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To Speak of Walter Benjamin

George Steiner
It is a very great honour, to me deeply moving, to be invited to address you
tonig ht. It is also a feeling, a very genuine simple feeling, of inadequacy. This
room is filled with those better qualified than myself, Stakhanovites in the field of
Benjamin Studies, masters of deconstruction and postmodernism, the postcolonial
lyric. I’m very worried lest these remarks may seem to you, and I mean this, too
elementary.
I hope many of you have been, or are going to be, visiting Port Bou. It is one of
the saddest places on earth. The graveyard is of infinite desolation. The guide,
sensing the tourist, shows you Walter Benjamin’s alleged grave. We do not know
anything about where that grave is. That is tourist food. There is a grim little
plaque consigned to the ‘Filósofo Alemán’ — those words are wrong, of course.
And there is the contrasting immensity of the Benjamin industry of this occasion
tonig ht, of the Journal, of the academic voracity around his work. The ironies
are deep.
In the winter of 1972/73 I had the privileg e of sharing the guesthouse of the
University of Zürich with Gershom Scholem. Gershom Scholem also loved to have
his meals at the Schweizerhof Hotel in Bern. He took me to the very table where
he and Walter were always together and where, at the end of World War I, they
drew up the statutes, examination programme, seminar programme, of an imagi-
nary satiric, comical university called Muri, it’s a suburb of Bern, the Universität
Muri. And one night Scholem said, ‘let’s sit down and do the prerequisites for
any student wanting to enter a seminar on Benjamin. What are the prerequisites
before we admit him to our imaginary seminar?’ The game turned very serious,

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as such games do, and we decided together on twelve areas before you can read a
word of Walter Benjamin, and the figure 12 is of course not innocent for a Judaic
thinker and kabbalist. It is almost a predestined number.
Number one, the emancipation of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie after
Napoleon and Heine, the emergence from the ghetto. The profound ambiguity of
this situation: on the one hand, the explosive deployment of commercial, fiscal,
intellectual talent, on the other hand, the implosive containment of the ghetto
behind it. Their complex coexistence still into the time of Benjamin’s parents. The
creation of our modernity in the secularisation of Judaism through Marx, through
Freud, through Einstein. The Goethe-cult of that Jewish emancipated community
for whom Goethe was a talismanic, commanding presence of European humanis-
tic hope, a cult which will be reflected in the great 1923–24 Wahlverwandtschaften
essay of Benjamin. And then, in a very complex and peculiar way, in this
long, encyclopaedic essay for the Moscow Encyclopaedia, never used, on Goethe of
1925–26. And then also, peculiar to this German-Jewish emancipated bour-
geoisie, a vision of France, a largely idealised vision of an emancipated Voltairean
France of the Lumières, a vision put under extreme pressure and crisis by the
Dreyfus affair and all its consequences, not only in France but throughout Europe.
So prerequisite one: an understanding of that very intricate piece of European
history.
Prerequisite two, says Scholem: a study of the German youth movements, not
only of Gustav Wyneken, the first master of Benjamin, but across the horizon, the
search in Germany at that time for discipleship, most dramatically in the Stefan
George circle, but in so many other groups too. And the very history of the term
‘Führer’ which Benjamin will use a great deal at the beginning , as did so many
others. ‘Führer’, with its ethical, mystical resonance: the teacher, the master, the
paradigmatic exemplar, modulating into the politics of the pragmatic. At the core
of this construct, there are the tensions for the young German Jew, between assi-
miliationist nationalism and nascent Zionism. There are the ever more strained
debates around figures such as Buber and somewhat later, Rosenzweig. And the
impact of this debate and of these tensions and dialectics on Benjamin, summed
up in Herzl’s famous ambiguous title Altneuland, the ancient new land.
‘Altneuland’ which is to be Zionist Israel, and yet formed, as we know, according
to Bismarckian ideals of a nation-state, so that the tragic fausse situation was there
from the start.
A third chapter would be the as yet very little understood history of German
pacifism. German pacifism was very rare. Walter Benjamin’s self-isolation from
the Freideutsche Jugend was the first tragedy of his life. He split from the
Freideutsche Jugend which adopted a militant, pro-war attitude and a militant
patriotism. Among Jews this meant an almost ludicrous overcompensation,

