In his house in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, kept a painting, Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. It was willed to him by a friend of his youth, the German critic Walter Benjamin. This curious work of art, with its schematic portrait of a startled angel, hair of tangled scrolls, arms spread seemingly in both recoil and benediction, was an icon of one of the more unusual friendships in 20th-century intellectual history.
The two men referred of ten in their letters to this heavenly figure. It was, for each of them, a most cherished possession. And this angel, in all its ambiguousness, also seems in retrospect to represent the larger issues of debate and discussion between these two German-Jewish thinkers in the twilight days of Germany before the advent of Hitler-a debate and discussion over just what sort of redemption could be offered to a fallen world. At a time when fascism was on the horizon and Marxism so youthfully full of great hopes, the arguments of Benjamin and Scholem ranged over the promises and dangers of religious and political idealism. They differed over the origins of the modern world itself, over how to explain its debased material and spiritual life, and over what hopes could be held out in the face of imminent catastrophe.
These issues are no less urgent now than they were in the 1920’s and 30’s; in the intervening years ideologies of political and religious redemption have, if anything, grown in number and strength. The Scholem-Benjamin friendship !s thus of peculiar pertinence today. Yet then friendship has been curiously slighted in the vast exegetical industry that has grown about Benjamin in recent decades; it has hardly even been noticed in the years since Scholem’s death in 1982.
Scholem (1897-1982) and Benjamin (1892-1940) came at these great questions obliquely, and through seemingly divergent paths. Scholem was a historian whose studies of Jewish mystical teachings restored to consciousness a religious tradition that had been dismissed or derogated by generations of historians and religious authorities alike. His classic work, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), was supplemented by numerous essays and books on messianism, on Jewish politics, on the nature of revelation, on the metaphors of mystical texts, and on the neglected career and influence of the false messiah of the I7th century, Sabbatai Zevi.
Benjamin was a literary critic about whom more has been written than he himself ever published. Aside from an early dissertation on German Romantic art criticism, he completed only one book, The Origins of German Tragic Drama (1928), in which he pondered the significance. of the Baroque stage play known as the Trauerspzel. Everything else is aphorism, excerpt, and essay dealing with figures like Goethe, Kafka, Karl Kraus; meditating on Paris and Moscow; playing with ideas about the origins of language and the end of history.
Given these disparate interests, there would hardly seem to be any common ground on which Scholem and Benjamin could meet. But, as Scholem writes, there were several things he had in common with Benjamin: “A resoluteness in pursuing our intellectual goals, rejection of our environment-which was basically the German Jewish assimilated middle class-and a positive attitude toward metaphysics.”
Rejection of the environment was perhaps the most fundamental fact for each. Benjamin’s father sold antiques and Oriental rugs; Scholem’s was a printer. For both upper-middle-class families, Judaism was a barely tolerated heritage, founded on a vague respect for ancestors. Both families celebrated Christmas, though neither would have been welcome at their neighbors’ celebrations.
Scholem’s rejection of this environment took the form of an involvement with Judaism; indeed, he was eventually banished from his father’s house precisely because of his Jewish interests. But this same rebellious involvement with Judaism was decisive both for his friendship with Benjamin and for their later-and often very severe-disagreements. At the time of their first meeting in 1915-Scholem was just over seventeen, Benjamin was twenty-three Scholem already possessed an “insatiable mania” for Jewish learning. He studied Hebrew ten to fifteen hours a week, and argued for Zionism as a spiritual rebirth of the Jewish people. Greatly impressed, Benjamin said that if he ever developed a philosophy of his own, “it somehow will be a philosophy of Judaism.” Under the influence of Scholem (who wanted him to become nothing less than a successor to Rashi, the great 11th-century biblical commentator), Benjamin grew interested in the modern Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon, learned about the imagery of the kabbalah, and kept planning to study Hebrew. Scholem in those early years believed that he and Benjamin were involved in a common project. But unlike Benjamin, for Scholem, Jewish preoccupations became paramount. He himself was religiously unobservant but devoted to Jewish tradition, attentive to the past but possessed by a dream of spiritual renewal, scholarly in temper but touched by a taste for the extreme. His focus on the neglected mystical history of Judaism in part represented an attack on an entire era in which assimilated German-Jewish scholars of the 19th century had treated Judaism less as a living religion than as a subject for post-mortem research. But his aim was not just scholarly; he wanted to give Judaism a different foundation, rejecting “bourgeois efforts” at understanding “so unbourgeois a phenomenon as Judaism.” He became fascinated too with the Jewish underworld in Germany, the criminal class that repudiated bourgeois Jewish society in a different way.
In fact Scholem saw no future for the German Jewish bourgeoisie. He believed it was doubly doomed-from within because it denied the force of Judaism, and from without because of the hostility of German culture. The only hope was to make the journey “From Berlin to Jerusalem” (as he would put it many years later in the title of his first volume of memoirs).
