July 12, 2008

Walter Benjamin's last report

Walter Benjamin, essayist, literary critic, philosopher, was one of the most illustrious victims of the Nazi horrors that consumed so much of value in mid century Europe. Benjamin in the late 30s and early 40s was engaged by the Institute for Social Research in New York to write reports for them upon the literary situation in Europe. This report, written in March 1940, was the last of them and until now has remained unpublished in English- however the New Left Review has just published a translation from the French and now after all these years Benjamin's last reflections upon the literary scene of a Paris just about to fall to the Germans are available for us all to read. These reflections concern naturally a series of literary figures who have now vanished, one might ask therefore, whether unless one was to attempt a rehabilitation of these lost figures there was any point reading Benjamin's essay upon them- I think there is and hope here to suggest that there is something of universal application in the master's last survey of European literature.

What strikes any reader instantly is the thickness of the letter- as I said it is filled with forgotten names. Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, Michael Leiris: these are shadows that have vanished from most people's histories of the world- and whilst they still may perhaps live locally in France to universal histories of European literature they are something less than a footnote. Benjamin though obviously knew them well- and reading this is to read a geography of the period as the axe was about to fall upon French civilisation. What you get is a geography- one might even say an ecology- of the world before the fall of everything. Benjamin relates all these figures to each other and to the greater figures outside his narrative, to Freud, to Jung, to Lautreamont and lastly to the void which was Hitler. The fascination of this essay lies in its picking over particularity: Benjamin gives us a sense of the landscape of 60 years ago, so vital that we could almost be there in the salon hearing the argument. But there is more to this, with his acute eye he also suggests ways in which the movements of these obscure figures suggest wider movements- greater intellectual arguments taking place. For example, he isolates surrealism's hostility to the very notion of positivism and hence to Freud, but shows that surrealism, incapable of a true metaphysical theory, has retreated to using Freudian language whilst condemning Freud and in the search for a guru surrealists have alighted on the figure of Jung.

His discussion of surrealism moves us on though to something which I think is very interesting about this essay- which is the way that Benjamin moves into discussing Hitler and Naziism. He begins with violence: which is something that binds together the surrealism of Paris with the Nazi movement. Benjamin argues that the exaltation of violence, mindless animal and vindictive violence is ssomethng that unites Naziism with surrealism. This 'physiognomy of Hitlerism' is something he detects in the salons of Parisian intellectual life and is a useful warning to us about the ways that to celebrate violence is to take part in a project of collaboration with Fascism (theres is a distinction between celebrating violence and celebrating defence incidentally).

Violence rests almost always on justification and Benjamin finds the justification of Naziism in Spengler. Oswald Spengler wrote a now forgotten but at the time very influential book called the Decline of the West. In it he did emense violence to history, twisting it as Benjamin argues into the form that would justify Nazi ideology and the justify the universal hatred between races that formed a pillar of Nazi thought. Spengler's arguments are odious and almost universally incorrect: but as Benjamin notes they were not opposed at the time, 'The intellectuals, as always, were the first to acclaim the builder of their own scaffold.' This sad observation and the argument that French intellectuals had been equally hospitable to the coming of Fascist thought in their Parisian salons is something that should not make us feel waves of self congratulation, rather it should be a warning to us that we too may encourage a viper of intellectual barbarism without knowing it, we need to be on our guard against our own minds.

This is a fascinating essay- I am not enough of a Benjamin expert to place it in the context of his thought- but there is so much here of wonder- where he talks of the beauty and effect of literature that I hardly think that matters. It is an essay everyone should read for the recovery of the time just before the violence of war past over the cultural world of the thirties- as a warning from history of the beauty that can be devoured and the danger of nourishing fascist thinking.


James Hamilton said...

This is marvellous and heartbreaking stuff - one can't help but feel that it deserved to fall into better hands than those of the NLR.

Gracchi said...

Yes to all of that!

Ruthie said...

It is hard to believe that the generation that remembers WWII in any kind of detail is entering its 80s.

Gracchi said...

Ruthie I know! And the generation that lived through World War One are dead or very very old.