Hannah Arendt, Introduction to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections [1st publ. by Suhrkamp Verlag, 1955] (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968).

[ Bibliographical note: First published as an article in The New Yorker, q.d.; here scanned from Benjamin, op. cit. 1968.]


Part III: The Pearl Diver.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
                         —The Tempest, I, 2.

Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition. Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of “peace of mind,” the mindless peace of complacency. “Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions.” (Schriften I, 571). This discovery of the modern function of quotations, according to Benjamin, who exemplified [38] it by Karl Kraus, was born out of despair - not the despair of a past that refuses “to throw its light on the future” and lets the human mind “wander in darkness” as in Tocqueville, but out of the despair of the present and the desire to destroy it; hence their power is “not the strength to preserve but to cleanse, to tear out of context, to destroy” (Schriften II, 192). Still, the discoverers and lovers of this destructive power originally were inspired by an entirely different intention, the intention to preserve; and only because they did not let themselves be fooled by the professional “preservers” all around them did they finally discover that the destructive power of quotations was “the only one which still contains the hope that something from this period will survive - for no other reason than that it was torn out of it.” In this form of “thought fragments,” quotations have the double task of interrupting the flow of the presentation with “transcendent force” (Schriften I, 142-43) and at the same time of concentrating within themselves that which is presented. As to their weight in Benjamin’s writings, quotations are comparable only to the very dissimilar Biblical citations which so often replace the immanent consistency of argumentation in medieval treatises.

I have already mentioned that collecting was Benjamin’s central passion. It started early with what he himself called his “bibliomania” but soon extended into something far more characteristic, not so much of the person as of his work: the collecting of quotations. (Not that he ever stopped collecting books. Shortly before the fall of France he seriously considered exchanging his edition of the Collected Works of Kafka, which had recently appeared in five volumes, for a few first editions of Kafka’s early writings - an undertaking which naturally was bound to remain incomprehensible to any nonbibliophile.) The “inner need to own a library” (Briefe I, 193) asserted itself around 1916, at the time when Benjamin turned in his studies to Romanticism as the “last movement that once more saved tradition” (Briefe I, 13 8). That a certain destructive force was active even in this passion for the past, so characteristic of heirs and late-comers, Benjamin did not discover until much later, when he had already lost his faith in tradition and in the indestructiblity [39] of the world. (This will be discussed presently.) In those days, encouraged by Scholem, he still believed that his own estrangement from tradition was probably due to his Jewishness and that there might be a way back for him as there was for his friend, who was preparing to emigrate to Jerusalem. (As early as 1920, when he was not yet seriously beset by financial worries, he thought of learning Hebrew.) He never went as far on this road as did Kafka, who after all his efforts stated bluntly that he had no use for anything Jewish except the Hasidic tales which Buber had just prepared for modern usage - “into everything else I just drift, and another current of air carries me away again.” (Kafka, Briefe, 173.) Was he, then, despite all doubts, to go back to the German or European past and help with the tradition of its literature?

