Before I made Walter Benjamin’s personal acquaintance, I saw him in the autumn of 1913 at a meeting that took place in a hall above the Cafe Tiergarten in Berlin. The meeting was held jointly by Young Judea, the Zionist youth organization to which I belonged, and the Youth Forum, a discussion group composed of members of the Youth Movement founded by the German educator Gustav Wyneken. Both organizations recruited their members from the upper terms of the Gymnasien in Berlin, and most of Wyneken’s followers also were Jews although they were Jews for whom the fact was of little or no practical significance.
At that meeting about eighty young people had gathered to discuss their relationship to their Jewish and German heritages. Each side presented two or three speakers; the main spokesman of the Wyneken people was Walter Benjamin, who was rumored to be their most gifted intellect. He made a very tortuous speech in which he did not reject Zionism outright but somehow relegated it to a secondary position. I cannot recall the details of the talk, but I shall never forget his manner of presentation. Without looking at the audience, he delivered his absolutely letter-perfect speech with great intensity to an upper corner of the ceiling, at which he stared the whole time. I do not recall the rejoinder made by the Zionists.
The Youth Forum was a meeting place for secondary-school and university students who were particularly disappointed by the institutions of “higher learning” and who actually aimed for much more profound intellectual revolutions. It not only espoused the ideas of radical educational reform but also stood for an autonomous youth culture, with Gustav Wyneken’s recently published Youth Culture as its classic text. These ideas were propounded with much passion by the periodical Der Anfang (“The Beginning”). It was generally known that the most important essays were written by students like Benjamin, who wrote under the name Ardor. The Zionists, with their keen historical consciousness, had little use for the radically ahistorical stance of Der Anfang. The sociological orientation prevalent toddy in related undertakings of revolutionary youth was lacking in the groups around Der Anfang; “youth” as such seemed to constitute for them the guarantee of a new dawning of creation.
I did not know it when I first heard him speak, but Benjamin by that time already had participated in several intensive discussions about Zionism, both orally and in writing, in 1912 and 1913.
By the time I met him, all this was past history. The start of World War I had put an end to the activities of the Youth Movement. I was then in my first semester as a university student, taking courses in mathematics and philosophy, while outside the university I studied Hebrew and the sources of Jewish literature with at least as much intensity. At the end of June 1915 I heard a lecture by Kurt Hiller, whose book The Wisdom of Boredom I had read. Following in Nietzsche’s footsteps, so to speak, Hiller in his lecture vehemently denounced history as a force that was inimical to life and spirit alike. His argument seemed totally inadequate and wrongheaded to me. History? Nonsense! We live without history; what has all the rubbish of the millennia to do with us? We live with the generation that was born with us! Thus did I summarize the substance of Hiller’s talk in my diary. At the end of the lecture it was announced that there would be a discussion of Hiller’s remarks the following week. I went there, along with many other participants, and stood up to protest—albeit rather clumsily—against Hiller’s concept of history, thus incurring the displeasure of the chairman, a friend of Hiller’s. When I faltered at one point, he simply cut me off. Benjamin also made some remarks, and again I was struck by his characteristic way of speaking. In fact, those mannerisms probably arose because of his pronounced myopia, which made it difficult for him to focus on moving groups.
A few days later I entered the catalogue room of the university library and found myself face to face with Benjamin, who looked at me intently, as though trying to remember who I might be. He left the room then but came back a short while later, made a perfect bow before me, and asked whether I was the gentleman who had spoken at the Hiller discussion. I said I was. Well, he wanted to speak with me about the things I had said, and asked me for my address. On July 19, I received the following invitation: “Dear Sir—I should like to ask you to visit me this Thursday around 5:30.” Later I received a phone call changing the invitation to Wednesday.
Thus I visited Benjamin for the first time on July 21, 1915. He lived with his parents in the Grunewald section of Berlin, at Delbrückstrasse 23, on the corner of Jagowstrasse (today Richard-Strauss-Strasse). He had a large, very respectable room with many books, which struck me as a philosopher’s den. At once he proceeded in medias res. He told me that he occupied himself a great deal with the nature of the historical process and had also been reflecting on the philosophy of history; that is why my remarks had interested him. He asked me to explain to him what I had meant by my statements in opposition to Hiller. Thus we were soon discussing the things that especially concerned me in those years—namely, socialism and Zionism. At that time I had already been in the Zionist camp for four years, having been led there by my recognition of the self-deception practiced by my family and the circles in which they moved, as well as by my reading of several works on Jewish history, particularly Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews. In those days I read a great deal about socialism, historical materialism, and above all anarchism, with which I was most in sympathy.
I had undertaken to unite the two paths of socialism and Zionism in my own life and presented this quest to Benjamin, who admitted that both paths were viable. Of course, like every Zionist in those days, I also was influenced by Martin Buber, whose Three Addresses on Judaism (1911) played a large part in the intellectual world of Zionist youth—something I hardly can understand sixty years later. Even in our first conversation Benjamin expressed strong reservations about Buber, and so struck a very responsive chord in me, because I had been particularly outraged over the positive stance Buber and his main disciples had taken toward the war. Thus Benjamin and I inevitably came to discuss our attitudes toward the war. I told him I shared the viewpoint of Karl Liebknecht, who had voted in the Reichstag against war credits since the end of 1914. When Benjamin said that he fully shared this standpoint, I told him my own story. In February 1915, I had joined a group of like-minded members of Young Judea in writing a letter of protest against the inclusion of militant articles in the Jüdische Rundschau (Jewish Review), the organ of the Zionists in Germany. In our letter to the editor we had outlined our own position in regard to the war, but of course under the prevailing military censorship there was no chance that this attitude would be given public expression. Copies of this letter did circulate, however, and one came to the attention of several of my fellow students. They informed the administration, and I was forced to leave school a year before graduation. Since the beginning of that year I had joined my brother in attending the clandestine meetings that the Social Democratic pacifists held in a Neukölln restaurant: at these meetings, as I recall, the major leaders of the opposition reported on the domestic situation every two weeks.
Benjamin was extraordinarily taken with all this, and my reports interested him greatly. He was eager to be active at once in this opposition group in some way. I invited him to come to see me on the following day and said I would show him some of their publications, particularly the first (and only) issue of Die Internationale, the periodical edited by Rosa Luxemburg and August Thalhaimer; my brother and I had participated in its illegal dissemination. All in all, our first conversation that evening lasted more than three hours.
