On Walter Benjamin:
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 . . . Especially 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.’ For Benjamin, it was such out-of-date things, as well as the aborted attempts and abject failures that had been erased from the narratives of progress, that drew his critical attention.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 ofhcial 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.
Theodor Adorno, Benjamin’s friend and arguably the Frankfurt School‘s greatest thinker, wrote the most insightful Words about Benjamin’s memoir, suggesting that it ‘laments the irretrievability of what, once lost, congeals into an allegory of its own demise?" Fine, but how is one supposed to find solace or inoculation from such a lament? How to inoculate oneself from past and future woes by recalling a more materially secure past forever obliterated? The project seems esoteric, counter-productive and yet, at the same time, compellingly subversive and political. Benjamin sought succour from the remembrance but also discovered its opposite that his childhood was precarious, a little world that tottered even as it seemed secure, before it collapsed entirely.
What’s also odd about Benjamin’s memoirs of childhood as he remembered and re-rernembered it in his writings is that he increasingly purges them of people. In A Berlin Chronicle of 1924 he revisited family and schoolfriends from a quarter of a century earlier. But with Berlin Childhood Around 1900, written in 1932, his remembrances become like the literary equivalent of a neutron bomb purging people, and filling their places with things. It was a baked apple, the loggias of his grandmother’s apartment block, the Victory column in Berlin’s Tiergarten that triggered his associations, that opened up his past, that served his needs in Poveromo. In his essay on Proust he wrote that A la Recherche ‘has at its centre a loneliness which pulls the world down into its vortex with the force of a maelstrom’. As Eiland and Jennings put it, Proust’s novel involves for Benjamin the ‘transformation of existence into a preserve of memory centred in the vortex of solitude’. Benjamin’s memoirs have a similar tenor. You could read these remembrances believing he was what he was not, an only child. His parents are mute presences (apart from the image of his father uttering threats and curses into the telephone when the complaints department was on the line). And the portrait of his childhood is one in which the sitter scarcely appears, his presence taken by objects.
‘Everything in the courtyard became a sign or hint to me’, Benjamin wrote in a section of Berlin Childhood entitled ‘Loggias’. ‘Many were the messages embedded in the skirmishing of the green roller blinds drawn up high, and many the ominous dispatches that I prudently left unopened in the rattling of the roll-up shutters. But this depopulated memoir which could be read as an elegy to the fetishised commodities of his parental home, is more apparent than real. Each object contains the ghost of hman presence, a history, the heat of attachment.
Frankfurt School thinkers were serially impressed by the way things carry the heat of our attachment to persons. Adorno, years later, was to write of the potency of objects, of how the libidinal cathexis of one’s attachment to a beloved person can be replicated in our attachment to non-human objects. ‘The more second person attitudes a subject can attach to this same object in the course of its libidinal cathexis’, wrote the current director of the Frankfurt School, Axel Honneth, of Adorno’s account in his essay Reification, ‘the more rich in aspects the object will ultimately appear in its objective reality.’ Adorno was convinced it was possible to speak of recognition with non-human objects, a conviction that Benjamin surely shared. But in this memoir, Benjamin wasn’t merely drawing up an inventory of the treasure trove of the past:
'the man who merely makes an inventory of his findings, while failing to establish the exact location of where in today’s ground the ancient treasures have been stored up, cheats himself of his richest prize. In this sense, for authentic memories, it is far less important that the investigator report on them than that he mark, quite precisely, the site where he gained possession of them. Epic and rhapsodic in the strictest sense, genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers, in the same way a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through.”
As Benjamin dug into his past, he was revealing himself to himself: he wasn’t just recording the past, but actualising the present. That said, it is important to recognise that he was recording the past, in particular a past in which privileged boys were born and raised in families of materially successful, mostly secularised, Jewish businessmen in the yars leading up to the First World War.