I deny that there has ever been such a German-Jewish dialogue in any genuine sense whatsoever, i.e., as a historical phenomenon. It takes two to have a dialogue. . . . Nothing can be more misleading than to apply such a concept to the discussions between Germans and Jews during the last 200 years. . . . To be sure, the Jews attempted a dialogue with the Germans, starting from all possible points of view and situations, demandingly, imploringly, and entreatingly, servile and defiant . . . and today, when the symphony is over, the time may be ripe for studying their motifs and for attempting a critique of their tones. (61)Scholem reiterates this position in other essays and interviews, and also in his second memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, Memories of My Youth. Here he underscores the element of self-deception that characterized not only the Jews who remained in Germany too long to escape in the 30s but, reaching back far earlier, also the assimilated intelligentsia of the Wilhelminian era through the Weimar Republic. There is nothing surprising or uncommon in this judgment, and certainly Scholem, whose resistance to the ethos of German-Jewish "Kulturbürgertum" began in his teens, had every right to express it. But it is noteworthy that he never uses Walter Benjamin as an instance of a Jew who was deluded regarding a German-Jewish symbiosis. Nor, in his extensive writings about Benjamin does he, to my knowledge, speculate at any length, much less express any judgment, regarding Benjamin's complex and divided loyalties in matters of nationality and religion.
Le but que je m'avais proposé n'est pas encore pleinement réalisé, mais, enfin, j'y touche d'assez près. C'est d'être considéré comme le premier critique de la littérature allemande. (Briefe 2: 505)
After all these years I am by no means unaware of the fact that in this project and in Benjamin's conduct more complex motives were at work. There was a genuine, I would say utopian, vision through which he himself believed in these plans, because in those years he still could meaningfully imagine the theological categories of Judaism as the vanishing point of his thinking. . . . On the other hand, there was much self-deception in his insistence that he had exhausted his European possibilities. . . . (Walter Benjamin 149)
. . . represented an elitist, aristocratic and fiercely intellectualist wing of the German youth movement. It was opposed to völkisch myth, and stressed the formation of the individual as an ethical being. Wyneken's ideal of an elite and highly ethical Männerbund devoted to the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Goethe and Nietzsche was the most important influence on Benjamin in his student years. (90)
I have never encountered the living spirit of Judaism [lebendiges Judentum] in any other figure than yourself. The question how I stand in regard to Judaism is always the question of how I am related--I don't what to say to you (since my friendship in this regard is no longer subject to any decision)--[but] to the forces which you have awakened in me. Whatever it may be that affects this decision--however much it is embedded on the one hand in apparently quite alien issues, on the other in that endlessly spun out hesitation that is characteristic for me in all the most significant situations of my life--it will very soon be made. Once I have begun to loosen the twisted coil of my existence in one place--in the meantime I have been divorced from Dora--, this "Gordian knot," as you once correctly named my relation to Hebrew, will also need to be unwound. (Briefe 2: 513)While such a passage suggests that Benjamin's Jewish consciousness was strongly marked by his friendship with Scholem, this fact in no sense compromises the autonomy or authenticity of Benjamin's position. For Benjamin the sphere of love and friendship was recurrently implicated in his intellectual and cognitive experience. In a journal entry dated May, 1931, we read:
I became aware in the course of a conversation, that every time that I have been overcome by a great love, I became transformed in my depths to such a degree, that I said to myself in astonishment: that man who uttered such altogether unexpected things and who assumed such an unforseen manner, is myself. This comes about because a veritable love experience changes me to a state of similitude to the beloved. . . . I have come to know three different women in my life and three different men in myself. To write my life history would signify to give an account of the formation and dissolution of these three men, along with the compromise among them--one might also say: the triumvirate which now stands for my life. (Gesammelte Schriften 6: 427)
This passage, which alludes to a doctrine of similitude which Benjamin had developed elsewhere, has, I think, more than psychological or biographical significance. The passage already cited from Benjamin to Scholem, "I have never encountered the living spirit of Judaism [lebendiges Judentum] in any other figure than yourself," allows us to conclude neither that Benjamin's Jewish identity is merely tributary to Scholem's nor that Judaism as Benjamin understood it was embodied only in Scholem. Rather, it may be taken as a feature of the kind of identity construction that Benjamin articulated in the journal entry just cited.