The first thing that struck me about Benjamin—indeed it was characteristic of him all his life—was that he never could remain seated quietly during a conversation but immediately began to pace up and down in the room as he formulated his sentences. At some point, he would stop before me and in the most intense voice deliver his opinion on the matter. Or he might offer several viewpoints in turn, as if he were conducting an experiment. If the two of us were alone, he would look me full in the face as he spoke. At other times, when he fixed his eyes on the most remote corner of the ceiling (which he often did, particularly when addressing a larger audience), he assumed a virtually magical appearance. This rigid stare contrasted sharply with his usual lively gestures.
I have already mentioned his appearance. No one would have called Benjamin handsome, but there was something impressive about him, with his unusually clear, high forehead. Over his forehead he had rather full, dark brown hair, which was slightly wavy and hard to manage; later it turned gray, but he kept it to his end. Benjamin had a beautiful voice, melodious and easily remembered. He was an excellent reader and read very effectively when his voice was calm. He was of medium height, very slender then and for some years to come, dressed with studied unobtrusiveness, and was usually bent slightly forward. I’ don’t think I ever saw him walk erect with his head held high. There was something unmistakable, deliberate, and groping about his walk, probably due at least in part to his nearsightedness. He did not like to walk fast, and it was not easy for me, who was much taller, had long legs, and took big, quick steps, to adapt to his gait when we were walking together. Very often he would stop and go on talking. He was easy to recognize from behind by his peculiar gait, which became even more pronounced over the years. Under his forehead one immediately noticed his strong eyeglasses, which he frequently would remove during a conversation, revealing a pair of striking, dark blue eyes. His nose was well proportioned, the lower part of his face still very gentle at that time, the mouth full and sensuous. In its as yet incomplete development the lower half of his face contrasted with the upper, which was severe and expressive. When he spoke, his face assumed a strangely reserved, somewhat inward expression. Except for the rather full mustache Benjamin invariably wore, his face was always clean shaven and slightly pink in color; otherwise his skin was absolutely white. His hands were beautiful, slender, and expressive. Taken as a whole, his physiognomy was definitely Jewish, but in a quiet, unobtrusive way, as it were.
From the first, Benjamin’s markedly courteous manner created a natural sense of distance and seemed to exact reciprocal behavior. This was especially difficult in my case, since by nature I tended to be anything but polite; I had been somewhat notorious since my youth because of my provocative deportment. Benjamin had nothing of the rough, flippant manner affected by most Berliners, which I had experienced often enough in my relations with childhood friends. He was probably the only person toward whom I was almost invariably polite. To be sure, in one sense I was his equal in my conversations with him. Benjamin chose his words carefully, but his speech was unpretentious and unostentatious; now and then he would lapse into the Berlin dialect with which he was not completely comfortable—not very convincingly and more by way of mimicry. He had been born and raised in the old western section of Berlin where the dialect had undergone corruption, whereas I came from Old Berlin, which meant that its dialect and mannerisms were natural to me. When we were not discussing philosophy or theology, I liked to slip into pure Berlinisch, which I knew better than he. To my surprise, Benjamin would listen attentively and with good humor. When it came to speaking High German, however, I was distinctly inferior. In the course of time his speech greatly influenced me, and I adopted a good number of his mannerisms. His highest praise in those years was the word ausserordentlich, “extraordinary,” which he always pronounced with a particular intonation. A favorite critical term was objektive Verlogenheit, “objective mendacity.” At that time he never used Jewish expressions, only later, under his wife Dora’s influence and mine, did he begin to employ them.
When I met Benjamin he had just turned twenty-three; I was seventeen and a half. His “profile” thus was naturally more developed than mine. I was pursuing a definite direction, whereas he had abandoned his path after the collapse of the Youth Movement, which had meant so much to him, and had not yet struck out on a new one. Neither of us knew clearly what our future would be. Despite all we shared in common, our social backgrounds were quite different. He came from an upper-middle-class family that had known periods of real wealth; I came from the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, which was then on the rise, and was well off but never wealthy. Though we may not have been fully conscious of it, our lives had taken an almost dramatically different course. It was normal enough that the sons of assimilated families should dedicate themselves to the German Free Students’ Association, the Youth Movement, and literary ambitions. But that such a son should devote himself passionately to the study of the Talmud even though he did not come from an Orthodox family, and should seek a way to Jewish substance and its historical development, was very unusual even among the Zionists, whose numbers in those years were anything but small.
On Friday evening, August 15, Benjamin invited me for supper. He introduced me to his parents and his sister Dora, who was fifteen or sixteen years old at the time. Earlier he had told me that his relationship with his family was not a happy one. On a later occasion he introduced me to his brother George, who later became a physician and a very active Communist. I never exchanged more than a few polite phrases with him, however. Benjamin read to me four poems from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal in his translation and in Stefan George’s. He read very beautifully but not in the style of George’s disciples. In all four cases I thought his translations were George’s work; in two instances I was certain that Benjamin’s translation was better. I told him about my translation of the Song of Songs, the first version of which I was then preparing. He called his own work child’s play in comparison, saying mine was the more difficult undertaking by far.
The conversation then turned to the Bible. He showed me a translation from the 1830’s, edited by Leopold Zunz; he thought very highly of its style and said he often dipped into it. I told him that before visiting him I had attended the Friday evening service at the Alte Synagoge whose strictly Orthodox liturgy greatly attracted me. I related how I had learned Hebrew and was, in fact, still absorbed in its study. When he asked how many hours I had devoted to it, I replied that I had been studying ten to fifteen hours a week—there was no other way to do it. I told him that I was studying Talmud for two or three evening hours twice a week, and this interested him very much. He wanted to know how I was going about it; I tried to explain what I found so fascinating about the reading of talmudic discussions. At that particular time a group of six or eight of us were studying the tractate about the drafting of bills of divorcement. I explained to him what form such a halakhic discussion takes: the talmudic rabbis approach a subject from all sides, often on the basis of variously interpreted Bible passages. To my surprise Benjamin said, “It must be something like Simmel’s classes, then.” At that time I knew hardly any of Georg Simmel’s writings (Simmel himself had already left Berlin), and Benjamin’s remark stimulated me to read some of them; I did not like them nearly as well as the Talmud, to whose mode of thought they really were closely akin. I commended to Benjamin my teacher Isaac Bleichrode, the very pious, modest, and reclusive rabbi of a small private synagogue association in our neighborhood. This great-grandson of one of the last great Talmudists of Germany at the beginning of the 19th century had a great gift for interpreting a page of Talmud and teaching the Jewish tradition generally. Benjamin sighed and said, “If only there were something like that in philosophy.”
