine, Walter Laqueur reviews the recently published Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Laqueur tries to explain how a German writer (literary critic, essayist, philosopher) virtually unknown in his own day (1892-1940) has become one of the touchstones of post-modernist thought. In the precincts of “cultural studies and its various academic subdisciplines,” writes Laqueur, Benjamin’s gnomic style may well count as a plus, an outward sign of inward profundity that, simultaneously, invites the most fanciful flights of interpretive ingenuity. Likewise contributing powerfully to his allure is the sorry story of his life.”
Benjamin left Berlin in 1932 and eventually wound up in Paris, where he had a very difficult time scraping together a living, though it was here that he would embark upon what would become what many consider his masterpiece, The Arcades Project. The work, left unfinished at his death, was inspired in part by Benjamin’s obsession with the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. “The arcades in question,” writes Laqueur, “were the glass-enclosed passages in central Paris when that city was, in Benjamin’s terms, the capital of the 19th century. A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs. Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general.”
When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Benjamin sought to cross into Spain and his party was stopped at the border. Exhausted and despondent, Benjamin swallowed a handful of morphine pills and took his own life. The border re-opened the next day and his party crossed unmolested.
Laqueur’s own interest in Benjamin arose from his “work in the early 1950s on the pre-World War I German youth movement, in which he had been a passionate but by no means leading member.” He spoke with colleagues of Benjamin’s, in particular Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, who was Benjamin’s closest friend in Germany and, as Laqueur explains, one of the figures “most responsible for launching Benjamin’s posthumous reputation.”
The published Scholem-Benjamin correspondence documents Scholem’s efforts to convince Benjamin to join him in Jerusalem, where the author of the magisterial Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah had moved to in 1923 and taken a position at Hebrew University. Benjamin, writes Laqueur, “toyed for a while with the idea of a visit or even emigration, but eventually gave it up even though it held out the prospect of an academic career, friendships, and a salary. Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics who admires Benjamin and frowns on Scholem’s attempts to lure him away from Paris, observes that he had no reason to find Zionism, or the desert, appealing. This is quite correct. European culture was infinitely more interesting to him; besides, there were no arcades in Jerusalem, and no keys to modernity in Mea She’arim.”
Benjamin’s place was in Europe, notes Laqueur, but “unfortunately, Europe had no room for him.” Here, at the conclusion of his review, Laqueur imagines what Benjamin’s life might have been like had he made it to Jerusalem. What makes Laqueur’s passage so moving isn’t merely that he outlines the possibility of another life for Benjamin, or rather, more life instead of death at the age of 48. It’s also a subtle rebuke to the political trends that have scarred so much of Western academic and intellectual life the last several decades. For all the Benjamin scholarship that has accrued since his death, so few, if any, scholars or writers have cared to observe that Zionism, now the academy’s bête noire, might have given one of contemporary intellectual life’s heroes more time to work, to write, more life.
Here is Laqueur’s conclusion, one of the most beautiful pieces of literary journalism I’ve ever read:
Had [Benjamin] followed Scholem’s pleas to join him in the “desert”—that is, the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia—he would have lived another decade or two or perhaps even three. Instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French-Spanish border, he could, had he so wished, have returned to his beloved Paris after the war. I can well imagine him in 1944, sitting in a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy). Most of these figures belonged to the Pilegesh (“Concubine”) circle of German Jewish intellectuals and scholars presided over by Scholem.
One way or another, Rehavia would have taken care of Benjamin: not the most padded existence, perhaps, and perhaps a little boring after Paris—but a fate worse than panicked suicide in a shabby hotel? The impressive memorial by the sculptor Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Port Bou is no compensation.