Walter Benjamin
translated by Howard Eiland and others
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press ($27.95)

by Nathan Clay Barbarick

One hundred years ago, a twenty-year-old Walter Benjamin argued that "the best part of our youth has been spent far from school, far from a school that pays no attention to this youthfulness and imbues it with no ideals, that takes so-called foolish pranks, nonsense and childish behavior in front of teachers, to be expressions of true youthfulness." At the time of this writing, Benjamin was just leaving high school to go study history, literature, and cultural philosophy in Freiburg, and much of Early Writings (1910–1917) consists of the young thinker’s analysis of the milieu in which he found himself—in this case, the didactic, repressive educational system run by pedants and adults who won arguments by virtue of having once been young themselves. "And herein lies the secret:" Benjamin writes in "Experience," a short essay published in a radical school reform newsletter, "because he never raises eyes to the great and meaningful, the philistine has taken experience as his gospel."

For better or for worse, Benjamin was always one to take his experience as a kind of gospel. We see in this collection a young Benjamin developing the intellectual method that would become his distinct brand of Marxist spiritualist analysis later in life: analyze the circumstance and end at some Hegelian incarnation of Spirit. After returning from private boarding school in the countryside, where he found intellectual kinship with students and teachers, he was able to see in education the outlines of youthfulness; after losing his virginity to a prostitute, he was able to bring eroticism into his theory of a new romanticism, an openness that would embolden his fellow youth and leak into their daily lives; after the double suicide of two student-activists, and his denunciation of his relatively radical mentor for writing in support of the Great War’s first rumblings, Early Writings evinces a break in tone and focus, a shift in thinking, a dissociation from the spirit of the youth who were, by that time, "incapable of even formulating the question of scholarly life, the life of learning, or grasping its irreducible protest against the vocational demands of the age.” Benjamin, quite obviously, made intellectual avocation his vocation, yet had trouble understanding any apprehensions his peers might have had toward ideas that could, after all, connect them to the grand, benevolent, aesthetic-theistic Spirit.

Similarly, as the chronology of Early Writings unfolds, we see Benjamin’s style respond to the circumstance of his readership, his audience, and his limitations as a young thinker. The earliest works here show Benjamin’s thought reaching deeply via overwrought allegory. The poems and parables and polemics he published in the student journal Der Anfang (“The Beginning”) achieve a conspicuous sense of awareness for his high-school audience, one that prides itself on its emblems of intellectualism and erudition. The earliest of these writings are all charming; many metaphors are steam-rolled, many symbols suffer directness or abstruseness, much of the mood of the poems and the fictions is transparently obedient to German romanticism, which Benjamin knew and loved well. In one story, “Quiet Story,” a young, shy man follows a woman home. On a quickly-moving streetcar, “a sovereign feeling overcame him, and he conceived the idea of a poetic composition.” Benjamin’s career, begun herein, was more devoted to making theories of art than making art, that is, conceptions of poetic composition instead of compositions. For this, Benjamin’s readers and his legacy benefit.

Perhaps these characterizations are unfair for a man who so enthusiastically believed in the pantheistic powers of art, and in the ability of education to harness these powers in the emergent humanity of the student body. After all, this book documents the development of a writer, a writer whose poetic inclination has always been difficult to separate from his cultural analysis. More than several of the book's forty-five poems, stories, essays, criticism, or polemics deal exclusively with the work of artists: Holderlin, Dostoevsky, Balzac. There are many references to Goethe and Nietzsche sprinkled about, both of whom Benjamin mightily admired and occasionally echoes. Early Writings gives readers a glimpse into the public and private mind of young man who was genuinely excited to do his work, a young man who saw the system that facilitated this work—the educational system—as the great impediment between his generation and their actualization as mature intelligences, ones to be taken seriously.

Indeed, idealism is important to many of Benjamin's writings on education and its utility for human progress. In "Teaching and Valuation," he chides educators who have not attempted to instill values in the youth, which to Benjamin amounts to not spending enough time with the classics and not subjecting those works to a fruitful analysis, instead focusing on boring details of plot or of their formal elements. In addition to critiques of his school masters' pedagogy, Benjamin actually demands more homework. Plato’s Symposium should be read "in its entirety, gentlemen, in its entirety!"

If his critics deride his high-flown style, his swinging for the fences of abstraction, then early Benjamin, growing up before the reader’s eyes, gives them fodder in pieces like “Metaphysics of Youth,” where youthful spirit is historically constituted through the connections of silence, history, and women. This essay, part of a longer, unfinished “cycle,” even includes a dialogue between Prostitute and Genius:

The Genius: All the women I go to are like you. They gave birth to me and I was stillborn, and they wish to receive dead things from me.
The Prostitute: But I am the one who has least fear of death. [They go to bed.]

It was his idealism that summoned his ideas, that pulled him into the practice of writing, but it was the sharp edge of experience—the inevitability of growing up—that came to cut the tether, causing Benjamin to float away at a specific historical moment, for good. Early Writings functions as a prelude to the theorist known so well today, and exemplifies Benjamin as a figure as divisive as he himself was divided—that wise youth, that inartistic aesthete, that old-money socialist. Walter Benjamin’s circumstance in 1915: separation—from his mentor, from the aesthetic-philistinism of the youth movement, and from the European political formulation of Spirit, which was inspiring a major war. As he approached his middle twenties, his writings focused less on the problems that surrounded him and more on a purer philosophical inquiry. That is, either the contents of his circumstances were obscured by life itself, or he sought refuge from them in abstraction. Accordingly, the last three years of Early Writings do not concern education, but color, language, truth.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011