PRINT April 1997


Walter Benjamin

“THE GOAL I SET for myself,” Benjamin wrote Gershom Scholem in 1930, “is to be regarded as the foremost critic of German literature. The trouble is that for more than fifty years, literary criticism in Germany has not been regarded as a serious genre. To create a place in criticism for oneself means to re-create it as a genre.” It is not insignificant that Benjamin wrote this in French, as if German itself had to be re-created as a language if one were to do serious literary criticism in it. Characteristically, Benjamin transformed German into an instrument willfully oblique, and just dark enough to permit the thought behind it to be dimly sensed by his rare sympathetic readers. An early essay (1914–15) on two poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime like most of the writings in this collection, employed a style that, according to the translator, is “hieratic, cryptic, and high-flown, and in places written in a German whose tortuousness defies deciphering.” The translator of such a text has no choice but to replicate Benjamin’s “proud refusal to produce immediate insight or aesthetic pleasure.” It is hardly a criticism of Benjamin that the same might be said of virtually everything in this book: he meant it to be that way. It was as if his critical writings were intended less to open up the texts they addressed than to re-create their true difficulty in a pure state of abstractness, hardening the reader’s interpretive muscles in preparation for the ordeal of reading Goethe, or the German Baroque drama, or Baudelaire.

Benjamin published two books in his lifetime, both intended to qualify him for academic employment. The first, translated here, was his doctoral dissertation, The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (1919). The other was his second thesis or Habilitationsschrift, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, presented as a piece of highly original research, demonstrating the author’s qualification for the professoriate. Benjamin submitted it to the professor of literary history at the University of Frankfurt, who felt it was not appropriate to his discipline. It then went to the professor of aesthetics, Hans Cornelius, who “pronounced himself unable to comprehend either Benjamin’s project as a whole or its execution.” He in turn passed it along to two colleagues who also found themselves “incapable of understanding it.” Presenting a book that nobody could read for the only kind of employment for which he might be suited (other than as rare-book dealer) typifies Benjamin’s gift for the self-defeating. It expressed his entire personality to frame the document on which his future depended as if it were a caricature of academic abstruseness. It would be like turning up for the interview at Morgan Stanley with banknotes pinned all over one’s gray flannel suit, to show one’s interest in money.

Scholem, the great scholar of the cabala, reported that Benjamin indeed said of the “Epistemocritical Prologue” to his Habilitationsschrift that it could be understood only by a reader who also knew the cabala. I suppose he must have meant: it could only be understood by someone who understood what it meant to read the cabala, and not that his text makes insider allusions to that paradigm of crypticity. But the same might be said of everything translated here, with the guarded exception of the dissertation on German Romantic criticism. The book on tragedy, or more exactly on the “mourning play” [Trauerspiel], according to the editors, “was simply not in step with the German university system of the 1920s.” If it is in step with our own, that is only because academic tolerance for the cabalistic is higher, part of which is due to Benjamin having become so revered a figure in the postmodernist canon. The appeal of Benjamin’s writing, according to Terry Eagleton, lies in the way it “manages marvellously to combine . . . a . . . [Marxist] ‘aesthetics’ with the entrancing esotericism of the Kabbala.” The Origins is no more accessible today than when it was submitted. The copy I took out of the library is densely underlined and annotated with fervent Yes!es in the margin by some previous borrower, who abandoned the text six pages in with a plaintive question mark. For all that young American readers acknowledge Benjamin as a martyred icon, they are no more able to read his Habilitationsschrift than the German academics of seventy years ago, when the author was unknown. Benjamin is admired not in spite of but because of his arcane syntax, murky vocabulary, and buried meanings.

Heidegger defined truth as unconcealedness—Unverborgenheit. Benjamin, as a writer, was like a reverse oyster, secreting some tiny drop of nacre and then embedding it in thicker and thicker layers of sand, to be picked apart grain by grain. He must have read the way he wrote, treating whatever text he considered as esoteric to the core. “The works that prove enduring are precisely those whose truth is most deeply sunken in their material content,” he wrote near the beginning of “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” one of the few pieces here for which he managed to find a venue. “Because the truth content always remains to the same extent hidden as the material content comes to the fore . . . the interpretation of [the material content] becomes a prerequisite for any later critic.” One senses that the two contents—truth and material—are related in his view the way latent and manifest dream contents are in Freud’s theory of dreams. The truth “shines/appears” (a central notion for Benjamin), more or less dimly through the matter like an occult flame. The critic, he continues, is like an alchemist in quest of the flame—of the life of the text. The scholar, in contrast to the critic, knows only the “wood and ash.” So the fiasco of the Habilitationsschrift was that of presenting a thesis in alchemy to the department of chemistry. The enterprise of reinventing criticism would be equivalent to constructing a two-tiered theory of literature parallel with the psychoanalytic theory of the mind. Freud was of course a master of clarity: he did not ask the reader to address his texts the way he addressed the repressed pathogens of Anna O’s unconscious mind.

The Austrian poet and dramatist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was evidently able to discern the banked flame deep within “Goethe’s Elective Affinities.” He declared it “clearly incomparable” [schlechthin unvergleichlich]—a judgment with which few could disagree—and published it in 1924, when Benjamin was losing hope. At its heart is a view of beauty as “Schein” or “appearance,” which was clearly of the greatest moment to Benjamin, though he never, so far as I can see, managed to work out much of the required theory. He was really not a philosopher. He writes, in a somewhat syllogistic fragment, that “Every living thing that is beautiful has semblance [ist scheinhaft]” and “Every artistic thing that is beautiful has semblance [Schein],” inferring, invalidly, that artistic things must therefore be alive “in one sense or other.” The editors, doubtless after protracted agonizing, have translated Schein as “semblance,” which obscures the metaphor of irradiation—of light appearing through a translucent medium—that I feel was what Benjamin meant to convey. It connects beauty with truth in his language, since he is after the truth content which is also scheinhaft—like “the truth in her eyes ever shining” of the Irish ballad. At the heart of the essay on Goethe’s novel is a peroration on beauty: “Everything essentially beautiful is always and in its essence bound up, though in infinitely different degrees, with semblance [Schein].” And this defines “the task of art criticism” which is “not to lift the veil but rather, through the most precise knowledge of it as a veil, to raise itself for the first time to the true view of the beautiful . . . to the view of the beautiful as that which is secret.”

I find this, for all the preposterousness of Benjamin’s prose, a rather moving thought. And, since he has shown, in the most sustained piece of analysis in the entire book, that this was the thought that defined German Romantic art criticism, I take away from the book a resolution to get to know something more about Novalis and the Schlegel brothers. There is even reason to think there is an elected affinity to the ideas of the cabala after all, with its curious Neoplatonic allusions. Benjamin, in the notorious prologue to the book on German Trauerspiel, writes a gloss on Plato’s thought about truth and beauty in the Symposium: “Truth is the content of beauty . . . [which] does not appear [schein] by being exposed; rather it is revealed in a process which might be described metaphorically as the burning up of the husk as it enters the realm of ideas.” And he is at pains to point out “the great difference between truth and the object of knowledge, with which it has customarily been equated.” Since the professors saw German Baroque literature as an object of knowledge and Benjamin sought instead its germ of truth, it is small wonder there was no communication. You have to seek the truth in Benjamin’s writings, if you have the patience, and not treat them as conveying knowledge. There is an awful lot of husk to burn in the process, but the theory of truth, if true, explains the obscurity.

Arthur C. Danto is the author most recently of After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton). He writes frequently for Artforum.


Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume One: 1913–1926, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 520 pages.