On December 18, 1927, at three-thirty in the morning, Walter Benjamin began writing a memorandum titled “Main Features of My First Impression of Hashish.” It is characteristic of Benjamin that the first fact he thought it necessary to record was not the time he had taken the drug but the time he started writing about it. Like the books he read and the streets he wandered—like life itself—hashish was important to him less for its own sake than as a subject for interpretation.
For a writer with Benjamin’s interests and allegiances, a rendezvous with hashish was inevitable. The surprising thing is that it took him until the age of thirty-five to try it. As early as 1919, he had been fascinated by Baudelaire’s “Artificial Paradises,” in which the poet issues warnings against the drug so seductive that they sound like invitations: “You know that hashish always evokes magnificent constructions of light, glorious and splendid visions, cascades of liquid gold.” Benjamin, who regarded Baudelaire as one of the central writers of the nineteenth century, admired the book’s “childlike innocence and purity,” but was disappointed in its lack of philosophical rigor, noting, “It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently.” The notes from his first hashish trance show him holding deliberately aloof from any kind of rapture. “The gates to a world of grotesquerie seem to be opening,” he wrote. “Only, I don’t wish to enter.” According to Jean Selz, a friend with whom Benjamin smoked opium on several occasions, “Benjamin was a smoker who refused the initial blandishments of the smoke. He didn’t want to yield to it too readily, for fear of weakening his powers of observation.”
Over the next seven years, Benjamin participated in drug sessions as either subject or observer at least nine times, but his attitude toward drugs remained vigilantly experimental. He seldom took them when he was alone, and he never had his own supplier, relying on doctor friends to procure hashish, opium, and, on one occasion, mescaline. The sessions were recorded in “protocols,” furnishing raw material for what Benjamin intended to be a major book on the philosophical and psychological implications of drug use. When, in a letter to Gershom Scholem, his best friend from the age of twenty-three, Benjamin, then forty, listed four unwritten books that he considered “large-scale defeats”—evidence of the “ruin or catastrophe” that his career had become—the last was a “truly exceptional book about hashish.”
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, a book by Walter Benjamin called “On Hashish” has finally appeared in English, along with another long-gestated work, “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” (Harvard; $14.95 each). “On Hashish” is not, however, the “truly exceptional book” he had in mind; it’s a miscellany, gathering the protocols of his drug experiments, two published accounts of his experiences, and a handful of references to drugs culled from his other works. It can only begin to suggest the true importance of drug experiences for the development of Benjamin’s thought.
Yet for this very reason “On Hashish” stands in the same relation to a more conventional essay on drugs as Benjamin’s literary essays do to conventional criticism. “You hardly feel that you have been reading criticism,” Frank Kermode noted when “Illuminations,” the first English-language selection of Benjamin’s writings, appeared, in 1968. “It requires the kind of response we are accustomed to give to works of art.” “Illuminations” revealed just a few peaks from the sunken continent of Benjamin’s work, but these were enough to establish him as a central figure in the history of modernism. Benjamin approached every genre as a kind of laboratory for his lifelong investigations into language, philosophy, and art, and his ideas on these subjects are so original, and so radical in their implications, that they remain profoundly challenging today, more than sixty-five years after his death.
The period of Benjamin’s adulthood and achievement was 1914 to 1940, the darkest in modern European history, and, if no one ever wrote criticism the way he did, it is because no other critic felt the dislocations of the time so severely. Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892, into a prosperous Jewish family, and his expectations were formed in the halcyon period before 1914. In “A Berlin Chronicle,” a series of newspaper articles that make up the nucleus of “Berlin Childhood Around 1900,” he remembered the feeling of bourgeois security that suffused the very furniture in his family’s apartment:
Here reigned a species of things that was, no matter how compliantly it bowed to the minor whims of fashion, in the main so wholly convinced of itself and its permanence that it took no account of wear, inheritance, or moves, remaining forever equally near to and far from its ending, which seemed the ending of all things.
In such a home, poverty was unimaginable: “The poor? For rich children of his generation, they lived at the back of beyond.”
In time-honored fashion, Benjamin hoped to abandon the commercial milieu of his father, a successful antiques dealer, for a more prestigious career as an academic. By the time the First World War began, he was already committed to a life of scholarship and, as an opponent of the war, felt no qualms about maneuvering to get out of military service. The best source for Benjamin’s life in these years, Gershom Scholem’s moving yet unsentimental memoir, “Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship,” records that the two of them stayed up the whole night before Benjamin’s draft-board medical exam, “while Benjamin consumed vast quantities of black coffee, a practice then followed by many young men prior to their military physicals.” The trick, calculated to simulate a weak heart, worked, and Benjamin was able to spend the rest of the war in Switzerland, studying for his doctorate at the University of Bern.
Scholem shared Benjamin’s academic ambitions and his antiwar convictions, and their student friendship laid the groundwork for a lifetime of intellectual debate, most of which was to take place by mail. The most important issue between them, from the beginning, was Judaism, and the possibility of being a Jewish intellectual in Germany. For Scholem, an ardent Zionist who was expelled from his assimilated family for his views, the history of Jewish mysticism gradually displaced mathematics and philosophy as a focus of study. For Benjamin, however, Judaism remained more a possibility to be imagined than a life to be lived. He never mastered its religious practices or sacred texts, and, as he acknowledged to Scholem, “I have come to know living Judaism in absolutely no form other than you.”
