"A phantasmagorical character, an embodied, deceptive semblance
who flies off in the troika Heaven knows where..." N. Gogol
To break the fate of language and its concept-tank while shaping words in their character – can only be the doing of a man trained in misconceptions and whose life long luck means historical exposure and blissful time: an acrobat – on the tight rope of compromise, an impostor [German: Hochstapler], walking for the eyes and glances of myriads of contemporaries – supported by them without safety cords, like sleep keeps the somnambulist walking.
On April 7th, 1932, Walter Benjamin embarked on the freighter “Catania” heading to Barcelona. Some described it as a first self-induced exile – the official one would be waiting for him within just a handful of months. Newspapers were already turning him down – and this journey seemed his “only chance to escape the hardly conceivable stress and humiliations due to the wheeling and dealing in Berlin.” On the 10th of May 1932 he gives the following picture of his situation: “On the one hand my resources are very small, on the other hand there’s the commandment of reason to honor the opening ceremonies of the Third Reich through absence.”
It has been stressed by commentators that hardly a letter Benjamin wrote after 1932 does not mention economic hardships. If it is true for any exile, it was particularly true for an intellectual who had lost a readership not easily achieved. In May 1932 Benjamin could not but acknowledge that his projects, “the Pariser Passagen, the Gesammelten Essays zur Literatur, the Briefe and a truly exceptional book about hashish” “mark off the real site of ruin or catastrophe, whose furthest boundary I am still unable to survey...” He could see a foreseeable future neither for them, nor for himself.
Benjamin arrived on Ibiza, at the time a remote corner island, in April 1932. From there, he would write several times about a misadventure with a certain impostor, who had rented a house that he did not own on Ibiza to Benjamin’s friend Noeggerath, while simultaneously subletting Benjamin’s apartment in Berlin. In discussing the unfortunate incident, which aggravated Benjamin’s already aggrieved economic situation, he repeatedly refers to it as a dreadful, “totally inexplicable constellation.”
When Benjamin left Ibiza after three months to reach Nice, he had a clear intention of suicide in his mind. In a letter to his lifelong friend, Gershom Scholem, on July 26th (eleven days after his 40th birthday) he sums up his literary position with the following words: “So many of my works have been small victories but to these have corresponded great defeats.” The day after he compiled his will with the intention of putting an end to his life in the Hôtel du Petit Parc. The hotel did not become as famous as the Hotel de Francia in Port Bou where ultimately Benjamin took his life in 1940.
On that July 1932, Benjamin wrote several farewell letters – neither of which was ever sent. He was proud of his choice: “Hôtel du Petit Parc 6, Impasse Villermont, 6 – Nice.” In one of the letters, he refers to the hotel’s address as: “an impasse with a view over the park – what could more magically paraphrase the location of a death chamber?” The short note which follows does not differ too much from the mention in A Berlin Chronicle – an initial project Benjamin was now turning to.
In fact, during his stay in Ibiza in April-July 1932, Benjamin was working on some autobiographical notes. Cleansed of their personal tone – they would become Berliner Childhood around 1900. The book was never published in Benjamin’s lifetime despite all his struggles. Whether this period represented a real or self-induced exile, Berlin was to remain the lost city – which he tried to draw in his childhood memories – where it was and had to remain safe.
Throughout this working on memory the experience of distortion comes to play a major role. Like hashish induced states and the power of mimesis, memory brings a state of confusion where proximity and attraction deform reality. The longest and most detailed suicide letter Benjamin redacted on that July 27th was addressed to Egon as well as Gert Wissing, “a slender boy in black attire” – as Benjamin saw her in one of the hashish experiences. After the first introductory words, he enters his condition as a writer with more preponderancy. Talking of himself in third person he concludes: “The malleability, with which his production, being journalistic, has to fit the economic situation [Konjunktur], makes it difficult to ensure the continuity and growth of its existence.”
Throughout Benjamin’s months on Ibiza, quality, conditions and form of writing seem to occupy most of his reflections, particularly in relation to his personal success and failures. The ever stronger conviction is that language is the major instrument of the above mentioned deforming power, or a plasma in which we express ourselves. This dream-plasma conjures up time: in other words, be it the teaching of surrealism, kabala or hashish experiences, Benjamin seems to believe that there is a special relation between language and time, which disallows their disjunction. There is a way of thinking memory which nets together language and time in the form of the now-time, an imaginative constellation.