Although in 1923 he himself took that journey, without ever looking back, Benjamin never did. Apart from two brief meetings in Europe, the friendship continued over the next seventeen years, until Benjamin’s death, only in correspondence. During all those years Scholem never ceased urging his friend to study Hebrew and come to Palestine, even though he knew early on that the differences between them were fundamental, and in particular that Benjamin’s devotion to the spiritual was (as he put it) “like that of a scribe cast out into another world, who has set off in search of his ‘scripture’ “-a quest Scholem himself never had to engage in.
Then in the mid-20’s a new factor entered the picture. Benjamin fell in love with Asja Lads, a “Russian revolutionary” who first introduced him to Marxist thought. It was there, not in Judaism, that Benjamin eventually found his “scripture.” On this issue Scholem’s judgment was unambiguous. In I923, Benjamin had seemed to him surefooted, a man “who unswervingly followed his genius”; four years later, after meeting him on a trip to Paris, Scholem found that Benjamin’s previously “harmonious view of the world was shattered and in disrepair.”
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Scholem went on trying to convince Benjamin to come to the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he himself had found an intellectual home. But to no avail. Now he had to contend not only with Benjamin’s indecisiveness and confusion but with Asja Lads, who boasted of how she prevented his leaving; and then, after 1929, there was the additional obstacle of Benjamin’s new friend, the poet and playwright (and Communist) Bertolt Brecht, who exercised an influence on Benjamin at least as powerful as Scholem’s. In attempting to combat this “baleful and in some respects disastrous” influence, Scholem wrote a series of very harsh letters to Benjamin about the direction his work was taking. So harsh, indeed, were these letters that, though Scholem was in Europe in 1932 for several months, Benjamin avoided a meeting.
For Scholem the story of his friendship with Benjamin is the story of a struggle for Benjamin’s life and soul. As Scholem saw it, Benjamin was hiding the most authentic aspect of his thinking-his Jewish spiritual orientation-and choosing to disguise it in the vocabulary and manners of Marxist materialism and Communist politics; he was engaged in a “singularly intensive kind of self-deception”; he was damaging his position as the most important critical writer of his generation by distorting the “morality” of his insights; he was producing out of this “sham” position a body of writing that was “the work of an adventurer, purveyor of ambiguities, and a cardsharper”; he was becoming yet another victim of “the confusion between religion and politics.”
Finally, Scholem charged Benjamin with a failure to recognize that there was no future for the Jews in Germany. In this he was, at the very least, prescient. His own brother Werner, for example, was a Communist and then a member of the Reichstag; he was to die in Hitler’s camps. Asja Lacis was to be imprisoned in the Soviet Union in one of Stalin’s camps. And as for Benjamin himself, in 1940, unable finally to escape the Nazis by crossing the border from occupied France into Spain (and thence to the United States), he was to commit the act of suicide he had contemplated at least twice before, and alluded to again and again in his writings.
Given all this, it is surprising indeed that Scholem’s challenges have often been treated as secondary, even inconsequential, in much of the English-language scholarship on Benjamin that has accumulated during the past few decades. Another of Benjamin’s friends, Hannah Arendt, in an elegant introduction to the collection of his essays she edited under the title Illuminations (1968), mentions but does not address these conflicts. Richard Wolin, in the most dutiful, dense, and intelligent study of Benjamin’s thought yet published in English-Walter Benjamin: An Esthetic of Redemption (1982)-begins to address the kinds of issues raised by Scholem, but devotes more sustained attention to the aesthetic arguments Benjamin had with the philosopher Theodor Adorno, a debate which centered on l’vlarxist theory. Similarly with other recent books. For example, the British critic Terry Eagleton is such an advocate of Benjamin’s Marxism that his book is called Walter Benjamin: Or Toward a Revolutionary Criticism (1981) and pays little attention to Benjamin’s Jewishness or to Scholem’s perspective. Yet the truth is that Benjamin cannot be understood without reference to Scholem (who corresponded extensively with Benjamin, collaborated with Adorno in editing Benjamin’s collected papers, and wrote about Benjamin in memoirs and essays). Nor, to a lesser extent, can Scholem be understood without reference to Benjamin. For despite all their disagreements, it was Benjamin “friend of a lifetime whose genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretive power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar” to whom Scholem dedicated his masterwork, symbol is immediate, like a flash of lightning: it has an almost transcendental force, like divine revelation. Such was language before the Fall. But allegory is a quite different form of expression. It is a style tied not to nature and to revelation-as is the symbol-but to the accidents of history. Allegory is a way in which, in the fallen world, we tell tales. It presumes a loss, an absence of direction, and hence it demands exegesis.