The friends’ divergent attitudes toward Jewishness largely determined their subsequent careers. Neither of them entered the German university life for which they had trained. In 1923, Scholem, changing his first name from the German Gerhard to the Hebrew Gershom, emigrated to Palestine, where there was no university; he planned to support himself as a schoolteacher. As fate would have it, when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded, shortly afterward, he was named one of the first professors, and by the time of his death, in 1982, he had become known as the greatest modern scholar of Jewish mysticism. Benjamin, who remained closer to home, ended up straying much farther from his early academic path. Having taken his doctorate in 1919, he enrolled at the University of Frankfurt to write his Habilitationsschrift, the second dissertation required for teaching in a German university. But even as he was researching the thesis, which became “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” Benjamin suspected that it would never be approved by the tradition-bound faculty. The thesis, less a historical treatise than a philosophical meditation on the nature of allegory, was, he bragged to Scholem, “unmitigated chutzpah.” Even worse than the possibility of being rejected, however, was the possibility of being accepted. In February, 1925, as he prepared to submit the dissertation, Benjamin admitted, “I dread almost everything that would result from a positive resolution to all of this: I dread Frankfurt above all, then lectures, students, etc.”He needn’t have worried. Although the dissertation contains some of his most radical insights into language and literature, his examiners rejected it, admitting that they couldn’t understand a single page. In the mid-nineteen-twenties, then, his career took a sharp turn. With his parents increasingly unwilling or unable to support him, he began to earn a living as a freelance literary journalist, contributing to the culture sections of newspapers and magazines.
The death of Benjamin the academic philosopher meant the birth of Benjamin the cultural critic. Harvard University Press’s monumental, four-volume edition of “Selected Writings” (from which the texts of the two new books have, for the most part, been taken) allows the reader to chart Benjamin’s change of direction and his increasing productivity, as he began to cater to the demands of the literary market. All of his writing from 1913 to 1926 fits into the first volume, which is dominated by unpublished essays on abstract topics. His first major piece of literary criticism, a long essay on Goethe’s novel “Elective Affinities,” was not published until 1925. But from the mid-nineteen-twenties onward he became more and more prolific. The Harvard edition’s second volume covers the seven years from 1927 to 1934, and two volumes are required for his last six years.
Much of Benjamin’s early writing, though always stamped with his oblique intelligence, is the small change of journalism: travel pieces, book reviews, an article on the Berlin Food Exhibition of 1928. In addition to giving Benjamin a precarious living, such work helped him adapt his extremely dense style, formed in the harsh school of German idealist philosophy, into a more appealing literary instrument. Even so, his prose remained challenging. A friend once told him, “In great writing, the proportion between the total number of sentences and those sentences whose formulation was especially striking or pregnant was about one to thirty—whereas it was more like one to two in [your] case.” (“All this is correct,” Benjamin admitted.)
Benjamin’s roundabout methods can be seen in his best-known literary essays, the examinations of Proust, Baudelaire, and Kafka published in “Illuminations.” These contain little of what we ordinarily expect from criticism: biographical background, information about plot and character, literary-historical comparisons. Instead, Benjamin presents his subjects enigmatically, using startling metaphors and emblems. His essay on Proust (whose works he helped translate into German) is called “The Image of Proust,” and draws an implicit parallel between the novelist’s method and the critic’s, presenting Proust as a collector of charged images, momentary glimpses that open up passages to the buried life. “The image detaches itself from the structure of Proust’s sentences as that summer day at Balbec—old, immemorial, mummified—emerged from the lace curtains under Françoise’s hands,” Benjamin writes. And he responds in kind, concluding his essay with the image of Proust lying in bed, his asthmatic prostration converted into heroic labor:
For the second time there rose a scaffold like Michelangelo’s on which the artist, his head thrown back, painted the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the sickbed on which Marcel Proust consecrates the countless pages which he covered with his handwriting, holding them up in the air, to the creation of his microcosm.
Benjamin’s literary criticism was too unusual and too uncompromising to win a large audience. But his admirers included some of the best living German writers, among them Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Bertolt Brecht. By 1930, Benjamin was confident enough to announce that his life’s ambition was to “be considered the foremost critic of German literature.”
It is not as a literary critic that Benjamin has been most influential, however, but as a pioneering cultural critic, one of the first writers to see all the products of civilization as worthy of analysis. This is the principle that guides his most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” now a canonical text in art history, film studies, and related fields. In it Benjamin argues that, traditionally, a painting or sculpture was endowed with something he calls “aura,” deriving from a recognition of its absolute uniqueness. That is why thousands of people line up every day for a quick, obscured glimpse of the Mona Lisa: not just to see it but to be in its quasi-sacred presence. In the age of technology, Benjamin perceived, this uniqueness is diluted by the ready availability of reproductions, which makes it possible to see a work of art without ever having seen the original. Furthermore, in the twentieth century’s characteristic art forms, photography and film, there is no such thing as an original.