14 Steiner / To speak of Walter Benjamin


of being more patriotic than the Germans around them. The moral psychological
complications of Scholem’s and Benjamin’s, and I use a vulgar word, ‘draft-
dodging’ and their refuge in Switzerland. On this I found it impossible — how
could one ever — to query Scholem. Scholem used to recount, and he has done
it in writing , the fantastic pride he took in feigning madness, as you remember, in
feigning epilepsy, in faking his way through three revision boards. Benjamin had
completely fraudulent medical certificates, obtained through the pressure of priv-
ileged family. And when one reads the Scholem letters and the Scholem-Benjamin
letters above all, in the two volumes already available, there are less than half a
dozen references to the World War raging around them, and to the death of many
who were very close to them and who would not have wanted to evade their duty
in any way. There is a problem here, that I do not have any insight into, but I know
it is a very deep and important one, and that until we can tackle and grasp this
issue, there is a great deal we are missing.
Fourth, of course, the development of the German language out of the Luther
Bible translations, out of the mystical-illuminated lineage of Böhme, Angelus
Silesius, Novalis, and above all of the parataxic techniques of Hölderlin and the
Sophocles translations and commentaries on Oedipus and Antigone, as these become
available, immediately prior to and after the First World War, through the
pioneering work of Norbert Hellingrath. He himself of course falls heroically in
the front lines. Dramatic hermeticism, as I would call it, and dialectical expres-
sionism, as we will find them in the first of the two great Römerbriefe of Karl Barth,
in Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie, in Heidegger above all, leading ultimately to the
‘Sprache im Norden der Zukunft’ (‘the language in the North of the future’),
the famous line of Paul Celan. This peculiar and particular German grows out
of a dual legacy of the Lutheran pietist strain and of the great Romantic prose
with which Benjamin deals in his early writing s and thesis. Without a close
awareness of this semantic history, the famous, or dare I say, notorious texture
of the opening section of the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels remains inacces-
sible. And even if one is plunged at first hand — and so many now in the
Benjamin industry are not, forgive me, capable of handling German at any
such level — into the immediacy of that richest, most complex chapter in the
history of the German language, that section is finally ‘so much more difficult
than anything in Kant’ (Adorno). Or, much more simply, ‘I regard the whole
thing as totally incomprehensible’ (Scholem). This is very important, because
Scholem’s German is preternaturally lucid, almost uncannily like Freud’s. Freud
and Scholem are the two great masters of clarity, of an ultimate clarity. And Scholem
found Benjamin’s choice of the esoteric very, very important and in need of study.
Fifth, and wonderfully ironic after the generous welcome we have received
here, the inaccessibility to the academic which is such a commanding part of

