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[Reviews]

A Weimar Home Companion

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Walter Benjamin on the air

Discussed in this essay:

Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal and translated by Jonathan Lutes. Verso. 424 pages. $29.95.

In 1933, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote Lichtenberg: A Cross-Section, a poignant radio play in which moon beings who form a lunar Committee for Earth Research use their advanced technology to investigate the life, dreams, and death of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century aphorist and physicist. The mooners’ earlier research on humans, based on “samples taken over the last millennia,” confirmed that none of us earthlings ever amounted to anything, and the unfortunate Lichtenberg, a professor in Göttingen and a hunchback, seems at first to bear this theory out. He was clearly miserable and undeniably a failure, as evidenced by “the extensive catalog of works the deceased wanted to write but never wrote. ‘The Island of Cebu’ and ‘Kunkel’ and ‘The Parakletor’ and ‘The Double Prince’ and whatever else they are called.”

It is tempting to read the play as an attempt by Benjamin to grapple with his own unlucky and, as we often imagine it, incomplete life. The prevailing view of that life is epitomized in Hannah Arendt’s introduction to Illuminations (1968), the first and still the most popular English-language anthology of Benjamin’s writing. In characterizing Benjamin’s fate, Arendt conjures a series of dreamlike metaphors. “With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker,” she declares, Benjamin’s “clumsiness invariably guided him to the very center of a misfortune”; his life was a sequence of “piles of debris”; he was haunted everywhere by the “little hunchback,” a character from German folklore that embodies bad luck. There is still today a general idea of Benjamin as a bookish failure — mandarin, melancholy, and obscure, fragile and maybe childlike. A morbid focus on his suicide, in 1940, helps to insinuate that a gloomy life is the cosmic retribution for intellectual nonconformity.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Lichtenberg is one of a number of extraordinary outsider characters who challenge this view in Radio Benjamin, a new volume that collects Benjamin’s radio pieces for children and adults, together with some of his writing about the medium, most of it translated into English for the first time. The book also includes a series of talks for young audiences about outlaws and outcasts, including witches, Romani, robber gangs, bootleggers, postage-stamp forgers, and Kaspar Hauser, the early-nineteenth-century boy who claimed to have been raised alone in a dark cell. These pieces strive to be popular while remaining ambitious in form and content. As Benjamin explains in “Two Kinds of Popularity,” one of his few formal statements of the principles guiding his radio work, his goal was “to captivate the specialist no less than the layman, even if for different reasons.” Radio Benjamin shows Benjamin fusing his critical consciousness with an unexpected humor and an even more surprising joy. It also shows him confronting terrifying circumstances with more than a little intellectual courage.

Benjamin began to write and deliver informal radio talks for Youth Hour in November 1929, just after the American stock market collapsed. The talks were broadcast from Berlin, where he had been born thirty-seven years earlier, and his first episodes were about the changing social landscape of the city: its hawkers and street markets, its guttersnipes and street youths, its new factories and old toy stores. The audience was mostly local because the cheaper sort of receiver that was popular in radio’s first decade could pick up only short-distance ground waves. Many of Benjamin’s listeners would have used earphones to hear his voice transmitted across the conductive surface of the city it described. It would have sounded unclear and miraculous, at once inside their heads and very far away.

No recordings survive, but Benjamin saved many of the typescripts that he read on air and brought them with him into exile in France in 1933. Their journey since then appears even more miraculous than radio itself must once have seemed: Left behind when Benjamin fled Paris after seven years, they were seized by the Gestapo, accidentally packed into the archives of a French newspaper, rescued in 1945 by a Communist saboteur, brought to the Soviet Union, and eventually sent to East Germany, where they remained safe from editors in the West until 1983. The Youth Hour scripts emerged in Aufklärung für Kinder (Enlightenment for Children), an anthology published two years later. Eventually, they were recorded and released as a double CD, with a cover that promises good times for all: “nicht nur für Kinder” — “not just for kids” — it says under the rainbow-colored title.

Radio Benjamin presents the material in order of ascending sophistication: the talks for children are followed by radio plays for children, radio work for adults, and critical writing. The adult radio pieces range from prescriptions for comedy writing to an instructional dialogue about workplace etiquette called “A Pay Raise?! Whatever Gave You That Idea!” Seasoned readers of Benjamin may interpret the few short reflections at the end of the book as supplements to his famous essay on the mechanical reproducibility of artwork, but they also serve as a guide to the material in this book, which is sometimes bewildering.