Surprisingly, Benjamin welcomed the idea of art without aura. He reasoned that aura was a kind of aristocratic mystery, and that its disappearance should herald a new, more democratic art: “The social significance of film, even—and especially—in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage.” This rhetoric, with its enthusiasm for “destruction” and “liquidation,” sounds distinctly odd coming from Benjamin. How, the reader wonders, did the great champion of Proust and Kafka end up decrying uniqueness and originality? How could the man who compared “In Search of Lost Time” to the Sistine Chapel ceiling also believe that “contemplative immersion” in a work of art was “a breeding ground for asocial behavior”?
The answer lies in Benjamin’s exceedingly awkward embrace of Marxism. Like many other intellectuals of the time, he came to feel that only Communism could save Europe from war, depression, and Fascism. He visited the Soviet Union in 1926, and clung to the hope that Communism would provide better for writers than capitalism had managed to do. Benjamin’s personal circumstances only reinforced this judgment. Literary journalism, never a lucrative career, was an almost heroically futile one in Weimar Germany. By 1931, Benjamin confessed that “material circumstances . . . have made my existence—with no property and no steady income—a paradox, in view of which even I sometimes fall into a stupor of amazement.” And when Hitler seized power, Benjamin lost what remained of his livelihood. In March, 1933, he fled Germany for France, never to return. For the rest of his life, he lived on the brink of destitution. A subsidy provided by the Institute for Social Research, itself in exile from its original base, in Frankfurt, helped him scrape by. “My Communism,” Benjamin said, “is a drastic, not infertile expression of the fact that the present intellectual industry finds it impossible to make room for my thinking, just as the present economic order finds it impossible to accommodate my life.”
Benjamin’s Marxist turn was welcomed by friends like Brecht, who regretted only that he hadn’t gone far enough. Scholem, on the other hand, kept up a stream of reproaches in his letters from Palestine, thinking it nothing more than a fashionable disguise: “There is a disconcerting alienation and disjuncture between your true and alleged way of thinking.” And he was infuriated by Benjamin’s refusal to acknowledge how far his idiosyncratic understanding of Communism deviated from Party orthodoxy. “The complete certainty I have about what would happen to your writing if it occurred to you to present it within the Communist Party is quite depressing,” Scholem wrote.
Benjamin never did join the Party, though he agonized over it, just as he continually postponed his often declared plans to learn Hebrew and move to Palestine. But his limited and private adherence to Marxist principles had significant effects on his work—effects that tended to bear out Scholem’s pessimism. “The Work of Art” could not have been written without Benjamin’s newfound interest in the material conditions of cultural production. Yet his masochistic insistence on putting his work at the service of the class struggle also accounts for the forced belligerence and brutalism of that essay.
The most significant casualty of Benjamin’s Marxism was “The Arcades Project,” which today enjoys a reputation as one of the most famous books never written. It was the white whale of Benjamin’s last years, a magnum opus of stupendous scope and originality that he found himself perpetually unable to finish. The Passagenwerk, as Benjamin referred to it, took its name from the passages, or arcades, that adorned Paris in the age of Baudelaire. These were glass-covered promenades set aside for shopping and strolling, which helped to give the city its reputation as a paradise for flâneurs. In the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, Benjamin believed he had found the omphalos of the modern city, with its erotic anonymity, its phantasmagoria of fashions, its mixture of banality and enchantment.
The passages appealed to him, above all, because by his own day they were already extinct, made obsolete by the department store. This gave them the charm that Benjamin found in everything discarded and superseded, all the detritus on which civilization imprints its deepest secrets. “To someone looking through piles of old letters,” he wrote, “a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more than a reading of dozens of pages.” In just this way, Benjamin dreamed of using the arcades to write the hidden history of the city he called, in one essay, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” He initially meant his arcades essay to be brief, allusive, and literary—“a fairy-play,” he called it in 1928. “In any case,” he assured Scholem, “it is a project that will just take a few weeks.”
What transformed the essay of 1928 into the thousand-page midden of notes, fragments, and quotations that Benjamin left behind at his death, and that was published in 1999 under the title “The Arcades Project”? Any answer would have to include Benjamin’s constant tendency to procrastinate; the disordered conditions of his life in the nineteen-thirties, which made sustained research difficult; and the inherently elusive nature of what he was trying to accomplish. Above all, however, what kept him from completing the project was his Marxism. In the late thirties, when he returned to it in earnest, he was determined to recast his analysis of nineteenth-century Paris in the language of dialectical materialism. It was in support of this project that the Institute for Social Research granted Benjamin a subsidy, expecting a brilliant example of Marxist cultural criticism.
But when Benjamin started to put “The Arcades Project” in something like publishable form, sending Theodor Adorno an essay titled “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” he was in for a shock. Although he was eager to embrace Marxist terminology, his use of it proved far too clumsy for a subtle theorist like Adorno. Instead of sharpening his vision of Paris, Marxism had settled over it like a fog, reducing Benjamin to crude clichés. (For instance, he interpreted Baudelaire’s great poem about drunkenness, “The Ragpickers’ Wine,” as a response to the wine tax.) In a devastating letter, Adorno said that, by using “materialist categories,” Benjamin had “denied yourself your boldest and most productive thoughts in a kind of precensorship.” Adorno’s judgment echoed Scholem’s: Benjamin’s Marxist vocabulary had betrayed his true insights.