In his Berlin memories we find enigmas and invented words, like Mummehrelen, which the child forged in order to ‘gain access to life.’ In the thirties, Benjamin seems to think that a similar approach might also work for the adult to keep in touch with life and even for the revolutionary to change the state of things. The images Benjamin is now looking for, and which come to dwell in the Ibizan Sequence are imbued with some attempts at distortion, which he calls illuminations, dialectical images, criticism, short or “shortest short shadows” at different times. One Way Street and the Arcades Project are collages of such images. The great failures Benjamin was delineating in the letter of July 26th to Scholem are all failures within these images – failures of this imagining.
Benjamin left Ibiza on the 17th of July, two days after his fortieth birthday. He took the chance to thank his friend, Scholem, for his happy-wishes, acknowledging their tiniest chances of becoming true. Facing this, Benjamin continues: “And if I do so with a grimness verging on hopelessness, it is surely not for want of confidence in my resourcefulness...Rather, it is the developing of this resourcefulness, and the productivity that corresponds to it, that most seriously endangers every worthwhile project.” He continues: “The literary forms of expression that my thought has forged for itself over the last decade have been utterly conditioned by the preventive measures and antidotes with which I had to counter the disintegration constantly threatening my thought as a result of such contingencies.” The conclusion of the observation had already arisen: to small victories have corresponded great defeats.
Benjamin’s pages are teemed with distorted images like the already mentioned Mummerelehen, the Mark-Thalle, the Brauhausberg or “das gewogene Herz.” Misinterpretations and mistakes are part of that special production and idea of education that Benjamin felt is most endangered by having to find economical resources. Etymological errors make up another big part of the words he privileges. His explanation of the word person from the Latin per-sona (through sounds) rather than – more correctly – from the Etrurian person (mask) might also be a “wrong fruit” of these times. The list of such “misinterpretations,” of such infelicitous however blissful resolutions, is endless.
The following can work as a general rule: “Not only children but also the educated person” – he adds – “is constantly on the lookout for turns of phrase or striking expressions, and the meaning is merely the background on which the shadow that they cast rests, like figures in relief. (…) And in fact the sentences that a child will compose from a group of words during a game really do have more in common with those in sacred texts than with the everyday language of grownups.”
While Benjamin is on Ibiza, Scholem is travelling throughout “den europäischen Metropolen” studying Kabalistic manuscripts. Although they planned to meet, eventually they missed the occasion – providing the opportunity for many long letters. Benjamin observes: “Moreover, since having lived here, I have made the discovery that the composition of letters, in fact the epistolary style, is in no small measure the product of structural relations of the postal system; and since in this case it is to your advantage, you will have to make yourself enjoy the herein disclosed economic materialism. In fact, a real European mail day appears here only once a week; in this way, one has a lot of time to handcraft long letters.” The doubt remains whether there might be some sort of mistake or fallacy, or turbulence, not only in Ibiza’s postal system but also in Ibiza’s time and timing. In the letter Benjamin makes a remarkable association exactly between a failing temporal/spatial subject and the “disclosed economic materialism.”
Benjamin’s 1931 comment on the relation between Marxism and theology gives a wonderful insight into his distorted, dialectical images: “I have never been able to do research and think in any sense other than, if you will, a theological one – namely, in accord with the Talmudic teaching about the forty-nine levels of meaning in every passage of Torah. That is: in my experience, the most trite Communist platitude possesses more hierarchies of meaning than does contemporary bourgeois profundity.” The forty-nine levels must be present at once without disentangling them like threads, or like ripping off pieces of paper from an origami. They blossom like a bud into a flower – an expression Benjamin used still referring to the oral interpretation of the teaching of the Torah. In this simple and complex state of things – Benjamin seems to suggest – there’s revolutionary potential.
On the 25th of June 1932, as the day come closer to leaving the island, Benjamin would express the unimaginable extent of his aversion to returning to Berlin. Immediately afterwards he must inform his friend of having received a letter concerning his home in Berlin, which the impostor had just ‘visited’ with robbery and several damages to the library and possibly to his most cherished writings, the Passagen notes. This time the threat is not represented by the impostor, or maybe precisely by some sort of one: “the building inspectors have ordered me to leave my apartment—because its state does not meet some sort of requirements.” The administrative monster of the Third Reich is turning its anti-Semitic face.
While Benjamin cannot afford his undesired return to Berlin, more reasons for disillusion come with the assignment of the chair in Baroque studies in Heidelberg – where his promotion thesis on the German Tragic Drama had been more or less explicitly refused: “Anyway, it was recently borne out that ‘Baroque’ was the right horse after all (I was simply the wrong jockey)…” In One Way Street we are betting on jokers and numbers instead. The writer remarks: “I figure in your records as number 27. You have published five of my books; in other words, you have put your money five times on number 27. I am sorry that number 27 did not prove a winner.”
