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Born Under the Sign of Saturn

Susan Sontag introduces Walter Benjamin by dissecting his own words and the words of his peers. All through the inescapable lens of Benjamin's melancholy.

Verso Books23 June 2021

Walter Benjamin

Writing for the introduction of One-Way Street: And Other Writings Susan Sontag explores the makings of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, a fascinating and enigmatic intellectual figure, was shrouded in melancholy, something he explained as caused by being born under the sign of Saturn. He made remarkable contributions to political and philosophical thought through his profound meditations and musings. Sontag dissects the man though his own words writing an illuminating introduction to a collection of multi-dimensional writings completed over the course of 20 years. 

One-Way Street by Walter Benjamin is Verso Book Club pick in July. New subscribers get 50% off the first three months of their membership. See all of our upcoming Book Club picks.


Much of the originality of Benjamin’s arguments owes to his microscopic gaze (as his friend and disciple Theodor Adorno called it), combined with his indefatigable command over theoretical perspectives. ‘It was the small things that attracted him most’, writes Scholem. He loved old toys, postage stamps, picture postcards, and such playful miniaturizations of reality as the winter world inside a glass globe that snows when it is shaken. His own handwriting was almost microscopic, and his never realized ambition, Scholem reports, was to get a hundred lines on a sheet of paper. (The ambition was realized by Robert Walser, who used to transcribe the manuscripts of his stories and novels as micrograms, in a truly microscopic script.) Scholem relates that when he visited Benjamin in Paris in August 1927 (the first time the two friends had seen each other since Scholem emigrated to Palestine in 1923), Benjamin dragged him to an exhibit of Jewish ritual objects at the Musée Cluny to show him ‘two grains of wheat on which a kindred soul had inscribed the complete Shema Israel’.1

To miniaturize is to make portable—the ideal form of possessing things for a wanderer, or a refugee. Benjamin, of course, was both a wanderer, on the move, and a collector, weighed down by things; that is, passions. To miniaturize is to conceal. Benjamin was drawn to the extremely small as he was to whatever had to be deciphered: emblems, anagrams, handwriting. To miniaturize means to make useless. For what is so grotesquely reduced is, in a sense, liberated from its meaning—its tininess being the outstanding thing about it. It is both a whole (that is, complete) and a fragment (so tiny, the wrong scale). It becomes an object of disinterested contemplation or reverie. Love of the small is a child’s emotion, one colonized by Surrealism. The Paris of the Surrealists is ‘a little world’, Benjamin observes; so is the photograph, which Surrealist taste discovered as an enigmatic, even perverse, rather than a merely intelligible or beautiful, object, and about which Benjamin wrote with such originality. The melancholic always feels threatened by the dominion of the thing-like, but Surrealist taste mocks these terrors. Surrealism’s great gift to sensibility was to make melancholy cheerful.

‘The only pleasure the melancholic permits himself, and it is a powerful one, is allegory’, Benjamin wrote in The Origin of German Trauerspiel. Indeed, he asserted, allegory is the way of reading the world typical of melancholies, and cited Baudelaire: ‘Everything for me becomes Allegory.’ The process which extracts meaning from the petrified and insignificant, allegory, is the characteristic method of the German baroque drama and of Baudelaire, Benjamin’s major subjects; and, transmuted into philosophical argument and the micrological analysis of things, the method Benjamin practised himself.

The melancholic sees the world itself become a thing: refuge, solace, enchantment. Shortly before his death, Benjamin was planning an essay about miniaturization as a device of fantasy. It seems to have been a continuation of an old plan to write on Goethe’s ‘The New Melusina’ (in Wilhelm Meister)2 ,  which is about a man who falls in love with a woman who is actually a tiny person, temporarily granted normal size, and unknowingly carries around with him a box containing the miniature kingdom of which she is the princess. In Goethe’s tale, the world is reduced to a collectible thing, an object, in the most literal sense.

Like the box in Goethe’s tale, a book is not only a fragment of the world but itself a little world. The book is a miniaturization of the world, which the reader inhabits. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin evokes his childhood rapture: ‘You did not read books through; you dwelt, abided between their lines.’ To reading, the delirium of the child, was eventually added writing, the obsession of the adult. The most praiseworthy way of acquiring books is by writing them, Benjamin remarks in ‘Unpacking My Library’. 3 And the best way to understand them is also to enter their space: one never really understands a book unless one copies it, he says in One-Way Street, as one never understands a landscape from an airplane but only by walking through it.