I vividly remember the night of October 20-21, preceding Benjamin’s reexamination for military service. At his request I kept him company until morning—first conversing for hours at the Neue Café des Western on Kurfürstendamm and then playing chess and cards in his room on Delbrückstrasse, while Benjamin consumed vast quantities of black coffee, a practice then followed by many young men prior to their military physicals. We were together from 9:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M.
After that night, Benjamin was deferred for one year. I, who had just passed my final secondary-school examination as a special student before a special committee, expected to be called up for military service. As he had planned, Benjamin went to Munich at the end of October. For a long time I did not hear from him. He did not write me again until I had been declared unfit for service by a doctor shortly after my call-up; I had written him early in December about my release and the resumption of my studies. But Benjamin was very worried that the censors might open the mail and was afraid that I might be rash enough to make incriminating political statements. “There is no [censorship] between Berlin and Munich,” he wrote me, “yet every [underlined twice] bit of prudentia is indicated. I beg you to bear this in mind.”
At the beginning of March 1916 Benjamin informed me that he would return around the fifteenth of the month and that we then could discuss in greater detail the questions I had raised in my letters about Plato (several of whose writings I was reading at the time) as well as the critical observations on mathematics that I had made.
I anticipated great things to come from these discussions and wrote in my diary: “When one has been reflecting about certain matters for a long time, one cannot help be uplifted by the prospect of such inspiring and reverent company. I cannot talk about these things with [Erich] Brauer or anyone else, for that matter; nor can I discuss my Zionist interests with the Zionists—a truly depressing fact for both parties. . . . Instead I have to go to the non-Zionist and non-mathematician Benjamin, who has sensibility where most of the others no longer respond.”
When I reflect on what it was we had in common after these first encounters, I can name a few things that should not be overlooked easily. I can describe them only in general terms as 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. We were proponents of radical demands. Actually, at the universities the two of us did not have any teachers in the real sense of the word, so we educated ourselves, each in a very different way. I cannot recall either of us ever speaking of our university teachers with enthusiasm, either then or later; if we had praise for any of them, they were eccentrics and outsiders—for example, one of Benjamin’s teachers, the philologist Ernst Lewy, and Gottlob Frege, whose course I took in Munich. We did not take the philosophy teachers very seriously; perhaps we were too presumptuous in this.
Associating with Benjamin was fraught with considerable difficulties, though on the surface these seemed insignificant in view of his consummate courtesy and willingness to listen. He always was surrounded by a wall of reserve, which could be recognized intuitively and was evident to another person even without Benjamin’s not infrequent efforts to make that area noticeable. These efforts consisted above all in a secretiveness bordering on eccentricity, a mystery-mongering that generally prevailed in everything relating to him personally, though it sometimes was breached unexpectedly by personal and confidential revelations.
There were primarily three difficult requirements. The first was respect for his solitude: this was easy to observe, for it was dictated by a natural sense of limits. I soon realized that he appreciated this respect, a sine qua non for associating with him, and that it heightened his trust. The observance of the second requirement was particularly easy for me: his utter aversion to discussing the political events of the day and occurrences of the war. The third requirement, that of overlooking his secretiveness, often demanded a real effort, because there was something surprising, even ludicrous, about such secretiveness in someone as sober, as melancholy as Benjamin. He did not like to give the names of friends and acquaintances if he could avoid it. When circumstances of his life were mentioned, there frequently was attached an urgent request for absolute secrecy; more often than not this made very little sense. Gradually, but even then only partially, this secretiveness (which by that time others had noticed as well) began to dissipate, and Benjamin began to speak of people without the accompanying stamp of anonymity, at least when he had initiated the discussion. It was in keeping with this aversion that he tried to keep his acquaintances separate; for a time this was more effective with me, who came from another environment—Zionist youth—than it was with those from the same sphere as he, namely members of the German-Jewish intelligentsia.
Added to this was the immediate impression of genius: the lucidity that often emerged from his obscure thinking; the vigor and acuity with which he experimented in conversation; and the unexpectedly serious manner, spiced with witty formulations, in which he would consider the things that were seething within me, as alien as my main concerns—the urgency of my Zionist convictions and the problems arising from my mathematical-philosophical studies—must have been to him. He was nevertheless a very good listener, though he himself liked to talk often and at length. He assumed that the person he was conversing with had a much higher level of education than was actually the case. Whenever I said that I was not acquainted with something, Benjamin went wide-eyed with astonishment. He asked very good and usually surprising questions. In 1915 he could not learn enough about Germany’s share in the outbreak of the war, so I obtained for him a few pamphlets that were being disseminated illegally by left-wing Social Democrats, which contained evidence of the warmongering attitude of Austria and Germany. Benjamin was by no means a “pacifist by conviction,” as he has been called. His refusal to have anything to do with this particular war did not stem from any pacifist ideology; that simply was not his style. Later we hardly discussed those things. Another thing that was striking about him was his extraordinary sensitivity to noise, which he often referred to as his “noise psychosis.” It really could disturb him. Once he wrote me: “Do other people manage to have peace and quiet? I’d like to know the answer to that.”
I visited Benjamin only twice while he was in Munich. We spoke a great deal about Judaism, and for the first time the question arose whether it was one’s duty to go to Palestine. Benjamin criticized the “agricultural Zionism” that I championed, saying that Zionism would have to wean itself of three things: “the agricultural orientation, the racial ideology, and Briber’s ‘blood-and-experience’ arguments.” I agreed with him that not only agricultural workers or farmers should be permitted to go to Palestine, rather that it might be all right to have an entirely different occupation. At that time, and for the next seven years, I myself considered going there as a schoolteacher. In the face of Benjamin’s critique of Buber I praised the writings of the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am (whom he had never heard of) and some of Ahad Ha’am’s essays on the nature of Judaism, which I lent him in a German-language selection toward the end of 1916. Most of all we discussed Buber, whom Benjamin criticized in sharp terms. He was not entirely unjustified when he told me in parting that if I should run into Buber I should hand him a barrel of tears in our names. He said that Buber personally had struck him as a man who lived in a permanent trance, somewhere very much removed from his own self, a “dual ego”; this state was shown most profoundly in an essay entitled “Das Gleichzeitige” (“The Simultaneous”), which had appeared in the Zeit-Echo. Benjamin was especially harsh in his rejection of the cult of “experience,” which was glorified in Buber’s writings of the time (particularly from 1910 to 1917). He said derisively that if Buber had his way, first of all one would have to ask every Jew, “Have you experienced Jewishness yet?”
