|To his wife, he was a bad husband.|
To potential comrades, he was a bad Communist.
To his mistresses, he was a bad lover.
To Zionists, like his friend Gershom Scholem, he was a bad Jew.
To his son, he was a bad father.
To his editors, he was a problematic and ungrateful writer.
To fiction readers, he's a bad protagonist.
He flees the Nazis and ultimately fails to escape, dying, not heroically,
but with a bad heart, by his own hand.
Gershom Scholem said, "What evidence would convince anyone that Walter Benjamin might actually perform a useful service? He had no teaching experience and would probably dissolve in front of a class, pooling on the floor before their very eyes. He could surely never be counted on for regular journalistic writing: Even his book reviews were inscrutable, and he did not have the habits of production necessary to keep up with such pressure."
And Gershom Scholem was his best friend!
How then does Walter Benjamin get a novel written about him? Who would care to read about such a man? Why do people—and by "people" I mean here "intellectuals" revere him so? How did he come to have such a large impact on culture, on art, on critical theory, and on literature more than a half-century after his death? How have we all imbibed Benjamin's ideas even if we've never read one word of his inscrutable, largely incomplete, and fragmentary texts?
Here are two theories, the first voiced by Lisa Fittko, one of the real-life characters portrayed in this novel and the second by Walter Benjamin himself in a letter to his sometime friend, sometime nemesis, and sometime editor Theodor Adorno:
"Benjamin was the European Mind writ large. He was everything the Nazi monsters wanted most to obliterate: that aura of tolerance and perspective that comes from having seen many things from many angles. Even that rueful laugh of his was part of the aura. Here before us was the last laughing man. The last man to laugh the laugh of the ages. From now on, history would be tears, and the work of intellectuals would be the work of grieving."
"The great book of the future will consist of fragments torn from the body of other work; it is a reassembly, a patchwork quilt of meanings already accomplished. The great critic of the future will remain silent, gesturing firmly but himself unable, or unwilling, to speak."
Benjamin was representative of both the past and the future. A lynchpin, a door swinging both ways, which fit his view of history—everything has already happened and it was happening all over again and it was up to us to recognize this fact so as not to be taken by surprise and swept away. He was part of an already passing age when what it meant to be a thinker was To Think without regard to the marketability of one's thoughts, to follow thought wherever thought might lead—thought was not a commercial commodity, it was its own reward. But Benjamin was also a prototype of the future thinker—the man or woman who realized that the "truth" was shattered and scattered, that it could not be recreated seamlessly and in its entirety by any one thinker, but that it must be carefully pieced together from the thoughts of many thinkers.
"God in the tradition of Kabbalah withdrew from the world. To make room for the expanding universe, He had hidden himself, sending holy light into the world to buoy it up. The world, alas, could not bear so much glory; it shattered, and the cornerstones of the world—in the shape of vessels—shattered, too. Evil now permeated the world, having found a point of entry. The expansion of the universe had given evil the space it required to live and grow, and it was everywhere now, spoiling what was once good. To humankind was left the agonizing yet essential work of restitution, the repair of the world."
Benjamin was the intellectual's intellectual, like some writers are said to be a writer's writer. Meaning: only someone who knew from experience what it was like to devote one's life to the craft could really understand what he was attempting—how hard it was—how much he was risking—& how much there was still to admire—even in failure.
I suspect that's one reason it was so difficult to find a copy of this novel. Even at the Brooklyn Public Library it was buried somewhere "in storage." Who wants to read about Walter Benjamin, anyway? Even if his ideas live on through the work of others, the man himself, as confirmed by this novel, was a real dud. He was petulant, myopic, sloppy, childish, impractical, selfish, smelly (!), stiff, formal, boorish—and, at the end, he kills himself. If you know anything at all about Benjamin, you know this from the start and the novel's depressing and inescapable conclusion bears down on you page by page like the sound of an executioner's inexorable footsteps coming down the hall. Where's the victory? Where's the uplifting message? Parini does his best to squeeze one out of the facts, mainly by reconstructing a Benjamin death-scene that boldly and ludicrously crosses over into preposterous sentimentality. Just the kind of thing that I think Benjamin himself would have disdained. Here the ghosts of Benjamin's past parade before him, granting him a kindly absolution and justification for his truncated life while he lay dying of a self-inflicted morphine overdose. It's an inexcusable violation what Parini did here, a compromise of the truth, and a revocation of all that Benjamin stood for. (Otherwise, this was a really good novel). Better to have left it a mystery behind a door marked Unknown. Each man is entitled to the revelation his own death will bring without the rest of us betraying that revelation by telling a fairytale about it in order that we may sleep better at night. Who knows what Benjamin saw in the last hour of his life? Only Benjamin.
For me, there was no justification necessary for Benjamin's "failed" life. He lived and died on his own terms, and that's victory enough, even if they were the terms better suited to a life lived a hundred years earlier—or a hundred years later—than the times in which Benjamin actually lived.
"Thick walls of unintelligibility loom between each of us who would lay claim to some measure of humanity, and we are unable to address one another except in crude signs and abstract gestures, in tongues far too idiosyncratic and private to be understood."
These words are put into the mouth of Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem on the last page of this book and it seems a fitting epitaph not just to the life of Walter Benjamin but for each and every one of us. So why falsify our language—and ourselves—in an attempt to be better understood when to be understood is futile anyway? When to be understood is to falsify our testimony, to smooth over our particularity in complicity with others who've agreed to do the same? Why seek a common language at all? Why not speak in our own idiosyncratic tongue? It is the tongue we must use if we are to understand ourselves. What's more, it is the only tongue that God—if he exists—will hear. It is the language of prayer.
[[Special thanks to my wonderful husband who surprised me with this book after somehow discovering that I'd been looking for a used copy of it in every used bookstore we haunted for a couple of years now. Speaking of tongues and what they're good for, mine is always ready to be put to prayerful use in gratitude for you, my darling ;o xoxo]]