Benjamin had what Lukács so enormously lacked, a unique eye precisely for significant detail, for the marginal . . . for the impinging and unaccustomed, unschematic particularity which does not ‘fit in’ and therefore deserves a quite special and incisive attention.
Like Mayakovsky and the Russian Formalists, Brecht and Benjamin form one of the classic literary partnerships of the revolutionary Socialist movement. Their relationship, however, is only now coming to light, for it was not until 1966 that the majority of Benjamin’s essays on Brecht were published.
Walter Benjamin was an eccentric ‘man of letters’, born of a well-to-do German Jewish family in 1892. In the course of his lifetime, he underwent a complex change, transposing the structures and habits of his earlier mystical thought to enrich the categories of marxism.
Benjamin’s idiosyncratic and difficult cast of mind blocked his way to an academic career. Scholastic authorities rejected his doctoral thesis (on the origins of German tragedy) for incomprehensibility. But not only that: Benjamin, with characteristic lack of diplomacy, had taken issue with Johannes Volkelt, one of the official aestheticians of German academia. Barred from secure employment, he became an itinerant man of letters, experiencing the intellectual proletarianization he describes in ‘The Author as Producer’, one of the chapters in the forthcoming nlb volume of Benjamin’s writings on Brecht. Had Benjamin gained a university post it is difficult to say how his thought might have developed. With hindsight, many of his marxist ideas are traceable in different forms to the days before his professional fate was decided. However, what is certain is that his precarious economic position sharpened his attraction to marxism. At one point he contemplated joining the Communist Party.
The period was the late twenties and early thirties. Asya Lacis, a Communist theatrical producer, whom Benjamin had met in Capri in 1924, introduced him to Brecht whom he visited frequently during the
Benjamin’s writing is essayistic, aphoristic, fragmentary. Even his doctoral thesis is more a philosophical meditation than a systematic exposition and demonstration. At first it might seem odd that Brecht came together with Benjamin and not with someone more politically committed, Georg Lukács, for instance. But Brecht and Lukács never saw eye to eye. Whereas Lukács was hostile to the experimental art of the twentieth century because it lacked a sense of totality and perspective, Brecht shared with Benjamin a scavenging, magpie temperament, receptive to the often fragmented nature of modern art and literature. Benjamin was an extravagant collector and antiquarian, a passionate roamer and observer of cities, who could extract cultural histories from wayside odds and ends.