Walter Benjamin, Or How the Essay Should Be

Walter Benjamin, Or How the Essay Should Be

In the September of 1940, a philosopher committed suicide. He was, rather very hopefully one would say, trying to evade the Gestapo, cross into the Spanish border underlined by fascist dominance and then, via Spain, reach onto the borders of Portugal from where he hoped to flee to the US. Hopeful, as I said, which is not to mention admirably optimistic. He never made it completely to Spain, never mind Portugal and the US. Walter Benjamin, then relatively unknown a figure in the German literary world, was a writer, thinker, hopeful academic, prolific essayist and a philosopher in the modernist tradition. When Benjamin overdosed on morphine in police custody on the French-Spanish border for the fear of being handed over to the German authorities, not many would have thought that the person they had lost in such bleak circumstances would, for the future of any modern literary tradition, reserve such distinguished amount of fascination, enthusiasm and recognition.

In the recent few years the works of Walter Benjamin- a writer, or, perhaps, one of the only few writers who concentrated his talent almost wholly upon the art of non-fiction, but most notably the essay- have been given their deserved serious consideration in the murky world of translated serious literature (Even his address book now finds itself published). The fact that his works were largely ignored or, perhaps, wholly unknown even to the most learned and well-read of scholars and academics during the early period post-World War, and even almost two to three decades later, is not quite astonishing, considering that many a writers suffered through a similar kind of fate. What is, however, rather staggering is the pleasantly surprising enthusiasm that a lot of readers- and not just professors and critics, but also common, regular readers of serious literature- have shown towards his texts and the excitement towards their collection in profuse volumes. This has helped Benjamin’s reputation within the literary world to be more or less firmly cemented, albeit posthumously.


“Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force,” remarked Benjamin right at the start of his well-known essay, ‘The Storyteller’, a constructive and formidable analysis of Nikolai Leskov’s work. Replace the word storyteller with the word essayist and the whole premise of that sentence begins to nod towards the current literary landscape.

Essay, they say, is the most flexible and stretchable, so to speak, literary genre, wherein the writer can, more often than not- if not always- stress on imagination as well as laying before his readers facts that seek to astound (again, more often than not but not always). The essay in its reality is a genre that can be both journalistic as well as literary in nature (Umberto Eco, before starting to write fiction, concentrated all of his narrative energy into the essay, for example) something that is not given its deserved merit in the literary landscape. In the common man’s dictionary, an essay is something that you write out of necessity, even though perhaps that definition is suitable more for the school child’s dictionary than to the common man’s one. That not being the point, however, the fact remains that essay is something that is composed because it is necessary for every human being at least once in his or her lifetime to compose one, whether it be on “an hour spent on the railway station” or “what if I was a butterfly for a day” is another matter altogether. Those are essays, as well. Non-literary, sure, but essays nevertheless.

The modern essay, however, and more precisely the modern literary essay, has been marked by the significant virtues of reportage, travelogue and the studious but sincerely independent of the academic, political analysis. This has helped the essay to grow, in part because it has helped the essayist to be acknowledged as a writer, even though he doesn’t write fiction, and the essayist himself to flex his otherwise averted muscles and experiment with the form, sometimes even mixing reality with imagination in order to form a newer, different kind of an essay.

