Flights of the dream birdby Adam Kirsch / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.