Walter Benjamin's genius for surreal visions

Flights of the dream bird
July 13, 2016
The Storyteller: Short Stories by Walter Benjamin, translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski (Verso, £12.99) 

To call a writer “elegiac” is to suggest that he or she is sad, but only a little. On these terms, Walter Benjamin cannot be called an elegiac writer; his interest in death, dying and the dead is too disquieting and pervasive. Yet there is no doubt that Benjamin is constantly drawn to what has disappeared, or is on the brink of disappearing. “The true picture of the past flits by,” he writes in his last major essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.”

The modern age, Benjamin suggests, is defined by this sense of the precariousness of the past. Where history and tradition were once things to be handed down, generation by generation, they are now fleeting presences, which must be trapped in the same way birds or ghosts are trapped—deviously, by sideways approaches. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was,’” he writes. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

If anyone was equipped by temperament and historical experience to appreciate this truth, it was surely Benjamin. Born into an assimilated German Jewish family in 1892, he stood in a difficult relationship with his own religious past. (This is one reason why he was such an early and profound reader of Franz Kafka, whose stories of fractured meaning emerged from the same Jewish milieu.) And though Benjamin died at just 48, he lived long enough to see several worlds vanish beneath his feet. The seeming solidity of the Wilhelmine bourgeoisie—a solidity which Benjamin saw reflected in the massive bulk of his family’s furniture—was destroyed by the First World War and given its coup de grâce by hyper-inflation in the 1920s. The Weimar Republic died in 1933 when Adolf Hitler took power, forcing Benjamin, like many other German Jewish intellectuals, to flee for his life. France, which gave him uneasy shelter, fell to the Germans in 1940, leaving him once more prey to Nazism. By the time Benjamin committed suicide in September of that year—he had been refused passage through Spain, and took an overdose of morphine rather than be returned to Occupied France—he must have felt as old, and as cursed, as the Ancient Mariner.
'After Hitler took power and Jews were barred from publishing in Germany, Benjamin was reduced to penury"
Benjamin’s career was never stable. Though he received a doctorate, he was unable to get a job teaching in a German university; his dissertation, which became the book The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was far too original and obscure to win academic plaudits. During the Weimar years, he worked as a journalist, contributing to a wide range of newspapers and magazines. After Hitler took power and Jews were barred from publishing in Germany, Benjamin was reduced to penury, subsisting on occasional work and a subsidy from the Institute for Social Research, arranged by his friends Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.

That he managed, despite this hand-to-mouth existence, to produce so much profound and complex work is something like a miracle. Today, Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is considered one of the foundational works of modern art theory. He wrote pioneering critical essays on Kafka, Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire. His wide-ranging thought about literature, philosophy and culture, often tinged with a Messianism that could take either a mystical or Marxist form, has a currency far greater today than during his own lifetime.

Benjamin was first and foremost a literary critic, so it makes sense that he saw literature in terms of precariousness and disappearance. One of his most famous essays is called “The Storyteller,” and while its ostensible subject is the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, it is really an occasion for Benjamin to lament the decline of storytelling as a human enterprise. “The art of storytelling is coming to an end,” he insists. “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly… It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

For Benjamin, storytelling is not the same thing as writing fiction. Indeed, he sees the two as opposites: the novel began to flourish at precisely the historical moment when oral storytelling began to die out. It ended, he suggests, because human beings can no longer tolerate boredom—the kind of receptive boredom that was induced by hours spent at the spinning-wheel that only story-telling could alleviate. “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience,” he writes. “A rustling in the leaves drives him away.” Instead of stories, modern people want information, whose “prime requirement is that it appear ‘understandable in itself,’” like a headline. Instead of the wisdom of stories, we now have the actionable intelligence of journalism.

The appearance of a book by Walter Benjamin entitled The Storyteller: Short Stories, might well surprise readers who know him only as the author of theory and criticism. Did Benjamin believe that he possessed the gift of storytelling, of which his age was deprived? In their introduction, the editors and translators, Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski, imply that this is exactly what Benjamin’s fiction sets out to accomplish: “Might it be said, then, that Benjamin is attempting to reactivate the orality of storytelling under new conditions?”

