‘We should stop stirring Walter Benjamin’s intricately brilliant but almost entirely false theories into theoretical blancmange’


by Stephan Wackwitz

From Sign and Sight:

In 1972 I was twenty, a supposedly not entirely untalented, deeply impressionable and utterly confused individual. One week it was Maoism, the next it was poetry or fine art. The interminable vacillations of a young man. Ersatz military service in Bad Urach, holidays in Paris, a patchwork university degree in Munich. The obligatory hitch-hiking in Italy. The effects of Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” and three cans of beer in a youth hostel in Milan. An old man holds his head in despair over the diaries of his younger self.

One day, on a marble table top in an Ulm cafe, next to a cup of coffee, lay a red and white Bibliothek Suhrkamp book. It was Walter Benjamin’s “Einbahnstraße” (One Way Street). The effect it was to have on me in the months and years to come echoed that experienced by it author in the 1920’s, who could only read Aragon’s “Paysan de Paris” one page at a time because it made his heart race and kept him awake for nights on end.

When, after flicking through it for the first time, I returned Benjamin’s “Einbahnstraße” to the marble table top in the Ulm cafe (I was waiting for the local train to take me to my home town of Blaubeuren), I knew I would never be bored again. Not because I would continue to read this book for ever, a book that my professors in Munich were unable to classify as poetry or prose, theory or fiction, diary or essay. As I mentioned, I could never digest more than one or two passages in one sitting. What I mean is that something radical had happened in my life, because from this moment on, the world of books would contain something which awed me infinitely, just as I had been awed in childhood by the toys of some of my friends, or as I felt about the glamorous older female students in the German studies seminars in Schellingstraße.

“Save Benjamin from his fans!”, Stephan Wackwitz, Sign and Sight