Wasn’t Benjamin a tad too comfortable in his outrage?


Photograph by Daniele Prati

From The Boston Review:

“Left-wing melancholy” was once the title of a review essay that Walter Benjamin wrote in 1931 for the feuilleton section of the German newspaper Die Gesellschaft. It was occasioned by the publication of a new collection of poems by Erich Kästner, the novelist and poet whose works have now faded from memory, except perhaps for the children’s adventure, Emil and the Detectives.

To say that Benjamin did not take a shine to Kästner’s poetry would be an understatement. This was an execution disguised as a book-review. He lumped Kästner alongside other “left radical publicists” such as Walter Mehring and Kurt Tucholsky, whose writing he condemned as “the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat.” They belonged “not to schools but to fashions,” they formed not parties but cliques. Partisans of an ill-defined left, they were in Benjamin’s verdict chiefly aesthetes, drawn first to Expressionism, then to the New Objectivity. In their work the concrete business of politics became an empty gesture, a “clenched fist in papier mâché.” Spitting venom, Benjamin described Kästner as the poet to an intellectual elite for whom politics became a “know-all irony” bereft of genuine feeling. “What is left,” he wrote, “is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings—nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity—once rested. Now the hollow forms are absentmindedly caressed.”

That was 1931, when financial crisis and party radicalization on both the left and the right were edging the Weimar Republic toward catastrophe. The stakes were high, and not wholly dissimilar to today’s political climate. Indeed, as the political theorist Wendy Brown has argued, left-wing melancholy was Benjamin’s name for a “conservative, backward-looking attachment” that becomes “thinglike and frozen in the heart of the putative leftist.” For Brown this condemnation is decisive. After such a great series of disappointments and defeats—Reaganism and Thatcherism, neoliberalism and Trumpism—she fears that the left could once again lapse into a kind of malaise where it would become “more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness.” A left that remains caught in a “melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past” cannot work through this past for the sake of present action. The result, Brown claims, is a paradoxical stance of left-traditionalism: it abandons the project of social transformation, and it shuts down the task of imagining new forms of political agency that would look not backward but forward with (in Brown’s words) “visionary spirit.” In politics, a pivotal moment arrives that demands not irony but action.

This is a bracing argument. With the benefit of hindsight, it is especially tempting to praise Benjamin for his clairvoyant verdict on the indulgences of the bourgeois intelligentsia. But Traverso asks us to pause and consider the limits of this perspective. Wasn’t Benjamin just a tad too comfortable in his outrage? Does militancy leave no room for melancholy? Is it possible that action and irony, conviction and doubt, might somehow coexist in a single soul?

“Mourning In America”, Peter E. Gordon, The Boston Review