The largely posthumous publication of his later writings has made Walter Benjamin perhaps the most influential Marxist critic in the German-speaking world, after the Second World War. The major works of his mature period have recently become available in English for the first time, with the translation of a collection of his essays in Illuminations (Cape-Fontana), the record of his relationship to the greatest German writer of his day in Understanding Brecht (nlb), and now the completed portions of what would clearly have been his masterpiece, Charles Baudelaire—A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (nlb). The widespread acclaim that Benjamin has received both in his own country and abroad, has, however, with some exceptions not been accompanied by critical appraisal of any great acuity. The Left has been in general concerned to defend his legacy from mystical appropriation of it, the right to establish its distance from any orthodox canon of historical materialism. It may thus be a surprise that probably the best critique of Benjamin’s development in his last phase remains that of his younger friend and colleague Adorno, addressed to him in a number of private letters at the time. The correspondence between the two represents, in fact, one of the most important aesthetic exchanges of the thirties anywhere in Europe. Four of the most significant of these letters are printed below—three from Adorno, with one reply from Benjamin.footnote1 They concern, respectively: 1. Benjamin’s draft outline for his Arcades project, written in 1935 (entitled ‘Paris—The Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, now in Charles Baudelaire, pp. 155–70); 2. his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in 1936 (included in Illuminations, pp. 219–53); 3. and 4. his original study of Baudelaire, composed in 1938 (designated ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Charles Baudelaire, pp. 9–106).
Adorno first met Benjamin in Frankfurt in 1923, and their acquaintance deepened during the subsequent years. In 1928, Benjamin seems to have started work on his Arcades project, which he first discussed at
After the Second World War, Adorno was responsible for editing the first two-volume edition of Benjamin’s Schriften, and for co-editing the two published volumes of his Briefe, in the fifties. A decade later, the relationship between Adorno and Benjamin became the object of considerable polemic on the West German Left, after the growth of the student movement and the revival of German Marxism. In assessing the correspondence printed below, however, it is necessary to avoid the illusions of political retrospection, and to situate the actual exchange between the two men historically. Benjamin had been trained in Wilhelmine Berlin before the First World War, where he was influenced by Rickert; early drawn towards Judaic mysticism, he gravitated for a time towards Zionism; in the twenties he discovered Marxism, travelled to Russia (1926-27), and came close to the kpd; his primary focus of interest was always literature. Adorno was eleven years younger, a product of Weimar Germany, and had no religious background; his formation was primarily in music, which he studied under Schönberg in Vienna; his philosophical training was untouched by Wilhelmine Lebensphilosophie; on the other hand, his political associations were very tenuous, even his collaboration with the Institute for Social Research only becoming permanent on the eve of the Second World War. At the time of his first letter to Benjamin printed below, he was 32. Culturally, the two men shared certain dominant axes of reference, both temporal and spatial—Proust, Valéry and Kafka, among
Thus, contrary to what might have been expected, Adorno’s opening letter to Benjamin, discussing his draft essay ‘Paris—Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, focuses its criticism essentially on the psychologistic subjectivism and ahistorical romanticism which he believed he could see beneath the dense and lapidary brilliance of Benjamin’s text. With remarkable insight, Adorno pointed out that Benjamin’s use of Marx’s category of commodity fetishism unwarrantably subjectivized it, by converting it from an objective structure of exchange-value into a delusion of individual consciousness. Its erroneous description as a subjective ‘dream’ was accompanied, moreover, by the misguided corrective of a ‘collective’ unconscious as the repository of archaic ‘myths’. As Adorno commented, this addition compounded rather tempered Benjamin’s initial mistake, since the idea of a collective unconscious inhabited by myths was precisely the ideological notion with which Jung—whose reactionary proclivities were easily visible—had tried to desexualize and erase the scientific concepts of Freud. Failure to understand the true import of psychoanalysis, he incidentally noted, might be related to the dangerous overtones of Benjamin’s depreciation of Art Nouveau, which Adorno defended for its fundamental impulse towards erotic emancipation. At the same time, implicit valorization of myth could lead both to romantic nostalgia for a primal unity with nature as the realm of lost social innocence, or to its obverse, utopian visions of classlessness that were more ‘classless’ (in the bad sense) than utopian. The result of the undue confidence accorded to myth was thus necessarily an uncritical nonchalance with history. Adorno, shrewdly underlining the frequency with the which the archetypal phrases ‘the first time’ and ‘the last time’ occured in the exposé, proceeded to raise a whole series of concrete historical objections to the actual imprecision of Benjamin’s apparent concreteness of reference. In particular, he stressed the obvious fact that commodity production as such preceded the age of Baudelaire by many centuries, and that it was necessary to distinguish carefully within the development of capitalism between the phase of manufactures and the phase of factory industry proper. In the Second Empire, he suggested, the role of the Parisian arcades as bazaars of exotica could be linked to the overseas adventures of the Bonapartist regime; while the working-class could not be said to have ceased forever to be politically passive after the 1830’s. Adorno’s numerous smaller criticisms of detail were in the same sense: for example, bricks had preceded iron as an artificial building material, and snobbery should not be confused as a social phenomenon with dandyism. His general recommendation to Benjamin, in conclu
Benjamin subsequently decided to make a separate book on Baudelaire, out of the original wider Arcades project. This was to be divided into three parts: a study of Baudelaire as an allegorist, a study of the social world of Paris in which he wrote, and a study of the commodity as a poetic object which would synthesize the meaning of poet and capital alike.footnote2 It was the second section of this triptych that he completed in 1938 and sent to New York. In many ways, it seemed to comply with the urgings of Adorno towards greater historical precision and materialist objectivity; all traces of Jungian influence had disappeared, as had any oneiric version of commodity fetishism, while a great wealth of meticulous documentation from the epoch of the Second Empire was now superbly assembled and presented by Benjamin. Adorno’s response to this manuscript, however, was more astringently critical than to the original exposé. The grounds for his reserve were necessarily now somewhat different. In effect, he taxed Benjamin with so restricting the scope of his investigation that the accumulation of period detail risked becoming an occult positivism. Deprived of any explicit Marxist theorization, the relationship between the Paris of the Second Empire and the work of Baudelaire remained arbitrary and opaque. At best, or worst, specific contents of Baudelaire’s poetry were directly reduced to economic peripeteia of the time, where a global account of the social structure as a whole could alone mediate a genuinely Marxist decipherment of his literary achievement. Benjamin’s ‘ascetic’ renunciation of theory for an artless catalogue of facts did a disservice both to his own gifts and to historical materialism. Benjamin, in his reply, legitimately protested that the section of his Baudelaire submitted to the Institute should not be judged in isolation. Theoretical interpretation of the poet and the city were expressly reserved for the third section that was to conclude the work: hence their intentional absence from the historical treatment of the Parisian themes themselves. Yet it is clear that Adorno was not mistaken in detecting a deeper aversion in Benjamin to systematic theoretical exposition as such, an innate reluctance to decant the mysterious elixir of the world into any translucent vessel of ordered discourse. Beneath, or across, Benjamin’s inclination to economic empiricism lay, he commented, traces of religious superstition: a theological reverence for names strangely united with a positivist acquisition of facts, by the common impulse of obsessive ‘enumeration’ rather than analytic explanation.footnote3 Adorno’s diagnosis of the intellectual blockage that was likely to result from the coadjutant strains of esoteric mysticism and exoteric materialism was a feat of great critical penetration.