Saturday, September 26, 2020

A short, passionate infatuation

’That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’ This is from a short diary kept by Walter Benjamin, considered one of the most important cultural philosophers of the 20th century, during a visit to Moscow in the mid-1920s. He committed suicide 80 years ago today while trying to flees the Nazi, and it’s only since his death that many of his works have been published to much acclaim.

Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 into a wealthy family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews. He was educated at Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg, though he spent a couple of years, because of ill-health, at a boarding school in the Thuringian countryside. He studied philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiburg, Munich (where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem), and then Bern where he met Ernst Bloch. He also met and married Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) with whom he had one son. 

In 1919, Benjamin was awarded his Ph.D. (translated title: The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Subsequently, he was unable to support himself and family so he returned to Berlin to live with his parents. Here he became socially acquainted with Leo Strauss, a figure he would admire for the rest of his life. In 1921 he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence). His attempts to submit another professional dissertation to the University of Frankfurt were not successful, but he published it in 1928 under the title Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of the German Tragic Drama).

During the 1920s, Benjamin worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator. In the mid-1920s, he journeyed to Moscow, to visit Asja Lascis (a Latvian Bolshevik whom he had first met in Capri in 1924), with whom he had fallen in love. Following the rise of Nazism, he relocated to Paris in 1933, where he continued to write for literary journals. When Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain hoping to make onward passage to America. Having reached the border town of Portbou he was mistakenly advised that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, he took his own life, on 26 September 1940. The posthumous publication of his prolific output significantly increased his reputation in the later 20th century. Das Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project), for example, helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory; and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) is considered to have been an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography. Further information is available at Wikipedia, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

During his winter trip to Moscow in 1926-1927, Benjamin kept a detailed daily diary. This was not published in English until 1986, first by MIT Press in Issue 35 of October, and then, under the title Moscow Diary, by Harvard University Press (edited by Gary Smith and translated by Richard Sieburth). Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. The publisher states: ‘Benjamin’s diary is, on one level, the account of his masochistic love affair with this elusive - and rather unsympathetic - object of desire. On another level, it is the story of a failed romance with the Russian Revolution; for Benjamin had journeyed to Russia not only to inform himself firsthand about Soviet society, but also to arrive at an eventual decision about joining the Communist Party. Benjamin’s diary paints the dilemma of a writer seduced by the promises of the Revolution yet unwilling to blinker himself to its human and institutional failings.’

Here are three extracts from Benjamin’s Moscow Diary.

10 January 1927
‘An extremely disagreeable argument with Reich took place this morning. He had decided to take me up on my proposal to read him my report on the debate at Meyerhold’s. I no longer had any desire to do so, but went ahead anyway with an instinctive reluctance. Given the previous conversations about my contributions to the Literarische Welt, nothing good could certainly come of it. So I read the thing quickly. But I was positioned so poorly on my chair, looking straight into the light, that this alone would have been enough for me to predict his reaction. Reich listened with a tense impassiveness, and when I had finished, limited himself to a few words. The tone in which he said them immediately touched off a quarrel that was all the more irresoluble because its actual grounds could no longer be mentioned. In the middle of the exchange there was a knock at the door - Asja appeared. She left again soon thereafter. While she was present I said very little: I worked at my translation. In a terrible frame of mind I went over to Basseches’s to dictate some letters and an article. I find the secretary most agreeable, if somewhat ladylike. When I learned that she wanted to go back to Berlin, I gave her my card. I was not keen about running into Reich at lunch, so I bought myself some food and ate in my room. On my way over to Asja’s I stopped for some coffee, and later, going back home after the visit, I had some more. Asja was feeling quite ill, got tired right away; I left her alone so she could get some sleep. But there were a few minutes during which we were alone in the room (or during which she acted as though we were). It was at that point that she said that when I again came to Moscow and she was well, I wouldn’t have to wander around on my own so much. But if she didn’t get well here, then she would come to Berlin; I would have to give her a corner of my room with a folding screen, and she would follow treatment with German doctors. I spent the evening alone at home. Reich arrived late and had a number of things to recount. But following the morning’s incident, at least this much was clear to me: I could no longer count on Reich for whatever concerned my stay here, and if it could not be profitably organized without him, then the only reasonable thing to do would be to leave.’

