- Book Review Index
Walter Benjamin und das Wiener Judentum zwischen 1900 und 1938, edited by Sascha Kirchner, Vivian Liska, Karl Solibakke, and Bernd Witte. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009. 160 pp. 24.80 Euro.
There are so many books on Walter Benjamin. One reason for this is his extraordinary range of interests (from literature to mass media to philosophy of history to theology to politics). He was never bound to any one period of time, as a specialist in Romanticism or the Baroque period or ancient civilizations might be. And he was not tied to one place, either in terms of his area of research—French littérateurs, German artists and scientists, Russian political artists, Italian town planners and more fascinated him—or in terms of his habitat, for this Berliner moved across Europe, from Capri to Denmark, Moscow to Paris, in search of sustenance and a home. It is for these reasons that many volumes can be devoted to thematic studies of Benjamin in relation to objects, ideologies, epochs, or places. As Volker Barth states in his essay on memory and history in Benjamin, in the volume under review, “Bei Benjamin ist alles Fragment” (“In Benjamin, all is fragmentary”) (p.135). This fragmentary nature of the texts allows them to be parcelled out in many different contexts. Walter Benjamin und das Wiener Judentum zwischen 1900 und 1938, written in German, shines its scholarly lights on the relationship of Benjamin to Vienna and, in particular, Viennese Jewry from 1900 to 1938. It is not an obvious choice of theme. The relationship of Benjamin to Jewishness is, of course, well-explored, under the direction mainly of his friend Gershom Scholem. But it is the location of Vienna that is more intriguing here and foregrounded in the volume. Benjamin spent little time in Austria. His main bond to the city was Leon Kellner, a prominent Zionist and English literary scholar, who was his father-in-law from 1917 to 1930 and with whom he and his wife Dora stayed from December 1919 to March 1920. However, things often make sense once someone has conjured their reality in to being—and the volume persuades that Benjamin had a strong connection to Vienna and Viennese Jewry, in particular through the figures of Sigmund Freud (whose work Benjamin cited at various points) and the less well-known satirist and journalist Karl Kraus (on whom Benjamin wrote an enigmatic essay).
The volume under review is the fifth in a series of Benjamin-Blätter—Benjamin-Pages— and it originated in March 2007 in a conference on Vienna and Jewish experience 1900–1938, where the International Walter Benjamin Society organized a strand. The essays have each more or less to do with Benjamin or figures in Viennese Jewry in tandem. Each is of interest in its own right and the scholarly level is high, as is the accessibility of the prose. There is no particular ordering to them, apart from the last essay, a dark interruption and cessation, in which Peter Weibel starkly outlines the events of Anschluss and in particular, its fatal impact on the Vienna School of philosophy. Bernd Witte’s contribution, on “Feuilletonismus. Benjamin, Kraus, Heine,” focuses on Benjamin’s reading of Kraus in relation to linguistic theory, which turns out in some regards, according to Witte, to be a mis-reading or an underdeveloped theory. Feuilleton cannot do what Benjamin hopes it might. The contested aspect for Witte is what quotation actually does. It is quotation that Karl Ivan Solibbake evokes in his essay on Mahler, in which Mahler’s citing of other music is set in parallel with Benjamin’s veneration of the historical and political force of the quotation ripped from context. Trabert’s piece on Schoenberg does not consider Benjamin, but is a reflection on the theme of “the chosen” and Jewish culture in Vienna. It notes in passing that the secularist Freud once described himself in the following words: “My parents were Jews, and I have remained a Jew too.” Anja Lemke covers the under-researched topic of Freud and Benjamin, whereby the city in Benjamin becomes the site of Freudian remembering. Karin Stögner takes us back into Benjamin’s childhood and his relationship to Gustav Wyneken and the youth movement. It provides a good overview of youth movement politics in the years around the First World War and the specific liberatory impulses of Wyneken’s group, with its emphasis on “Geist,” spirit, which, the argument here goes, affected Benjamin’s sense of Zionism. For Benjamin his time in the youth movement presented a significant encounter with death—the mass death of the Great War, which led to his break with Wyneken, and the specific suicides of his Youth Movement comrades Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson. Anne-Kathrin Reulecke’s contribution looks at Benajmin’s work as a dialogue with the dead. She considers his memoirs in which he evokes these lost friends as part of a practice of memory that is social and political. She also considers his work of collating letters from a Humanist German tradition, in the significant year of 1936. Benjamin curates the voices of the dead, interrupted conversations to set against the barbarity of the moment. As Benjamin notes in his thoughts “On the Concept of History,” even the dead are not safe from the aggressor if he wins. That the deathly realm of the Third Reich would pervert and destroy anything they could from the past was clear to Benjamin and impelled his theoretical and political stances. Weibel’s catalogue-style final word hammers home how this was experienced in Austria specifically. This is a fresh volume, contributing many interesting aspects to Benjamin scholarship and reiterating others, but with new lights.
Birkbeck, University of London