Walter Benjamin was a luminary of 20th-Century literary thought; a dull notion, unless it is understood that the light came from 800 or 900 glowworms collected in his paper hat.
He was that altogether uncommon figure, the critic disarmed. As Franz Kafka stripped away the assurance of civilized reality, Benjamin--Kafka's spiritual kinsman--eroded the apparatus of critical and scholarly authority and walked away barefoot.
In the '20s and '30s, he was a Jew in Berlin, a visitor to the Russian Revolution, a refugee in France, a citizen of the world in flames. More man of letters than scholar, and more poet than either one, he wandered through Western culture as if it had been destroyed centuries earlier, and he were a revenant poking through its remains. He amassed quotations and collected books and toys, with no illusion of finding a living civilization, but seeking the artifacts of a shattered one.
His preferred form of writing was shattered, as well: fragments, short paragraphs, aphorisms, metaphors. He was brilliant but childlike, even naive. The emperor and he were naked together. He was culture's holy fool; without defenses and making art out of precariousness.
His allure today is almost as much moral as intellectual. He inspires a kind of love. Hannah Arendt, who presented him to English-speaking readers in the '60s, wrote of him almost maternally. "Mr. Bungle," she called him--German children who spill or break things are told that "Mr. Bungle sends you his regards"--and noted his tendency to drift into intellectual disfavor and personal catastrophe. In 1940, fearing that Paris would be bombed--it wasn't--he fled to Meaux, a troop center, which was. Trying to cross the Spanish border to escape the Nazis, he got caught in a brief bureaucratic freeze, and committed suicide without trying again to straighten the matter out. His Baedeker, after all, was "The Trial."
Love, mixed with obsession, is at the heart of "Moscow Diary," the private record of Benjamin's two-month visit to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1926. Edited and with an afterword by Gary Smith and lucidly translated by Richard Sieburth, it is a many-faceted jewel: a portrait of the Russian revolution in its still unsettled transition to Stalinism, a vivid picture of Moscow life, Benjamin's intellectual journal, and above all, the tragicomic story of his pursuit of the Estonian actress, Lacis Asja.
If you were not assured of the identity of the protagonist, whose worried face with its small black mustache peers out of a photograph, you would swear that it could only be Charlie Chaplin. Trotting along, slanted in a slanting world, and carrying--because he and Asja loved to eat--not a bunch of wilted flowers but propitiatory parcels of caviar, cakes and tangerines.
In one sense, the diary is the raw material for "Moscow," a celebrated essay he published on his return to Germany. "Moscow" is partly political analysis and partly travel literature, but essentially, it is something more.
Some of Benjamin's most original work took the form of pieces written about places. His method for striking at reality was to stroll through it. He found in shop windows, the manners of a crowd on a streetcar, the intimate quality of a cafe, clues to the temper or a society and its underlying political, psychological and artistic energies.
The essay treats the diary entries with greater formality. It works to extract more explicit reflections from them, and to give them an aesthetic shape. It also curbs their remarkable spontaneity. The essay portrays the intellectual results of Benjamin's cultural and personal shocks; the diary, on the other hand, contains the shocks themselves.
Benjamin was a radical Marxist who went to Moscow in hopes of finding the New Man and the New Society. He went, that is, as a later European visit Havana in 1960, and as some people go to Nicaragua today; and what he found was not dissimilar. A sense of possibility with signs of curdling. The purges hadn't really started, though one of Benjamin's first visits was to a writer who was receiving friends on the eve of his polite but involuntary departure to a settlement 1,000 miles east.
Stalin was promoting a mixed economy in the hope of greater efficiency. There were beggars and millionaires, a former Czarist general teaching at the military academy, private shops and restaurants, a semi-free theater, a buttoned-up cinema--all this alongside a resurgence of party control and unpredictable patterns of tolerance and repression, vitality and confusion.
Benjamin was in a whirl. He tried to like the cult of the dynamo and to understand the replacement of Vorticist art by the early precursors of socialist realism. But indoctrination was producing a younger generation "who don't come to the Revolution as an experience but only as a discourse."