Outside, it is a wintry morning in Berlin in 1900. Inside, the maid has put an apple to bake in the little oven at eight-year-old Walter Benjamin’s bedside. Perhaps you can imagine the fragrance, but even if you can, you won’t be able savour it with the manifold associations that Benjamin experienced when he memorialised the scene thirty-two years later. That baking apple, Benjamin wrote in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, extracted from the oven’s heat
the aromas of all the things the day had in store for me. So it was not surprising that, whenever I warmed my hands on its shining cheeks, I would always hesitate to bite in. I sensed that the fugitive knowledge conveyed by its smell could all too easily escape me on the way to my tongue. That knowledge which sometimes was so heartening that it stayed to comfort me on my trek to school.1
But comfort was quickly displaced: at school he was overtaken by ‘a desire to sleep my fill … I must have made that wish a thousand times, and later it actually came true. But it was a long time before I recognised its fulfilment in the fact that all my cherished hopes for a position and proper livelihood had been in vain’.2
So much of Walter Benjamin is in this vignette, starting with the cursed Adamantine apple, whose aromas prefigure his expulsion from childhood Eden, which in turn prefigures his adult exile from Germany into picaresque vagabondage and tragic death on the run from the Nazis aged forty-eight in 1940. There is the vulnerable figure who struggles to impose himself on the difficult world beyond his charmed, fragrant bedroom. There is the melancholic who gets what he wants (sleep) only when it is irredeemably associated with the frustration of other wishes. There is the jump-cut (from bed to school to disenchanted adulthood) echoing the modernist writing techniques he brought to his 1928 book One-Way Street and prefiguring his championing, in his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, of cinematic montage and its revolutionary potential. In particular, there is in Benjamin’s remembrance of his childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century the very strange, counterintuitive critical move that he makes again and again in his writings – namely to tear events out of what he called the continuum of history, to look back and mercilessly expose the delusions that sustained earlier eras, to retrospectively detonate what, at the time, looked natural, unproblematic, sane. He may have looked as though he was nostalgically basking in an idyllic childhood made possible by daddy’s money and the work of hired help, but really he was figuratively putting sticks of dynamite into its foundations and, indeed, the Berlin of his early years. There is also in this memoir of a lost childhood much of what made this great critic and philosopher so impressive and influential to the mostly younger, fellow German Jewish intellectuals who worked for the Institute for Social Research – or what has become known as the Frankfurt School. Although Benjamin was never on the School’s staff, he was its most profound intellectual catalyst.
Like many of the childhood homes of the leading members of the Frankfurt School, the comfortable, bourgeois apartments and villas in the west of Berlin that Emil, a successful art dealer and antiquarian, and Pauline Benjamin lived in were the fruits of business success. Like the Horkheimers, the Marcuses, the Pollocks, the Wiesengrund-Adornos and other families of assimilated Jews from which the thinkers of the Frankfurt School came, the Benjamins lived in unprecedented luxury amid the Wilhelmine pomp and pretension of the rapidly industrialising early twentieth-century German state.
That was one reason Benjamin’s writings resonated so profoundly for many of the leading members of the Frankfurt School: they
shared his privileged, secular Jewish background in the new Germany and, like him, rebelled against the commercial spirit of their fathers. Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), the philosopher, critic and, for more than thirty years, director of the Institute for Social Research, was the son of a textile factory owner in Stuttgart. Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), the political philosopher and darling of the 1960s student radicals, was the son of a well-off Berlin businessman and was raised as an upper-middle-class youth in a Jewish family integrated into German society. The father of the social scientist and philosopher Friedrich Pollock (1894–1970) turned away from Judaism and became a successful businessman as the owner of a leather factory in Freiburg im Breisgau. As a boy, the philosopher, composer, music theorist and sociologist, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969), lived in an ease comparable to that of the young Walter Benjamin. His mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, had sung opera and his father, Oscar Wiesengrund, was a successful assimilated Jewish wine merchant in Frankfurt, from whom, as the historian of the Frankfurt School Martin Jay puts it, ‘[Theodor] inherited a taste for the finer things in life, but little interest in commerce’3
– a remark that applies to several members of the Frankfurt School who were dependent on their fathers’ commerce but queasy about becoming contaminated by its spirit.
The Frankfurt School’s leading psychoanalytical thinker, Erich Fromm (1900–1980), was slightly different from his colleagues, not because his father was only a moderately successful travelling fruit-wine salesman based in Frankfurt, but because he was an Orthodox Jew who served as cantor in the local synagogue and carefully observed all the Jewish holidays and customs. But Fromm certainly shared with his colleagues a temperamental distaste for Mammon and a rejection of the world of business.
