WeeklyWorker

11.12.2014
Walter Benjamin: involved his listeners

To piece together what has been smashed

Walter Benjamin Radio Benjamin Verso, 2014, pp389, £16.99

I first encountered the writings of Walter Benjamin as an undergraduate fine art student when instructed to read his seminal The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction as part of my studies. Over the years since, I have been continually drawn back to his work.

Perhaps the allure lies in his humanity and the empathy he has with the downtrodden. Maybe it is the identification with the dead resonating in his work that differentiates him from his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School. For, while he envisaged a better future for humanity beyond capitalism, just as he wrote of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, in On the concept of history, his face too was “turned to the past”.1 In his writings he displayed optimism, passion, vision - and yet there often comes across a sense of deep sadness. In some of his writings it is as if there is an uncanny foretelling of both Benjamin’s own fate and that of the working class of Europe.

Benjamin was known as a Marxist, an essayist, a critic of art, theatre and literature, but Radio Benjamin reveals another aspect of the man. This newly translated book of broadcasts for children, written and delivered by Benjamin on Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt between 1927 and 1933, has been well received - and rightly so. Curiously, little attention had been paid to Benjamin’s broadcasts, given the work he had done in analysing the production and consumption of art in the technological age.

The translator draws our attention to some interesting comments in his closing remarks on the radio play Much ado about Kasper (Kasper is a Punch-like character who wreaks havoc in a day’s exploits; it has been suggested Benjamin is the voice of Kasper in a surviving recording of the play - but that is doubtful). In a letter to his collaborator and childhood friend, Ernst Schoen, Benjamin is rather dismissive of his own radio work (he makes an exception for Kasper): “I am speaking of the radio plays, not the series of countless talks, which will now end, unfortunately, and are of no interest to me except in economic terms” (p220). This seems at odds with the playful, yet thoughtful nature of the radio plays, endeavours into which Benjamin clearly put a great deal of effort and care.

In fact, in a play he co-wrote with Ernst Schoen, The cold heart (an adaptation of Wilhelm Huaff’s fairy tale), he even dabbles in Brechtian techniques - the radio announcer’s losing of his place, interruptions and interactions with the fairy-tale characters, including a bizarre flirtation with the fair and virtuous Lisbeth, in the parameters of the so-called “Voice Land” (ie, radio). Here, he breaks the fourth wall (though, I suppose there are technically no walls in radio), repeatedly reminding the audience that they are listening to a radio play.

Youth hour

While the plays are entertaining, witty and, at times, experimental in technique, what is most engaging about Radio Benjamin are the ‘Youth hour’ talks. These ‘fireside-style’ meanders aimed at youth of around 12-14 years, are warm, mischievous and subtly subversive. Incidentally, Benjamin’s own son, Stefan, would have been around this age at the time - perhaps he had Stephan in mind when he was writing (Benjamin had separated from his wife in 1928, though he still saw his son). The ‘Youth hour’ 20-minute broadcasts cover topics that would appeal to youthful minds, such as disasters, witch trials, Faustus, gypsies, swindlers and robber gangs - but rarely does he take you on the journey you might expect from such topics. He appears not as an adult passing on his wisdom, but rather as a co-conspirator with his young listeners.

For example, at the end of Berlin Toy Tour 1, he concludes:

Cover your ears a moment. What I have to say now is not for children to hear ... I’m worried sick that I will be swamped with mail, letters along the lines of ‘What? Are you completely mad? You think that kids don’t whine from morning to night? And now you’re putting ideas in their heads telling them about thousands of toys that, up till now, thank god, they knew nothing about, and now they want all of them’ ...

How should I answer them? I could just take the easy way out and beg you not to tell a word of our story - don’t let on a thing - and then we can continue next week just like today. But that would be mean. So it’s left to me to calmly say what I really think: the more someone understands something and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty - whether it’s flowers, books, clothing or toys - the more he can rejoice in everything he knows and sees and the less fixated he is on possessing it ... Those of you who listened to the end, although you shouldn’t have, must now explain this to your parents (pp42-43).

Benjamin treats his young listeners as experts in their own right. He constantly involves them within the talks with asides such as “As you will know from your Sunday walks …”, drawing on their knowledge of the geography of their city; or “As you will remember from the tale about ...”, imagining they will be familiar. But he goes on to explore further and provoke listeners to enquire more deeply.