And yet it is clear for Benjamin that success is far removed from mere chance. It involves the wisdom of the kid who lets the book rest under the pillow – learning it in an almost corporeal way – certainly no faith in posterity rather the strength to immerge into the present: the future gets established now. Through gestures the successful one interiorizes reality as the irregular verb is the first mold of language – the most consumed and most revealing. He gives away his proper name for the renommée, to rely on his numbers, titles and names. The hazard-player is close to the impostor. His perception of reality is somehow deformed and more precise – not in awareness rather in wearing it – as a shirt or a glove. It fits him perfectly. Certainly though the audience strives for simplicity and conformity, it needs to somehow appropriate the successful figure. “Success has only to conform to an idea, or more accurately an image, whether of a hierarchy, militarism, plutocracy, or any other.” Shortly: “anyone who refuses to pay tribute to the masses’ collection of images must fail.”
The language recognized by success seems then quite dangerous, and similar to merely communicative, informative and commercial rhetoric. In this respect a deep ambivalence inside the figure of the successful person becomes evident. His imaginative transparency brings him close to such a contamination and corruption that he seems to be only the embodiment of easy slogans. In other words: like the lucky wave cannot but follow the stream – at least in an apparent way, so the successful man expresses time – (not to be confused with one’s own time – another easy cliché). We are close again, from one of the many possible perspectives, to the core Benjaminian problem: the expression or representation of the now. How this corrupted image might become a dialectical one – belongs to the question of redemption. It remains to be seen therefore if the figure of success is a symptom of the status quo, of its own time, or an expression of the now of history on a higher level; if he is a fateful player or if in him a character comes to expression. The philosophical task rests on the redemptive choice of the latter.
The wind of success spins around Benjamin in different directions – it seems at moments to blow near his theories, only to radically diverge... At gusts it might be perceived as intimately connected to his approach, in other moments it appears to blow against him as he observes with so much pain in 1932. The descriptions of the dangers weighing on his work, the price which falls on his writing if not for success then for earning a living, do not considerably differ from the reality he is describing in The Path to Success, in Thirteen Theses. Interestingly enough in the 12th thesis he examines the successful one in the figure of the impostor: “A man may swindle as much as he likes. But he must never feel like a swindler. Here the impostor is the model of creative neutrality. His inherited name is the anonymous sun around which his adopted names revolve like planets. Pedigrees, honors, titles – they are all so many little worlds emanating from the radiant core of that sun, dispensing a gentle light and warmth over the world of ordinary people. Indeed, they are his achievement, his gift to society, and hence are evidence of the bona fides that the sharp-witted impostor possesses but that the poor sucker almost never has.” One could dare saying that in him a learning or apprenticeship of historical time is embodied.
In order to disentangle the themes of luck and success, the link between mere language and fate on the one hand and names and character on the other, it might be helpful to turn back to a 1924 letter Benjamin wrote to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Through names and characters, some first distortive and redemptive attempts seem to emerge. Benjamin shares there his conviction “that every truth has its home, its ancestral palace, in language.” “Philosophy… knows the blessed efficiency of an order, by virtue of which its insights always strive for the very specific words whose surface has been hardened in the concept but dissolves when it comes into contact with the magnetic force of this order, revealing the forms of linguistic life locked within.” The letter proceeds: “But for the writer, this relationship signifies the good fortune [das Glück] of possessing the touchstone of his intellectual power in the language that unfolds like this before his eyes.” Comparing now his 1919 essay Schicksal und Charakter and his more recent work on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Benjamin affirms: “Thus, years ago, I tried to liberate two ancient words, fate and character, from terminological enslavement (…) If I were to return to the problems of this early project, as might be indicated, I would not dare to make a frontal attack on them this time. Instead, I would confront matters in digression, as I did the problem of ‘fate’ in my essay on Elective Affinities.” The conclusive formulation is then revelatory: “Illuminating them from the perspective of comedy today strikes me as the most obvious thing to do.” In the Wind Rose of Success, after eight years, Benjamin will write about the justice of the comical: it is not “the work of divine design but of the innumerable mistakes that finally, as a consequence of a last little mistake, nevertheless give the right result.” He then adds apropos of the comical figure: “For it success is no lucky star and failure no unlucky star. It does not wonder about destiny, myth and fate at all.”