We are accustomed to thinking of allegorical tales as very determined, indeed overdetermined; ead1 object stands for some other object or concept, and the events in the tale, when properly translated, illustrate a lesson. For Benjamin, however, allegory has nothing necessary or predetermined about it; the coherence is something that is placed upon it in the act of interpretation, and in that interpretation everything must be spelled out. In an allegory, Benjamin wrote, “any object, any relationship, can mean absolutely anything else.” The allegory demands an allegorist-the critic, the reader-who transforms as he translates. In his view, even language itself-arbitrary signs which hide ruins of ancient truth-is an allegory, having lost its ancestral link with knowledge. Allegory is thus a mode of expression in need of what Benjamin calls “redemption.”
“Woe to the sinners who look upon the Torah as simply tales pertaining to things of the world, seeing thus only the outer garment. That garment is made up of the tales and stories; but we, we are bound to penetrate beyond.”
The problem is that Benjamin himself is nearly an impenetrable thinker. And this was, as they say, no accident. Benjamin’s “interpretive power” as a critic was drawn to what might be called the “fallen” condition of the world, and in particular, the fallen nature of language. “Every truth has its home, its ancestral palace, in language,” he wrote to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He suggested elsewhere that this ancestral palace was a pure language, existing before the expulsion from Paradise, and it provided, in his quasi-mystical connotation, knowledge itself: “The paradisiac language of man must have been one of perfect knowledge.” But the Fall sundered the metaphysical link between name and knowledge. Language in a fallen world became merely a system of signs, arbitrary, degenerate.
These ideas, vague as they were, served as the foundation of a distinction that was to be crucial to Benjamin’s thinking-between symbol and allegory. Though the distinction haunted Romantic criticism, Benjamin gave it a unique and sometimes baffling spin.
A symbol, he argued, is instantly linked to its meaning-the cross to Christ, for example. The Jewish mystical language that Scholem was developing. According to Scholem, the mystic, unlike the philosopher, “refrains from destroying the living tissue of religious narrative by allegorizing it.” The mystic, that is, does not treat a tale in a holy text as if it were simply an arbitrary story, a message that could do as well in one form as another. The mode of understanding for the Jewish mystic, Scholem wrote, is “symbolical” (in exactly Benjamin’s sense of the term). For the mystic, language has the sort of significance that Benjamin ascribed to it before the Fall; it was “mimetic,” to use another of Benjamin’s terms. Thus, for example, the Hebrew word for God could itself be contemplated to understand something of His Being.
This symbolic nature of Jewish mystical language also sheds light on what Benjamin meant by “redemption.” His project as a critic was a self-proclaimed effort to see through the accidents and arbitrariness of allegory, and to find his way back to the symbolic powers of language. For Benjamin’s persistent view was that the critic, as spectator, could hasten a sort of redemption, just as some mystics claimed to be able to do, by looking at the “truth” which lay underneath the chaos of appearances.
The trouble was that between the Edenic past and the messianic future lay an earthly present that led Benjamin to the brink of despair. His portrait of that present world is to be found obliquely in his Origins of German Tragic Drama, written as a qualifying dissertation at Frankfurt University and rejected as beyond comprehension even by German academics. Its obscurity aside, this book shows just how fallen a world Benjamin’s messianism was up against.
The book presents Benjamin’s interpretation of the German Trauerspiel, a form of tragedy which blossomed briefly during the Baroque period and which, according to Benjamin, included not only German dramas (most of which have sunk into oblivion) but also the plays of the Spaniard Pedro Calderon and some works of Shakespeare. The central figure of the Trauerspiel is the ruler who is both tyrant and martyr, who wields extravagant power yet is also doomed by indecision. Virtue is of “no significance” in the world of these plays, and even language is fallen. (Thus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the very meaning of words themselves is thrown into question as Hamlet debates whether or not he can accept the evidence of his father’s murder.) By the end of the Trauerspiel, the earthly stage on which the ruler futilely and blindly plays his role is piled with bodies and flooded with blood. Resolution occurs only in widespread death; all that is shown at the end is the “hopelessness of the earthly condition.”
For Benjamin, writing in the early I920’s, the Baroque Trauerspiel offered concrete examples of allegories treating of the nature of fallen man, fallen language, historical catastrophe. He read them as statements about history and its ruins, as if they were prescient pointers to the apocalypse. tic events of the 20th century. Scholem properly recognized this study as at once highly theological and highly nihilistic, demonstrating an almost religious faith in the power of critical interpretation mixed with an extreme measure of modernist despair. But what is most striking in the mixture is the second component. Indeed, at the time he wrote, the world of history appeared hopeless to Benjamin, following no law but, as in the Trauerspiel, a sequence of indecision and catastrophe.
For Benjamin, the “material” power that would redeem the fallen world would have to be found elsewhere. The Jewish mystic had been able to find that power in God’s commandments, whose observance, he believed, contributed to the redemption of the entire universe. Benjamin eventually turned to the formulas of Marxism.