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Benjamin’s tragedy and life. The inability to gain a foothold in the academic. The
failure climaxing in the withdrawal of the Habilitationsgesuch of 1925. It is
this failure which will compel Walter Benjamin towards the fitful bohemia and
necessities of freelance cultural journalism, towards a lifelong dependence on the
interest and/or goodwill of newspapers, of radio and publishing ventures, and
then, almost fatefully, on the Institute of Social Research and maecenasship of
Horkheimer and Adorno. Deeply defining of Benjamin’s sensibility is the nostal-
gia for an ironic ressentiment towards the academic. Never was there a professor
more manqué, never. How true was he a obituary, the only obituary, one obituary.
How true was he the obituary in the New York Yiddish and refugee newspaper
Aufbau, which reports 11th October 1940 ‘The tragic suicide of Professor Walter
Benjamin, the well-known academic psychologist’. One would have had to be
Kafka to write that one. And yet Benjamin hungered for that acceptance, and
again and again stated that it might have saved his life, the point being that
Adorno’s academic status, parlous as it was, marginal as it was, nevertheless when
papers and visas were issued, was of immense importance.
Six, the mentality of the collector, an enormously rich and difficult chapter.
Benjamin, the expert bibliophile, the marvellously skilled and passionate book
trader, the renowned collector and exegete of 19th century children’s books and
toys, the famous and magnificent collection. The word, I’ll come back to it, which
Lévi-Strauss will launch, but which is just as right for Benjamin, the bricolage-
ethos and bricolage-ethics which will underlie the entire Passagen-Werk, which
is conceivable only to a collector. Or the famous boutade, but it was more than
a witticism, ‘I dream of writing a book made up only of quotations’ — entirely a
collector’s remark, the remark of a virtuoso of book catalogues, of a virtuoso of
catalogues resonnés.
The emblematics of Benjamin’s fascination with allegory and the baroque, the
collection of figuri and configurations. Benjamin, as Shakespeare, guides us. He is
a supreme ‘picker-up of unconsidered trifles’, has a fantastic eye for the tiny, for
whom the rag-picker in the Paris streets is a prime witness to the nature of late
mercantile civilisation. Hence, one of the most haunting , totally inexplicable,
and totally convincing of his aphorisms, ‘there will be mythology so long as there
are beggars’.
The seventh chapter, which Scholem again emphasised in conversation, is
totally closed to me, Benjamin the graphologist. He said if you don’t understand
that, then ‘nichts anfang en’, ‘no use’. Why? There is biographical detail, en passant,
he earned very hard needed money from graphological analysis. That’s a detail. He
did it professionally. But there are manifest links, I imagine, with his concept of
image and trace, with Spur, Bild, Annäherung, and Bildannäherung, with his medi-
tations on the act of scripture and writing with enigmas of similitude, which is

16 Steiner / To speak of Walter Benjamin


not analogy or equation. A similitude is not an equation, it’s not an analogy.
Apparently, in graphology these can be delicately and exactly disting uished, and
you have to, if you’re going to do a serious graphological analysis. I repeat, I’ve no
competence whatever in what may be indeed this vital synaptic domain relating
many areas of Benjamin’s work.
The eighth zone, again closed to me, the repeated and, it would appear —
there’s much still to be learned —, fairly massive experiments with narcotics, with
hashish in particular. These go back, we now know, to at least 1927 but probably
earlier. They relate — of course, he does the relating himself — to Benjamin’s
incessant preoccupation with Baudelaire, but also to his immersion in the counter-
logic of dreams, of surrealism, of the hallucinatory in art and of poetics in general.
He explored deeply the drug world, experienced it at a time when its status was
different from ours, and that difference is one of the most fascinating transitions
into modernity. It was not our status. Cocteau’s drug-taking is not our drug
taking, and so on. The sociology was deeply different.
And I ask, does the drug complex relate also to the visionary reading s of the
Angelus Novus, that iconic presence dates back as you know to 1921, and to the
very peculiar imaging of abstract discourse, even in the late theses. As I under-
stood Scholem, the addict and the mystic are able to make concrete, bilden, to
image, ausbilden, einbilden, durchbilden, relations of extreme abstraction, even
formal logic. Remember, Scholem was a mathematician, and a very formidable
formal logician. And he says these are the two roads, the genuine illuminatio and
the drug road, and if you know neither, you cannot get anywhere near the centre
of the doctrine of the image and of the concrete.
The ninth chapter, the truly labyrinthine question of Walter Benjamin’s
involvement with rejections of Marxism and Leninist-Marxist Communism. Far
too little is said of the deep and tragic relation to his brother, who will perish in
this drama, who as you remember, goes back, goes back in to die for the KPD. We
know of the relations, or we think we know, which begin with Asja Lacis in 1924.
We now have the diary of the 1925–26 Moscow visit, posthumous of course. We
think we understand the concept of the materiality and technicity of language
and the arts in its derivation from Marxist theory. We look, though I do not think
it is correct, to the famous chiasmic doctrine of the aestheticization of fascism
and nazism against the politicization of the arts in communism. I think this is
totally erroneous, one need only look at the Stalinist and East German history of art
to know that this utopian distinction doesn’t work, but it was a very important
suggestion.
And there’s a darkening role of the meta-marxist involvement in Benjamin’s
conflicts with Scholem and then, as we know, fatally with Horkheimer and
Adorno. It is Benjamin’s complex integrity in regard to what remained of his very,

