Reviews — From the February 2015 issue

A Weimar Home Companion

Walter Benjamin on the air

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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?

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