Benjamin tried to induce me to work into an article I was writing a definite rejection of experience and Buber’s “experiencing” attitude. I actually did so in a later essay, as Benjamin had greatly impressed me in this matter. What I told him about Ahad Ha’am, on the other hand, especially his view of the role of righteousness in Judaism, made a great deal of sense to him. In this connection he defined righteousness as “the will to make the world the greatest good.” We argued about Buber from various points of view. Benjamin said that Buber represented feminine thinking. In contrast to the socialist Gustav Landauer, who once said the same thing about Buber in an essay by way of praise, Benjamin meant it as a condemnation. We also discussed the question of whether Zion was a metaphor; at that time I answered in the affirmative, for only God was not a metaphor, but Benjamin denied it, asserting—and thus leading us into a conversation about the prophets in the Bible—that if one recognized the authority of the Bible one must not use the prophets metaphorically. Finally we read together the speech of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, and Benjamin discussed the peculiar doubling of the Greek gods and the curious fact that so many ancient Greek deities (such as Ananke = Necessity) apparently can be transformed directly into an idea. Benjamin read some excerpts from a few pages he had written about Socrates (I made a copy for myself later), in which he propounded the thesis that Socrates was “Plato’s argument and shield against myth.”
On the next day the conversation turned to Hegel—our first discussion of Hegel that I can recall. Evidently Benjamin had read only a few things superficially and was no great admirer of Hegel at that time. As much as a year later he wrote me: “What I have read of Hegel thus far has definitely repelled me.” He called Hegel’s “mental physiognomy . . . that of an intellectual brute, a mystic of violence, the worst kind there is: but a mystic for all that.” Yet he came to Hegel’s defense when, during the same conversation, I made some presumptuous remarks about the speculative philosophy of nature, which greatly offended my mathematical soul even as it impressed my mystical soul.
During a discussion of whether Hegel had wished to deduce the world, we turned to mathematics, philosophy, and myth. Benjamin said he was still not sure what the purpose of philosophy was, as there was no need to discover “the meaning of the world”; it was already present in myth. Myth was everything; all else, including mathematics and philosophy, was only an obscuration, a glimmer that had arisen within it. I responded that in addition to myth there was mathematics—until the great differential equation had been found that would express the world, or, more probably, until it was proved that there could be no such equation. Then myth would be justified. Philosophy, I said, was nothing independent, and only religion broke through this world of myth. I denied that mathematics could be part of myth. Benjamin’s decided turn to the philosophic penetration of myth, which occupied him for so many years, beginning with his study of Hölderlin and probably for the rest of his life, was manifested here for the first time and left its mark on many of our conversations. In this connection, at this early date, Benjamin spoke of the difference between law and justice, calling law an order that could be established only in the world of myth. Four years later he elaborated on this idea in his essay, “Critique of Violence.”
Later I made a detailed, critical study of these conversations since, as I wrote at the time, “If I really want to go along with Benjamin, I shall have to make enormous revisions. My Zionism is too deeply anchored in me to be shaken by anything.” I also made this notation: “The word irgendwie [somehow] is the stamp of a point of view in the making. I never have heard anyone use this word more frequently than Benjamin.” Of course, everything we had been speaking about was closely bound up with his interest in the philosophy of history. We discussed that subject for a whole afternoon, in connection with a difficult remark of his to the effect that the succession of the years could be counted but not numbered. This led us to the significance of sequence, number, series, direction. Did time, which surely was a sequence, have direction as well? I said that we had no way of knowing that time does not behave like certain curves that demonstrate a steady sequence at every point but have at no single point a tangent, that is, a determinable direction. We discussed the question whether years, like numbers, are interchangeable, just as they are numerable. I still possess a record of that part of the conversation, having written in my diary: “Benjamin’s mind revolves, and will long continue to revolve, around the phenomenon of myth, which he approaches from the most diverse angles: from history, with romanticism as his point of departure; from literature, with Hölderlin as the point of departure; from religion, with Judaism as that point; and from law. If I ever have a philosophy of my own, he said to me, it somehow will be a philosophy of Judaism.”
Benjamin stayed in Munich until about December 20, 1916. There, under the Americanist Walter Lehmann, he had already started his studies of Mexican culture and the religion of the Mayas and Aztecs in the summer semester—studies closely connected with his mythological interests. In these lectures, which were attended by few people and by hardly any regular university students, Benjamin became acquainted with the memorable figure of the Spanish priest Bernardo Sahagún, to whom we owe so much of the preservation of the Maya and Aztec traditions. Benjamin had a brief encounter with Rilke in Munich between the middle of November and December. He was full of admiration as he told me about Rilke’s politeness—he whose mandarin courtesy constituted the utmost that I could imagine. Some time later, in Berlin, I saw Molino’s big Aztec-Spanish dictionary on Benjamin’s desk; he had bought it in order to learn the Aztec language, but he never carried out this project. Remembering Benjamin’s accounts of the atmosphere in the lectures, I was impelled to attend Lehmann’s course when I went to Munich in 1919. Under his direction I read Aztec religious hymns, and I can still recite many of them in the original.
In Munich, Benjamin could have met Franz Kafka, who gave a reading of his story “In the Penal Colony” there on November 10, 1916. Unfortunately Benjamin missed that opportunity, and I sometimes have speculated on what an encounter between these two men might have meant.
