Walter Benjamin in Extremis

225px-Benjamin-sm Nikil Saval in n+1:

Walter Benjamin, or rather, the now-beloved figura of Benjamin—shuffling, myopic, mustachioed, fat, unhealthy, small round glasses glinting like flashlights—was largely unattractive in his own lifetime. Introducing Benjamin, a precis of his life and work in comic-book form, spends an inordinate amount of time demonstrating that Benjamin had no positive libido—and that, in fact, women just could not under any circumstances find him attractive. How strange is it now, then, to read in the Guardian that “as a teenager,” the novelist Nicole Krauss “had a crush on the German philosopher.” How odd to reflect upon the growth and consolidation of a veritable Benjamin industry in the sixty-five years since his death, an industry that extends well beyond the academy, to art-pop songs like Laurie Anderson's “The Dream Before (For Walter Benjamin),” and Jay Parini's embarrassingly unreadable “novel of ideas” Benjamin's Crossing. A movie must surely be on the way: can I start by suggesting Tim Robbins as Benjamin?

Such widespread reverence has been essential to the growth of Benjamin studies; but it has also served as a barrier to actual understanding and use of his thought. Franco Moretti, for one, leveled a bitter disparagement at academics for treating Benjamin as “the sancta sanctorum” of literary criticism, a pure soul from whose gloomy pen issued the true plash of ideas, protected from the reproof and constant reconsideration one expects from critics. Susan Sontag's “Under the Sign of Saturn,” (originally published in the New York Review of Books, with Sontag's characteristic vatic humorlessness, as “The Last Intellectual”) is symptomatic of this unreserved Benjamin adoration. She begins by lovingly—too lovingly, perhaps—describing photographic portraits of the man, how “the downward look through his glasses—the soft, day-dreamer's gaze of the myopic—seems to float off to the lower left of the photograph.” She goes on to discuss Benjamin's melancholia and saturnine disposition, glancingly using Benjamin's own highly interesting work on melancholy and German Baroque allegory to produce wan axioms and declarations: “precisely because the melancholy character is haunted by death, it is melancholics who best know how to read the world”; “only because the past is dead is one able to read it.” The presentation of Benjamin's ideas on allegory, collecting, and city life point continuously back to Benjamin the pudgy myopic. Using what is clearly an “erotics” of reading and not a hermeneutics, Sontag winds up arguing, however inadvertently, on behalf of the photographs, the image, the figure of Benjamin—as if to say: only because he is dead is one able to make love to him.