Presumably this is the form in which the problem presented itself to him in the early twenties, before he turned to Marxism. That is when he chose the German Baroque Age as a subject for his Habilitation thesis, a choice that is very characteristic of the ambiguity of this entire, still unresolved cluster of problems. For in the German literary and poetic tradition the Baroque has, with the exception of the great church chorales of the time, never really been alive. Goethe rightly said that when he was eighteen years old, German literature was no older. And Benjamin’s choice, baroque in a double sense, has an exact counterpart in Scholem’s strange decision to approach Judaism via the Cabala, that is, that part of Hebrew literature which is untransmitted and untransmissible in terms of Jewish tradition, in which it has always had the odor of something downright disreputable. Nothing showed more clearly - so one is inclined to say today - that there was no such thing as a “return” either to the German or the European or the Jewish tradition than the choice of these fields of study. It was an implicit admission that the past spoke directly only through things that had not been handed down, whose seeming closeness to the present was thus due precisely to their exotic character, which ruled out all claims to a binding authority. Obligative truths were replaced by what was in some sense significant or interesting, and this of course meant - as no [40] one knew better than Benjamin - that the “consistence of truth … has been lost” (Briefe II, 763). Outstanding among the properties that formed this “consistence of truth” was, at least for Benjamin, whose early philosophical interest was theologically inspired, that truth concerned a secret and that the revelation of this secret had authority. Truth, so Benjamin said shortly before he became fully aware of the irreparable break in tradition and the loss of authority, is not “an unveiling which destroys the secret, but the revelation which does it justice” (Schriften I, 146). Once this truth had come into the human world at the appropriate moment in history-be it as the Greek a-letheia, visually perceptible to the eyes of the mind and comprehended by us as “un-concealment” (“Unverborgenbeit” - Heidegger), or as the acoustically perceptible word of God as we know it from the European religions of revelation - it was this “consistence” peculiar to it which made it tangible, as it were, so that it could be handed down by tradition. Tradition transforms truth into wisdom, and wisdom is the consistence of transmissible truth. In other words, even if truth should appear in our world, it could not lead to wisdom, because it would no longer have the characteristics which it could acquire only through universal recognition of its validity. Benjamin discusses these matters in connection with Kafka and says that of course “Kafka was far from being the first to face this situation. Many had accommodated themselves to it, adhering to truth or whatever they regarded as truth at any given time and, with a more or less heavy heart, forgoing its transmissibility. Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to the transmissibility” (Briefe II, 763). He did so by making decisive changes in traditional parables or inventing new ones in traditional style [Parables and Paradoxes, 1961]; however, these “do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine,” as do the haggadic tales in the Talmud, but “unexpectedly raise a heavy claw” against it. Even Kakfa’s reaching down to the sea bottom of the past had this peculiar duality of wanting to preserve and wanting to destroy. He wanted to preserve it even though it was not truth, if only for the sake of this “new beauty in what is vanishing” (see Benjamin’s essay on [41] Leskov) - and he knew, on the other hand, that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.

Benjamin exemplified this ambiguity of gesture in regard to the past by analyzing the collector’s passion which was his own. Collecting springs from a variety of motives which are not easily understood. As Benjamin was probably the first to emphasize, collecting is the passion of children, for whom things are not yet commodities and are not valued according to their usefulness, and it is also the hobby of the rich, who own enough not to need anything useful and hence can afford to make “the transfiguration of objects” (Schriften I, 416) their business. In this they must of necessity discover the beautiful, which needs “disinterested delight” (Kant) to be recognized. At any rate, a collected object possesses only an amateur value and no use value whatsoever. (Benjamin was not yet aware of the fact that collecting can also be an eminently sound and often highly profitable form of investment.) And inasmuch as collecting can fasten on any category of objects (not just art objects, which are in any case removed from the everyday world of use objects because they are “good” for nothing) and thus, as it were, redeem the object as a thing since it now is no longer a means to an end but has its intrinsic worth, Benjamin could understand the collector’s passion as an attitude akin to that of the revolutionary. Like the revolutionary, the collector “dreams his way not only into a remote or bygone world, but at the same time into a better one in which, to be sure, people are not provided with what they need any more than they are in the everyday world, but in which things are liberated from the drudgery of usefulness” (Schriften I, 416). Collecting is the redemption of things which is to complement the redemption of man. Even the reading of his books is something questionable to a true bibliophile: “‘And you have read all these?’ Anatole France is said to have been asked by an admirer of his library. ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’” (“Unpacking My Library”). (In Benjamin’s library there were collections of rare children’s [422] hooks and of books by mentally deranged authors; since he was interested neither in child psychology nor in psychiatry, these books, like many others among his treasures, literally were not good for anything, serving neither to divert nor to instruct.) Closely connected with this is the fetish character which Benjamin explicitly claimed for collected objects. The value of genuineness which is decisive for the collector as well as for the market determined by him has replaced the “cult value” and is its secularization.