Benjamin’s deep, inner relationship to things he owned—books, works of art, or handcrafted items often of rustic construction—was evident. For as long as I knew him, even during my last visit with him in Paris, he loved to display such objects, to put them into his visitors’ hands, as he mused over them aloud like a pianist improvising at the keyboard. During the months I am writing about I noticed on his desk a Bavarian blue glazed tile, depicting a three-headed Christ; he told me that its enigmatic design fascinated him. In time he gradually added to his collection various small figurines and pictures, mostly reproductions. Even then a print of Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar-piece hung on the wall of his study, where it would remain for many years to come. In 1913 as a student he had made a special trip to Colmar to see the original. His notes from those years often refer to the Isenheim panels; he was overwhelmed by what he called “das Ausdruckslose,” their quality of expressionlessness. In the 20’s he was apt to offer philosophical reflections as he brought forth a toy for his son. Once he brought along from Moscow a silver dagger over which he launched forth with reflections on terror that were only half ironic. In his room in Paris hung a tattoo artist’s large pattern sheet that he had acquired in Copenhagen. He was particularly proud of this item and regarded it on the same plane as children’s drawings and primitive art.
In those three months I did not see as much of Benjamin as would have been possible under normal circumstances. From early February on I had major family problems of my own, with the result that on March 1, 1917, I left my parents’ home for six months, found lodging with a Russian-Jewish friend in a boarding house on Uhlandstrasse that was inhabited almost exclusively by Russian Jews, and sought to earn a living by giving Hebrew lessons and translating a rather large book from Yiddish and Hebrew. In the meantime Benjamin informed me that he and Dora Pollak were going to be married, and they invited me—the only non-relative, as I recall—to the family celebration on Delbrückstrasse after the ceremony on April 16.
In the months preceding Benjamin’s marriage I occupied myself for some time with the attempt to translate into Hebrew portions of his study of language; this included motifs from our conversations very close to my heart. Benjamin insisted that I read the first pages of my translation to him and Dora so that he might hear how his sentences sounded in the Ursprache, as he put it half-jokingly. That period marked the beginning of his interest in Franz Joseph Molitor, the only serious German-language philosopher to study the Kabbalah, having devoted forty-five years to it. Between 1827 and 1857 Molitor published anonymously, as an introduction to a projected presentation of the Kabbalah, four volumes under the memorable title Philosophic der Geschichte oder Über die Tradition (“Philosophy of History, or On Tradition”). Although this Work quite groundlessly sought to give the Kabbalah a Christological orientation—its author belonged to the liberal wing of the German Catholics—the book is still worthy of attention. I had begun to read it early in 1915, and in our conversations I repeatedly alluded to it; I also told Benjamin that three volumes of the work still were available from the publisher. These were our first conversations on the Kabbalah; at that time I was still far from a study of its sources, but I already felt an obscure attraction to that world.1
During the period from summer 1916 to May 1918, our friendship was cemented steadily and without any setbacks reached its zenith after my arrival in Switzerland where he and Dora were living. After examining and rejecting all other possibilities, particularly that of taking a doctorate under the direction of Karl Joel in Basel, he had decided to work toward his degree in Bern, under Richard Herbertz who was a rather colorless man and for that very reason suited Benjamin. In the meantime I was studying mathematics and philosophy at Jena, where I worked very intensively, spent much time in reflection, and not only wrote Benjamin detailed reports about all that but also plied him with numerous questions. We urged our favorite books on each other. Benjamin not only wrote about such books but also repeatedly sent me lists of books; I tried to obtain them for him at a reduced rate through my father’s printing firm, which included a publishing house.
In November 1917, Benjamin sent me a copy of his notes on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, written that summer, which moved me as much as my response moved him. Owing, among other things, to his complete seclusion and the tenor of his utterances, Benjamin’s figure had assumed prophetic proportions in my eyes; this was given expression in letters I wrote at the time to contemporaries in my Zionist circle of friends, as well as in some notes I made. In March 1918, I wrote him a letter in which I compared the six years of his life from 1912 to 1918 with mine, whose focus I found in “learning”—in the specific sense that the word lernen has in Yiddish rather than in German linguistic usage. At the same time I sent him the new translation of the biblical Lamentations that Iliad made, in addition to writing a treatise entitled “Über Klage und Klagelied” (“On Laments and Lamentations”). For my birthday Walter and Dora gave me two photos of them in which he looked very serious and she beautiful. I conducted imaginary dialogues with these pictures in Jena, where they stood on my desk.
On January 14, 1918, I was reexamined and discharged from the army “permanently unfit for duty; not to be examined further.” This made it possible seriously to consider steps that would lead to my departure for Switzerland. Toward the end of April I received a passport for Switzerland on the strength of a certificate from the district medical officer.
I arrived in Bern on the evening of May 4, 1918. Benjamin met me at the station, and we spent a few hours nearby in his apartment on Hallerstrasse. Thus began a long period of intensive companionship and joint studies as well as disturbances, reservations, and arguments.
A few weeks after my arrival, our relationship was subjected to heavy strains for the first time, and not for the only time that year. The expectations each of us had set up for this period, each from his own point of view, were excessive. I expected something prophetic of him, a figure that would be absolutely outstanding not only intellectually but morally as well. Above all, however, the basic reason for these tensions was not so much a conflict of ideas (as in our later conversations and letters about Benjamin’s turn to Marxism—which Benjamin was later to remember as “fiery arguments”) as it was our different characters. This expressed itself in our attitudes toward pragmatic questions concerning the conduct of one’s life and our attitudes toward the bourgeois world (money matters, attitudes toward our parental homes, relations with people, and the like). On a number of occasions there were stormy scenes that easily might have ended catastrophically without Dora’s loving intercession.
The conflict in which I found myself was a moral one. For me Benjamin’s ideas had a radiant moral aura about them; to the extent that I could intellectually empathize with them, they had a morality of their own, which was bound up with their relationship to the religious sphere that at that time was quite clearly and openly at the vanishing point of his thought. Juxtaposed with this, however, in Benjamin’s relationship to things of daily life there existed a strictly amoral element that I could not come to terms with, although he attempted to justify it by his contempt for the bourgeois world. Many of his and Dora’s reflections on such matters elicited my protest. Thus violent arguments were precipitated on a number of occasions, sometimes quite abruptly, in which we clashed because we made different moral decisions. There was about him an element of purity and absoluteness, a devotion to the spiritual like that of a scribe cast out into another world, who has set off in search of his “scripture.” It was a crisis for me when in close contact with him I had to recognize the limitations of this element. Benjamin’s life did not have that enormous measure of purity that distinguished his thought. I was too young, and it did not help to tell myself—as I often did—that the same thing could be said of all of us who were unable to extricate ourselves from entanglements in external circumstances and had to pay a price for the fact that, in the confusion of those years, we sought to leave inviolate for ourselves a realm that these circumstances could not penetrate.