The radio stories for children aren’t “stories,” for starters. A better translation might be “histories,” but that word still unfortunately implies narrative. They are more like constellations of trivia about the past, presented in a casual, conversational way, digressing and yet aggressively challenging received ideas about the topic at hand.

The benign-sounding “True Dog Stories,” for example, begins with a characteristic statement: “You probably think you know dogs.” A long quote from the naturalist Carl Linnaeus follows:

Feeds on meat, carcasses, farinaceous grains, but not leaves; digests bones, vomits up grass; defecates onto stone. . . . Drinks by lapping; urinates to the side, up to one hundred times in good company, sniffs at its neighbor’s anus. . . . The female is vicious with jealous suitors; fornicates with many partners when in heat; bites them; intimately bound during copulation. . . . Howls to music, bites stones thrown its way; depressed and foul-smelling before a storm. Afflicted by tapeworm. Spreads rabies. Eventually goes blind and gnaws at itself.

“Things look so new and special,” Benjamin says, “when a great scientist looks at them, as if they had never before been seen.” In comparison, most of our dog stories are boring. Why? Because so many are meant to prove things about dogs in general, rather than focusing on a particular dog. Benjamin recalls Bezerillo, a legendary bloodhound who was trained by the conquistadores to attack and kill Indians but, to the amazement of its masters, refused an order to slaughter a defenseless old woman. He reads several such stories from an encyclopedia of great dogs in history. (“It was made by a man who busied himself with all sorts of obscure things,” he notes. “For instance, he compiled a lexicon of famous shoemakers, and a whole book titled Soup.”) The stories build in subtlety, and it dawns on the reader that the talk isn’t about dogs at all but about the way that storytelling can humanize even the filthiest creatures: “True Dog Stories” was broadcast on September 27, 1930, two weeks after the Nazis won their first major electoral victory, with almost 6.4 million votes and 107 seats in the Reichstag.

This historical context is not discussed in Radio Benjamin, but it is always present, in a way that is both unsettling and refreshing. Although essays about Benjamin seem always to find some way to work the Nazis into their first paragraphs, history still has a distant and symbolic place in much writing about him. The conventional focus on Benjamin’s ultimate flight and suicide has a way of flattening a complex mind into a caricature of an obscure Jewish mystic wandering the ruins of modernity. Such a narrative makes fascism seem like something that simply happened to Benjamin; in fact it was a cultural and political crisis that he had to watch unfold over a decade, to live through, and to confront in almost everything he wrote.

The questions implicit in Radio Benjamin are grueling. What should a critic say while watching a whole language transform into a racist weapon? To whom does one talk about that, and how? Given twenty minutes a week on the air, what should Benjamin have said to German children in 1929, 1930, or 1931, as things kept getting worse and worse?

Benjamin was born in 1892, and his youth was defined by the events of the First World War and Germany’s subsequent revolution, counterrevolution, and economic collapse. After such chaos, the relative stability of the Weimar Republic gave him, for really the only time in his life, a public culture that was big enough and adventurous enough to allow him a place in it. He seized the opportunity, and by the time he began his radio work he was, as Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings write in a recent biography, “on his way to establishing himself as the most important German cultural critic of his day.” Benjamin wrote criticism and feuilletons regularly for a leading literary journal, Die literarische Welt, and for major newspapers, including the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Berliner Tageblatt. He translated Louis Aragon, Charles Baudelaire, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Proust, among others. When André Gide came to Berlin, Benjamin was the only German journalist he agreed to see. If Benjamin was often disappointed, it was not because he was neglected in his time (he wasn’t, though his greater posthumous fame can make it seem otherwise) but because he was so ambitious. “I sit like a penguin on the barren rocks of my thirty-seven years,” he wrote to Alfred Cohn in 1928 — a year in which he published two enduring books.

The years around 1930 marked Benjamin’s intellectual coming-of-age. As the world around him crumbled, he described a “new beginning,” “breathtaking, constantly shifting constellations.” In the fall of 1931, at the age of thirty-nine, the penguin could finally declare, “I feel like an adult for the first time in my life.” It is hard to escape the impression that the more terrible everything else got, the more Benjamin felt like himself. The radio talks belong to the very end of this period of self-discovery, just before he moved to Paris and wrote most of his greatest work, including Berlin Childhood Around 1900, The Arcades Project, and many of the critical essays that would be collected in Illuminations. If Radio Benjamin is a bootleg, it is of Benjamin at Royal Albert Hall.