This rejection, coming from a representative of Benjamin’s last remaining sponsor, was a terrible blow. The timing made it even worse: he had worked through the fall of 1938 to finish the essay, believing that war could break out at any moment. “I was in a race against the war,” he told Adorno, who was then living in New York, “and in spite of all my choking fear, I felt a feeling of triumph on the day I wrapped up . . . before the end of the world (the fragility of a manuscript!).” Now he was being told that the triumph was illusory, that the Arcades Project could not be written on the terms he proposed. Even if Benjamin had lived long enough, it is doubtful that he could have completed it. The intellectual and ideological basis of the work was in ruins.
In any case, history was not to give him the chance. Despite his friends’ attempts to persuade him to emigrate to England or America, Benjamin was still in Paris in the summer of 1940, when the evil he had fled in Berlin caught up with him. The fall of France set the stage for a secular martyrdom that is a large part of his legend. The exact details are disputed, but it seems that, on September 26, 1940, Benjamin was part of a group of refugees trying to cross the Franco-Spanish border at Port Bou. But the Spanish border guards, perhaps out of deference to the Gestapo, did not honor their visas and turned them back. In despair and exhaustion, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine. The next morning, the guards relented, and the rest of the party escaped over the border. Only Benjamin, buried in the cemetery at Port Bou, remained as an exemplary victim—a reproach to a Europe intent on murdering its Jews, its radicals, and its best minds.
Where does hashish fit into this parable of persecuted genius? A reader who turns to “On Hashish” for a clear answer may be disappointed. Like a small-scale version of “The Arcades Project,” it is the placeholder for a book he could never finish, a ruin occupying the site where he planned a monument, and, as such, it has to be carefully interpreted. This is entirely fitting, since Benjamin himself believed that “all human knowledge, if it can be justified, must take on no other form than that of interpretation.”
The most common kind of interpretation, of course, is reading. So deeply ingrained is our association of the two that reading provides a metaphor for many activities that have nothing to do with written texts: the fortune-teller “reads” palms, the astrologer “reads” the stars. The intellectual quest that defined Benjamin’s work—at times, it seems, the dare that he set himself—was to find out how much of the world could be “read” in this way. In “The Arcades Project,” he made lengthy catalogues of ephemera—advertising posters, shop-window displays, clothing fashions—commenting, “Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions.”
The suspicion that everything in the world carries a hidden message seems to have come to Benjamin at a very young age. “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” is organized as a series of vignettes, each devoted to a thing or a place from his childhood: “The Telephone,” “The Sock,” “At the Corner of Steglitzer and Genthiner.” The result is an eerily depopulated memoir, in which Benjamin’s parents are mute presences, and friends are almost entirely absent. Benjamin told Scholem that the project contained “the most precise portrait I shall ever be able to give of myself,” and yet it is a portrait in which the sitter never appears, his place taken by the objects that surround him. The effect is not just to make Benjamin seem like a lonely, wary child, though he undoubtedly was. Rather, if Benjamin luxuriates in memories of solitude, sleepiness, and sickness, it is because these unguarded states allowed him to communicate most intimately with the objects around him. “Everything in the courtyard became a sign or hint to me,” he writes in the section titled “Loggias.” “Many were the messages embedded in the skirmishing of the green roller blinds drawn up high, and many the ominous dispatches that I prudently left unopened in the rattling of the roll-up shutters that came thundering down at dusk.”
Benjamin always hoped to turn his powers of reading to even more tempting and obscure kinds of signs—astrology fascinated him—and his willingness to indulge such ideas hints at the metaphysical, even mystical inspiration that is at the heart of all his work, especially his understanding of language. This affinity for the mystical was evident to Scholem, who described Benjamin’s work as “an often puzzling juxtaposition of the two modes of thought, the metaphysical-theological and the materialistic,” but it is not easy for modern readers to embrace. The theological side of Benjamin’s thought remained hidden, during his lifetime and long afterward, in part because he chose to hide it. He never published the seminal 1916 essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” which explicitly set forth his mystical vision of language, or later writings that show its continued hold on his imagination. Only with the publication of the “Selected Writings” has it been possible for English readers to grasp the crucial fact that the “metaphysical-theological” element of Benjamin’s thought was older and more profound than the “materialistic” element.
Benjamin’s essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” states, “There is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is the nature of each one to communicate its mental contents.” Everything in the world—stars, faces, animals, landscapes—has a meaning, and Benjamin accepts that this implies the existence of a cosmic author. “God,” he declares, “made things knowable in their names.” Of course, secular reason holds that human languages are purely conventional, but Benjamin would not countenance the idea that words are arbitrary: “It is no longer conceivable, as the bourgeois view of language maintains, that the word has an accidental relation to its object.” Instead, he holds that every human language is really a failed and garbled translation of a divine language that speaks in things: “It is the translation of the language of things into that of man.”
The vision of language that Benjamin advances here is moving precisely because it is beyond logical proof, and because it expresses so eloquently his longing for meaning in a world that usually presents itself as mere chaos. This longing drew him, slowly and equivocally, to hashish. In a hashish trance, he hoped, it would be possible to understand the language of things more directly than in ordinary life—to experience a universe suffused with meaning.
