Walter Benjamin’s Comrades and Rivals
Your favorite critic has plenty of frenemies.
Ol' Gersh is one of my nearest and dearest. We used to play intellectual ping-pong with ideas of Jewish mysticism and messianism. We would discuss and debate and laugh and cry over issues of theological interpretation, Marxism and the Kabbalah, Europe and Palestine. We met when he was just a teen, and from then on, I served as his intellectual co-conspirator of sorts. He was super bummed when I became a Marxist, since he wanted me to fully embrace Jewish mysticism and all. And eventually, he packed off to Palestine. He tried to get me to go with him, but I would have had to learn Hebrew. Ugh.
Gershom thinks Adorno is like a seductive devil on my shoulder, trying to lure me to the dark side of communism. It's like a fight over my very soul. (Apparently everyone wants me on their side.) He and Gershom only have the best intentions, but they always get into little catfights over my intellectual and spiritual commitments.
Adorno and I met in 1923 and were heavy hitters in the Frankfurt School. Adorno hated the nationalistic campaigns going on in Germany on our day. He's a very sympathetic guy when it comes to how oppressive society can be, and one of his major concerns is human suffering.
Adorno really helped me hone some of my fragmented ideas for the Arcades Project (though he had some harsh criticism to offer as well), but we lost touch when Adorno moved to New York and started broadcasting radio shows.
I like to call Brecht my materialist mentor because he really showed me the way of the Marxist. In 1931, we brainstormed on a Berlin Marxist journal. We were just determined to rescue the left from all of those wacky right-wing nationalists who were bullying everyone around Germany. Brecht is the "cool" friend, what with his revolutionizing theatre and poetry. I love this guy's work, but don't think it's a one-way street. He's kind of into me, too. Yeah, we're kind of a dream team.
Leo and I met in the 1920s, and although we don't see eye to eye on everything, I have major admiration for this conservative intellectual historian. He is part of my crew of German Jews (with Gershy), and we love to banter about the revolutionary change going on in Germany and how we should respond intellectually.
Scholem gets a little down on the fact that Leo is an atheist, but we manage to bridge these divides for the greater good of intellectual thought. I hear he wrote an awesome book called Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors. (Total bestseller.) But he also got kind of a bad reputation for his influence on American conservative thought.
Just to be clear, I don't really have rivals in the proper meaning of the word. I have had many long-term friendships and get a real kick out of being part of The Frankfurt School, where my intellectual kin stimulate much of my work. Like all feisty intellectuals, though, I did have a "falling out" or two. That's just the kind of thing that happens when your mind is developing and you're constantly taking in new information.
Gustav and I met when I still had milk on my breath. Just a young, delicate boy at boarding school, I was taken with this educational reformer and later even submitted articles to a journal dedicated to all things Gustav. He got me really involved with the German Youth Movement, which was sort of like the Boy Scouts but with some hardcore intellectual commitments to "spiritual purity." I got extremely turned off when Gustav praised World War I for the healthy ethical challenges it could provide to the day's youth. I, for one, do not see anything illuminating about sitting in a trench waiting to get your kopf blown off.
It wouldn't be fair to call Max a rival—he's more of a frenemy. It just stung a little that he didn't support my thesis—Origin of the German Mourning-Play—which would have qualified me to be a professional academic and not have to run from gig to gig like a member of a garage band. Max came to support my work at the Institute for Social Research in the 1930s, but his early dislike of my thesis sort of changed the course of my career.
It would be no understatement to say that the Nazis really put a damper on my existence. Their whole anti-Jewish, anti-Communist ideology really put me in an awkward position. I just wanted them to leave me in peace to write, but they were everywhere. They even forced me into an internment camp in 1939. I got out thanks to friends with connections, but I did write this sad missive to my friend Adorno:
The total uncertainty as to what the next days, the next hours will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks. I am condemned to read every newspaper (they appear here on only one page) as a writ published against me and to hear every radio report the voice of bad tidings (source).
The Gestapo eventually came to my apartment and seized my marvelous library. In refusing to go to the United States (a lot of my friends had fled there), I sealed my fate. I joined a bunch of illegal refugees trying to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. Unable to face life in Vichy France, I ended it all.