11 January 1927
‘Asja again needs to get some injections. She wanted to go to the clinic today and it had been earlier arranged that she would stop by and fetch me so I could accompany her there by sleigh. But she didn’t come by until around noon. They had already given her the injection at the sanatorium. She was as a result in a somewhat agitated state and when we were alone in the corridor (both she and I had telephone calls to make), she clung to my arm in a momentary access of her former boldness. Reich had taken up his position in the room and was making no signs of leaving. So that even though Asja had finally come to my room in the morning once again, it was totally pointless. I put off leaving for a number of minutes, but to no avail. She announced that she didn’t want to accompany me. I therefore left her alone with Reich, went to Petrovka (but still was unable to obtain my passport) and then to the Museum of Painting. After this little episode, my mind was finally made up to fix the date of my departure, which in any case was rapidly approaching. There was not much to see in the museum. I learned later that Larionov and Goncharova were big names. Their stuff is worthless. Just like most of the things hanging in the three rooms, they seem to be massively influenced by Parisian and Berlin painting of the same period, which they copy without skill. Around noon I spent hours in the Office of Culture waiting to get tickets for the Maly Theater for Basseches, his woman friend, and myself. But since they were unable to inform the theater by telephone at the same time, our passes were not accepted that evening. Basseches had come without his friend. I would have liked to have gone to the cinema with him, but he wanted to eat and so I accompanied him to the Savoy. It is a far more modest establishment than the Bolshaia Moskovskaia. I was also fairly bored with him. He is incapable of talking about anything other than his most private affairs; and when he does, it is with a visible awareness of how well-informed he is and how superbly capable he is of imparting this information to others. He continued to leaf through and read around in the Rote Fahne. I accompanied him in the car for a stretch and then went straight home, where I did some more translating. That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’

22 January 1927
‘I had not yet washed but was sitting at my table writing when Reich arrived. It was a morning on which I was even less inclined to be sociable than usual. I barely allowed myself to be distracted from my work. But when I was about to leave around twelve-thirty and Reich asked me where I was off to, I discovered that he too was going to the children’s theater to which Asja had invited me. The sum total of my preferential treatment thus turned out to be a futile half hour wait at the entrance that previous day. Nonetheless I went on ahead to get something warm to drink in my usual cafe. But the cafes were also dosed that day, and this, too, is part of the remont policy. So I slowly made my way down Tverskaia to the theater. Reich arrived later, and then Asja with Manya. Since we had now become a foursome, I lost interest in the thing. I couldn’t stay to the end anyway because I had to meet Schick at three-thirty. Nor did I make any effort to take a seat beside Asja; instead I sat between Reich and Manya. Asja asked Reich to translate the dialogue for me. The play seemed to be about the creation of a cannery and appeared to have a strong chauvinistic bias against England. I left during the intermission. At which point Asja even offered me the seat next to hers as an inducement to stay, but I didn’t want to arrive late or, even more important, turn up exhausted for my appointment with Schick. He himself was not quite ready. In the bus he spoke of his Paris days, how Gide had once visited him, etc. The visit with Muskin was well worth it. Although I only saw one truly important children’s book, a Swiss children’s calendar of 1837, a thin little volume with three very beautiful color plates, I nevertheless looked through so many Russian children’s books that I was able to get an idea of what their illustrations were like. The great majority of them are copies of German models. The illustrations in many of the books were printed by German lithography shops. Many German books were imitated. The Russian editions of Struwwelpeter that I saw there were quite coarse and ugly. Muskin placed slips of paper in various books on which he noted down my comments. He directs the children’s book division of the state publishing house. He showed me some samples of his work. They included books for which he himself had written the text. I explained to him the broad outlines of my documentary project on “Fantasy.” He didn’t seem to understand much of what I was saying and on the whole made a rather mediocre impression on me. His library was in lamentable shape. There was not enough room to set up the books properly, so they were strewn every which way on shelves in the hallway. There was a fairly rich assortment of food on the tea table and without any prodding I ate a great deal, since I had eaten neither lunch nor dinner that day. We stayed for about two and a half hours. Before I left he presented me with two books he had published and which I silently promised to give to Daga. Spent the evening back home working on the Rilke and the diary. But - as is the case at this very moment - with such poor writing materials that nothing comes to mind.’

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