By the time Benjamin tried drugs, he had been reading and wondering about them for years, and when the moment finally came it proved to be a letdown, at least in the philosophical sense. This is not to say that Benjamin did not experience, and enjoy, all the usual effects. He felt mellow. “Boundless goodwill. Falling away of neurotic-obsessive anxiety complexes,” he noted during his first attempt. He saw weird visions, such as “a long gallery of suits of armor with no one in them. No heads, but only flames playing around the neck openings.” He even got the munchies: “I had been suddenly unable to still the pangs of hunger that overwhelmed me late one night in my room. It seemed advisable to buy a bar of chocolate.”
But what Benjamin called “the great hope, desire, yearning to reach—in a state of intoxication—the new, the untouched” remained elusive. When the effects of the drugs wore off, so did the feeling of “having suddenly penetrated, with their help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces.” All that remained was the cryptic comments and gestures recorded in the protocols, the ludicrous corpses of what had seemed vital insights. In a session on April 18, 1931, Fritz Fränkel, a doctor who administered the drug to Benjamin, noted, “Arm and index finger are raised high in the air, without support. The raising of the arm is ‘the birth of the kingdom of Armenia.’ ” During another trance, Benjamin was very excited to have come up with the phrase “Wellen schwappen—Wappen schwellen” (“Waves splash—armorial bearings swell”), claiming that the rhyming words held the clue to a deep structural connection between waves and the designs used in heraldry. “The subject holds forth in learned fashion,” Fränkel noted. “ ‘Quod in imaginibus, est in lingua.’ ” Fränkel may have known the meaning of the Latin phrase—“Insofar as it is in images, it is in language”—but he could not have recognized how crucial the notion was to Benjamin’s thought, or how tremendously significant the nonsense phrase must have appeared to him. Under the influence of hashish, he felt that names and things belonged together, that a rhyme had revealed a reality.
The tragedy, or perhaps the comedy, was that this insight, the crown of Benjamin’s philosophical labor, could not survive the trance that fathered it. In the cold light of the morning after, Wellen schwappen—Wappen schwellen is a meaningless jingle, and the raising of an arm has no perceptible connection to the kingdom of Armenia. “What we are on the verge of talking about seems infinitely alluring,” Benjamin wrote resignedly. “We stretch out our arms full of love, eager to embrace what we have in mind. Scarcely have we touched it, however, than it disillusions us completely. The object of our attention suddenly fades at the touch of language.” Hashish, like an evil genie in a fairy tale, granted Benjamin’s wish, but guaranteed that he couldn’t enjoy it.
What makes “On Hashish” an important book is that Benjamin’s drug experiments not only were a failure in themselves but also shifted the ground beneath his other work in a way that he never fully acknowledged. The allure of his thought lies in his imagination of a perfected world, in which objects would be redeemed—to use one of his favorite words—from their imprisoning silence. Borrowing from the Jewish tradition, Benjamin sometimes imagined this redemption as messianic; later in his career, he often cast it in Marxist terms, seeing redemption as revolution. He clung to these hopes more and more passionately the more terrifying the world around him became. The last sentence of his last major essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”—written in 1940, when Nazism seemed unstoppable—insists that even at the darkest hour redemption remains possible, that every second is “the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter.”
Hashish, by granting a vision of this redemption in such a compromised and transient form, forces us to confront the likelihood that it was never anything more than a fantasy. If Benjamin discovered a mystic language in his hashish trance, it is because he so fervently wanted to discover it. And something similar holds true for all his messianic speculations. The beguiling complexity of his work, built out of profound insights into language, thought, art, and society, makes it tempting to ignore the difficulty of actually dwelling inside it. After all, if the world is not a text because it does not have an author, then Benjamin is not an interpreter but a poet, creating meanings rather than perceiving them. Ultimately, his strange, beautiful works are best read as fragments of a great poem—the poem of a longing that no world, and Benjamin’s least of all, could possibly satisfy. ♦
After a couple of decades when Walter Benjamin was, for many of us, the ineluctable touchstone in theoretical discussions about the historicity of experience “after” its categorical deconstruction, shifting preoccupations now follow a new set of stars. A confluence of new materialist vocabularies foregrounds the “co-agential” valence of things as a “corrective” to poststructuralism’s allegedly over-weaning obsession with subjectivity, figuration, and indeterminacy. Of course, as is the case with most ostensible correctives, the staunchest converts to the latest reaction formations against deconstruction and other linguistically-turned perspectives informed by Freudian psychoanalysis may have forgotten the lessons offered by prior materialisms and their attendant critiques in the process of letting objects talk back, albeit in their own “vibrant” registers. Long after Immanuel Kant’s transcendental earthquake rattled philosophies of perception, the longing for unadulterated materiality has resurfaced with remarkable intensity as if it were a traumatized victim of authoritarian repression.1