Reason is a great instrument of destruction. For construction, something beyond [reason] is required.
In the early l 920’s while finishing his study of the Trauerspiel, Benjamin wrote to Scholem in Jerusalem, saying that he had begun to send out “Communist signals” in his writing and had found an “intensive insight into the relevance of radical Communism.” With such a shift, Benjamin could preserve his notion of a mythic Edenic past, along with the notion of a messianic future, but the processes of history would now be given a direction and a sense related to the material forces of society.
Under the influence of this new perspective, Benjamin undertook an analysis-never completed and surviving only in scattered notes and essays-of the origins of modernity in the era of high capitalism as embodied in 19th-century Paris. Following the example of Baudelaire, whose poetry is shown by Benjamin to have an “allegorical” approach to the new urban universe, he proceeds to link together the most disparate aspects of 19th-century urban life.
The world he describes is a world of shocks: the sense of shock walking in the crowds of the city, which is similar to the sense of shock a worker feels at a machine or at the gambling table, which is itself similar to the shock produced by the flood of commodities and by such new inventions as the camera or the match. It is also a world in which the individual is at risk: the detective story develops, with its image of the criminal losing himself in a crowd without a trace; the bourgeois home, in contrast, becomes a refuge from the crowd, honoring in its materials and its furniture the “trace” left by the human body. These shocks, these lost traces, mark a transformation in human consciousness and memory, a reduction in the powers of imagination, the symptoms of modern alienation.
Economic issues are part of all this, but they are almost secondary. Benjamin does not mean, for example, to show in good Marxist fashion that these various phenomena, including Baudelaire’s poetical style, are the superstructural results of a transformation in the economic sphere; nor does he consider them metaphorical “signs” of a more fundamental foundation, as in classical Marxist thought, where the structure of a poem might be construed as a model of the conditions of production. Benjamin does pay more and more obeisance to Marxist vocabulary and theory-referring to the masses, the means of production, capitalist labor-but he never makes the point of these allusions clear, preferring instead simply to pile up examples and facts.
The result is a style that is peculiar indeed. By treating the world itself as a phantasmagorical assemblage of ideas and objects, Benjamin seems to be attempting to achieve through criticism (if that is the proper word) the “redemption” of an age, to pass through allegory to symbol. Scholem was unhappy with the results, but so were the Marxist thinkers. Adorno referred to one version of Benjamin’s argument as a “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts,” using a technique that “is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism.” Brecht, for his part, in his journal ridiculed.
Benjamin’s ostensible “materialist thinking” as “mysticism, in a posture opposed to mysticism. It is in such a form that the materialistic concept of history is adopted! It is rather ghastly.” What purpose, then, did Benjamin’s adoption of Marxist language and imagery serve? In his newly translated Moscow Diary (1926),• where Benjamin speaks only to himself and not to any of his sparring partners of those years, there is no sense of a brilliant Marxist intellectual traveling to the Soviet Union to investigate the state of the revolution. It is instead a bleak personal account of alienation and failure. His few comments on whether or not he should join the Communist party weigh the advantages-having a “solid position” and “guaranteed contact with other people”-against the disadvantages-“adversely affecting one’s own work.” These are hardly the musings of a serious Marxist theoretician.
So too with his vision of history: “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe,” Benjamin wrote, adding “Strindberg’s thought: Hell is not something which lies ahead of us-but this life here.” Benjamin himself admitted to Scholem that what Marxism offered in the face of such a vision was a platform on which to stand, from which he could at least make gestures as if he were breaking through the “hopelessness of the earthly condition.” The gestures, he explained to Scholem in a letter, were “signs of a shift,” discarding an “outmoded disguise” for a new “extreme form.” It was as if Benjamin were simply designing a more daring suit of clothing for his metaphysical beliefs.
The difficulty came about when such a purely private ideology of salvation was played out in public, when the comforts of Marxist conclusions became temptations for behavior in this world; the dangers, that is, were the dangers tempting all intellectuals when moving from the world of thought to the world of facts. Some of Benjamin’s later essays betray just such a sudden and uncharacteristic leap into “praxis”-like Hamlet in a moment of confusion stabbing Polonius behind the arras. In “The Author as Producer,” for example, read in April 1934 before the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris a “Communist front,” according to Scholem Benjamin argues that a literary work “can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct” and that correctness is achieved through advancement of “technique.” This provides an easy standard indeed, slipping in the need for political kashrut while paying homage to the avant-garde. Yet Benjamin adds that an author would, if demonstrating “solidarity with the proletariat,” come to be an “engineer who seeks his task in adopting apparatus [i.e., his writing] to the ends of the proletarian revolution.” This, however, was hardly Benjamin’s own view of the writers he most loved-Proust or Kafka or Kraus-who are very far from being “engineers.” Benjamin did not send this essay to Scholem; he guessed what the reaction would be.