It began to be apparent to me that although Benjamin and Dora recognized the supremacy of the religious sphere of revelation (and for me this was still tantamount to the acceptance of the Ten Commandments as an absolute value in the moral world), they did not feel bound by it; rather, they undermined it dialectically, where their concrete relationship to the circumstances of their lives was concerned.
This was first revealed during a long conversation about the question to what extent we had a right to exploit our parents financially. Benjamin’s attitude toward the bourgeois world was so unscrupulous and had such nihilistic features that I was outraged. He recognized moral categories only in the sphere of living that he had fashioned about himself and in the intellectual world. Both of them reproached me for my naiveté, telling me that I let myself be dominated by my gestures and that I offended with an “outrageous wholesomeness” that I did not possess, but that possessed me. Benjamin declared that people like us had obligations only to our own kind and not to the rules of a society we repudiated. He said that my ideas of honesty—for example, where our parents’ demands were involved—should be rejected totally. Often I was utterly surprised to find a liberal dash of Nietzsche in his speeches. What was strange about all this was that such arguments, no matter how vehemently they were conducted, often ended with particular cordiality on Benjamin’s part. After one such tempest, both he and Dora were of an “almost heavenly kindness,” and when Benjamin saw me out, he clasped my hand for a long time and looked deep into my eyes. Did he feel that he had carried his heated formulations too far? Was it a desire not to lose the only human being other than Dora who was spiritually and physically close to him in those days?
In those years—between 1915 and at least 1927—the religious sphere assumed a central importance for Benjamin that was utterly removed from fundamental doubt. At its center was the concept of Lehre (teaching), which for him included the philosophical realm but definitely transcended it. In his early writings he reverted repeatedly to this concept, which he interpreted in the sense of the original meaning of the Hebrew torah as “instruction,” instruction not only about the true condition and way of man in the world but also about the transcausal connection of things and their rootedness in God. This had a great deal to do with his conception of tradition, which increasingly assumed a mystic note. Many of our conversations—more than may be perceived from his written notes—revolved about the connections between these two concepts. Religion, which is by no means limited to theology (as, for example, Hannah Arendt believed in writing about his later years), constituted a supreme order for him. In his conversations of the time he had no compunctions about speaking undisguisedly of God. Since we both believed in God, we never discussed His “existence.” God was real for Benjamin—from his earliest notes on philosophy to letters written in the heyday of the Youth Movement to his notes for his first projected thesis on the philosophy of language. Although in his Swiss period Benjamin spoke of philosophy mostly as the doctrine of intellectual classification, his definition, which I took clown at the time, extends into the religious sphere: “Philosophy is absolute experience, deduced in the systematic-symbolic context as language.” Thus it is a part of the “teaching.” The fact that he later abandoned this specifically religious terminology, although the theological sphere remained very close and alive to him, is not in contradiction to this.
Some weeks we were together every day, at other times at least thrice weekly. Immediately after my arrival Benjamin and Dora suggested that because of housing conditions in the city I move to the little village of Muri, about a half-hour’s walk from the Kirchenfeld Bridge on the road to Thun, where they were about to take an apartment. We then lived out there until early August; my room was only two minutes from theirs, and so an extraordinarily active companionship developed.
My first days passed very intensively and festively. My arrival was celebrated by a festive meal two days later, at which Benjamin informed me that he would study Hebrew once he had passed his doctoral examination. Conversations in the field of Judaism, philosophy, and literature were of primary importance to us, and added to these were the reading of poems, the playing of games, or conversations between Dora and me in which she told me about her and Benjamin’s life before I had met them. Dora often went to bed early, and then Benjamin and I continued the conversation by ourselves. When we parted on May 10 he gave me the incomplete manuscript of his essay, “Metaphysics of Youth” (written 1913-14), which I copied out in longhand.
Right from the start we spoke a great deal about his “Program of Future Philosophy.” Benjamin discussed the scope of the concept of experience that was meant here; according to him, it encompassed man’s intellectual and psychological connection with the world, which takes place in the realms not yet penetrated by cognition. When I mentioned that consequently it was legitimate to include the mantic disciplines in this conception of experience, Benjamin responded with an extreme formulation: “A philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” Such prophesying may be reprehensible, as in Judaism, but it must be recognized as possible from the connection of things. As a matter of fact, even his very late notes on occult experiences do not exclude such possibilities, though more implicitly. Benjamin’s sometimes lively interest in experiences with hashish is explainable from this perspective and definitely not from any supposed addiction to drugs, which was quite alien to him and has been imputed to him only in recent years.
In those days he also talked a lot about Nietzsche in his final period. Nietzsche was the only person who had seen historical experience in the 19th century, a time when people “experienced” only nature. Even Burckhardt skirted the historical ethic; his ethic was not the ethic of history but that of historiography, of humanism. At that time Benjamin’s statements on philosophy displayed a very clear tendency toward the systematic. Shortly after my arrival I made this notation: “He is sailing full speed into the system.” Sometimes he used the terms system and teaching almost interchangeably. His critical examination of the world of myth continued to belong in this realm, and so did his speculations on cosmogony and the prehistoric world of man. I frequently presented to him my ideas about Judaism and its fight against myth, something I had reflected on a great deal in the preceding eight months. Between mid-June and mid-August in particular we often spoke about these subjects. I suppose it was in those clays that we especially influenced each other. Benjamin read to me a lengthy note on dreams and clairvoyance, in which he tried to formulate the laws governing the world of premythical spectral phenomena. He distinguished between two historical ages of the spectral and the demonic that preceded the age of revelation (which I proposed calling the messianic age instead). Benjamin said the real content of myth was the enormous revolution that polemicized against the spectral and brought its age to an end. Even then he occupied himself with ideas about perception as a reading in the configurations of the surface, which is the way prehistoric man perceived the world around him, particularly the sky. This was the genesis of the reflections he made many years later in his essay, “Doctrine of Similar Things.” The origin of the constellations as configurations on the sky surface was, so he asserted, the beginning of reading and writing, and this coincided with the development of the mythic age. The constellations were to the mythic world what the revelation of Holy Writ was to be later.
