Reviewed by Annie Bourneuf (Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University)
Published on H-German (June, 2008)
In the later years of his life, Walter Benjamin saw himself "in a span of history and life," as he wrote to Gershom Scholem in 1935, "in which the final collecting together of the infinite scraps of my production seems less conceivable, indeed more improbable than ever" (p. 31). The dispersion of his manuscripts, which Benjamin feared would never be gathered together, was one of the great difficulties of his precarious life in exile, but it was also a deliberate strategy for ensuring his works' survival. Long before the hard years of exile, Benjamin had developed a habit of sending friends transcriptions of his writings for safekeeping: as he explained to one of the guardians of his work, he sent these copies, these "little grasses and stems from [his] field," to ensure the existence of "another complete herbarium somewhere apart from [his] own" (p. 7). Benjamin's precaution made possible the great collecting together of his "scraps" after his death, through such endeavors as the publication of his collected writings in the 1970s and 1980s and, just a few years ago, the founding of the Walter Benjamin Archive.
In 2004, some twelve thousand pages of Benjamin's manuscripts were brought together as the Walter Benjamin Archive of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. The archive's holdings came to Berlin by twisting, indirect paths. Theodor Adorno kept some of Benjamin's manuscripts in a New York safe and brought them back to Frankfurt after the war. Georges Bataille hid others in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, later handing them over to Adorno. Still others were confiscated by the Gestapo from Benjamin's last apartment, brought to Moscow by the Red Army, and later given to the state archive of the German Democratic Republic. Although incomplete--some papers were lost, such as those in the briefcase Benjamin carried over the Pyrenees in 1940, and others, such as those he sent to Scholem, reside elsewhere--the new Berlin archive is the closest approximation of the final collection of which Benjamin despaired.
In 2006, the archive introduced itself to the public with an exhibition of a small selection of some of the most striking items from its collection--pages and notebooks covered with Benjamin's tiny handwriting, and photographs and picture postcards that had been in his possession. Like the German edition published to accompany the exhibition, Walter Benjamin's Archive is beautifully designed and filled with excellent color reproductions, roughly to scale, of the "scraps" displayed at the Akademie der Künste. The book feels, in fact, like a marvelous handheld archive.
Aiming to assemble "a portrait of the author from his archive," the organizers of the exhibition plucked out thirteen groups of pictures and pages from the collection (p. 4). In the book, these thirteen groups become thirteen chapters, each of which is furnished with an able introduction, placing the pages reproduced in the larger context of Benjamin's life and work. Some track aspects of Benjamin's working methods: his careful, quasi-archival tending of his own papers and correspondence; his habit of jotting notes on chance bits of paper (prescription pads, advertisements); his tiny handwriting; his treasured notebooks; and his use of notes, outlines, and diagrams shaping his thoughts into crystalline spatial configurations. Others cluster around particular subjects: photographs of Russian toys from a Moscow museum; Benjamin's son's neologisms; picture postcards; the Arcades Project; Germaine Krull's and Sasha Stone's photographs of Parisian arcades and overstuffed nineteenth-century interiors; and puzzles and anagrams.
The book is more of a miscellany than an overview of the new archive. The organizers' principles of selection are unclear. "Groups of documents arose," explains the preface--which won't keep the reader from regretting that the exhibition omitted fascinating materials from the archive such as Benjamin's Kant anecdotes and drug protocols while including several dozen dull picture postcards Benjamin bought in Italy and Spain (p. 4). But no matter--the book's importance lies in what it does show us.
Transcriptions of a good number of the manuscript pages reproduced have been published previously. For a writer as concerned as Benjamin was with the material apparatus of intellectual work (index cards, typewriters, notebooks, pens) and the visual qualities of writing, its appearance on the page, it is good to see what gets lost in transcription--what these texts look like. But the previously unpublished items are more valuable still. Two in particular--a fragment on Benjamin's crucial concept of aura and a notebook in which Benjamin recorded the sayings of his young son--are worth singling out. On a sheet of paper advertising San Pellegrino water ("Acqua S. Pellegrino ... La migliore da tavola"), Benjamin writes the question, "What is aura?" and goes on to mediate between his two definitions of aura, as the "appearance of a distance however close it might be" and as the awareness of a being's ability to respond to the gaze: "When a person, an animal, or something inanimate returns our glance with its own, we are drawn initially into the distance; its glance is dreaming, draws us after its dream" (p. 45).
In his 1926 essay, "A Glimpse into the World of Children's Books," Benjamin cites "a boy of seven" as saying that "'Prince' is a word with a star tied to it." As we discover in the book's longest chapter, the boy in question was Benjamin's son Stefan, whose sayings and doings Benjamin recorded for many years in a notebook (p. 142). This log of his son's "opinions et pensées" is not only a telling document of life in the Benjamin household; it is clear it was also a very rich source of material for Benjamin's speculations on many of the recurrent themes of his work--on language; the mimetic faculty; the graphic, figurative dimension of writing; and the relations between children and things (p. 110).
By reproducing such drafts, raw material, and attempts at formulation, and showing how Benjamin used, stored, and circulated them, this small scrapbook is more than a piece of Benjaminiana, more than the "portrait" it sets out to be--it should give impetus to new scholarship.
. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 435.
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Annie Bourneuf. Review of Marx, Ursula; Schwarz, Gudrun; Schwarz, Michael; Wizisla, Erdmut, eds., Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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