Scholem’s judgment of Benjamin’s relation to Marxism, then, must be taken seriously. It may be too strong to say, as Scholem did, that Benjamin was merely engaging in a “pretended mode of thought.” But certainly Scholem was right when he wrote to Benjamin in 1931: “You gain your insights not through strict application of a materialistic method but quite independently of it (at best) or (at worst, as in some writings of the last two years) by playing with the ambiguities and dissonances of the method.” Benjamin’s response was to acknowledge Scholem’s critique: “From such a distance, you have recognized so clearly the great outlines of what is going on here”-and going on not only with Benjamin himself, but with other intellectuals in the twilight of pre-Hitler Germany attracted to salvationary analyses of history.
But if there was no question in Benjamin’s mind that his intellectual approach was open to challenge, still, he told Scholem, he required some means of “unambiguous differentiation from the bourgeoisie.” This was a sentiment with which Scholem had much sympathy. But the problem, Scholem answered, was “not that you are fighting but that you are fighting in a disguise.” “All right,” responded Benjamin. “I am going to extremes. A castaway who drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling mast. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.”
Three things come unawares: the messiah, a found article, and a scorpion.
UNLIKE Benjamin, Scholem did not cling to a crumbling mast like some allegorical mariner. Rather, he swam from the sinking wreck to what he considered the safety of shore. Scholem’s “revolt” against the bourgeoisie involved not only taking a Zionist stand for the spiritual rebirth of the Jews, but showing that the evolution of Jewish mysticism, which the great historian of the Jewish people, Heinrich Graetz, had called a sign of the “general degeneracy of Jewry,” was actually its hidden strength. Here Scholem found the very “praxis” which Benjamin was vainly searching for in his Marxist explorations.
If, for example, as Benjamin argued, contemporary language ‘Vas no longer connected to “being,” consisting only of ruins and fragments, and if “progress” was nothing but the accumulation of catastrophe, commodity, and corpses, Scholem’s interpretation of the mystical world revealed the possibility of a restoration of the primal past through ritual and religious observance.
Scholem saw Judaism developing around two “poles,” revelation and tradition. Revelation is something like a pregnant silence: “That which is capable of assuming meaning, which needs interpretation in the medium of language.” The mystic, then, is always turning back to tradition in order to give meaning and voice to his experience of revelation. There is a tension in mystical explorations between this conservatism and the new vision arising out of immediate personal experience.
But there is also a “great and dangerous” force which can destroy the tension completely, and that force is messianism. Messianism, Scholem explains, is “the intrusion of a new dimension of the present-redemption-into history, which enters into a problematic relation with tradition.” Messianic redemption is an event almost beyond comprehension-it can be understood, in fact, only if it has not yet arrived. “The Bible and the apocalyptic writers know of no progress in history leading to the redemption,” Scholem writes. Jewish messianism is a “theory of catastrophe,” representing, quite literally, a revolution in which all values and practices are subject to reinterpretation.
SCHOLEM’s history of Jewish mysticism reaches a climax in the figure of Sabbatai Zevi, who became the center of a messianic movement throughout Europe in the 17th century. The apocalyptic inversion of the tradition, expected in messianic theory, here became a historical reality.
Sabbatai Zevi was a madman, subject to strange behavior and antinomian acts, who proclaimed himself messiah. Yet he found enthusiastic followers. There were tales of miracles, the Red Sea drying up, the lost Ten Tribes gathering for battle; a new calendar was instituted. But before he could lead the way into the messianic age, he was called before the Sultan in Constantinople and told that he must convert to Islam or be put to death. The “messiah” chose conversion. The result was a shock to perhaps three-quarters of the Jewish population of Europe and the Near East. Some, unable to bear the disappointment, continued to believe in his divine mission. He had, they said, descended into the netherworld in an attempt to free God’s holy sparks which had been trapped there. He had to sojourn in alien realms, like Esther in Persia and Moses in Egypt.
For Scholem, the Sabbatean movement, with its praises of Him “Who permits that which is forbidden,” was the paradigmatic messianic movement, overturning and inverting the tradition. But the paradox was, according to Scholem, that this messianic movement itself had effects on the lives of the Jewish people that were as profound as if the messiah had indeed arrived. For those who believed, the problem became to “rationalize the abyss” suddenly opened between the fallen state of things and the inner certitude that redemption was imminent. The resultant split in religious consciousness foreshadowed a “crisis of faith which overtook the Jewish people as a whole upon its emergence from its medieval isolation.” Out of this crisis of faith, Scholem argued, came the Jewish Enlightenment.