In such endeavors the spectrum of the states between dreaming and waking fascinated him as much as the world of dreams itself. He once explained to me the law governing the interpretation of dreams he thought he had found, but rereading my notes on it shows me that I did not understand it. Although, as far as my own experience goes, he later refrained from interpreting dreams, at least explicitly, he continued to relate his dreams on frequent occasions and enjoyed broaching the subject of dream interpretation. I do not remember his ever contradicting my expression of profound disappointment at Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, contained in a letter I wrote him a few years later. In Muri he told of a dream he had had at Seeshaupt in the spring of 1916, three days before the suicide of his favorite aunt. He said this dream had greatly excited him, and he had spent hours in a futile quest to interpret it. “I was lying in a bed; my aunt and another person also lay there, but we did not mingle. People walking by outside were looking in through a window.” He said he did not realize until later that this had been a symbolic announcement of his aunt’s death. I do not recall whether he explicitly stated that one of the persons who looked in through the window was his aunt herself; that would have made his story plausible.
Another time, following a playfully heated conversation about a Flaubert-inspired “Encyclopedia of Nonsense,” he recounted a dream he had had the night before: “There were twenty people there, and in accordance with given subjects they had to line up by twos in order to act out the specific situation. In a magical way the intention made the appropriate garments materialize. Whoever was ready first set the tone for his partner, and whoever portrayed the subject best won the prize.” Benjamin said he really ought to have received the prize for “Rejection”; there he had been a little rotund Chinese in blue garments, and his obtrusive partner, who wanted something from him, had crawled up his back. Another couple had performed just as well, however, and so the prize was held over for the next subject, “Jealousy”: “I was the woman and lay stretched out on the floor. The man embraced me; I looked at him jealously from below and stuck my tongue out all the way.”
In those first weeks we had many more conversations lasting for hours, sometimes until after midnight. Among the things we read was the draft of a new ethics that Ludwig Strauss had sent to Benjamin and me in the form of handwritten copies, which we critically dissected. On a number of occasions Benjamin presented poems of his own, but he primarily read poems by Fritz Heinle, August Wilhelm Schlegel, and August Graf von Platen; about the last-named Benjamin said that he felt a kinship with him.
Like a considerable number of Jews of our generation before Hitler, we did not feel close to Heinrich Heine, and I cannot remember ever discussing Heine’s writings with him. Benjamin had read Heine’s “The Romantic School” while preparing his dissertation on the idea of art criticism in early romanticism, and he made deprecatory remarks about this work. In 1916, when I first heard of Karl Kraus, I had read his essay, “Heine and the Consequences”; Benjamin was as yet unacquainted with this work. At that time he was studying the prose writings of Friedrich Schlegel, who had always attracted him, in his poetic production as well; in the process he had encountered J. G. Fichte. Fichte, Kierkegaard, and Freud he numbered among the “Socratic people.” Much later, in a letter of January 1936 to a mutual friend, he wrote that in Fichte “the revolutionary spirit of the German bourgeoisie had transformed itself into the chrysalis from which the death’s-head moth of National Socialism later crawled.”
Benjamin never developed a positive relationship to literary Expressionism as a movement, though the movement did originate in the pre-war years in a circle to which Benjamin was personally quite close. He had great admiration, however, for certain phases of the Expressionistic painting of Vasily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee. While still in Jena I had obtained for him Kandinsky’s “The Spiritual Element in Art”; evidently Benjamin was attracted particularly to the mystical elements of the theory contained therein. But he had little use for catchwords in general and was less attached to schools than to specific phenomena.
This period also marked the beginnings of Benjamin’s collection of old and rare children’s books. The collection was really launched by Dora’s enthusiasm for the genre. Dora also loved legends and fairy tales. She and Benjamin gave each other birthday presents of illustrated children’s books until at least 1923, the period of my close association with them, and they particularly hunted for editions in which the illustrations were hand-tinted. Benjamin showed me Johann Peter Lyser’s things with a delight in which the joy of discovery and pleasure at the artistic result were commingled closely. He loved to give little lectures on such books to Dora and me and to emphasize particularly the unexpected associations that these talks brought out in the texts.
Benjamin’s predilection for the imaginative world of associations, which was connected also with his profound interest and absorption in the world of the child—an interest that dated from the early years of his son Stefan—was also evident in his marked interest in the writings of insane persons. In Bern he already owned several works of this type. What primarily fascinated him about them was the architectonic (today one would call it the structural) element of their world systems. His interest was not pathologic-psychological but metaphysical in nature. I heard him discuss this on a number of occasions, although never in connection with the technique of psychoanalysis, with which he was at least acquainted through his study of the works of Freud and some of the latter’s earliest pupils. His relationship to painting, which I have mentioned already—it extended to include James Ensor long before his discovery by the Surrealists—probably belongs in this context also. He liked to visit exhibitions; this enhanced his great appreciation of art more than reproductions did. In Paris he led me, offering highly appreciative remarks along the way, to such places as the Cabinet des Illusions and also to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, whose unexpected juxtapositions of figures equally evoked his aesthetic-associative delight.
Not infrequently we spent our time together taking walks through old Bern, but more often stayed in his large study, where he had gradually assembled much of his library. But sometimes we also took longer trips, for instance a nocturnal hike from Thun to Interlaken in late May 1918. We walked in silence, and when we began to talk, Benjamin soon stopped, since he greatly favored such a change of pace during a conversation. Then we would go on walking as we discussed more or less unimportant things, whereupon we would fall silent and then turn to “essential things” again. This is when I first noticed Benjamin’s basic melancholy, the incipient depressive traits that later became more pronounced. (I never noticed anything manic about him.) At the same time I began to grow aware of the hysterical elements in Dora’s behavior, which were sometimes suddenly triggered by the most insignificant events. Often enough these tension-laden scenes left me overwhelmed and perplexed, like a man who has seen more than he cares to see.