There are definite themes throughout the ‘Youth hour’ talks. Berlin, its history and its people form the first section of this collection, and he takes us through the Berlin dialect, the street markets and puppet shows to the Borsig machine works (a place that perhaps the more middle class, radio-owning households would be less familiar with). The notion of the outsider forms the second theme. As a Jewish Marxist and intellectual in Berlin at a time when the far right is evidently on the rise, Benjamin may well have identified with the outsiders of whom he talks.

Entertaining

In his discussion, Witch trials, he warns of the mass hysteria so easily whipped up through religious piety, finger-pointing, scapegoating and fear. He also notes that in the past this was ended not so much by a turn to rationality as by economic necessity: “Individual princes saw their lands grow desolate, as their subjects accused one and another of torture - one single trial could span hundreds more, taking up years.” In the end Benjamin remarks that the aristocracy started to ban the trials and the clergy toed the line. They decided that god would not grant the devil so much power as to allow witches, while the medical profession had reported that there were in fact illnesses that could make people think they were witches or wizards.

He talks warmly of the honour among thieves in Robber bands in old Germany, the history and traditions of the gypsies. Benjamin tells his listeners about the swindling and con-artistry of Alessandro Cagliostro, with tens of thousands of followers across Europe taken in by his séances. He asserts that it was precisely the enlightenment that caused so many to be duped:

So many people were so firmly convinced that the supernatural did not exist that they never took the trouble to reflect upon it seriously ... Had their convictions been weaker and their powers of observation been stronger, they wouldn’t have succumbed (p132).

Another of the most entertaining broadcasts is Dr Faust. Benjamin talks of the folk legend surrounding Johann Faust and the different ways the story was told and received over hundreds of years (including the puppet version Goethe watched as a young boy). This was due to the greater understanding of science (what was considered ‘natural magic’, we would, today, term chemistry or physics, but, according to Benjamin, it was not thought of as distinct from magic proper). He notes:

In the 250 years between the appearance of the first Faust book and the completion of Goethe’s Faust, mankind had changed. More and more, it was understood that what had previously drawn people to magic was often not depravity, greed or sloth, but rather a thirst for knowledge and elevation of the mind (p126).

In Theodor Hoseman (broadcast 1930), he talks of the king of Prussia famously promising universal suffrage. However,

Instead, there was what was known as reaction, during which everyone who wrote was closely monitored to ensure that nothing was written that the government didn’t approve of. How often in history have there been such times when everything printed was strictly controlled and, if it did not conform, banned? And how often have people who refused to back down searched for new ways to say what they thought, so that everyone understood them, but the police could not hold them accountable? (pp66-67).

In another session, he describes the Bastille, the mystery of the man in the iron mask, the cronyism of the aristocracy, members of which were given lettres de cachet (legal commands) by the king and told to fill in the names of those affected at their discretion. He tells listeners of the speed at which people were arrested, with no reason given; how “a servant, when his master disappeared into one of the cabs, unsuspectingly jumped in after him and had to spend the next two years in the Bastille for the sole reason his release would have been a nuisance” (p105). Benjamin explains how prisoners circumvented the ban on communicating with each other through all manner of tricks, including teaching the governor’s dog to take messages between them. He describes the conditions and corruption within the Bastille and explains to his listeners why its storming was so symbolic for the people of Paris in the revolution of 1789.

Questioning

There is a good deal of light-hearted mocking. One of my favourite examples is The bootleggers. Here Benjamin seems to revel in describing the cunning and creative tricks employed by purveyors of alcohol during the American prohibition. He tells of journalist Arthur Moss stumbling on a crew of “respectable-looking” fishermen who were unloading a large cargo of small sharks: “Although sharks fins are a delicacy, they’re hardly common, and Mr Moss wondered to himself since when had sharks been in such high demand” (p143). As the sharks were being, very carefully, carried from the truck, an undercover policeman inspects the fish to find each one contains a bottle of whiskey.

Another anecdote tells of a group of young black kids walking alongside a train, which is pulling into the station at New Orleans. They are concealing about their persons various containers labelled ‘Ice tea’, to be sold at a ‘suitable price’. The children remind their travelling customers with a nod and a wink: “Whatever you do, ladies and gentleman ... drink the tea only once the train is underway.” When it leaves the station, “The passengers put the containers to their lips. And their expression turns to disbelief, as what they are drinking is actually real tea” (p143).

