This essay examines a chapter from Brodersen’s biography of Walter Benjamin.
Since I’ve just examined Benjamin’s work The Arcades Project, it’s interesting to know something about its author. I’m examining the first chapter of the biography of Benjamin by Momme Brodersen, because I think it’s interesting to see what influenced the young man to do the things he did. His style of writing, which is actually a compilation, is so unusual that I hope to find clues in his early life that might explain why he made the choices he did.
Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892. At the time of his birth, the German capital was undergoing extensive reconstruction, so much so that it was virtually a new city. As it rose, “its history and its past were almost completely obliterated.” (P. 1).
Brodersen’s description of the city at the time reminds me strongly of Benjamin’s description of Paris in his book The Arcades Project; it has the same feeling of fragmentation, of patterns shifting, breaking apart, and reforming. I think that his early childhood memories of the construction in Berlin must have influenced Benjamin’s later writing.
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Much of his writing did in fact center around Berlin, as well as Paris. “As an eyewitness to the almost eruptive development and reshaping of Berlin, Benjamin was truly destined to analyse [sic] his relationship to his home city.” (Brodersen, p. 3).
One of his books is a book about his childhood, entitled Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood around 1900).
But, as Brodersen points out, Benjamin’s writing is not connected to particular dates or events, such as the outbreak of the First World War; instead, he connects to places and things (railway stations, streets, everyday objects) and this connection makes his writing extremely vivid. He seems to have been a keen observer, and this served him well when he began writing.
His father was wealthy, and Walter Benjamin enjoyed a privileged upbringing. One of the results of this was that the family was able to move away from the ever-changing, noisy city and buy a villa near the Grunewald, the vast forest outside the city. Benjamin complained that he was isolated by his wealth from any children his own age; his nanny was there to supervise him and make sure he didn’t play with “unsuitable” youngsters. Yet as he grew older, there was nothing to stop him from making trips into the city to meet new people and explore new places, but he seems to have chosen not to do so. (Brodersen, p. 12).
The obvious conclusion was that Benjamin enjoyed his life and didn’t feel the need, at least at that time, to explore further. Brodersen does suggest, however, that later on Benjamin regretted not having made a greater effort to learn about the “new Berlin” as it was built, because by the time he wanted to see it, it was gone.
This chapter is really devoted to introducing us to Walter Benjamin and the people to whom he was closest, particularly his immediate family. His father Emil Benjamin was a land speculator whose good business sense allowed him to live comfortably on the proceeds from his investments—though the elder Benjamin referred to himself as a merchant throughout his life. He appears to have conducted his family life as something of a business, which his son remembered with exasperation.
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His mother, Pauline Elise Schoenflies, appears to have been an extraordinary person as well: strong-willed and resolute, she and her son Walter were often at odds with each other, and he held her responsible for what Brodersen describes as his “unworldliness as well as his cluelessness about everyday matters.” (P. 12).
From these clues I think we can put together a fairly accurate portrait of the young man who rose from this beginning to write some of the most challenging works of history extant. His memoirs of his childhood and his unfinished Arcades Project seem to be snapshots of life in Berlin and Paris, rather than attempts to compose serious narrative that describe the cities by conventional methods. His approach to the material is jumpy and fragmented, and I think it’s worth considering whether his early life in a city that was itself being torn apart and rebuilt might not be a metaphor for his writing.
Walter Benjamin is a fascinating man and a fascinating writer. In him, perhaps more clearly than in most, we can see the influence of his upbringing on his work. It seems to have affected both content and style, and knowing the man allows us to understand his writing as well. His early life, encompassing as it did both extensive construction and repeated relocation, was chaotic and fragmented; the boy was uprooted constantly and things were changing around him almost as he watched.
This quality of constant change, uncertainty, and fragmentation can be found in his books. I think there’s no doubt that his early life provides clues to why his style developed as it did.
Brodersen, Momme. Walter Benjamin, A Biography. Trans. Malcom R. Green and Ingrida Ligers. London: Verso, 1996: 1-19.