Of course, the “new” materialism has nothing in common with the “old” vulgar Marxist variety, fixated on the “base” over the “superstructure” in the last instance, even if some contemporary Marxists also harbor a grudge against poststructuralism for its “ahistorical” poeticisms, which allegedly diluted the discernibility of political economic realities in the course of stealing Marxism’s institutional thunder. While Benjamin’s passionate devotion to literary criticism troubles intransigent gestures that awkwardly pit “language” against “materiality”,2 it is not my aim to prove the anti-poststructuralists wrong here. Instead, I would like to reflect on language matters by revisiting Benjamin’s comments from “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” about Henri Bergson’s “early monumental work”, Matière et mémoire, as an attempt “[t]owering above” all other ventures into Lebensphilosophie to “lay hold of the ‘true’ experience, as opposed to the kind that manifests itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses”. Oriented toward biology, Matter and Memory, in Benjamin’s summary, “regards the structure of memory [Gedächtnis] as decisive for the philosophical structure of experience [Erfahrung]”, where Erfahrung refers to long-term, tradition-infused experience in contrast with momentary or isolated experience [Erlebnis]. Benjamin agrees with Bergson that “[e]xperience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life. It is a product less of facts firmly anchored in memory [Erinnerung] than of the accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flow together in memory [Gedächtnis]”. Despite this initial concurrence with Bergson, Benjamin nevertheless criticizes the philosopher for “[rejecting] any historical determination of memory. He thus manages to stay clear of that experience from which his own philosophy evolved, or, rather, in reaction to which it arose. It was”, as Benjamin deduces, “the alienating, blinding experience of the age of large-scale industrialism” (, p. 314).3
It is telling that “Bergson” does not function in the “Motifs” essay merely as Benjamin’s straw dog. The literary critic’s misleadingly brief comments about Matter and Memory also serve to introduce a pivotal thesis about a vulnerable perceptual faculty under siege by industrialism’s proliferating sensory pressures. Even though Bergson shuts out the historical import of these perceptual demands, he also spotlights a “complementary” visual experience “in the form of its spontaneous afterimage”. Benjamin subsequently defines Bergson’s philosophy as “an attempt to specify this afterimage and fix it as a permanent record”, an endeavor that inadvertently “furnishes a clue to the experience which presented itself undistorted to Baudelaire’s eyes, in the figure of his reader” (, p. 314). This mixed praise of Bergson thus contrasts with Benjamin’s untrammeled admiration for Baudelaire, who, in addressing an audience that is decreasingly capable of reading lyric poetry, self-ironically mirrors a historically determined attenuation of perception that an “ahistorical” Bergson naively enacts. If Benjamin might be viewed here as weighing in on a long-running antagonism between philosophy and literature, then his judgment is resolute: by praising the self-conscious historicity of Baudelaire’s lyric, Benjamin declares that poetry succeeds where Lebensphilosophie fails.
The comments about Bergson in the opening section of the “Motifs” essay affirm Benjamin’s commitment to theorizing the subject-shaping import of fluctuations in the production and reception of cultural forms, a sociohistorical preoccupation that once spoke to a Marxist desire to think “materially”. I have previously attempted to unpack what materiality might mean for a writer such as Benjamin who so unabashedly intermixes melancholic, paradoxical, historical materialist, primitivist, and mystical formulations in his essays ,4 frequently structured, not as didactic expositions but as evocatively ordered fragments, or “thought figures” [Denkbilder] that demand literary analysis in their own right. In that context, I contended that his orchestration of messianic and primitivist tropes celebrates the return of a repressed potential for communion between moderns and “nature”, which, in keeping with Benjamin’s understanding of natural history, encompasses manufactured objects, cultural practices, and urban spaces. While this configuration seems to follow an ontotheological script, its conspicuous literariness conveys a longing for transcendence that determinately negates a philosophy seeking to operate, in Hannah Arendt’s phrasing, as a discourse of truth. For if Benjamin cares about truth in any conventional sense of the term, then it cannot be equated with knowledge “proved” through a reliable methodology; it flashes up suddenly as a rekindled poetic sentience or, alternately, a revolutionary hope buried under the rubble of urban concentration, rationalized production, and history narrated as progress. Rather than expanding knowledge through systematic investigation, these flashes owe their brief intelligibility to inadvertent lapses of consciousness, which, in Benjamin’s portrayal, literary images both refract and fill.
Yet if the self-conscious historicity of Baudelaire’s poetic percipience upstages Bergson’s “ahistorical” abstraction, then so do both Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud. With its intensive focus on the literary formalization of spontaneous memory, Benjamin’s “On the Image of Proust” from 1929 (revised in 1934)  reads compellingly as a propadeutic to Benjamin’s privileging of Baudelaire over Bergson in the first section of “Motifs” to broach the destinies of diminished perception. What comes to the fore in Benjamin’s “Proust” is the novelist’s self-conscious enunciation of involuntary memory as a literary image that reveals the limits of the philosopher’s conception of pure memory.
After reprising Proust’s “immanent critique of Bergson” (, p. 315) in the second section of “Motifs”, Benjamin in the third section draws upon Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle in order to illustrate how Bergson’s conception of pure memory reiterates a modern defense against sensory enervation in the era of experiential fragmentation. Freud’s model of a perceptual-conscious system that presupposes a thermodynamic economy of psychophysical energies distended between conservation and entropy helps Benjamin to visualize reification as a protective adaptation against sensory overdrive; however, what I will hereafter refer to as Benjamin’s “energetics” does not remain bound by Freudian thermodynamics insofar as he conceives the literary image as both a reaction against and an antidote to modernization fatigue.
