A REQUIEM FOR WALTER BENJAMIN
by Jaye Beldo
(editor's note: I penned this one sometime in the 90's and one literary magazine after another declined to run it because it was too 'depressing'. I think Theodor Adorno, the Baal devotee, was Walt's handler and may have driven him to suicide.)
Whenever the topic of Walter Benjamin's suicide comes up, I brace myself for the usual, myopic reactions to his death. I've heard his self-immolation labeled as a 'terrible thing', and a 'regrettable and pathetic act'. 'A tragic loss' is one of the more trite epitaphs I've heard amongst the romantically indulgent, a response that rudely glosses over the deeper implications of his self chosen death. The causes as well as the consequences of his suicide deserve closer scrutiny.
On that September night in 1940, on the Franco-Spanish border what spectral Anytus, Meletus, and Lykon did Benjamin try to persuade with dialectical eloquence? Did he offer any 'Apology' for the court assembled ad hoc in his room in the internment camp? If so, he wisely kept it under his breath. In spite of his reticence, the sentence, was handed over, nonetheless. He committed a crime against the Teutonic state which pursued him in imagination and in reality. Benjamin fully accepted his sentence and chose his hemlock: a fatal dose of morphine. In such light Benjaminic irony may be not much different than the Socratic variety.
What was Benjamin to do if he managed to escape his accusers who seized his Paris apartment and his treasured library and notes? What if he survived the holocaust, the grand Trauerspiel of our century, perhaps of all human history? According to Hannah Arendt, in her introduction to Benjamin's "Illuminations", he used to lament about going to America: "people would probably find no other use for me than to cart me up and down the country to exhibit me as the 'last European'." In spite of such disheartening anticipations, Gershom Sholem repeatedly urged Benjamin to flee to the west and join him and Theodor Adorno, Benjamin's one and only disciple. Benjamin was obviously morose about the prospect. Surely, he was aware of the fact that he could have gotten through border patrol to safety, on foqt> if he wanted to. Did he foresee the philosophical consequences of such a trans-atlantic journey before the others did? Between Berlin and Moscow, Paris and Naples, Benjamin could always find fertile ground to cultivate his geo-political dialectics. But Spain to America? What ground would lie in between? Perhaps, on that night in 1940, in his private Gethsemame, with opiated prescience, he saw himself hopping off a cruise ship only to end up sunbathing in Martha's Vineyard, scripting dialectical one liners for t.v. sit com scripts. Perhaps, as he fondled the ampule of morphine, he mused upon venturing further, arriving in New York where Adorno, Horkheimer and others awaited or even further westward, to Southern California where all the refugees joined the likes of Thomas Mann to while away the days of their exile. Maybe he dreaded dependence on Rockefeller funding to further his projects. Perhaps he envisioned the arcades of a post war America where he would be compelled to wander, divining for the capital of the twentieth century. He would file away notecards with observations on America's first shopping mall, the advent of television, and if he lived to be a centigenarian, cellular phones, fax machines and Virtual Reality. Perhaps while in the hypnagogic delusion brought on by the initial effect of the fatal dosage, he was unable to bring to any Hegelian synthesis, the fragments he saw in the country his colleagues urged him to adopt. Perhaps, he presaged the intellectual future of America and saw the hollow casuistry of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan being worshipped, touted as the coffee house fashion of the day. Repulsed and despairing, Benjamin tried to fill the future's lacuna with more morphine.
Benjamin's suicide signaled the end of the great syncretism of Jewish-German intellect which produced some of the greatest minds, souls and cultures this world may ever know. The Frankfurt school could not pick up his pieces and carry on with much critical influence on the postwar world, as it has been claimed it has. The school's members may have had some geist but they did not have Benjamin's elan or capacity for synthesis. As a result, we will probably never philosophically recover from the loss of Walter Benjamin. He once said, 'every completed work (is) the death mask of its intention.' Perhaps his suicide was the death mask of an ontological intention yet to be deciphered by those able to look beyond the surface of his death. Someone familiar with the ways of the Kabbalah would do well in the investigation. Someone who can part the theatre curtains, and move past the alluring levels of deception, levels which pull the weaker willed off the path of ascent to Ein Sof. Since no one has yet come forth with such qualifications to decipher the mystery, it is easy to say Benjamin's death was 'tragic', for we cannot really understand the true import of his end. Especially now, as we enervate ourselves, trying to make sense of the conditions of our fragmentary world. Without substantial understanding, his suicide is reduced to a baroque embellishment on the tragedy of his brief life. The catastrophe of his suicide was the only apostrophe he could offer up to the muteness which awaited beyond the border. Whether he was courageous or not does not matter. The last European could not be carted around America because no one would be able to recognize him let alone understand the bundle of his scattered notecards which constituted his 'opus'.
Susan Buck-Morss is one of the few who have come forth to further our understanding of the spirit of Walter Benjamin. In her book, The Dialectics of Seeing, she attempts to piece together the fragments of Benjamin's Passagen-Werk to bring some kind of closure to his vast unfinished, unpublished papers on 19 c. Paris. Yet the apostrophe of Benjamin's suicide still looms over all he has written. It seems the wound it has left in our psyches cannot be healed.
Maybe Benjamin just has to wait until the morphine wears off. It may take a century or two. He'll wake up when he's ready to. He'll deftly acclimatize to whatever culture and its fossilized fragments are at hand and resume his exegesis. Rip Van Benjamin will gather us around a fireplace in a villa tucked away in some quiet mountains to spin an epic story he has been incubating, reading from his notecards woven into a vast, epic patchwork quilt draped over his lap. Our nervous, pack rat intellectualism will subside and we will listen, to his voice cadenced by the crackling logs to what he has been trying to tell us all along, something perhaps along the lines of Franz Kafka in a journal
entry dated Oct. 19, 1921:
Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little of his despair over his fate...but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.
Our task may be to find the reconciliation hidden within Benjamin's suicide, to see what is still alive among the ruins of not only his life and work, but in the most banal artifacts of commodity which stir round us. We may even be inspired to jot down what we see and create a new, life sustaining poetry. Cynicism towards our consumerized fates can abate. Vitality and life enhancement may then compose our attitudes. But for now, we may not be able to read our culture or ourselves in such a way until we fully appreciate the import of Walter Benjamin’s death.