Henryk Grossman (1881–1950), at one point the Frankfurt School’s leading economist, had his childhood home in Krakow, in what was then a Galicia colonised by the Austrian Habsburg Empire. It was materially lavish thanks to the work of his father, a bar owner who had become a successful small industrialist and mine owner. Henryk’s biographer, Rick Kuhn, writes that: ‘The prosperity of the Grossman
family buffered it from the consequences of social prejudices, political currents and laws that discriminated against Jews.’4
Many of the Frankfurt School’s leading thinkers shared that buffering in their childhood, though none of course were spared discrimination entirely, especially when the Nazis came to power. That said, Grossman’s parents, though assimilated into Krakow society, ensured that their sons were circumcised and registered as members of the Jewish community: there were limits to assimilation.
All were intelligent men, alive to the irony of their historical situation, namely that it was thanks to the business acumen of their fathers that they were able to choose the life of critical writing and reflection, even if those writings and reflections were Oedipally fixated on bringing down the political system that had made their lives possible. The comfortable worlds in which these men had been born and raised may well have seemed to childish eyes eternal and secure. But while Benjamin’s memoir was an elegy to one of those worlds – the materially sumptuous world of his childhood – it also revealed the unbearable truth that it was neither eternal nor secure, but rather had existed only briefly and was doomed to disappear. The Berlin of Benjamin’s childhood was a recent phenomenon. The city that had been a relatively provincial Prussian backwater only half a century earlier had by 1900 arguably supplanted Paris as mainland Europe’s most modern city. Its rage for reinventing itself and erecting very nearly bombastic architecture (the Reichstag building, for instance, opened in 1894) stemmed from the swaggering self-confidence that came from the city becoming capital of the newly unified Germany in 1871. Between then and the turn of the century Berlin’s population rose from 800,000 to two million. As it grew, the new capital was modelled on the city it sought to supplant in grandiosity. The Kaiser-Galerie that connected Friedrichstrasse and Behrenstrasse was an arcade modelled on those of Paris. Berlin’s Paris-style grand boulevard, the Kufürstendamm, was newly developed when Benjamin was a boy; the city’s first department store at Leipziger Platz opened in 1896, apparently modelled on Au Bon Marché and La Samaritaine, the grand temples to shopping that had opened in Paris more than half a century earlier.
In writing his childhood memoir, Benjamin was attempting something that might on the face of it seem merely a nostalgic escape from a difficult adulthood, but on closer inspection appears as a revolutionary act of writing. For Benjamin, history was not, in Alan Bennett’s words, one fucking thing after another, just a sequence of events without sense. Rather, narrative sense had been imposed on those events – that was what made them history. But imposing meaning was hardly an innocent act. History was written by the victors and its triumphalist narrative had no place for losers. To tear events out of that history as Benjamin did and set them in other temporal contexts – or what he would call constellations – was both a revolutionary Marxist act and also a Jewish one: the former because it sought to expose the hidden delusions and exploitative nature of capitalism; the latter because it was inflected with Judaic rituals of mourning and redemption.
Crucially, then, what Benjamin was doing involved a new conception of history, one that would break with the belief in the kind of progress that capitalism took to be an article of faith. In this, he was following Nietzsche’s critique of historicism, that soothing, triumphalist, positivistic sense that the past could be scientifically apprehended as it was. In German idealist philosophy, that belief in progress was underpinned by the dialectical, historical unfolding of the Spirit. But that historicist fantasy erased elements of the past that didn’t fit the narrative. Benjamin’s task was therefore to retrieve what had been consigned to oblivion by the victors. The subversive Benjamin, then, aimed at breaking through this widespread amnesia, shattering this delusive notion of historical time, and awakening those who lived under capitalism from their illusions. Such a breakthrough was, he hoped, what would result from what he called ‘a new, dialectical method of history’.5
For this method, the present is haunted by the ruins of the past, by the very detritus capitalism had sought to airbrush from its history. Benjamin scarcely wrote in Freudian terms of the return of the repressed, but that is what his project sets in motion. That’s why, for example, in Berlin Childhood
he recalled as a little boy visiting something called the Kaiserpanorama in a Berlin arcade. The panorama was a dome-like apparatus that presented stereoscopic
images of historical events, military victories, fiords, cityscapes, all painted on a circular wall that trundled slowly around the seated audience. Modern critics have drawn a parallel between such panoramas and today’s multiplex cinematic experience, and Benjamin would doubtless have appreciated the comparison: the way in which examining an obsolete technology-driven form of entertainment that was once the last word can make us reflect on a later technology with similar pretensions.