One of the books Benjamin wrote in 1928, the wildly experimental One-Way Street, is a montage of tiny prose pieces (allegories, dreams, lists of rules) that were apparently influenced by surrealism and Russian avant-garde cinema. It vividly captures the sheer frenzy of the period, as well as the pleasure that Benjamin took from observing. “The construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than of convictions,” the book announces. At such a time,

True literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework . . . it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book — in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

His work for radio was a critical part of this search for unpretentious, small writing, for a “prompt language” that would have a focused “influence in active communities.” Radio’s political power, after all, goes beyond the fact that it carries sound rather than written words; it also has a particular relationship to time and place and community. Even today, we still imagine and sometimes even hear a DJ sitting in an actual studio somewhere nearby, picking out physical discs or at least pushing real buttons to suit or create a communal mood, advertising local concerts or county fairs, responding to phone calls from cars, workplaces, and lonely bedrooms, and referring to callers by first name and town.

Benjamin’s fascination with the way that culture can inhabit — or transcend — space and time is conveyed in the first talk in Radio Benjamin, about the vernacular language style known as Berliner Schnauze (Berlin snout). The talk is undated and by its nature hard to translate, but it makes sense that the book starts there, as this way of speaking was for Benjamin “the first thing that comes to mind” when other Germans imagine the stereotypical Berliner as “the clever one who does everything differently and better than the rest of us. Or so he would have you believe.” A history of the Schnauze works to loosen that stereotype. The snout can poke fun at itself, Benjamin points out, in the course of describing a cartoon written in the style, about boys insulting their father for getting noodles on his nose. It is the dialect “of people who have no time, who often must communicate by using only the slightest hint, glance, or half-word,” a dialect that is changing as he speaks, which he illustrates by reading a long spiel by a street hawker in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Benjamin wants to inspire the middle-class child at home to listen to the city as it evolves, to hear the German language as modern rather than primordial, as something that can be creative and inviting rather than a fixed and exclusive boundary, and as something potentially manipulative too.

Benjamin experimented with ways to encourage more active forms of listening. In December 1930, he responded to Germany’s unemployment crisis with a talk called “Carousel of Jobs,” which invites the listener to imagine himself as “a fourteen-year-old who has just left primary school and is now faced with choosing a job.” It takes a surprising turn: Benjamin asks the listener to reflect on how his own job has affected his character, his mood, his habits — and to write to the radio station describing those effects. He reads a long and unexpectedly beautiful excerpt from a book called German Occupational Studies, in which the publisher Peter Suhrkamp describes what it is like to be a journalist. Suhrkamp compares the work to that of a shoemaker in his village around the turn of the century who did everything other than make shoes, who spent his time drinking, gossiping, and arguing with people. As a brutal counterexample, Benjamin reads a passage from a handbook about the nascent Soviet science of “psychotechnics,” which aims to engineer humans to increase their productivity. The book describes an ideal slaughterhouse worker, who develops “resistance to adverse temperatures, the influences of dampness, and the occasionally irregular shifts,” “heavy stolidity, often amplified by corpulence,” but also habits of cleanliness and “a healthy pride . . . that finds it unnecessary to assert itself in any way on the outside.”

The most obviously appealing thing about Benjamin’s work for radio is that, like very little of his other writing, it is immediately comprehensible. The most surprising thing is that it is funny. The idea of Walter Benjamin attempting to be funny may bring to mind the tagline used to advertise Ninotchka — “Garbo Laughs” — yet humor for him could serve a higher pedagogical goal. So, too, could the broadcasts’ visceral subject matter, which Benjamin used to highlight the interplay of violence and art in history. He explains, for example, how puppetry came to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War as a solution to the problem of actors getting slaughtered by wandering mercenaries. The titles of Christmastime puppet shows that he mentions include “The Robber Baron Flayed Alive, or Love and Cannibalism, or Roast Human Heart and Flesh” and “The Rogues’ Ball, or the Ill-Fated Monkey with Fireworks.” In “What the Germans Were Reading While Their Classical Authors Were Writing,” a critico-historical dialogue in which the voices of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Nineteenth Century sometimes intervene as characters, the point is made that the masses of the eighteenth century didn’t read Lessing or Goethe; they read books with titles like The Little Jewish Grandmother, or, The Terrifying Specter of the Woman in the Black Robe; Biographies of the Insane; and Augustea, or, The Confessions of a Bride Before Her Wedding.