I had told Benjamin a great deal about the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, whom I had met in Berlin a few months before the Benjamins’ wedding. As nothing of Agnon had been translated into German, however, it was hard to convey an idea of this extraordinary human being and his writings to someone who did not know Hebrew. In the spring of 1918, a wonderful German translation of Agnon’s “The Legend of the Scribe” appeared in Der Jude; I had heard Agnon read it from the Hebrew manuscript in Berlin—an unforgettable experience. I still regard those pages as a high point in Hebrew literature. On a Friday evening in June, I read the translation to Walter and Dora. Benjamin was impressed profoundly, and in a long conversation he rated the first three-fourths of the work among the greatest things he had ever heard, though he raised vehement objections to the visionary ending. He said Agnon had no right to present a vision as the story’s crowning point, since it could not surpass the reality of the preceding portions. “If the story with this ending is perfect, then I don’t understand why there is a Bible. In that case we don’t need the Bible.” I made him a present of Agnon’s story, which I had had bound especially for this occasion.
Benjamin was not only a great metaphysician but also a great bibliophile. The enthusiasm with which he was capable of discussing bindings, paper, and typefaces in those years frequently got on my nerves. Today it is hard for me to reconstruct the impression I received then, but I saw an element of decadence in it. I made this note about it: “Great though [Benjamin’s] life may be in every sense—the only case, near to me of a life being led metaphysically—it nevertheless harbors elements of decadence to a fearful extent. The way one leads one’s life has certain hard-to-define bo lindanes, which decadence exceeds, and unfortunately this is definitely true in Walter’s case. I deny that metaphysically legitimate insights can arise from this way of evaluating books on the basis of their bindings and paper. Walter has a lot of illegitimate insights as well. There’s no way to change him. On the contrary: the only thing I have to guard against is the incursion of this sphere into my own through personal contact.”
Once the three of us had a long conversation about the Ten Commandments—Dora had asked whether one might transgress them—and the significance of the precepts of the Torah. I read them notes on the concept of justice as “action in deferment”: these evoked a strong reaction from Benjamin. They wanted to know why, despite my religious attitude, I did not adopt an Orthodox way of life—a step I have repeatedly considered and have always rejected with mounting determination. At that time I formulated my explanation something like this: for me that manner of life was connected with the concretization of the Torah in a false, premature sphere—as evidenced by the paradoxes of the tricks that become manifest in the process and that are necessarily inherent in such a false relationship. Something is wrong with the application; the orders clash. I said I had to maintain the anarchic suspension. Only later did my historical perspective change—in a direction that disposed of the problem, for my understanding of the sense in which one may speak of revelation had changed. At that time kabbalistic considerations hardly were involved, although I had begun to reflect on them from time to time.
The Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of Germany and Austria, as well as the ensuing pseudo-revolution, brought current political events into our conversation again for the first time since we had agreed on our attitude toward the war. Between November 9 and 11 we witnessed the general strike, which the Swiss government put down by force of arms, but it hardly engaged our attention, although we did concern ourselves more with the events in Russia and Germany. I was not deeply involved, however. In December I wrote to a friend: “Palestine certainly excites and interests me more than the German revolution.” In any case, we had discussions about dictatorship; I represented the more radical point of view and defended the idea of a dictatorship—which Benjamin then still completely rejected—provided that it was a “dictatorship of poverty,” which to me was not identical with a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” I would say that our sympathies were to a great extent with the Social Revolutionary party in Russia, which later was liquidated so bloodily by the Bolsheviks. We also discussed the question of republic and monarchy, and to my surprise Benjamin opposed my decision in principle in favor of the republic. According to him, such a decision could be made only in relative terms after weighing the prevailing circumstances, and even under present conditions a monarchy might be a legitimate and acceptable form of government.
Benjamin, when confronted with the question of political activity, declined to engage in such activity. The Munich Soviet Republic of April 1919 came into his purview only because Felix Noeggerath, whom he highly esteemed as a philosopher, was arrested for participating in it—something that greatly excited Benjamin. He regarded the Hungarian Soviet Republic as a childish aberration, and the only thing about it that touched him was the fate of Georg Lukács; at that time people (mistakenly) feared that he had been arrested and might be shot. In those days Benjamin, who had read only Lukács’s pre-Marxist writings, such as “The Metaphysics of Tragedy,” and “Theory of the Novel,” and thought very highly of them, still regarded the volume of Dostoevsky’s political writings as the most important modern political work that he knew.
Around the middle of May I informed Benjamin of my decision to make a radical change in my academic goal and to regard Jewish studies rather than mathematics as the focus of my future efforts. According to notes I made at the time, I had realized that “my true goal is not mathematics but to become a Jewish scholar, to be able to occupy myself truly and completely with Judaism; this would yield a great deal worth the effort. My passion simply lies with philosophy and Judaism, and for this I have a great need for philology.” I told Benjamin that I would seek to complete my mathematical studies, which I did (so that I might earn my bread as a teacher of mathematics in a school in Eretz Yisrael), but that I wanted to take my doctorate in Jewish studies. In those months I decided to tackle the study of kabbalistic literature and write a dissertation on the linguistic theory of the Kabbalah. For some time I had had some daring ideas on this subject, and I wanted to confirm or refute them in my dissertation. The combination of philosophy, mysticism, and philology on a Jewish theme stimulated all my aspirations. Benjamin reacted very enthusiastically to this decision.
In those months the tensions that had marked our relationship gradually and finally abated. On June 27, Benjamin passed his own examination summa cum lande, and that evening we celebrated. Dora was high-spirited and happy as a child, and we told one another nothing but meaningless-meaningful stories about Pappelsprapp, as Dora’s fantasy place was called. While Benjamin was preparing for his examination, on May 31 and June 1, he and I had hiked from Biel to Neuchâtel amid many conversations. We had a long discussion on whether his manner of living and mine were the same; he was convinced that they were and I denied it. We also talked a lot about politics and socialism, and expressed great reservations about socialism and the position of the individual if it was ever put into practice. To our way of thinking, theocratic anarchism was still the most sensible answer to politics. At that time I had written a long critique of Hapo’el halza’ir (“The Young Worker”), the Hebrew periodical of the Palestinian “people’s socialists,” and I had a gloomy presentiment concerning the fate of intellectuals under socialism. “In such an order the intellectual could be conceived of only as a madman”—this sentence in my diary entry of June 29, 1919 I reread with profound horror fifty-five years later.
1 See “How I Came to the Kabbalah,” by Gershom Scholem, COMMENTARY, May 1980—Ed.