These reflections, like so much else in Benjamin, have something of the ingeniously brilliant which is not characteristic of his essential insights, which are, for the most part, quite down-to-earth. Still, they are striking examples of the flânerie in his thinking, of the way his mind worked, when he, like the flâneur in the city, entrusted himself to chance as a guide on his intellectual journeys of exploration. Just as strolling through the treasures of the past is the inheritor’s luxurious privilege, so is the “collector’s attitude, in the highest sense, the attitude of the heir” (“Unpacking My Library”) who, by taking possession of things - and “ownership is the most profound relationship that one can have to objects” (ibid.) - establishes himself in the past, so as to achieve, undisturbed by the present,. “a renewal of the old world.” And since this “deepest urge” in the collector has no public significance whatsoever but results in a strictly private hobby, everything “that is said from the angle of the true collector” is bound to appear as “whimsical” as the typically Jean Paulian vision of one of those writers “who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like” (ibid.). Upon closer examination, however, this whimsicality has some noteworthy and not so harmless peculiarities. There is, for one thing, the gesture, so significant of an era of public darkness, with which the collector not only withdraws from the public into the privacy of his four walls but takes along with him all kinds of treasures that once were public property to decorate them. (This, of course, is not today’s collector, who gets hold of whatever has or, in his estimate, will have a market value or can enhance [43] his social status, but the collector who, like Benjamin, seeks strange things that are considered valueless.) Also, in his passion for the past for its own sake, born of his contempt for the present as such and therefore rather heedless of objective quality, there already appears a disturbing factor to announce that tradition may be the last thing to guide him and traditional values by no means be as safe in his hands as one might have assumed at first glance.

For tradition puts the past in order, not just chronologically but first of all systematically in that it separates the positive from the negative, the orthodox from the heretical, and which is obligatory and relevant from the mass of irrelevant or merely interesting opinions and data. The collector’s passion, on the other hand, is not only unsystematic but borders on the chaotic, not so much because it is a passion as because it is not primarily kindled by the quality of the object - something that is classifiable - but is inflamed by its “genuineness,” its uniqueness, something that defies any systematic classification. Therefore, while tradition discriminates, the collector levels all differences; and this levelingso that “the positive and the negative ... predilection and rejection are here closely contiguous” (Schriften II, 313) - takes place even if the collector has made tradition itself his special field and carefully eliminated everything not recognized by it. Against tradition the collector pits the criterion of genuineness; to the authoritative he opposes the sign of origin. To express this way of thinking in theoretical terms: he replaces content with pure originality or authenticity, something that only French Existentialism established as a quality per se detached from all specific characteristics. If one carries this way of thinking to its logical conclusion, the result is a strange inversion of the original collector’s drive: “The genuine picture may be old, but the genuine thought is new. It is of the present. This present may be meager, granted. But no matter what it is like, one must firmly take it by the horns to be able to consult the past. It is the bull whose blood must fill the pit if the shades of the departed are to appear at its edge” (Schriften II, 314). Out of this present when it has been sacrificed for the invocation of the past arises then “the [44] deadly impact of thought” which is directed against tradition and the authority of the past.

Thus the heir and preserver unexpectedly turns into a destroyer. “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.” (“Lob der Puppe”, in Literarische Welt, 10 Jan. 1930.) The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it. The figure of the collector, as old-fashioned as that of the flâneur, could assume such eminently modern features in Benjamin because history itself - that is, the break in tradition which took place at the beginning of this century - had already relieved him of this task of destruction and he only needed to bend down, as it were, to select his precious fragments from the pile of debris. In other words, the things themselves offered, particularly to a man who firmly faced the present, an aspect which had previously been discoverable only from the collector’s whimsical perspective.

I do not know when Benjamin discovered the remarkable coincidence of his old-fashioned inclinations with the realities of the times; it must have been in the mid-twenties, when he began the serious study of Kafka, only to discover shortly thereafter in Brecht the poet who was most at home in this century. I do not mean to assert that Benjamin shifted his emphasis from the collecting of books to the collecting of quotations (exclusive with him) overnight or even within one year, although there is some evidence in the letters of a conscious shifting of emphasis. At any rate, nothing was more characteristic of him in the thirties than the little notebooks with black covers which he always carried with him and in which he tirelessly entered in the form of quotations what daily living and reading netted him in the way of “pearls” and “coral.” On occasion he read from them aloud, showed them around like items from a choice and precious collection. And in this collection, which by then was anything but [45] whimsical, it was easy to find next to an obscure love poem from the eighteenth century the latest newspaper item, next to Goecking’s ‘Der erste Schnee” a report from Vienna dated summer 1939, saying that the local gas company had “stopped supplying gas to Jews. The gas consumption of the Jewish population involved a loss for the gas company, since the biggest consumers were the ones who did not pay their bills. The Jews used the gas especially for committing suicide” (Briefe II, 820). Here indeed the shades of the departed were invoked only from the sacrificial pit of the present.