While Montaigne- who said of the essay to be “bodies pieced together of different members”- is generally regarded as the inventor of the essay form, he cannot be said to be the man who pushed the modern form of essay onto the page. That virtue belongs to Benjamin, who did not, in the strictest sense, experiment with the form in that he never really included within his essay different structures nor did he ever mix the fiction with the fact (although that claim, in fact, could be contested when it comes to Benjamin’s writings on his experimentation with a rather different substance altogether- hashish). What Benjamin did do, however, was to explore within his texts different subjects that ranged from the personal, memoir-kind of essay to the academic renderings and analyses composed on grand scale, and needed for the sake of forwarding his eventually failed career as an academic. The latter, strictly academic work, has invited a lot of attention from scholars, critics and professors, especially in question is his long thesis- now widely considered to be a masterpiece- “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Sometimes considered to be a text that forwards Marxist theory and thought-process, and often considered to be the first great Marxist interpretation of literary theory before even the significant The Historical Novel of Georg Lukacs, the 1936 essay lays bare the foundations of a capitalist value system that has an effect on how the art is shaped, and in turn calls for “revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” This is not to say that “The Work of Art” is a project that Benjamin undertook under the particular influence of Marxist ideology, which perhaps was more induced within his writings due to the influence of his friend, the great dramatist Bertolt Brecht. In any case, Benjamin’s life and, most importantly, his writings have now rightly been divorced from revolutionary Marxist influence, which is for the best, perhaps, since no writing can withstand fully within itself under the umbrella of a particular ideologue, however significant a contributing text it might be. Hence, to have the Marxist influence ignored and denied to Walter Benjamin’s oeuvre is for the better judgment of the text in question. Whether Benjamin was indeed a Western Marxist- a term coined by the political scientist Perry Anderson which means, essentially, the turn around phase of Marxists from the actual, classical Marxism; where the discourse centers around philosophical and academic debates and writings instead of political and economic analysis- is a matter that is still widely debated upon, but his works have, fortunately, now been assessed without any particular relevance being given to the Marxist tradition.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin examines the radical change that art might be a witness to owing to the development in theater, film and photography. In the first paragraph itself, Benjamin begins to highlight through historical examples the progress and promotion of the techniques of reproduction, and here his sentences are short and curt. Not unlike the essay on Leskov, he divides his essay into short parts, wherein each part consists of one or two paragraphs rife with descriptive and factual power. This is an easy technique that is often used by novelists and short story writers in order to make their texts engaging while being short and to the point. Essayists, however, have often been seduced by long sentences being driven around the page by appropriate linkers and attractive parentheses; longer yet are their paragraphs, which might not end for pages together whilst they are trying to forward a well-researched and hard-worked upon analysis, thus compromising upon the division into parts factor. Benjamin, however, condenses his total analysis into different sections; he skilfully scatters his discourse and parents a wholly attractive and fascinating technique to the essay, providing his text with a presumably well thought out structure. As readers, our concentration rests completely upon the point that Benjamin tries presenting within each of his divisions, and perhaps Benjamin worked with that purpose in mind, since even though the paragraphs themselves are short and explanatory and his prose heavy yet flowing, never does a fact miss its point and never does a sentence seem half-constructed or a word placed unevenly. Benjamin constructs a thesis that is well within its factual limits but surpasses, successfully, the limits of imagination and prose.


“The essay form has not yet, today, traveled the road to the independence which its sister, poetry, covered long ago; the road the development from a primitive, undifferentiated unity with science, ethics and art,” wrote Lukacs in his Soul and Form. To this the response has been, to a very large extent, Benjamin and his construction of the essay, “the investigation of specific,” as Theodor Adorno chooses to call it in his own essay on essay, “The Essay as form.” Adorno, who himself was a close friend of Benjamin’s (and who had certain reservations about “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), has claimed that the essay as purely a work of art- as Lukacks claims it to be- cannot be presupposed, for the essay, while a technique in narrative form surely, is an analysis, and never the imaginative collaboration between fiction and fact- for the essay is built solely on the latter. About the presentation of the essay, Adorno writes that “the essay may not act as though it had deduced its object and there was nothing left to say about it,” and that its “self-relativization is inherent in its form: it has to be constructed as though it could always break-off at any point.” For Adorno, sometimes, the essay or the essayist commits the grave mistake of over-analyzing certain aspects of the nature and society which needn’t be concentrated upon in minute details- thus instilling within the composer of the essay a false intellectual aura.

But can Adorno’s theory of the negative polemic towards essay be applied, in all certainty, to Benjamin’s art of composing essays? That Benjamin looked into the cultural aspects of his society, and the functioning of the society through socio-cultural spheres is true, but whether or not he included within his essay the excess of the intellectual, which is to say the analysis of a certain text, writer, event or structure beyond what they originally intend to project, is arguable. “The Work of Art” is certainly a critic of the society but, as has already been established (or an attempt has been made in that regard anyway) it does not in any way go beyond what is visible, or what is meant to be visible.

