Benjamins Perpetuation of Biblical Myth

The question thus becomes that of interpreting how 'theological concepts', whether direct or indirect, function in the writings of Benjamin.1

After the millenarian enthusiasm of Bloch's engagement with the Bible, Benjamin emerges as a wary and cautious interlocutor. I will argue that the Bible is crucial for Benjamin's thought. Put succinctly, he seeks to use the Bible and the methods of biblical studies, especially allegory, in order to break out of the myths that he saw everywhere around him in the increasing technological interlacings of capitalism. That he fails to see the way his theological reading of the Bible perpetuates the very myth he wishes to banish is not a mark of failure as the hint at another way of dealing with myth. Over against the dominant trend to deal with Benjamin's thought chronologically, tracking its shifts over time, I attempt a thematic and logical reading here. For such a reading brings out certain elements of his thought otherwise obscured in chronological readings.

Like Bloch, Walter Benjamin is something of an enigma for Marxist criticism. I suspect this is partly due to the fact that Benjamin was never quite clear about what he wanted to say, with the result that,

at the moment we think we might have pinned him down, he slips away again. But the problem for Marxism is that, while appropriating the central terms of historical materialism, Benjamin continually uses a panoply of theological terms: God, redemption, revelation, transcendence, immanence, angels, judgement, free will, evil, Satan, messiah, allegory and repeatedly the word theology itself. Indeed, it is hardly necessary to rehearse the arguments for the theological dimensions of Benjamin's writings. It is a commonplace of Benjamin criticism that his great creative tension lies in the intersections between metaphysics and materialism, theology and Marxism. It is also a commonplace to position oneself by delineating the strands of that criticism.2 But it seems to me that the comments of Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem have rarely been surpassed except in detail. Adorno suggests that Benjamin should take the dialectical logic of his theological method to its extreme, for only in this way would a properly Marxist reading and method emerge:

If I were to close the circle of my critique boldly here at a single stroke, as it were, then I should have to try and grasp the two extremes. A restoration of theology, or better still, a radicalization of dialectic introduced into the glowing heart of theology, would simultaneously require the utmost intensification of the social-dialectical, indeed economic, motifs.3

2 For a detailed analysis of the reception of Benjamin's work, see McCole 1993, pp. 10-21.

3 Adorno, Lonitz and Benjamin 1999, p. 108; Adorno 1994, p. 143. In response to the Arcades project, of which the Baudelaire section was sent to the Institute, Adorno writes: 'I think this brings me to the heart of the matter. The impression which your entire study conveys - and not only to me and my Arcades orthodoxy - is that you have here done violence upon yourself. Your solidarity with the Institute, which pleases no one more than myself, has led you to pay the kind of tributes to Marxism which appropriate neither to Marxism nor to yourself' (Adorno, Lonitz and Benjamin 1999, p. 184; Adorno 1994, p. 369). Further: 'it would also prove most beneficial to the cause of dialectical materialism and the theoretical interests represented by the Institute, if you surrendered to your own specific insights and conclusions without combining them with other ingredients, which you obviously find so distasteful to swallow that I cannot expect anything good to come of it. God knows, there is only one truth, and if your powers of intelligence can seize this one truth through categories which may seem apocryphal to you given your conception of materialism, then you will capture more of this one truth than you will ever do by employing conceptual tools that merely resist your grip at every turn. After all, there is more of this one truth in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals than there is in Bukharin's ABC of Communism.' (Adorno, Lonitz and Benjamin 1999, p. 284; Adorno 1994, p. 370.)

Like Scholem, although for entirely different reasons, Adorno finds the melding of theology and dialectical materialism problematic: they appear uneasy with each other, the one effacing the other in an enthusiasm for immediate political relevance only to find that the other emerges again without warning. For Scholem, Benjamin would be better off without communism,4 although he suggests that only Benjamin would have been able to link religion and politics in a unique fashion: 'you would not be the last but perhaps the most incomprehensible victim of the confusion between religion and politics, the true relationship of which you could have been expected to bring out more clearly than anyone else'.5 Here, Scholem joins Adorno, although with a very different direction in mind.

