Magazine article Salmagundi

Walter Benjamin, Fabulist*

Magazine article Salmagundi

Walter Benjamin, Fabulist*

Article excerpt

Walter Benjamin, Fabulist*

Fifty years have passed since Walter Benjamin's writings first began to appear in English translation in 1968, and more than twenty since the historian Mark Lilia could complain in the New York Review of Books about the "enormous Anglo-American industry" of interpretation growing up around them. Much more recently, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has criticized "the Collegiate Intellect's efforts to make the most of Walter Benjamin," suggesting an academic commodities market trading in Benjamin Studies. Benjamin himself might have been bemused by this posthumous destiny, given his ambivalence toward the scholarly establishment of his time and its reciprocal ambivalence toward him. Months after the University of Frankfurt ended his hopes for an academic career upon reviewing his post-doctoral thesis on German baroque drama, he expressed that ambivalence in a fairy tale intended as that book's secret preface, sent to Gershom Scholem in May 1926:

I would like to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty a second time.

She sleeps in her hedge of thorns. And then, after a certain number of years, she wakes.

But not at the kiss of a fortunate prince.

The cook woke her up when he gave the scullery boy a box on

the ear that, resounding from the pent-up force of so many years, echoed through the palace.

A lovely child sleeps behind the thorny hedge of the following pages.

May no fortune's prince in the shining armor of scholarship come near. In the kiss of betrothal she will bite.

The author has therefore had to reserve to himself the role of master cook in order to awaken her. Already long overdue is the box on the ear that would resound through the halls of academe.

For there will awaken also this poor truth, which has pricked itself on an old-fashioned spindle

as, in forbidden fashion it thought to weave for itself, in the little back room, a professorial robe.

This bit of theoretical storytelling reflects a long-standing pattern in Benjamin's career. It may surprise many of his English-speaking readers to learn that he was the author of numerous stories, fairy tales, play-scripts, poems, and puzzles, but his audacious traveling between the outposts of "literature" and "criticism"-which he learned from Goethe and the Romantics who formed the subject of his doctoral dissertation -ought to be recognized as a prominent facet of his work. This habit of mind hardly endeared him to the professoriate of his lifetime; his book on the German baroque was too speculative, too interdisciplinary, ultimately too much a work of creative or primary writing in itself to pass muster with his readers. Notably, no armor-clad knight of official Scholarship can awaken the slumbering, childlike, ultimately mordant Truth from within the pages of his thesis: only a Cook and a Scullery Boy, who in a slapstick moment rattle the academy's ivory chambers with noise. The same clangor, however, awakens another old truth. Although Benjamin had hoped in his youth for a scholarly robe, he also wished "a thousand times" as a child-in direct opposition to this longing-for a life in which he could sleep his fill.

A spate of recent English-language publications now signals a new attentiveness to Benjamin's previously untranslated literary output. The independent Publication Studio Hudson has released Carl Skoggard's translation of his Sonnets-an extended sequence written after the death of his university friend Fritz Heinle. Meanwhile, Verso has compiled his texts for radio, including stories and plays for children, under the title Radio Benjamin, alongside another collection of short stories and reviews, titled The Storyteller. Together, they make Benjamin's creative oeuvre available for Anglophone readers to an unprecedented degree and should become indispensable for research on him in the future. Their publication coincides with Stuart Jeffries's group biography of the Frankfurt School entitled Grand Hotel Abyss, which devotes much attention to Benjamin as an outlier to the central Frankfurt constellation, but also as one who "initiated" the project of critical theory central to its undertakings. …

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