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very special Marxist convictions, which made the life-saver contact with New York
more and more difficult on the one hand, and the utterly indispensable intimacy
with Scholem almost impossible on the other.
And we want to know a lot more about the Brecht chapters in Benjamin’s life
and labours which begin in 1929, and particularly the extent to which Brecht’s
virtuoso genius as a writer of metaphor, of aphorism, of laconic brief parable and
fable will influence a late Benjamin’s ambition in regard also to the aphorismic
and didactic. I don’t think we can understand those incredible last theses, theo-
logical, historical theses, in form, formally without going back to Brecht’s Kleines
Organon and the way Brecht tries to make (in a time when there’s no time, says
Brecht) for the long passage, to contract into the crystalline totality of brevity
to save meaning.
A tenth chapter would be the unique instrumentalities of translation in the his-
tory of the German language, in German-speaking consciousness and in German
literature. German grows out of the Luther Bible translation and out of Goethe’s
translations, of course often at second hand, but not always, at all, out of no less
than 37 languages. I’ve already mentioned that the German of Benjamin or his
doctrines is inconceivable without Hölderlin’s Sophocles translations, translations
of Dante, Baudelaire, Verlaine, by George, and he kept a very close eye on a figure
largely forgotten, an unattractive figure, an irritating figure, but as it happens a
man of genius, who was Rudolf Borchardt, a great Dante translator, Valery trans-
lator. Benjamin himself, of course, was a translator of Baudelaire, of Balzac, now at
last becoming available in a properly edited form, of Baudelaire and Proust etc.
Fundamental to his ontology was the notion of the Adamic tongue which under-
lies all seemingly separate articulations and the methodology of decipherment,
the enmetamorphic recursion to a lost or concealed authenticity in the Urtext. The
universal semiology of the correspondence, out of Baudelaire, between Wort und Bild,
between gesture and emblem. A semiology of translatability, of inter- and intra-
textuality. As I’ve tried to show it in After Babel, Walter Benjamin, like Paul Celan
after him, translates himself into German. Benjamin’s language and Celan’s
are translations, also in German, out of a semantic set of intuitions prior to the
limiting resources of any one language and of the formal lexical and grammatical
constraints of natural language.
The eleventh chapter, to which again Scholem attached very great if somewhat
sardonic importance, was Benjamin and eros. (A footnote: there has just appeared a
novel — there will be a hundred — a Benjamin novel in New York. A very poor
novel — that’s not its fault, most novels are — but which simply throws as a self-
evident motif Benjamin’s resort to brothels. I do not know of a single shred of
evidence, either way. But this novel treats it as bien connu. End of footnote.)
Benjamin and eros, the ardent failure of lasting relationships. Over and over, the