Thus, the shocks and crises of modernity directly linked religious messianism with the idea of secular “progress”-and ultimately, of course, with Marxism. Seen in this light, Scholem’s Sabbatai Zevi (1957) may be considered a kind of counterpart to Benjamin’s early book on the Trauerspiel. Both are studies of the Baroque period; both present not just historical analyses, but images of the premodern age as a fallen world-either in the betrayal of faith in Sabbatean messianism, or in the recurring disasters on the stage of the Trauerspiel. In both, modern history itself, instead of being grounded in tradition and faith, is marked by excess, and by the arbitrary and the shocking.
Scholem, though he decries and deplores the nihilism and antinomianism, does also find something bracing in the excess and alienation. The Sabbatean movement possessed a national character that paradoxically helped pave the way for Zionism in the 20th century. It marked the entrance of the Jews into secular history. For Scholem, the false messiah at least represented the possibility of historical redemption, if not of spiritual restitution. “What daring labyrinths of ·, the spirit are revealed in this new creed!” Scholem exclaimed in his classic Hebrew essay of 1937, “Redemption Through Sin.”
Scholem’s interpretation of Sabbateanism is open to criticism. He treats Sabbateanism as a purely “Jewish” phenomenon, declaring all outside influences and social factors irrelevant, and thus gives a narrow vision of just how modernity worked its wiles on the Jews of Europe. His view also presents another problem. The Jewish people entered into modern history, according to Scholem, by discarding both the law of Judaism and its tradition, and redirecting messianic energies to the “idea of eternal progress and the infinite task of humanity perfecting it.” Scholem , thus paradoxically makes Jewish mysticism an important historical force only in a negative sense. He also partly celebrates the very forces of assimilation and secular radicalism which he simultaneously cautions against. But Scholem’s analysis remains potent. Once the Enlightenment came, the symbolical connection, the link which faith had forged between object and word and ritual, was split; the old order of the mystics was radically altered. The dangers of messianism then became not only religious but political, and all the more problematic because redemption was now being promised not in some realm which transcended human life, but in the mundane world of flesh and economy. Hence Scholem’s warnings about Benjamin’s own Marxist ideas, and his sensitive anticipation of what would happen to modern ideas of redemption in the different political arenas of both Germany and the Soviet Union. Scholem, for all his studies of mysticism, was much more of a practical materialist when it came to the forces of history; Benjamin, for all his supposed materialism, was much more the mystic.
My wing is ready for flight, / I would like to turn back. / If I stayed timeless time, / I would have little luck.
“Gruss vom Angelus,” used as an epigraph in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
DURING the summer of 1933, just after Hitler came to power, Benjamin spent a few months living “on the brink of subsistence” on the island of Ibiza, off the coast of Spain. Possibly suffering from malaria in the August heat, he planned to kill himself. As his intellectual testament, he drafted a cryptic text he called Agesilaus Santander, a dream fantasy about the angel in Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus.• The angel, writes Benjamin, is at once heavenly and devilish, masculine and feminine; he fixes his eyes in blessing and threat, and pulls the viewer, determinedly, with him in flight.
The angel returned to Benjamin’s mind again in 1940, a few months before his successful suicide at the Spanish border, when he made yet another attempt to define his messianic expectations. The angel depicted by Klee, Benjamin says, would seem to be a herald of the future, but instead he is “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” He would like to lift the fallen, to act as messianic agent, to “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But he cannot. “A storm is blowing from Paradise,” Benjamin writes. “It has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
The storm blows from the past, which is where Paradise is located. All that we in the mundane world call “progress” is just the howling wind blowing from a lost world, carrying the weight and freight of history and calamity. It is just such “progress,” Benjamin implies, which must be overcome; it is progress itself which prevents redemption.
For Benjamin, the messianic goal was to destroy the “continuum” of history, by uncovering the illusions of “progress”-the storm which is interfering with the angel’s redemptive intentions. We have created this “continuum,” not realizing that it is a storm, mistaking it for the angel’s work, rather than his nemesis. As a critic, Benjamin would take upon himself the messianic role of viewing history the way a spectator views a Trauerspiel, the stage covered with dead bodies, calamity following calamity. In that vision is a hint of redemption, for, as he writes in his study of that dramatic form, “It is precisely visions of the frenzy of destruction, in which all earthly things collapse into a heap of ruins, which reveal the limit set upon allegorical contemplation.” Death, shown in such plenitude, is not just a sign of desolation and despair; there is something beyond death, another world, of which death is the inverted image. “Ultimately in the death-signs of the Baroque the direction of allegorical reflection is reversed; on the second part of its wide arc it returns, to redeem.”
Benjamin, that is, posited a Sabbatean victory in the midst of death, an overturning of disaster by immersion in the depths. So too with the accumulated catastrophes (“progress”) of history: when seen as catastrophes, they point, in Benjamin’s final vision, to some transcendent realm. When the storm is seen as a storm, we are able to resist it, and grasp the Angelus. If he, as critic, could but fully articulate the disaster, even celebrate the catastrophe to its full extent, he could point the way toward redemption, behind the angel.