In Schicksal und Charakter, Benjamin counterpoises character versus fate. As tragedy, character overcomes fate – into comedy. “The real nature of success reveals itself not in the reasons that lead to it, but in the figures of the people defined by success.” The resemblance between the description of character and (transposed into the bourgeoisie world) the description of the impostor is evident. “Character develops in them [dramatic figures] like a sun, in the brilliance of its single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity. The sublimity of character comedy rests on this anonymity of man and his morality… Complication [of fate] becomes simplicity, fate freedom. For the character of the comic figure is not the scarecrow of the determinists; it is the beacon in whose beams the freedom of his actions becomes visible.” There is no casual connection between fate and character – the latter being essentially linked to happiness. Names/characters precede either fate or any formulistic language – so that with their help causality or fatality can be broken apart. Indeed the choice of rescuing the word “fate” (Schicksal) is not an example among many others, since it is fate itself from which it seems that the name “fate” must be rescued.
Abandoning frontal attacks against the concept-tank in order to rescue words, Benjamin will privilege collateral strategies, as misinterpretations, errors, deceptions, not infrequently misbehaving, like an impostor. Whether treatises (see the Origin of German Tragic Drama) or excursions (along the One-Way-Street) it seems that apparent systematic forms are definitely abandoned. Madame Ariane: Second Courtyard on the Left differentiates two possible approaches in relation to fate, or more correctly an im/possible and a hopeful one: either you ask the fortuneteller to inquire into your destiny, letting interpretation fix time in a fateful Konjunktur or Konstellation, or you exercise what Benjamin defines: leibhafte Geistesgegenwart (corporeal presence of mind). “The moment” – he writes – “is the Claudine Yoke beneath which fate must bow to the body.” He endows humans with a redemptive force – through some sort of distortive and disruptive action within the moment. As One-Way-Street concludes, this view expands into a cosmic perspective: “In the nights of annihilation of the last war, the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss [das Glück] of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control [der erste Versuch, den neuen Leib in ihre Gewalt zu bringen].” Certainly in all the above mentioned cases the demand is to bend fate under the moment – to break it apart – to enter – in a productive way – the constellation with one’s own corporeal presence of mind.
And yet to find one’s own way might require losing the way in spatial/temporal distortions, certainly a very special sort of (dis)orientation. To the aim, we might presume, during his stay on Ibiza, Benjamin composed and then drew instead of a compass, the Wind Rose of Success [Die Windrose des Erfolges].
A first translation of this drawing will be shared with you below or can be found at the end of the google text to which there is a link in the comments. Following it, a piece of a short fragment Benjamin wrote presumably around the end of 1929: Concerning the Theses on Success [Zu den Thesen über Erfolg], which addresses only one wind direction - in the figure of the impostor. This piece shares the same page of the notebook where Benjamin drafted a first provisional scheme of the Windrose, whose title was: On the Doctrine of Success [Zur Lehre vom Erfolg].
For Mrs. Marietta Noeggerath
17 May 1932
Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften: Werke und Nachlaß. Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Band 8: Einbahnstraße, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009), pp. 206, 207.
Concerning the Theses on Success
Say under all circumstances with extreme precision what you want, under no circumstances why. In negotiations it is of utmost importance to keep silent about your ultimate motivation. The first of the figures of success is the impostor-type. His interest rests in his bringing to expression in undeveloped form all that contradistinguishes those who are successful in the world of the upper bourgeoisie. Above all then, the study of the figure of the impostor is the key to the position of the literati in the upper-bourgeoisie world. In fact the relation to the bourgeoisie, which was characterized by the bohemian, has become untenable. An entitlement to patronage, in the form possessed by this class, does not exist anymore. The claims of the literati and the possibilities to satisfy them have taken a new form. But here two different things are important. First, it must be made firm and clear: the remuneration of the literati by the ruling class [was] basically never a disinterested endorsement of their favorite ‘talents’ or ‘geniuses.’ Rather, it always happened as compensation for social accomplishments, which were definitely not at all provided by chance on the part of the literati and could have been offered only by them. Secondarily: such a social service of the writer in favor of upper-bourgeoisie interests is also present nowadays, only it is not easy to comprehend, in accord with the weak and impenetrably obscure existence of the upper bourgeoisie. But the impostor delineates it clearly enough. He must be firmly distinguished from the swindler. The impostor is first and foremost a man who cannot go back. His strengths lie more in authority than in his many intrigues. On the other hand, the great and closest passion of the literati since the fall of the bohème: the foundation of a new authority. See surrealism!
Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften: Werke und Nachlaß. Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Band 8: Einbahnstraße, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009), pp. 232, 233. [Walter Benjamin Archiv: Ms 743].