A glimpse at this week’s British newspapers is enough to prove that the Left is once again being roundly intimidated, shrunk, ghettoised and persecuted by bullying right wing powers in league with big business, and so, as history threatens to repeat itself in the most terrible of ways, we might mark the 75th anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s death by committing ourselves to observing and commentating upon our surroundings and experience with as much passion, candor, intelligence and incision as he did.
Last Saturday, September 26th was the 75th anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s death and you attended a relatively modest but very rich and rewarding event at Whitechapel Gallery ( http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/events/walter-benjamin-now/) , attended only by another 50 to 100 people. The event was sold out but not mobbed, and the organisers had purposefully designed it as an art event, i.e. not dominated by arcane, in-depth academic papers on the theme but rather celebrating the enduring legacy of Benjamin as a uniquely creative thinker, writer, historian, philosopher and, we might also say artist.
Personally, there is no-one in the history of art and culture (apart perhaps from 19th century Parisian poet and critic Charles Baudelaire) to whom you are more grateful than Walter Benjamin. You can still recall, almost viscerally, the first encounter with his writing which immediately stirred you and elevated you and took you back to the times and places of which he wrote like no other.
His writing does not appear particularly florid or self-consciously ‘writerly’, it is rather his thought that is so special and which his writing seems to accurately translate. Benjamin’s purposeful avoidance and subversion of standard forms of writing and established roles of the writer is, perhaps, what bequeathes his thought to you and to us today , that is to say, or suggest that standardisation and establishment are threats to thought itself.
But it also shows that Benjamin was acutely aware of the various traps and trappings of writing, or of aspiring to write according to given techniques, standards and themes. In this respect he follows the model, not of the critic, the historian, the philosopher, or the academic but of the artist.
And in this way, thankfully, he made clear to you at a crucial point in your own development that there is no need to make crude distinctions between artists and commentators, artists and critics, makers and writers etc. and – again thankfully- this idea has been gaining ground for a generation and the boundaries slowly being eroded.
Benjamin’s rich archive or oeuvre continues to throw up new surprises, facets and translations, each of which seems to introduce us to yet another facet of an unusually multi-faceted man. But above and beyond his unusual complexity and energetic productivity (he had made an enormous amount of now canonic influence by the age of 48 when he died) we have to consider the special passions and questions that Benjamin and pursued and which he consequently transmits in such a way that almost anyone who encounters him is able to empathise and get caught up in the excitement of his thought.
Those passions involve finding a way to reconcile enormous historical legacies such as Hegelian and Marxist thought, and Judaeo-Christian religion, with the empirical experience of a modernity that seems to throw all experience, knowledge and belief into question in unprecedented ways.
Do we not find transcendent experiences in everyday things and in the modern city, despite our claims or presumptions to secularism, and if so, how can we explain such events? How should we think of history, and how should we conduct ourselves politically in and according to given models of history? Are we more truly or accurately modeled by religious scale and organisations of time or by a modern Marxist framework? And what is capitalism? Are its supposed gifts merely monstrous abuses of the human condition, or does it not also contrive for us unprecedented forms of experience within which we are free to discover or invent our own corresponding aesthetics, politics and poetics?
Finally, it is also important to all of the above to consider why and how Walter Benjamin died at such a young age, when he might – in his 50s, 60s and beyond – perhaps have contributed even greater, more mature and consolidated manifestations of his spectacular thinking to the human project. We have to acknowledge that he was both Jewish and a man of the Left (albeit the least dogmatic, most free and imaginative idea of what the Left is or might be) in Germany and in the first half of the 20th century, and was thus responding to and being responded to by the most monstrous form of political context we can -still- imagine.
Benjamin was forced to keep inventing just as he was forced to keep traveling and changing by this political environment, the inexorable rise of Nazism, with its corresponding persecution of both the culture and religion Benjamin was born into and of the political position with which he sided and voiced. Benjamin sadly committed suicide in 1940 when, traveling as a refugee, ill, exhausted and disappointed, he came up against just one obstacle too many, and the corresponding likelihood of falling into the hands of the Gestapo, thus making it preferable to take his own life.
This death must touch us deeply even as it partly shapes Benjamin’s legacy as a consistent and enduring expositor of the risks we run as participants in a modernity that still fears its own possibilities and still does not know its limits. Nazism, then new, unknown and still, in 1940 yet to ‘attain’ its gruesome apotheosis, has become history, but having stood for something impossible and incorrigible for post-war generations the far right is again increasingly rampant across Europe and the wider world.
Ultimately, Benjamin’s greatest weakness or failing may have simply been that, being so exceptional made him too alone and therefore too fragile and vulnerable. But his legacy, allied with the technology he so enthusiastically embraced and actively utilised, today allow us to see, share, critique, write and journalise in ways that make us all Walter Benjamins now, and this may just be a new idea of what being ‘Left’ now really means.
Walter Benjamin (b. July 15th, 1892, d. September 26th 1940) R.I. P