Adorno regarded the essayistic form as somewhat elitist, and his claim remained that the essay was meant to be read and enjoyed by the certain class of the bourgeois, which is certainly untrue, since Benjamin’s essays were regularly published in several journals highly regarded by academics but also read by the laymen. What’s more, Benjamin also wrote short texts for the radio, the ultimate medium of classes coming together and performing an activity. Let alone Benjamin, then, even certain essayists of considerable influence (I for one would vouch for Marshall Berman, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn and in the Indian context, Ramchandra Guha) have been able to reach each and every class of the society with their essays. Whether the essays composed by these figures are intellectually battled upon or thought upon by every class of the society is, again, arguable and could perhaps even invite debate, but it was no business of Adorno’s, I feel, to make an easy claim of the elite over the essay.

In any case, though, even so far as Benjamin managed to dodge the negative aspects of Adorno’s criticism of the essay, he conveniently made himself an example of Adorno’s positive outlook towards the form, in that his essays have always been analyzing the original and marginalized aspects of the society and subsequently the culture. As far as Lucaks’ criticism was concerned, here again Benjamin managed to write about science, ethics and art with equal amount of passion and knowledge, making it, among other things, a personal exploration in itself. His personal reports on his use of hashish have been divided into several essays- and this again calls for attention towards the structure of the essay as Benjamin saw it- and they are all rife with scientific as well as cultural and moral details so far as their inclusion in drug abuse goes. He tried the drug at the age of thirty-five, and at three-thirty in the morning, all of which he recorded in detail amounting to short, conversational pieces on the abuse of drugs and- as with everything Benjamin ever experienced- analyzing of this abuse with a cultural and social perspective. “Thought follows thought reluctantly and ponderously,” wrote Benjamin, “Departure from the spirit-world. Wave farewell,” went Benjamin somewhere further into his text. These sentences, fleeting as they are, are mixed in parts with anecdotes and moral questioning, though in larger part the text deals with Benjamin and his friends experiencing a drug take hold of them and the experimentation that follows.

Walter Benjamin, thus, was someone who experienced life, or rather, who pushed his life into experience for the sake of creating of those experiences words of wonder. His essays have crossed borders (though he himself physically couldn’t) and he has come to represent the form of writer as an essayist in the modern world- and rightly so. A theorist of modernism, and in most parts its critic, his own works have been given acute and more sincere attention they deserve in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” The modern readers of Benjamin have come to view him as one of the foremost promoters of non-fiction as a literary form; as a form that not only concentrates and analyzes upon conventionally cultural subjects but also different modules of cultural engagements such as photography, urbanism, architecture and fashion among perhaps hundreds of other now-developed faculties. Lifestyle, and more importantly a lifestyle marked by urbanization and modernization, was a subject Benjamin felt close to, not only because it was marginalized, but also because he felt that this was a subject which would continue to affect the human life long after he was gone.

And he went tragically early. A life-long melancholic, he wanted to experience death, as well, and had contemplated suicide before he actually committed it. He fell in love, he fell out of it- and this wasn’t just love towards women (and he loved many of them, too) but also his love for certain forms of literature and certain ideas of politics. His fascination towards Marxism was inspired by his friendship with Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist playwright who sought to inspire the utopia of Communism into Benjamin, though without much success. Adorno called his life in fact not a life at all but a “movement in which content forced its way, through him, into language.” Gershom Scholame urged him to move to Palestine, for which he even arranged a Hebrew class, though Benjamin only took the money and never the class. No wonder with Scholem’s visits to Europe, Benjamin took proper care to avoid him.

As with every great writer, then, Benjamin led a life full of correspondence, friendships, ideologies and an utmost devotion to work and almost nothing else. He wanted to create of criticism a genre, and even though in his lifetime that was hardly possible, today it seems like a spectacular proposition backed by positive possibility. The essay as a form has developed, and it owes its development to the work of critics like Benjamin, who, as he once remarked in his many letters, pointed his telescope “through the bloody mist at a mirage of nineteenth-century.” He had to build this telescope, he says, and now, in his own age of mechanical reproduction, the telescope has finally been fully built- and we, the abject readers are looking through it towards the mist formed by Walter’s Benjamin’s incomprehensible shadow.