However, some Marxists are keen to dismiss theology,6 while others argue for the abiding importance of theology,7 or that his theology is the realisation of the inner logic of Marxism and its breakdown.8 Anti-Marxists stress that his Marxism is a superficial addition to a transcendent theology,9 or that Benjamin's interest for us lies elsewhere, as a deconstructionist, or cultural critic or philosopher.10 Both sides are given to marking two or three shifts in Benjamin's thought: the early, theological Benjamin influenced by Scholem

4 '. . . [I]t seems to me it is clear to any objective reader of your writings that though in recent years you have tried - frantically, if you will pardon the expression - to present your insights, some of them very far-reaching, in a phraseology that is as close as can be to the Communist kind, there (and this is what seems to me matter) an astonishing incompatibility and unconnectedness between your real and pretended modes of thought' (Scholem 1981, p. 228). For Scholem, the effort at materialist readings introduces 'a completely alien formal element that any intelligent reader can easily detach, which stamps your output of this period as the work an adventurer, a purveyor of ambiguities, and a card-sharper' (ibid.). See also, Scholem 1992, pp. 107-18, 206-7.

6 For a recent example, see Leslie 2000, p. 173: 'Religious motifs are one part of a versatile montage strategy, rather than evidence of ardent religious commitment. It is more significant to try to identify what theology as figure or image might represent'. One of the first English efforts in this line can be found in Eagleton 1981.

7 Most notably Habermas 1979.

8 See Ranciere 1996, p. 38.

9 So Britt 1996. Britt's argument for the central role of 'sacred text' or the 'scriptural function' of texts that renders them sacred in Benjamin's work is, in the end, quite superficial.

10 As an example see the collection by Nägele 1988, as well as that by Benjamin and Osborne 2000. Paul de Man's reading is yet another variation: as Marxism and theology are on the same terrain, he seeks a reading that is neither (see Benjamin 1985). For Rainer Rochlitz (Rochlitz 1996, p. 5) Benjamin's use of 'theology' is self-reflexive, claiming 'the unconditional truth of his assertions'.

and the later (Brechtian) Marxist from the 1920s. With the Passagenarbeit and the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', some suggest either a resigned awareness of Marxism's futility and a return to theology (so Scholem), or an effort at a deep mutual transformation of theology through Marxism and vice versa that risks losing both,11 or a thinking of the relationship between politics and time and thereby 'freeing theology for God',12 or the indistinguishabil-ity,13 or asymmetrical opposition, of the profane and the messianic,14 or . . .At least these approaches avoid the pitfalls of seeking a key in his biography. I do not enter into this debate here, although we cannot avoid the mutual presence of theology and materialism in Benjamin's work.15 For what is noticeable about the opposition is that the terseness of the interchange, like a separated couple, speaks more of the common ground between the two in a way that highlights their differences.

It is these differences and tensions that interest me here, but, before I do, let me deal with two preliminary problems. First, Benjamin and his critics subsume biblical studies under the label of theology; second, the lack of any distinction between Jewish and Christian thought. As for the second problem, most criticism assumes that Benjamin drew largely from Jewish theology. This is simply an oxymoron, for theology bears an indelible Christian stamp. Rather than theology, it is better to speak of halakhah - elaboration on the law - and haggadah - development of biblical stories for new situations.

11 So Tiedemann 1989; Wolin 1982; Rumpf 1991; Buck-Morss 1989, although, in the end, she cautions that we should 'put the dwarf of theology out of sight' (252). Even Scholem, for all his criticism of Benjamin's Marxism, admits that 'This interlocking of two elements that by nature are incapable of balance lends precisely to those of Benjamin's works that derive from this attitude their significant effect and that profound brilliance that distinguishes them so impressively from most products of materialistic thought and literary criticism, noted for their uncommon dullness.' Scholem 1981, p. 124. Scholem notes that, in his last few years, Benjamin's close friend was Fritz Lieb, a theologian trained by Karl Barth and a socialist (pp. 206-7).

12 Benjamin 2000, p. 231.

13 Wohlfarth 1978.

14 von Buelow 1989, p. 127.

15 I have a knack of resisting the more usual moves made in various forms of criticism, and here it would take some form of reference to the puppet and wizened dwarf of the f rst thesis on the philosophy of history in order to characterise the relationship between historical materialism and history.