Against the backdrop of a lament about the decline of Erfahrung that accompanies the rise of Erlebnis, in what follows, I will identify the “energies” that are “lost” or “regained” between Benjamin’s “Proust” and “Baudelaire”. My principal aim is to show how this trajectory promotes the literary image’s sociographic potential to supersede Lebensphilosophie in attesting to an historical moment distinguished by the dehiscence of tradition as a community-sustaining force. A point worth revisiting in this connection is how, despite Proust’s Bergson critique, Baudelaire’s correspondances nevertheless achieve a greater degree of sociohistorical dimensionality in Benjamin’s assessment than the novelist’s meticulously stylized mémoire involontaire because the former retain a relation to ritual elements (, p. 316). The key to this contrast, as I will argue, may be discovered in Benjamin’s veneration of a “Baudelaire” who counters the alienation inscribed in Freud’s model of a defensively individuated perceptual consciousness by heroically leaving himself open to modernity’s sensory onslaught. This openness allows the poet not merely to acknowledge but also to gesture past industrialism’s numbing impact upon his readers to the prehistorical community they might have comprised before rationalization.
2. Modernization-as-Loss: Benjamin’s Lament
Enraptured by the fits and starts of long-term experience in decline, Benjamin’s reflections on the disintegration of religious traditions, auratic singularities, long-term experience, and an oral (storytelling and counsel receiving) culture revamp a wide-ranging Western lament about the spirit-dampening toll of adaptation to the shifting technologies and frenetic paces of industrialized production. In her analysis of the modernization lament as a periodizing devaluation of the current era, Rebecca Saunders underscores how this form supplies a logic of both loss and continuity in “[placing] an object or event at an inaccessible remove” while “[declaring] an absolute fidelity to it”. The lament is, in this respect, a chronotope that residualizes the surpassed, as Saunders points out, while nevertheless leaving a “back door” open for the return of the repressed. By positing an object that might not have been “owned” before it was ostensibly “lost”, laments allow, moreover, for a kind of “retroactive possession” that constructs the very desire it serves (, pp. xvi–xvii).
Though the lament’s ur-generic form stretches beyond the Western tradition, what is distinctive about the pathos that reverberates through “modern” laments is, as Saunders suggests, an orientation toward an anterior unifying experience that has been, at once, contaminated and attenuated by the sociomoral, cultural, and spiritual fall-out of industrialization.5 Yet whether or not this long-lost experience is associated with solidarity in the name of mutual survival, or a religiously-glued rural tranquility, modernization laments operate formally at a hair’s breadth apart as they “ontotheologize” an anterior ideal of communal integration that loses presence over time.6
An ongoing lament about modernity conceived as a period, as well as a site of irreversible transformation and lack, was already well rehearsed on both sides of the political spectrum by the time we arrive at Benjamin’s “Baudelaire” in Paris as the capital of the 19th century. In 1887, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies served up a paradigmatic rendition of the modernization lament when he characterized the decline of organic Gemeinschaft [community] before the onslaught of rationalizing Gesellschaft [society]. Tönnies distinguishes between a “real and organic” Gemeinschaft unified by rural life, family, and “natural will”, on the one hand, and an “imaginary and mechanical” Gesellschaft distinguished by an urban-classed, individuating mentality guided by “rational will”, on the other. While the “older” Gemeinschaft type involves an “intimate, private, and exclusive” as well as a “lasting and genuine” living together, the “younger” Gesellschaft ethos comprises “public life”, or “the world itself” (, p. 33).
Tönnies privileges community as a “natural totality” that retains movement and action in relation to its interdependent parts over the mechanical totalities put forward by science which “transforms all conditions and forces into movements” that it subsequently quantifies as “labor performed”, thereby “[reducing] the living to the dead in order to grasp its conditions and relations” (, p. 36). To the extent that this formulation echoes Marx’s understanding of the quantitative homogenization of labor time that produces “abstract” value and “deadens” labor, Tönnies anticipates early 20th century Marxist theses about reification, which expand the longing for community to a collective subject-forming level: Gemeinschaft once generated the vital force that rationalized Gesellschaft “deadens” or depletes.
Tönnies’ sociopsychological formations reanimate Plato’s Republic (a forerunner of Gemeinschaft) as well as Hegel’s “Family-Society” versus “Civic Society” (, p. viii) while shaping Max Weber’s and Gyorgy Lukács’ formulations of Zweckrationalität (goal-oriented rationality or instrumentality). Weber translated the non-rational Gemeinschaft mentality into an affectual type of association “wherein means and ends become fused” and action is dominated by feeling pressing for release in increasingly “rational” modes; he also posited a non-instrumental traditional type whereby means become ends in themselves, habitually at times, at the expense of evaluation (, p. 20).
