Jerk Reaction


Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

The biography [of Walter Benjamin] was written by two men, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. They were the men for the job, both having been involved in editing the definitive four-volume English-language edition of Benjamin’s Selected Essays from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Howard Eiland was also the co-translator of Benjamin’s lifelong unfinished poetic-fragmentary history of the birth of Modernity, The Arcades Project. These men know something of Walter Benjamin. They know his thinking. There is no point in writing about the life of Walter Benjamin unless you have labored to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin. And there is no way to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin unless you’ve immersed yourself in his work over long years. Which brings us back to Gershom Scholem’s quote. Can Jennings and Eiland bring Benjamin out of hiding? Can they track down the boundlessness?

The answer is no. But that was to be expected. You can never really track down boundlessness. That’s why it is boundless. We all hold a secret hope, probably, when we first crack open a biography of a beloved figure, that some aspect of the boundlessness is going to be tracked down. But the thing that keeps us reading any good biography is actually the expansion of the boundlessness, not its contraction. In a good biography, the contradictions of a human life are heightened. As we learn more about the real life of a person, the gap between mundane and genius widens into a chasm.

This is what happens in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. I can even tell you exactly where the chasm opens widest. It happens on page 315. That’s where Eiland and Jennings quote at length from a letter that Benjamin’s estranged wife Dora wrote to Scholem on June 27, 1929. The marriage between Walter and Dora had been falling apart for years. Benjamin had been chasing a Latvian woman named Asja Lacis around Europe and the USSR for some time. He’d also taken to visiting houses of ill repute with an oily character named Franz Hessel. (Hessel, by the way, was the inspiration for the character Jules in the novel Jules et Jim, made into a classic film in 1962 by François Truffaut.) This is not the gentle, harmless, wounded image of Walter Benjamin that many of us hold dear (partly, it must be said, from the two or three famous photographs of Walter that seem to capture his delicate soul, partly from his writings). The actual Walter Benjamin was self-absorbed, cruel, thoughtless, greedy, and vain. He was, in short, just like the rest of us.

More here.