18 Steiner / To speak of Walter Benjamin


passionate incapacity of a lasting relationship, be it with Dora Kellner, Jula Cohn,
Asja Lacis, perhaps at one point, it is thought, Lisa Fittko, and so many others.
The incomparable finesse of Benjamin’s analysis of eros and sexuality in Goethe’s
Wahlverwandtschaften. Unmatched in the delicacy of his reading of every nuance
of the gamut across Eros, Liebe, Leidenschaft, sexuality. The singular mixture of
shyness, of reserve and of brutality reported of Benjamin’s pronouncements on
sexuality on the need of and equally necessary fear of women.
And finally to the twelfth chapter of the imaginary prerequisites, the wholly
decisive matter of theology, and I quote (you know it all, it’s a quote with which
every Benjamin study must begin), ‘the blotter of theology that underlies every
line I write.’ That is its inverse mirroring , ‘Spiegelbild’. Benjamin and modern
Heidegger are the two parodist theologians, where the word ‘parodist’ is of the
utmost gravity, of our age. There is scarcely a node, or constellation of argument
and terminology in Benjamin that is not akin to, or derived from, the theological.
If one picks just at random words such as ‘aura’, ‘the messianic’, ‘the angel of his-
tory’, ‘the Adamic tongue’, the famous discrimination between ‘the tragic’ and
‘the suffering’, ‘the iconic’, ‘the decay of the sacred’, ‘the numinous’, where would
the list stop? Where Walter Benjamin is at the highest pitch of his revealing
receptions, in the writings on Kafka, on the interlinear nature of textuality, in the
late theological, historical theses, he is working within and against the grain of
theology precisely as did Novalis, Hölderlin and Hegel, and in a crucially trans-
vestite mode as did Karl Marx. Without the theological recourse and idioms so
often explicit, Walter Benjamin’s work would scarcely exist.

Twelve, shall we call them ‘spaces’, in an imaginary seminar, in an imaginary


university, each of which solicits study and evaluation. No single scholar, no
hermeneutic reader can master them all, of course. And since Scholem himself, and
Hannah Arendt, and Karl Löwith and Adorno, I know of no one left with the
immediacy of trained insight into Walter Benjamin’s appalling ly destroyed world,
into the matrix of his thought. Four fellow exiles in the tragic era of modern
Judaism, with lives and sensibilities kindred to Benjamin’s own haunted and
dishevelled condition. That condition is the absolutely determinant fact of every
aspect and facet of his being and thought. This is the whole point. Benjamin’s
Jewish identity and fate is the one single axis around which turns the bewildering
range of his interests, the kaleidoscope of his writings, as well as their fragmented
incomplete and provisional form.
The context of Walter Benjamin is that of a fundamentally Jewish moto spirit-
uale, a motion, an Energie of spirit or Sprachkrise, which takes modernity from
Sigmund Freud and Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus to the Frankfurt School,

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to Lévi-Straussian semiotic structuralism, to Roman Jakobson, and from that struc-
turalism to the direction set by Husserl and Lévinas. A direction whose logical
‘afterword’ is that of current derridean deconstruction. Already it should be clear
that this ‘language turn’, as it is called in American philosophy, arises intimately
out of the Jewish revolt, both self-lacerating and parodistic, against a millennial
logocracy, against a sacrilisation of the revealed text as law and truth. This revolt
is as visible in the Sprachkritik of Wittgenstein and of Karl Kraus as it is in the play
with indeterminacy and emptiness of deconstruction in postmodernism. But
a revolt paradoxically, no, inevitably, charged with the dialectics of the sacrilisa-
tion of language. We do not need Freud to teach us that where there is that
onslaught there is the counter-motion, in the dialectic of worry force conscience and
despair. The great Sprachmystik in the desperate rearguard actions of Rosenzweig,
of Scholem himself, of a Lévinas, of a Paul Celan, and a Walter Benjamin, it is
precisely this counter-motion of deeply Talmudic, or if you will, Kabbalistic
language sacrilisation, which makes current attempts to incorporate Benjamin
into the deconstructive, let alone ‘lacanian’ or postmodern carnival so misguided
and so exploitative. Benjamin was in unremitting search for, and I quote the great
cry at the end of Moses and Aaron: ‘du Wort, du Wort das mir fehlt’, a cry which
sums up the great Jewish language drama, ‘you word, you word that I lack, or that
fails me.’ For the transg ression into essential meanings of meaning at the barriers
of speech in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, for the fatal silence of the Sirens in Kafka —
each of which cardinal moments is rooted in tragic Judaism. The never to be
accomplished, yet always imminent homecoming to where we have never been
before. That is how I imagine the messianic. ‘You come home to where you have
never been’ is, in Benjamin and his contemporaries in suffering, ineluctably knit
to the Rettung, the Errettung, the salvation, the salus of the word. It has, I believe,
nothing to do with the glittering array of sociologic, psychoanalytic, deconstruct-
ive issues and attitudes so prodigal at this Congress. To overlook, be it for a
moment, the defining, embracing, now so largely unrecapturable — we can’t recap-
ture it, no scholar can — Judentum that is the life and work of Walter Benjamin, is
to add to the desolation, to the injustice, to the falsification of his memory and
legacy. Thus for me, and forgive my frankness, to speak of Walter Benjamin is to
say kaddish at Port Bou.