Certainly you embody for me today true Germanity [das wahre Deutschtum]--indeed, even at the risk of irritating you, I would almost say, you alone, in view of the powerful impression which your Bauhütte has made on me. . . . (Briefe 1: 310)In the same letter Benjamin had criticized a mutual friend, Erich Gutkind, for abandoning himself (at least in his philosophical writings) to a "European" viewpoint while never having experienced "what was positive in the phenomenon of Germany." And Benjamin continues,
But for me it is always restricted ethnic entities [begrenzte Volkstümer] that are preeminent: the German, the French. The fact that, and the extent to which I am bound to the former [the German] will never be far from my consciousness. (Briefe 1: 310)
. . . in the most terrible moments of a people [eines Volkes] only those should be called upon to speak who belong to it, nay, even more: who belong to it in the most eminent sense, who can say not only the mea res agitur but the propriam rem ago. The Jew should certainly not speak. . . . Can he participate at all [Soll er mitreden?]. . . . Here, if anywhere, we come to the heart of the current Jewish question: that the Jew today betrays even the best German cause which he publicly supports. Since his public German expression is necessarily purchasable (in the deeper sense) it cannot show a seal of authenticity [Echtheitszeugnis]. (Briefe 1: 310)Benjamin concludes this somber diagnosis with the remark that, at this time, only covert, secret personal relations between Germans and Jews are possible:
the noble natures of both peoples are, today, bound to silence regarding their association. (Briefe 1: 310)The reflective, careful manner in which Benjamin weighs the modalities of German-Jewish contact are quite different from Scholem's unequivocal and outspoken judgment a half-century later. Of course, we need to take account of the radically different contexts in which they expressed themselves. At the same time it is important to recognize the singularity and radicality of Benjamin's analysis of the situation. He by no means ignored the power of ethnic particularism and he recognized all too well the extent to which it eludes individual intention or will. He paid his due to the "Germanity" within him in many ways--it would require a detailed discussion of texts like Deutsche Menschen and Berliner Kindheit to illustrate this. But he recognized too that anything like "Germanity"--a form of ethnic or national consciousness--offered no intellectual or existential, much less practical, refuge. In a recent essay Irving Wohlfarth wrote that Benjamin "staked out a well-nigh untenable no-man's-land as the most decisive terrain on which to stand his ground" (Irving Wohlfarth 164). In spite of the seeming contradiction of this formulation, it well expresses, I think, the inescapable reality of Benjamin's situation in his time.
The standard study of Scholem's life and work is David Biale, Gershom Scholem. Kabbalah and Counter-History. The most important autobiographical documents by Scholem are From Berlin to Jerusalem. Memories of my Youth and Walter Benjamin: The Story of Friendship. The collection Gershom Scholem. Zwischen den Disziplinen, ed. Peter Schäfer and Gary Smith, contains a number of important recent essays. Back
The best discussions that I have found are Anson Rabinbach, "Between Enlightment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Block and Modern German Jewish Messianism," Gary Smith, "'Das Jüdische versteht sich von selbst.' Benjamins frühe Auseinandersetzung mit dem Judentum," and Irving Wohlfarth, "'Männer aus der Fremde': Walter Benjamin and the 'German-Jewish Parnassus." The last, a work of great scope and penetration, is in effect a condensed intellectual biography of Benjamin from the perspective of the German-Jewish nexus. I have read it with pleasure and profit, but the present essay was completed before its appearance. Back
See also page 137f of Walter Benjamin, The Story of a Friendship regarding the talk with Magnes and Benjamin's plan to become a critic of Hebrew literature. Back
Benjamin's first response to Strauß is from Sept. 11, 1912, but Strauß's initial letter has not survived. Excerpts from this correspondence, which was not included in the 1966 edition of Briefe, first appeared in Gesammelte Schriften 2: 836-44. The integral version is now published in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, Ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz. Back
Cf. Smith, "'Das Jüdische versteht sich von selbst,'" 333f. Benjamin's outspoken open letter to Wyneken of March 9, 1915, marks the final stage of this important phase in his early life, in Gesammelte Briefe, 1:263f. Cf. also the materials gathered in the notes to the letter in Gesammelte Schriften, in Gesammelte Schriften, 2: 884f. Back
What is involved is a theory of correspondances in Baudelaire's sense, of linkage between the micro- and the macrocosm, whose traces can be discerned as forms of analogy and similarity in image and in language. Cf. "Lehre vom Ähnlichen" and "Über das mimetische Vermögen" in Gesammelte Schriften, 2:204-213. Back
The Bauhütte refers to a collection of writings that Rang was editing. The following citations are from the same letter. Back