Walter Benjamin and the Literary Education
Contrary to the very idea of a canon, Walter Benjamin’s list of readings is an imaginative, creative work in itself.
What makes up the literary education of a writer? What about a philosopher? Is it simply the handling of certain important concepts in the history of the humanities? An ability to argue, with ease, about Aristotle or Plato? To base one’s own ideas on references widely known among our contemporaries? Or some combination of all of the above?
Last year, a sample from the “synopses” of the education of the philosopher, Walter Benjamin, was presented in Berlin. The list, which is, as yet, not digitized, included numbered entries for each book Benjamin read from the age of 22 (in 1917), until 1939, just prior to his tragic death. Though all the titles prior to number 462 have been lost, the list ends with item number 1,712. The remaining entries provide an account not only of the voracity of Benjamin’s reading but of his wide-ranging interests, too.
Many of the titles and authors appeared in the essays Benjamin published during his lifetime and nurtured Benjamin’s interests. These include the poet, Charles Baudelaire, novelist Marcel Proust, and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Marx. But there are some surprises, too. According to the list, Benjamin seems to have remained a great fan of mystery novels. The list includes those by Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, and A.A. Milne, author of the famous Winnie-The-Pooh children’s books.
The list of readings was presented at an exhibition called “Irrkunst.” A difficult word to translate, it refers to that which goes unnoticed, discreetly, and to what is present but which draws no attention. The concept was used by the English artist, Edmund de Waal for the title of his exhibition at the Max Hetzler Gallery, located near the school where Benjamin had studied.
One of the researchers from the Walter Benjamin Archive, Ursula Marx, noted, “what you have here is an archive of Benjamin’s knowledge. You’re reading the story of his own education.” The “Irrkunst” exhibition presents architectural and ceramic pieces of De Waal, but the exhibition also includes many editions of the work of Walter Benjamin, as well as those of his thousands of commentators.
Could the bibliographic history of an author be the subject of an artistic exhibition? It seems an ironic question, perhaps even one more rhetorical than ironic. Walter Benjamin, in his own time, was a misunderstood writer, a radio scriptwriter with a passion for dissemination, a rigorous but often hermetic philosopher, and an undesirable in both the Academy and in intellectual circles.
Among the readings that can be glimpsed through the few screenshots available on the internet are also some great names in Russian literature; Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol, as well as Tolstoy’s “Ma vie.” Then there are works like Ernst Bloch’s Footprints [Spuren], Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Thomas Mann’s Appeal to Reason, works of Malraux, Gide, and Friedrich Kroner, Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice,” and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Could it be possible to know what form a literary work would take if we could know the works that nurtured an author? The amplitude and generality of the question doesn’t allow any definitive answer. In the case of Benjamin, it might be possible to imagine an algorithm capable of collating the books he recorded in his diaries and then producing a literary work according to certain functions. This book, this imaginary work would be undoubtedly broader than the sum of its parts, though its coordinates might well be delineated. But even with an exhaustive index like Benjamin’s, we don’t get an idea of the personal, the intimate, the subjective, and the exhaustive, that ultimately feeds a writer’s imagination.
*Imágenes: 1) Public Domain; 2) Arturo Espinosa – Flickr / Creative Commons
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