Benjamin could be considered a messianic Surrealist, engaging in what he called, in his essay on Surrealism, “experiments in extreme form.” Just such an “experiment” was his own Marxism. Since, as he argued, the profane world and the messianic age are fundamentally irreconcilable and opposed, the task of world politics is, by a method that “must be called nihilism,” to make the profane world still more profane, so that the messiah can arrive. In Agesilaus Santander, the fantasy he composed on Klee’s painting, the incarnation of the angel of history bears a name that is an anagram for Der Angelus Satanus, The Angel Satan. The struggle is a Sabbatean one, in which forces of darkness become the means to reach a realm of light.
This Sabbatean vision could not have been unnoticed by Scholem himself. In fact, the most ironic twist of their debate is that Scholem’s own task as a historian also involved a destructive element which pointed to a version of redemption. At risk for him was the tradition of Judaism itself which had, with the coming of modernity, entered a dark era. Scholem believed in the resurrection of Jewish tradition and in the spiritual future of the Jews, but for him, the first step in such a program was to destroy the barren historiography that hid the ruins of mysticism. Benjamin could actually be referring to Scholem when he writes that “authentic historiography does not select its object carelessly. It does not grasp it, it explodes it from the historical continuum. This destructive element in historiography must be understood as a reaction to a moment of danger which threatens equally the recipient of tradition as well as what is handed down inauthentic historiography the redemptive impulse is as strong as the destructive impulse.”
Scholem selected his own “object”-Jewish mysticism, messianism, and finally Sabbateanism with just such care. His “exploding” of the historical continuum meant a radical reinterpretation not only of past events but of the Judaism of the present. He descended into the Jewish netherworld to rescue the sparks of life that had been buried there by the secular and rational forces of the Enlightenment. It is a peculiar intellectual mysticism one senses in Scholem himself: the historian as keeper of the flame, pointing the way to a renewed spiritual life. It is how Benjamin would have wished to see his own work as a critic.
A storm is blowing from Paradise.
“We probably contributed our share to each other’s development,” Scholem wrote of his friendship with Benjamin in From Berlin to Jerusalem (1977), “and I would say that I owe him at least as much-on an entirely different plane-as he owed me.” When one finally steps back from their friendship, from the similarities and the differences, and attempts to account for it all, both figures, curiously, become more ambiguous.
Benjamin is usually written about in honorific terms, as if the pleasure taken in figuring out what he is saying were proof of its importance. But Benjamin was himself a Hamlet-like figure of the modern age, capable of the most intricate meditations, haunted by spirits, sensing the time out of joint, caught in webs spun by conflicting councilors and court intrigue (Lads, Brecht, Adorno, Scholem). He tells each of his friends what they want to hear; contemplates suicide again and again (“To be or not to be … “); and is caught finally, because of his vacillation, in a literal web of death. He feels the weight of history on his shoulders; he considers means of redemption, both personal and social; he tries on masks in an attempt to break the grip of catastrophe.
Benjamin, in fact, aestheticized the catastrophes he wrote about, turned horrors into surreal images, which was one reason why he was so slow to see what was happening in the real Germany. He treated history itself as an “allegory”-giving it his own meaning, which was lack of meaning; speaking of the “hopelessness of the earthly condition” but relishing his own participation in that hopelessness. Marxism was an assertion of messianism in the face of chaos, spiced with strong Romantic yearnings for the prehistoric Edenic past. He had no vision of where the Angelus was heading.
Benjamin’s intellectual prestige in recent decades derives in part from these very weaknesses that Scholem attacked. By turning all of the modern world into allegory, including the history leading to it, Benjamin elevated the interpreter over his subject to a radical extent. His work on Baroque drama and on 19th-century Paris was coldly brilliant, but his conclusions may amount to little more than a familiar comment about the alienation and fragmentation of contemporary urban life. ‘Moreover, again and again Benjamin invokes “revolutionary” concerns, without ever once dealing with concrete social issues-the rise of fascism in Germany, the problems of poverty, the development of bourgeois freedom in the 19th century. His is an appealing pose: advanced and Romantic, “aesthetic” and political, bleak and utopian.
This makes Scholem’s warning about the confusion between religion and politics all the more poignant, for the programmatic imposition of such metaphysical beliefs on the political realm must come up against that aspect of social life which is least present in Benjamin’s thought: the ethical. His concern with redemption, his quest for a “position,” his perching on the mast of a sinking ship, were less moral than intellectual or metaphysical activities. There is neither “praxis” nor specificity; all is abstract messianism. And the introduction of messianism into world politics Scholem knew to be dangerous; it posed the threat of nihilistic Sabbateanism-or of totalitarian attempts to control it.