There is a constant reminder to the listeners not to take the world at face value, to question what you are told, to look deeper. It is implied that those in charge have their own agenda. Science, critical thinking and exploration are revered throughout. A crazy mixed-up day: 30 brain teasers is a prime example of this. This was broadcast from Frankfurt, not Berlin, in 1932, when Benjamin’s safety was already in question. Listeners are encouraged to participate in a game. While they listen to the story, there are 15 questions that are announced by a gong and a further 15 mistakes or inconsistencies to identify. Some of these are obvious; others more challenging for the young audience - I must admit that as a woman in her mid-30s, I did not get them all ...

The last section of the ‘Youth hour’ transcripts deals with tragedy. Themes include: the fall of Pompeii and the last days of its inhabitants; the Tay rail bridge disaster of 1878; the Lisbon earthquake of 1755; a theatre fire in Canton in the early 1800s (which is interesting in its description of Chinese theatrical customs); and, most poignantly, The Mississippi flood of 1927. Knowing, with historical hindsight, that Walter Benjamin was to end his own life after trying to escape the Nazis, I found this story especially moving.

Three brothers, who thought they had time to save their livestock from the flood, were prevented from making their way to the cattle stalls by a powerful surge of water. They climbed onto the roof of their house. The only surviving brother recounts the traumatic hours the brothers spent there. The house starts to buckle under the force of the water, and at one point they think they see a boat and that they are to be saved, only for it to disappear: “Our last hopes went with it.” One brother threw his pipe, then himself into the water, perhaps unable to see any way out of the situation, or perhaps, as his brother put it, “He didn’t want to survive our ruin and the death of our loved ones” (p180).

Final broadcast

Benjamin ends this talk with a promise that next week listeners will finding themselves “once again on the banks of the Mississippi, but this time facing the raging elements of human cruelty and violence”. However, his planned programme on the Ku Klux Klan and Judge Lynch was never broadcast, The Mississippi flood of 1927 being his last talk on Radio Berlin. The radio purges had begun and Benjamin’s income would dry up. The last time he was allowed to broadcast on German radio was at the end of January 1933. The very next day Hitler became chancellor and the first national broadcast following that was a report of a Nazi parade. Goebbels was to become head of German radio.

Benjamin held fond memories of his childhood in Berlin, as is evident from the broadcasts. He revisited those memories in a series of short writings while in exile. He wrote:

We can never entirely recover what has been forgotten. And perhaps this is a good thing. The shock of repossession would be so devastating that we would immediately cease to understand our longing. But we do understand it. And the more deeply what has been forgotten lies within us, the better we understand it (The Berlin childhood).2

There are no surviving audio recordings of any of Benjamin’s radio broadcasts, as far as we know. Either the programmes were never recorded (as was common at the time) or, if recordings were made, they were later destroyed. While it is remarkable that so many transcripts survived, we will never hear them read by Benjamin himself. He died believing most of his work to have been destroyed, save the suitcase of documents he lugged, in ailing health, across the Pyrenees in his attempt to flee France for exile in America, via Spain and Portugal, in September 1940.

Benjamin’s party was told by the Spanish authorities, on crossing into Catalonia, that they would be returned to France and were held in a prison hotel. At this point, Benjamin, seeing no way out, took a morphine pill to end his life. In a final twist of fate, the next day the authorities allowed the refugees safe passage through Spain after all. This brings to mind a quote from Kafka that Benjamin repeats: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope - but not for us.”

We can only imagine the effect that Benjamin had on his young listeners over the period of his broadcasts. How many were influenced by his talks, games, plays and anecdotes when critical thinking and rationality were in short supply we can only but speculate. While his contribution to the medium of radio was quirky, it was also visionary - and arguably as valuable as his more weighty works. As he wrote in On the concept of history, our task is “To awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed”.

Sadly, there were many more radio broadcasts for which there are no remaining transcripts, as far as we know. Maybe some day more of these gems will be unearthed, but we will never be able enjoy them in the way intended: in Benjamin’s voice, over the airwaves.

Sarah McDonald

Notes

1. www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.

2. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b044b3lj.