The Kaiserpanorama had been built between 1869 and 1873 and now was consigned to obsolescence. But not before its final audiences, mainly children, had appreciated it, especially when it was raining outside. ‘One of the great attractions of the travel scenes found in the Kaiserpanorama’, Benjamin wrote, ‘was that it did not matter where you began the cycle. Because the viewing screen, with places to sit before it, was circular, each picture would pass through all the stations … [E]specially towards the end of my childhood, when fashion was already turning its back on the Kaiserpanorama, one got used to taking the tour in a half empty room.’6
For Benjamin, it was such out-of-date things, as well as the aborted attempts and abject failures that had been erased from the narratives of progress, that drew his critical attention. His was a history of the losers, not just of defeated humans, but of expendable things that, back in the day, had been the last word. So when he recalled the Kaiserpanorama he wasn’t merely indulging in bittersweet reminiscence of what he did one rainy afternoon in his childhood, but doing what he often did in his writings – studying the overlooked, the worthless, the trashy, the very things that didn’t make sense within the official version of history but which, he maintained, encoded the dream wishes of the collective consciousness. By way of recovering the abject and obsolete from historical oblivion, Benjamin sought to awaken us from the collective dream by means of which capitalism had subdued humanity.
The Kaiserpanorama had once been the newest thing on the scene, a projection of utopian fantasies as well as a projector of them too. By the time little Walter visited the panorama, it was heading for the scrap heap of history. It was, as the grown-up Benjamin realised while writing his reminiscences, an allegory of the delusions of progressive history: the panorama revolves endlessly, its history being repetition, precluding real change. Like the notion of progressive history itself, the panorama was a phantasmagoric tool to keep its spectators subdued, passive and fatuously dreaming, longing (as did Walter when he visited) for new experiences, distant worlds and diverting journeys; for lives of endless distraction rather than confrontation with the realities of social inequality and exploitation under capitalism. Yes, the Kaiserpanorama would be replaced by newer, better technologies, but that was what always happened under capitalism: we were always confronting the new, never turning our gaze to contemplate the fallen, the obsolete, the rejected. It was as if we were the torture victim in A Clockwork Orange or Dantesque denizens in some ring of hell, doomed to keep consuming the newest commodities for eternity.
Writing his childhood memoirs, then, was for him part of a more general literary project that was also a political act. A political act that was the basis for the Marxist-inflected, multidisciplinary work called critical theory that Benjamin’s fellow German Jewish intellectuals would undertake during the twentieth century in the face of the three great (as they saw it) benighted triumphalist narratives of history delivered by the faithful proselytisers for capitalism, Stalinist communism and National Socialism.
IF CRITICAL THEORY means anything, it means the kind of radical re-thinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and intellectual endeavour. Benjamin initiated it, perhaps, but it was Max Horkheimer who gave it a name when he became the director of the Frankfurt School in 1930: critical theory stood in opposition to all those ostensibly craven intellectual tendencies that thrived in the twentieth century and served as tools to keep an irksome social order in place – logical positivism, value-free science, positivist sociology, among others. Critical theory stood in opposition, too, to what capitalism in particular does to those it exploits – buying us off cheaply with consumer goods, making us forget that other ways of life are possible, enabling us to ignore the truth that we are ensnared in the system by our fetishistic attention and growing addiction to the purportedly must-have new consumer good.
When Benjamin recalled a childhood winter’s morning in 1900, then, he may initially have seemed to be lost in reverie over his privileged childhood, but in reality he was writing like a Marxist, albeit a very oddball one. The new morning and the new century into which little Walter was lured into consciousness by the sweet aromas made possible by a woman’s work in 1900 seemed to promise lovely possibilities and material security, but they were exposed by Benjamin as illusions. ‘Capitalism’, he once wrote, ‘was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces.’7
The aim of his writing was to shake us from those dogmatic slumbers. The world his parents had established in their villa in West Berlin needed to be exposed: it was a life that seemed secure, permanent and natural, but which in fact was based on complacency combined with a ruthless exclusion of those who didn’t fit the triumphalist narrative, notably the poor.
He described, for instance, his birthplace in a large apartment in a then elegant district south of Berlin’s Tiergarten, choosing to write in the third person, perhaps as a distancing technique to suggest the communist writer’s alienation from his earlier self: ‘the class that had pronounced him one of it...