Benjamin’s interest in popular art was not merely a theoretical one or a political affectation; it was entirely genuine. While describing the tricks of a great puppeteer named Schwiegerling, he breaks off and says, “Just as I’m telling you this another memory from the show comes to mind”:

A tall clown stands on the stage, takes a bow and begins to dance. During the dance, out of his sleeve he shakes a small dwarf clown who’s wearing the same red and yellow flowery clothes as he is. And then with every twelfth measure of the waltz, a new one slides out, until finally there are twelve identical dwarf or baby clowns dancing around him in a circle.

The image recalls another product of the Weimar Republic, The Blue Angel, a film in which the schoolmaster, played by Emil Jannings, follows his rebellious students to a cabaret, is seduced by Lola-Lola, a performer played by Marlene Dietrich, and ends up joining the show as a horrible clown. Benjamin’s radio talks suggest a happier and more ambiguous ending: the schoolmaster finds a way to combine his role as teacher with the role of clown, thereby stopping the children from laughing at him and wresting their attention away from the sex and violence of the era.

A few of the radio talks for children rank with the best of Benjamin’s short prose. His description of a trip to Naples, broadcast in the spring of 1931, exemplifies the intensely visual, concrete short form that he called the Denkbild, a “thought-picture” or figure of thought. In his usual way, he begins by subverting expectations, but then he turns expectation into a theme:

When someone says Naples, what first comes to mind? I would say, Vesuvius. Will you be very disappointed if you hear nothing at all from me about Vesuvius? If I were granted my greatest wish — an ugly wish, but I had it all the same — it would be to experience an eruption of Vesuvius. That would really be something. I was in the region for eight months, and I waited and waited. I even climbed Vesuvius, and looked into its crater. But the only exciting thing I got to see in Naples was a fiery red glow that occasionally flashed in the night sky.

If Benjamin had a philosophy of history, it is encapsulated in that image of the impatient tourist, sweating his way to the top of the mountain to stare at the stupid crater, then getting caught off guard by that red flash, visible only from a distance and at night.

When Benjamin returned to Youth Hour in the fall of 1931, his subject was great catastrophes and, specifically, the destruction of places: Pompeii, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a fire in a Chinese theater, a railway disaster at the Firth of Tay, the flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927. In each case, Benjamin uses the expectation of violence to create an effect of suspended and expanded time. The destruction of Pompeii, as he puts it, means the preservation of its labyrinthine streets, wrestling schools, temples, baths, and graffiti. The listener waiting for the train full of people to launch off an iron bridge into the Tay has to sit through an apparent digression on the history of the iron industry, which leads Benjamin to recall a psychedelic science-fiction children’s book from around 1840 in which galactic bridges made of iron form a network between the planets. Benjamin didn’t believe in progress, but he saw the past as rich with moments that could inspire the future in a nonlinear way. His show on iron was adapted from one of the pieces that he first read to Adorno in 1929, “The Ring of Saturn, or Some Remarks on Iron Construction,” which eventually grew into The Arcades Project.

The following months put an end to Benjamin’s hopes for the radio. In June 1932, the conservative Papen government took over the airwaves. There were more elections and more Nazis in the Reichstag. Benjamin appeared on the air for the last time on January 29, 1933, and read an excerpt from Berlin Childhood Around 1900, then a work in progress. The next day, Adolf Hitler was nominated chancellor, and his proclamation to the German people, promising to restore “unity of mind and will,” was broadcast nationwide.

Benjamin was thus deprived of his chance to debut Lichtenberg, which can nonetheless be found in Radio Benjamin. The aliens reconsider their hypothesis about the unhappiness of humans; their hyperphotographic techniques reveal that Lichtenberg’s “waste books,” as he called the notebooks where he disposed of his ideas, are full of “curious, deep, and wise insights, at which he might perhaps never have arrived had he possessed the untroubled cheerfulness that is ours on the Moon.” Humans, Benjamin suggests, might be worth something after all. Declaring Lichtenberg due “all the honor we can bestow,” the moon beings name a crater after him, a crater that “lies clearly, purely, and peacefully in that magical light that illumines the millennium.”


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February 2015