Looking back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German philosophical and sociological traditions brim with wariness about an industrialized capitalism that abandons the workers it coercively exhausts as well as reactionary anti-liberal nostalgia for self-sovereignty located in a traditional idyll where solidarity based on shared religious values held sway. Tönnies’ dichotomy canonizes a melancholic topos that resonates with myriad decline narratives circulated by a long line of modernization critics who worried about spiritual or cultural disintegration as “Civilization” overtakes “Culture” and “Society” displaces “Community”; as Tayorism’s (and then Fordism’s) ruthlessly divide-and-conquer spatiotemporalities consumed dignities and qualities; or as the culture industry and mass consumerism disintegrated faith, tradition, civility, memory, solidarity, individuality, spontaneity, and, last but not least, the capacity for genuine connection, or “true feeling”.
Marx decried reification in the treatment of humans as things whereas commodities inversely assume a vital aura, or animist glow, more “alive” than the “deadened” labor that created them, and this topos markedly shaped critical modernization laments between the World Wars and thereafter. Expanding upon Max Weber, Gyorgy Lukács, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse depicted reification as an adaptive mechanism: a repercussion of the totalizing scale of rationalized production, which is to say, the abstractly quantifying organization of socioeconomic relations in order to optimize workplace efficiency, promote the circulation of commodities, mold reliable worker and consumer habits, and advance the interests of capital, and the accumulation of wealth as such. Even if Benjamin does not employ the term reification [Verdinglichung], his Erfahrung decline narrative exhibits symptoms of this critical anxiety about rationalized production petrifying the senses to the detriment of cognitive flexibility, social responsiveness, affective mutuality, and revolutionary spirit.
The ongoing appeal of decline narratives and their innumerable liberal, anti-liberal, neo-liberal, and post-liberal variants orients my return to Benjamin’s image politics here.7 While his figurations of community do not precisely line up with Tönnies’ religious tradition-suturing idyll, which appealed more properly to anti-liberal reactionaries rather than the labor-sympathetic inheritors of Marx, Benjamin’s literary criticism nevertheless appraises the defenses against industrialization which siphon off tradition-limned Erfahrung and collective memory as regenerative sources of communal “energy”. Benjamin does not view these defenses as merely corrosive, however, since they yield imaginative forms that register and resist the alienating impact of modernization. To the extent that Bergson shares the German literary critic’s preoccupation with the interrelations between perception, memory, and imagination, the references to Bergson in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” do not tell the whole story about Benjamin’s intellectual debt to the French philosopher. In what follows, I will therefore review Bergson’s conceptions of perception and memory before I identify the various threads that “On the Image of Proust” and “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” respectively contribute to Benjamin’s mosaic of modernity as a reification machine.
3. Community Lost: Benjamin’s “Proust” after Tönnies and Bergson
After chastising Bergson for failing to acknowledge the historicity of his analysis of perception and memory, it is curious that Benjamin does not press the same charges against Freud as he turns to Beyond the Pleasure Principle for an image of modern perception under siege. Given the paramount importance of perception in Matter and Memory, which serves as a hinge between a body preparing for action and a memory that insinuates the whole, it might have been otherwise. For what Bergson holds in common with a generation of modernization critics is a marked investment in spontaneity, introspection, and imagination as the spirit-side antonyms of means-to-an-end practicality.
To be sure, Bergson’s critical relationship to philosophy tangles any move to mobilize him as its allegorical stand-in. In the course of “[n]egotiating a path between materialism and speculative philosophy”, Andrew McGettigan writes, “Bergson criticizes a dominant yet incomplete scientism by questioning the assumption that perception is directed towards knowledge” (, p. 28). To refute the “false problems” philosophy inherited from the adherents of realism and idealism, he sets out to demarcate differences in degree (or intensity) from differences in kind while placing matter, pure perception, action-oriented perception, memory-images, habitual memory, pure memory, duration, and spirit on a continuum that allows coalescences and divergences between them to emerge. According to this schema, then, perception is concerned with action, bodily memory “organizes the sensory-motor system, but ’true memory’ prolongs the past into the present of immediate perception and produces experience as a duration (durée)” (, p. 28). In the “continuous flow” of pure duration, “we pass insensibly from one state to another: a continuity which is really lived, but artificially decomposed for the greater convenience of customary knowledge” (, p. 186).
Bergson ostensibly sidesteps the pitfalls of transcendental idealism in postulating a “pure perception”, which differs from matter by degree and not kind, since “there is in matter something more than, but not something different from, that which is actually given”. To assert that pure perception “[stands] toward matter in the relation of the part to the whole”, as Bergson argues, “amounts to saying that matter cannot exercise powers of any kind other than those which we perceive. It has no mysterious virtue; it can conceal none” (, p. 71). In “pure perception we are actually placed outside ourselves; we touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition” (, p. 75). At the same time, even if perception, “in its pure state, is a part of things”, it also “measures our possible action upon things, and thereby, inversely, the possible action of things upon us” (, pp. 56, 64). Action hones memory, “so that it presents nothing thicker than the edge of a blade to actual experience, into which it will thus be able to penetrate” (, p. 106).8 Reciprocally, memory insinuates itself into perceptions in what Bergson calls recognition to designate the “concrete processes by which we grasp the past in the present” (, p. 90).
In the second chapter of Matter and Memory devoted to the “Recognition of Images”, Bergson distinguishes between “two extreme forms of memory in their pure state”: a voluntary memory “conquered by our effort”, which “remains dependent upon our will” and an “entirely spontaneous” memory that “is as capricious in reproducing as it is faithful in preserving” ([6