You don’t have to read far in this volume, however, to understand that Benjamin was not much of a fiction writer, and even less of a storyteller in the classic sense. Despite the subtitle, there is nothing like a “short story” in this book—if we expect even a short story to be a work of a certain scope and elaboration—and only a few of its 42 items can be read as narratives. What the editors have included instead are riddles, fables, accounts of dreams, travel pieces—anything, in short, that can be considered non-expository writing (though it is bulked out by book reviews on related themes). That there is so little fiction in Benjamin’s corpus, and mostly of such indifferent quality, is a sign that “the storyteller” is exactly the wrong rubric for understanding his mind.

When Benjamin does set out to write a well-made story, it is usually just a few pages long, and often turns on a Maupassant-like ironic ending. Such a story is “Palais D…y,” first published in a women’s magazine in 1929. This five-page tale, set in Paris in the Belle Epoque, concerns a nondescript man who comes into a large inheritance, then seems to lose it all in a few months at the gambling table. The twist ending reveals that he had actually spent his money to lavishly decorate a palace in which no one lived. Every day, he would visit the house bearing flowers and ask “Is Madam at home?” to which the servant girl was instructed to answer, “I am sorry, Madam has just left for the day.” In this way, Benjamin suggests, the man expressed his romantic longing for the eternal feminine, which is at its noblest when it has no real object at all. There is an idea to be found here, but the cheap surprise and sentimentality of the story do it no favours, and it’s hard to believe Benjamin himself thought highly of this piece.

“The Cactus Hedge,” an eight-page story from 1933, has a similar structure, but it comes closer to expressing a genuinely Benjaminian insight. Here we meet a reclusive Irishman called O’Brien, who is living in Ibiza (one of Benjamin’s own favourite haunts). Once O’Brien had a collection of “Negro masks, which he had acquired from the natives themselves in his African years,” but they were destroyed at sea. When the narrator comes to visit him, however, it turns out that O’Brien has been painstakingly recreating the lost masks, inspired by a vision of a cactus hedge seen outside his window: “In the meantime a metamorphosis of the hedge seemed to have taken place. It was as if those outside in the brightness… were staring in; as if a shoal were hanging there with bated breath, attached to my glances. A turmoil of raised shields, pistons and battle axes. And when falling asleep, I realised the means by which the figures outside held me in check. They were masks, which were staring at me!”

This is the one moment in the story that glows with real imagination—unlike the wearily ironic ending, which finds O’Brien’s fake masks being auctioned off as the real thing. The surprise is one that draws Benjamin again and again both in these stories and his critical and theoretical work: the shock of occult resemblance. To see nature, in the form of the cactus hedge, suddenly turn into weaponry or masks is to sense the hidden relationships between things for which Benjamin was always on the lookout.

The realm where such identifications happen most intuitively and illogically is the dream. The dream-records in The Storyteller escape the proverbial dullness of other people’s dreams when Benjamin conveys the uncanny way that dream-things can be both themselves and something totally different at the same time. In an excerpt from a letter written in 1934, when Benjamin was living with Bertolt Brecht in Denmark, he records a dream in which Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel took “the shape of two towers or gate-like structures swaying through the city.”

A better example comes in a dream titled “The Knower,” where Benjamin is in a department store looking at a toy made up of shifting panels, which can transform into different shapes. “The first panel: that colourful street with the two children. The second: a web of fine little cogs, pistons and cylinders, rollers and transmissions, all of wood, whirling together in one plane, without person or noise. And finally the third panel: a view of the new order in Soviet Russia.” The appearance of Soviet Russia in the form of a toy is surrealistically evocative. It not only suggests the depth of the dreamer’s psychic engagement with politics, it also raises unsettling questions about what kind of ontological status the Communist utopia really has. Is the USSR a real place, or merely a screen for fantasies? What is Benjamin, a passionate but eccentric Marxist, trying to tell us and himself in this image?

Such surreal visions are the most characteristic and exciting moments in The Storyteller, for they are clearly the work of the same Benjamin who produced the great essays on the uncanniness of language and thought—essays like “The Task of the Translator” and “On Language as Such and the Language of Man.” Such visions are even prefigured in some of the juvenilia in this volume: “The Second Self,” for instance, is a vignette of a man who sees his own fate in the images of a cheap panorama. But visions and intuitions, Benjamin would have been the first to insist, are not stories. In a sense they are even the opposite of stories, since they condense meaning into a complex image, instead of extending meaning into a consecutive narrative. The Storyteller will disclose Benjamin’s genius only to readers who already know where to look for it.

Adam Kirsch’s latest book “Why Trilling Matters” is published by Yale University Press