These are the very elements that make the Scholem-Benjamin relationship so pertinent to the contemporary scene. Benjamin’s Marxism was admittedly peculiar, but he was drawn to it and used its methods and vocabulary for reasons that resonate with today’s more widespread fascination with Marxist criticism and analysis: his peculiarity is actually archetypal. Benjamin’s Marxism was a metaphysical move, in which the promised result was personal and intellectual salvation, not political revolution or social transformation. Marxism offered a method of symbolic analysis which complemented his own nihilistic mysticism; it seemed to give his work a crucial role to play in history. Yet it was all no more than an “experiment,” because, as Scholem recognized, Marxism for Benjamin was just a theoretical move, disposed of or distorted as needed.
What made Scholem so passionate was his recognition that while thought-experiments in physics never risk hitting anybody with a falling stone, in the political world such experiments can have concrete effects. Even as Benjamin calmly celebrated the virtues of the “destructive personality,” or the engineering duties of writers, there were real issues involved, lives at stake, including Benjamin’s own. Contemporary Marxist analysis has learned from Benjamin; it has learned to speak earnestly about compassion. But its effects have been Sabbatean anyway, welcoming destruction as a utopian strategy, and supplanting any notion of truth or value other than the political.
But Scholem’s critique of Benjamin was also so passionate because he shared some of Benjamin’s weaknesses. Though Scholem’s awareness of moral issues was keen, his work was almost consciously directed elsewhere. The ethical and social element of Jewish law-central concerns-were neglected in Scholem’s interpretations in favor of the metaphysics of mysticism. In his own life he was, at first, not so much an “empirical” Zionist as a religious-mystical one. As he wrote, “I was one of those who took the biblical passage ‘And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation’ as the definition of Zionism.” In the I920’s he joined the Brit Shalom, which favored the establishment of a binational state in Palestine rather than a Jewish one. To be sure, following the Holocaust, he was to become more pragmatic, but for Scholem, neither Israel in the political realm nor Israel as a religious phenomenon provided the answers to his more inchoate dreams of spiritual renewal-dreams originating in the Germany of the early years of this century. For Scholem, in fact, no political scheme could have satisfied the dream that he brought to Palestine. He, like Benjamin, searched for redemption outside of history. But what saved him, and ultimately condemned Benjamin, was that he saw history with enough clarity to compromise for survival.
Scholem, with his faith and his clarity, also constructed a universe in which Benjamin, with his nihilism and uncertainty, could never fit. While the results of Benjamin’s redemptive “blasting” of history are both opaque and inconclusive, Scholem actually succeeded in establishing his own influential “continuum.” Scholem’s vision of Jewish mysticism is peculiarly and almost self-consciously modernist-and later scholars of the field he pioneered have already begun to subject his interpretations to radical revision. But though he wrote that Jewish mysticism was “deliberately unsystematic,” so thoroughly did he bring it into the light of understanding that he also made it eminently rational and coherent, a body of thought so elegant that even Sabbateanism, its most irrational manifestation, could be interpreted as a source of the Enlightenment.
Benjamin took the measure of Scholem’s achievement, and he could never forget the challenge it posed. For Scholem, more than any of Benjamin’s other nemeses and correspondents, spoke with the stern voice of historical experience. This may have been the secret of Benjamin’s obsession with Klee’s Angelus Novus. This “angel of history” may have even suggested to Benjamin the spirit of Scholem himself; it was, after all, left to Scholem in his will, and in their early correspondence it was dubbed the “protector of the kabbalah.” The angel, Benjamin writes, “resembles all from which I have had to part”-yet it faces and grips him tightly, meaning to pull him along just as Scholem attempted to draw Benjamin into the promise of an earthly if not a heavenly Zion.
HIS friendship was in fact a wrestling match. To Scholem, there was a connection between the Angelus Novus and Jacob’s meeting with the angel in Genesis: “Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day…. And the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained.” To strain at the image a bit ourselves, we might imagine both Scholem and Benjamin wrestling, in their vastly different ways, against the angel of history, “until the breaking of day.” Theirs was a struggle to wrest from the divine some sort of promise for the present, to redeem fallen man, to restore his language and his faith, to overcome the accumulation of historical catastrophe.
The coming of the Nazis and of the Gulag have made it clear that this was not just a metaphysical conflict. Blood flowed. Benjamin himself fell by his own hand, of a dose of morphine, though not before breathing a sigh of relief when the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed and absolved him of the need to sustain his mask of advocacy for the Soviet Union.
Scholem was undoubtedly the more resolute presence, grasping hold and not releasing his self-appointed adversary until daybreak, when some hint of redemption was offered. It came in the new name of Israel, the same name given by the angel to Jacob, “for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” But in the work of both men, and in the intellectuals who have followed them, indelible marks of this encounter yet remain.