‘The amount of meaning is in exact proportion to the presence of death and the power of decay’, Benjamin writes in the book on the Trauerspiel. This is what makes it possible to find meaning in one’s own life, in ‘the dead occurrences of the past which are euphemistically known as experience ’. Only because the past is dead is one able to read it. Only because history is fetishized in physical objects can one understand it. Only because the book is a world can one enter it. The book for him was another space in which to stroll. For the character born under the sign of Saturn, the true impulse when one is being looked at is to cast down one’s eyes, look in a corner. Better, one can lower one’s head to one ’s notebook. Or put one ’s head behind the wall of a book.

It is characteristic of the Saturnine temperament to blame its undertow of inwardness on the will. Convinced that the will is weak, the melancholic may make extravagant efforts to develop it. If these efforts are successful, the resulting hypertrophy of will usually takes the form of a compulsive devotion to work. Thus Baudelaire, who suffered constantly from ‘acedia, the malady of monks’, ended many letters and his Intimate Journals with the most impassioned pledges to work more, to work uninterruptedly, to do nothing but work. (Despair over ‘every defeat of the will’ —Baudelaire ’s phrase again—is a characteristic complaint of modern artists and intellectuals, particularly of those who are both.) One is condemned to work; otherwise one might not do anything at all. Even the dreaminess of the melancholic temperament is harnessed to work, and the melancholic may try to cultivate phantasmagorical states, like dreams, or seek the access to concentrated states of attention offered by drugs. Surrealism simply puts a positive accent on what Baudelaire experienced so negatively: it does not deplore the guttering of volition but raises it to an ideal, proposing that dream states may be relied on to furnish all the material needed for work.

Benjamin, always working, always trying to work more, speculated a good deal on the writer’s daily existence. One-Way Street has several sections which offer recipes for work: the best conditions, timing, utensils. Part of the impetus for the large correspondence he conducted was to chronicle, report on, confirm the existence of work. His instincts as a collector served him well. Learning was a form of collecting, as in the quotations and excerpts from daily reading which Benjamin accumulated in notebooks that he carried everywhere and from which he would read aloud to friends. Thinking was also a form of collecting, at least in its preliminary stages. He conscientiously logged stray ideas; developed mini-essays in letters to friends; rewrote plans for future projects; noted his dreams (several are recounted in One-Way Street); kept numbered lists of all the books he read. (Scholem recalls seeing, on his second and last visit to Benjamin in Paris, in 1938, a notebook of current reading in which Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire is listed as No. 1649.)

1. Scholem tells the story in ‘Walter Benjamin’. But see Benjamin’s letter to Scholem from Paris (No. 156 in the Briefe) of May 29, 1926, a long letter toward the end of which he writes: ‘I couldn’t build a Lilliputian state with this, as it were, Marxist letter. But let me tell you that in the Jewish section of the Musée Cluny I have discovered the Book of Esther written on a page a little more than half the size of this one. That should perhaps speed your visit to Paris.’Scholem argues that Benjamin’s love for the miniature underlies his taste for brief literary utterances, evident in One-Way Street. Perhaps; but books of this sort were common in the 1920s, and it was in a specif- ically Surrealist montage style that these short independent texts were presented. One-Way Street was published by Ernst Rowohlt in Berlin, in booklet form with typography intended to evoke advertising shock effects; the cover was a photographic montage of aggressive phrases in capital letters from newspaper announcements, ads, official and odd signs. The opening passage, in which Benjamin hails ‘prompt lan- guage ’ and denounces ‘the pretentious, universal gesture of the book’, does not make much sense unless one knows what kind of book, phys- ically, One-Way Street was designed to be.

2. Cf. Benjamin’s letter (No. 326 in the Briefe) to Gretel Adorno, written in Paris on January 17, 1940.

3. In Illuminations, London, 1970, an earlier selection of Benjamin’s writ- ings, edited by Hannah Arendt, which includes the essays on Kafka and Proust.

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