The close affinity between the break in tradition and the seemingly whimsical £gure of the collector who gathers his fragments and scraps from the debris of the past is perhaps best illustrated by the fact, astonishing only at first glance, that there probably was no period before ours in which old and ancient things, many of them long forgotten by tradition, have become general educational material which is handed to schoolboys everywhere in hundreds of thousands of copies. This amazing revival, particularly of classical culture, which since the forties has been especially noticeable in relatively traditionless America, began in Europe in the twenties. There it was initiated by those who were most aware of the irreparability of the break in tradition-thus in Germany, and not only there, first and foremost by Martin Heidegger, whose extraordinary, and extraordinarily early, success in the twenties was essentially due to a “listening to the tradition that does not give itself up to the past but thinks of the present.” (Kants Theses Über das Sein, Frankfurt, 1962, p.8.) Without realizing it, Benjamin actually had more in common with Heidegger’s remarkable sense for living eyes and living bones that had sea-changed into pearls and coral, and as such could be saved and lifted into the present only by doing violence to their context in interpreting them with “the deadly impact” of new thoughts, than he did with the dialectical subtleties of his Marxist friends. For just as the above-cited closing sentence from the Goethe essay sounds as though Kafka had written it, the following words from a letter to Hoffmannsthal dated 1924 make one think of some of Heidegger’s essays written in the forties and fifties: “The conviction which guides me in [46] my literary attempts … [is] that each truth has its home, its ancestral palace, in language, that this palace was built with the oldest logoi, and that to a truth thus founded the insights of the sciences will remain inferior for as long as they make do here and there in the area of language like nomads, as it were, in the conviction of the sign character of language which produces the irresponsible arbitrariness of their terminology” (Briefe I, 329). In the spirit of Benjamin’s early work on the philosophy of language, words are “the opposite of all communication directed toward the outside,” just as truth is “the death of intention.” Anyone who seeks truth fares like the man in the fable about the veiled picture at Sais; “this is caused not by some mysterious monstrousness of the content to be unveiled but by the nature of truth before which even the purest fire of searching is extinguished as though under water” (Schriften I, 151-52).

From the Goethe essay on, quotations are at the center of every work of Benjamin’s. This very fact distinguishes his writings from scholarly works of all kinds in which it is the function of quotations to verify and document opinions, wherefore they can safely be relegated to the Notes. This is out of the question in Benjamin. When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of “over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged” (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison être in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage. Benjamin’s ideal of producing a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text, may strike one as whimsical in the extreme and self-destructive to boot, but it was not, any more than were the contemporaneous surrealistic experiments which arose from similar impulses. To the extent that an accompanying text by the author proved unavoidable, it was [47] a matter of fashioning it in such a way as to preserve “the intention of such investigations,” namely, “to plumb the depths of language and thought … by drilling rather than excavation” (Briefe, I 329), so as not to ruin everything with explanations that seek to provide a causal or systematic connection. In so doing Benjamin was quite aware that this new method of “drilling” resulted in a certain “forcing of insights … whose inelegant pedantry, however, is preferable to today’s almost universal habit of falsifying them”; it was equally clear to him that this method was bound to be “the cause of certain obscurities” (Briefe I, 330). What mattered to him above all was to avoid anything that might be reminiscent of empathy, as though a given subject of investigation had a message in readiness which easily communicated itself, or could be communicated, to the reader or spectator: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener” (“The Task of the Translator”; italics added).

