Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You are endangered more by your desire for community, even if it be the apocalyptic community of the revolution, than by the horror of loneliness that speaks from so many of your writings. To be sure, I am willing to stake more on that horror than on the metaphors you use to cheat yourself out of your vocation."

—Gershom Scholem to Walter Benjamin (May 6, 1931)


Andy Rector said...

A fat lot of good that stake, that gamble, gets Benjamin in the mountains of Spain, 1940, surrounded by Gestapo. Fascism was (is) not an internal, theological, or timeless struggle - and not a metaphor. Nor were its horrors. Nor its resisters, like Benjamin. It was Brecht who wrote a poem apologizing for not writing beautiful poems about the smells of spring or the snow on the leaves because there's the little matter of the dry old class struggle to attend to first. To do otherwise runs the risk of being useful to counter-revolution - a question of survival for some at the time.

ZC said...

It is an interesting question, the case of Benjamin--a man who so intensely concentrated himself upon the problems before him, ones which (well before his coming into Marxism) were tied to society, politics, history. Yet also a man who "joined up" only rarely, and reluctantly. He was nobody's pawn and yet a constant victim.

Scholem primarily objected, it seems, to Benjamin's Marxism on intellectual grounds, secondarily those of concrete political connections to unsavory Stalinism. I think because he know Benjamin so well and so long (and because he saw Benjamin's intellectual development move ever farther from him) he is able to give a valuable perspective on what made WB "tick"--why he was still not a Party man, why the messianic and metaphysical dimensions remained into that last decade of his work (even when it was a bit of a sore spot in his relations both with Brecht and with his source of income after 1934, the Institute for Social Research). Scholem's objection is not completely synonymous with his diagnosis.

(And we as persons look to history, in part, to find in it figures who, or which, help us with our own existence. I see in WB here a certain temperamental consonance with myself, really.)

In a letter that Benjamin wrote to Scholem on March 14, 1939 (when he was being weaned off of the Institute's money due to its apparently unsound financial practices; he is appaling to GS to help connect him with a book project):

There is no time to lose. What kept me plugging along in earlier years was the hope of someday getting a halfway decent position at the Institute. What I mean by halfway decent is in my minimal subsistence of 2,400 frances. To sink below this level again would be hard for me to bear à la longue. For this the charms exerted on me by this world are too weak and the prizes of posterity too uncertain.

The important thing is to survive an interim period. At some future time these people will distribute some money. It would be desirable still to be around on that occasion.

In 1916 or 1917 Scholem reports the young Benjamin as saying that "To be in the possession of truth is sufficient justification for one's claim to a living." (This is p. 28 of my copy of Scholem's Story of a Friendship.)

Perhaps we could cut Scholem (a man not untouched by intense and antisemitic German nationalist sentiment) a bit of slack, for until the end Benjamin's own judgment held him in the highest esteem. I agree with your point about the "risk of being useful to the counter-revolution"--but I think this risk is built upon contingencies and is relational. The counter-revolution is never strong, broad, nor coherent enough to enlist all properties not aligned with the revolution.

Alex said...

Actually, I think there's a quite solid argument that Scholem's (more limited) political activity was vastly more constructive than Benjamin's more than occasionally quixotic political activity.