The current plethora, the explosion of secondary material — it begins terribly


ambiguously with a special number of the magazine Benjamin zum Gedächtnis
issued by the repentant Institute for Social Study Research in New York in 1942,
though repentant is the wrong word, I know, and the very slow resurrection
of the works, first in the DDR where I was and saw them beginning to come,

20 Steiner / To speak of Walter Benjamin


let’s never forget it, in ‘49, that early, and then with the ‘Suhrkampkultur’, as I tried
to call it and define it, in 1950, it makes it very precarious, I know that I’ll get it
wrong, to attempt any balance-sheet. Any Bilanz is immensely difficult to try and
arrive at, particularly among specialists. But I do want to ask what in the thought
and writing s of Walter Benjamin will survive. What is his presence, or, to use
Kierkegaard’s great phrase, his ‘present past’, seine Gegenwart-Vergangenheit, the past
that is present, which is what matters to us — we are not archaeologists? What
will, in his work, be a source for future argument and application, enactment?
Any answers can only be tentative and, I repeat, almost assuredly turn out to be
erroneous. I know that, and I ask you to bear with what is clearly a personal
intuition.
I think that in a configuration which would include the Annales historians such
as Marc Bloch, and the Abi Warburg–Panowski school of art history and icon-
ology, and Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage to which I’ve referred already. Walter
Benjamin has made highly communicative what William Blake in that wonderful
phrase called ‘the holiness of the minute particular’. His anti-systematic vision of
specific objects, artefacts, grammatical tropes, urban locales, generates a material-
ism which is dialectical, though only very partly in any classic Marxist way. Texture
and textuality, ‘the thingness of things’, Dinglichkeit — which of course goes back
to Kant — of even the abstract concatination and reticulation in Benjamin so as to
generate a very rare particularized universality, I cannot put it more intellig ently,
out of the tiny detail he does afford abstract and general theses, or ‘callings’, again
what Shakespeare called ‘a local habitation and a name’. Like Aby Warburg he
knows that God lies in the detail, and that God’s immensity lies in the detail,
both. This visionary — dare I call it — hyper-realism is surely fruitful in today’s
social history, in today’s sociology of art.
Secondly, much in the famous essay on the ‘Task of the Translator’ is, the
German word is the only right one, überpointiert, surpointé — the English remark is
very crude, ‘too clever by half’, but it is a good strong remark. It is a precious
paradoxicality of expression, for example in the famous assertion: the non-
direction of translation towards any actual reader or reading . But this vituoso text
and Benjamin’s praxis as a translator, now being very much studied, will surely
continue to exercise a seminal role in the hermeneutics and poetics of translation.
I’m arrogant enough to hope that After Babel is a tiny footnote to Benjamin’s essay.
Thirdly, current media studies can enlist Walter Benjamin as one of their
begetters. There is his pioneering aesthetic of photography; his brief but vividly
suggestive consideration of the iconographic reproducability and mass dissem-
ination of art — from which without acknowledgement André Malraux in the
Musée Imaginaire draws and draws without ever mentioning his source. Benjamin
was among the very first intellectuals and cultural critics to master, to evaluate at