This sentence, written quite early, could serve as motto for all of Benjamin’s literary criticism. It should not be misunderstood as another dadaist affront of an audience that even then had already become quite used to all sorts of merely capricious shock effects and “put-ons.” Benjamin deals here with thought things, particularly those of a linguistic nature, which, according to him, “retain their meaning, possibly their best significance, if they are not a priori applied exclusively to man. For example, one could speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten them. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it not be forgotten, that predicate would not contain a falsehood but merely a claim that is not being fulfilled by men, and perhaps also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance” (ibid.). Benjamin later gave up this theological background but not the theory and not his method of drilling to obtain the essential in the form of quotations - as one obtains water by drilling for it from a source concealed in the depths of the earth. This method is like the modern equivalent of ritual invocations, and the spirits that now arise invariably are those spiritual essences from a past that have suffered the Shakespearean [48] “sea-change” from living eyes to pearls, from living bones to coral. For Benjamin to quote is to name, and naming rather than speaking, the word rather than the sentence, brings truth to light. As one may read in the preface to the Origin of German Tragedy, Benjamin regarded truth as an exclusively acoustical phenomenon: “Not Plato but Adam,” who gave things their names, was to him the “father of philosophy.” Hence tradition was the form in which these name-giving words were transmitted; it too was an essentially acoustical phenomenon. He felt himself so akin to Kafka precisely because the latter, current misinterpretations notwithstanding, had “no far-sightedness or ‘prophetic vision,”‘ but listened to tradition, and “he who listens hard does not see” (“Max Brod’s Book on Kafka”).

There are good reasons why Benjamin’s philosophical interest from the outset concentrated on the philosophy of language, and why finally naming through quoting became for him the only possible and appropriate way of dealing with the past without the aid of tradition. Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all atternts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence-that is, at the bottom of the sea-for as long as we use the word “politics.” This is what the sernanticists, who with good reason attack language as the one bulwark behind which the past hides - its confusion, as they say - fail to understand. They are absolutely right: in the final analysis all problems are linguistic problems; they simply do not know the implications of what they are saying.

But Benjamin, who could not yet have read Wittgenstein, let alone his successors, knew a great deal about these very things, because from the beginning the problem of truth had presented itself to him as a “revelation … which must be heard, that is, which lies in the metaphysically acoustical sphere.” To him, therefore, language was by no means primarily the gift of speech which dist.inguishes man from other living beings, but, on the contrary, “the world essence … from which speech arises” [49] (Briefe I, 197), which incidentally comes quite close to Heidegger’s position that “man can speak only insofar as he is the sayer.” Thus there is “a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate secrets which all thought is concerned with” (“The Task of the Translator”), and this is “the true language” whose existence we assume unthinkingly as soon as we translate from one language into another. That is why Benjamin places at the center of his essay “The Task of the Translator” the astonishing quotation from Mallarmé in which the spoken languages in their multiplicity and diversity suffocate, as it were, by virtue of their Babel-like tumult, the “immortelle parole,” which cannot even be thought, since “thinking is writing without implement or whispers, silently,” and thus prevent the voice of truth from being heard on earth with the force of material, tangible evidence. Whatever theoretical revisions Benjamin may subsequently have made in these theological-metaphysical convictions, his basic approach, decisive for all his literary studies, remained unchanged: not to investigate the utilitarian or communicative functions of linguistic creations, but to understand them in their crystallized and thus ultimately fragmentary form as intentionless and noncommunicative utterances of a “world essence.” What else does this mean than that he understood language as an essentially poetic phenomenon? And this is precisely what the last sentence of the Mallarm6 aphorism, which he does not quote, says in unequivocal clarity: “Seulement, sachons n’existerait pas le vers: lui, philosophiquement remunére le dé~faut des langues, compIégment suépirieur ” - all this were true if poetry did not exist, the poem that philosophically makes good the defect of languages, is their superior complement.” (“Crise des vers”, in Pléiade Edn., 363-64.) All of which says no more, though in a slightly more complex way, than what 1 mentioned before-namely, that we are dealing here with something which may not be unique but is certainly extremely rare: the gift of thinking poetically.

And this thinking, fed by the present, works with the “thought fragments” it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose [50] the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past - but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.


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