This means that Benjamin's use of theology is distinctly Christian and that his interest in Jewish thought comes out of this context.16

Gershom Scholem mounted a well-known argument for the inherent Jewishness of Benjamin's thought.17 Many have sought to back up Scholem's arguments,18 most notably Susan Buck-Morss, who draws on Scholem's work on Jewish mysticism to argue from the slightest hints that Benjamin's philosophical method and theory of history depend on Kabbalism.19 Yet, Scholem and Buck-Morss overdo the Jewishness of Benjamin's thought. For, as John McCole has convincingly argued, it is based on an anachronism.20 Scholem was himself almost single-handedly responsible for the recovery of Jewish mysticism and the study of the Kabbalah in the twentieth century, but he did this only after his move to Palestine in 1923. Not only was Benjamin extremely cagey about his references to Jewish mysticism, having available only limited nineteenth-century sources, but McCole also suggests it may well have been Benjamin who set Scholem on the path to the recovery of Jewish mysticism. Indeed, Benjamin's interest in these matters suggests a thinker more comfortable with Christian theology, but wanting to recover Jewish modes of exegesis in order to breathe new life into thinking itself.

But let me return to the first problem, the merging of theology and the Bible that we already noticed with Bloch. This relates more directly to my argument: while Benjamin identifies a major problem within Marxism - how to envisage change out of capitalism - his attempted solution is fraught with difficulties. Benjamin sought to use biblical categories as a philosophical method without the institutional basis, nor the truth claims of these categories. If, in the Trauerspiel book, he used them to deal with some of the major

16 It is not that I wish to appropriate a Jewish thinker under Christendom, much like the Hebrew Bible into Christianity; rather, it seems to me that Benjamin is an uneasy Jewish thinker. In fact, my later argument concerning the return of mythology via Benjamin's theological biblical criticism does not depend on his use of Christian theology: he may well have arrived at the same point via Kabbalism.

17 Scholem 1981, pp. 10-11, 14-15, 28-30. See also Scholem 1983.

18 So, for instance, Rabinbach 1985; Ullmann 1992; Pizer 1995; Wohlfarth 1981.

19 See Buck-Morss 1989, pp. 229-40. Her argument is guilty of some howlers: redemption is, for Christianity, private and spiritual, whereas, in Judaism, it is public and historical (this from Scholem); that Marxism's universal coherence was more attractive than the sectarian differences in Christianity or Judiasm. See, by contrast, Wohlfarth 1997. Compare this to his earlier essay Wohlfarth 1981.

20 McCole 1993, pp. 65-66. See also Jennings 1987, pp. 94-6.

philosophical and literary problems, with his turn to Marxism, these biblical categories are now brought to bear on problems within Marxist thought and expectation. Thus, in the Passagenarbeit, this 'inveterate adversary of myth'21 seeks to break out of the myth and dream-work of capitalism by means of the dialectical image, the caesura of the explosion out of history, waking from a dream. Yet, this break out from myth can only be mythical in Benjamin's formulation, and the problem begins with his elision of Bible and theology. His appropriations of the Bible are nearly always theological, drawing out schemata of history, modes of interpretation, theories of language; that is, he assumes that biblical interpretation is inevitably theological. In doing so, he neglects the fact that biblical studies and theology have been uneasy partners, and that biblical studies has long distanced itself from theology. And for good reason, for theology replicates and enhances biblical myths (those of the Fall, Christ and so on). The paradox, for Benjamin, is that, in his effort to appropriate biblical themes for a materialist 'redemption' from myth, he does so theologically, and that theology ensures that his solution to myth is unavoidably mythical. The major signal of such a mythical reading is Benjamin's well-known tendency to revert to sexual language. Where Bible and myth appear in Benjamin's texts, we find the language of sexuality, the gendered text, women as mythical other and the incessant repetition of birthing metaphors. But this is also characteristic of biblical myth, for the texts on which he draws, especially those of Genesis and the Eschaton, rely upon precisely such language. And so, although Benjamin attempts to find a language that will provide a shard of a very different future, his option for a theological reading of the Bible to provide this language is too problematic.

I work closely with two texts, one at the beginning and the other at the end of Benjamin's writing life: The Origin of the German Mourning Play (Trauerspiel book) and The Arcades Project (Passagenarbeit). Although traversed endlessly by Benjamin critics, my argument does not follow their well-worn paths. Rather, I work thematically, beginning with commentary and method, moving to allegory and then the relation between history and myth. With all the shifts that took place in Benjamin's work, a profound continuity between the two works emerges in my discussion. Thus, in the Passagenarbeit, he refers back to the Trauerspiel book when discussing crucial issues such as that of

21 Wohlfarth 1997, p. 167.

Baudelaire's allegory or the theory of history. And then there are the methodological comments as well, particularly in the most philosophically reflective Konvolut N: 'The book on the Baroque exposed the seventeenth century to the light of the present day. Here, something analogous must be done for the nineteenth century, but with greater distinctness'.22

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