Life as allegory: a study of Walter Benjamin

Benjamin’s was a life of allegory in part because it was so often removed from so-called life: a world teeming with books and images and commodified things, the commodity being “the bias of the world,” as Shakespeare wrote well before the fiercest era of commodification. These things, literal and otherwise, are all of the order of “second life,” even if they were also a kind of life. And an intense one at that. Before he had read in 1924 Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (whose analysis of reification deeply impressed him), Benjamin already had a sense, via Novalis and the Romantics he read for his doctoral dissertation, that the object can eerily return our gaze. When Marx, in Capital, has commodities talk, it’s pretty darn funny. Benjamin lets Marx’s serious point kick in and re-orient some of his pre-Marxist but “romantic anticapitalist” leanings more concretely to the left. When Keats said of Shakespeare that he led “a life of allegory,” he meant partly that the great dramatist could do the voices of others, able to imagine, in negatively capable fashion, what it was to be in another’s head and skin and to speak just like them. There is something of this chameleon-like behavior in Benjamin, as he exposes himself differently to different friends, most famously to the not-so-compatible forces of Gershom Scholem, Asja Lacis, Brecht, and Adorno. So it is good to know, apropos of any project, with whom Benjamin is hanging around, corresponding, or reading. Not that Benjamin was incapable of drawing the line or bristling (or worse) at this or that suggestion or critique from another. He was a difficult friend to many friends. And mostly unsatisfactory as a lover, despite the fascination he could evoke. One woman who got close described him as “incorporeal.” According to his first and only wife, this historian of the historicity of perception was, around the time of their divorce, “all brains and sex.”