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its true measure, the role of the radio-talk. Today, questions of authenticity and
fac-similitude implicit in the new multi-media, an internet world of image and
text, do represent some kind of fulfilment of Benjamin’s inspired premonitions
and I cannot suppress the hunch, only a hunch, that he will still give us instru-
ments to approach the enormously difficult epistimological problems posed by the
new world of Virtual Reality.
Fourth, the thesis whereby it is the ethical and cognitive duty of history, of
enacted remembrance, to rescue from oblivion the oppressed, the enslaved, the
victims of successful injustice, to bring them back to protesting life out of the
strategic amnesia imposed by the history-writing of the victors. This is not ori-
ginal to Benjamin. We find it in the radical remembrancers who are the Prophets
in Israel. It is in every line of the book of Amos. We find it in the humanitarian
rages of Victor Hugo, throughout the dix-neuvième siècle and her miserables, which
he knew so well. We find it in the outcry of Blanqui: ‘Do not let our despots lie
by writing our history’. It is an integral element of the retrospective utopias of
Marxism in revolutionary socialism. But Benjamin gives it undoubtedly a singular
intensity and urgency and dignity. His is the explicit doctrine of what we call in
Hebrew ‘tikun olam’. Probably again the key sentence to Benjamin, tikun olam,
which means roughly, ‘the reparation’, ‘the making good’, ‘the rescuing to make
good of what is left of this smashed world’. Against the dread winds thrusting
the Angulus Novus into blind futurity, Benjamin’s plea for justice is at work in
today’s recuperative histories of colonialism, of feminity, of the child, and most
evidently, in the increasing ly despairing attempts to recuperate the Shoah from
falsification and oblivion.
Last, large heading. It may be that Benjamin’s most important insight related
to the above is his development of Nietzsche’s fragmentary proposals as to the
elective affinities, Wahlverwandtschaften, between culture and barbarism, between
the humanities and the inhuman. The commanding document here is Benjamin’s
own life. But there is scarcely a significant Benjamin text, from the Trauerspiel
monograph to the posthumous theological, historical theses which does not
touch on, or is not touched by, his absolutely central paradox or antinomy. Its
entailments are in part social. Benjamin points to the mass suffering, to the fre-
quent enslavement which underlie the resplendent monuments of high culture.
But the crux lies much deeper. It comports for Benjamin those opaque inter-
relations between language and physical reality, between fiction and responsible
imagining , Einbildung, which may insinuate the germ of falsehood, of evasion, of
corruption and cruelty in the aesthetic act itself. It is this intimation, I venture
to believe, which underlies the meshing, of the great critic, theologian, social
thinker. At the climax of the summit we each have something perhaps we
love most in Benjamin. For me it is the long letters on Kafka exchanged with

22 Steiner / To speak of Walter Benjamin


Scholem in 1938 and which I think bring the craft of literary criticism, of reading ,
to an unmatched height.

These and numerous other facets of Walter Benjamin’s presence, Gegenwart —


remember, long before Hegel, one knew that ‘Gegenwart’ has in it the word
‘against’. Presence in German is adversity. That is crucial, it is always dual and
dialectic — Walter Benjamin’s Gegenwart will busy this Congress over the next
days. These topics cannot easily be circumscribed or compacted into any single
figura. Yet it is precisely this figura which makes the sum greater than the parts,
however fascinating to the specialist. Such was Benjamin’s depth of spirit, such
was his articulate genius for sadness, that this one man, in so many ways — let us
not fool ourselves — pathetic, a beggar, and defeated, so terribly defeated, has
come to stand, in his person, for a limitless immensity of waste and desolation.
The waste, none of us can conceive of it, none of us can begin to conceive the
waste of the Shoah, of what could have been. He stands for that. Together with
Kafka, before the midnight hours, and together with Paul Celan after the mid-
night hours. Those three. Walter Benjamin carries on his bent shoulders the
inconceivable load of a world made ash, of a civilisation annihilated, of a bestiality
and injustice forever irreparable, totally irreparable. He bears immemorial
witness. And he would not, I think, wish us to do otherwise. I thank you.

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