Dreaming of Walter Benjamin on Walter Benjamin Platz

Tourism Lit: A tortured seer’s lost metropolis in Berlin

Walter Benjamin wrote some of the most vivid prose of the pre-nazi 20th century before committing suicide in 1940 at age 48. (Roger Gathman)

When I got to Walter Benjamin Platz, I figured I was in the wrong place. It wasn’t that I was lost, or had failed to follow the map correctly—it was that the place was wrong.

What I saw before me was a broad square, marked on both ends by small concrete posts meant to impede any motorized traffic, with smooth square slabs of stone paving and a tame trickle of a fountain extending to two facing buildings that defined the Platz. These mixed use buildings, which went up eight stories, had a sleek, grayish look. On the rez-de-chaussée, there was a colonnade, with shops and restaurants. It was all as bland and corporate as a focus group.  It wasn’t that there was anything noxious about this site—but it had the look of a space that would never be missed if it were, for some reason, to be utterly changed. Above all, it said nothing about Walter Benjamin, the great explorer of the city as labyrinth, the theorist of the private life of public spaces, one of the founding spirits of psychogeography. There were definitely no minotaurs here.

Now widely considered a masterpiece, ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900’ was never published during Walter Benjamin’s lifetime, a fact he characterized as a “large-scale defeat.”

I’d come to Berlin with some projects in mind. One of them was to track the spirit of Benjamin in the West End neighborhood—which encompassed a bit of Charlottenburg and a bit of the area around the Tiergarten—where he’d lived as a child, and which he described in his memoir: Berlin Childhood around 1900. The memoir appears in two different versions, one in the Collected Works, and one in an independent volume. Both versions were translated by Howard Eiland, who has also written (along with Michael W. Jennings) the best biography of Walter Benjamin in English.

Berlin Childhood has a typically baroque publishing history. It consists of forty-one bits, of one to four pages, that take up objects or events in Benjamin’s childhood. Benjamin wrote them between 1932 and 1934—by which time he had fled Berlin entirely. They were published separately in various newspapers. Then, along with all of Benjamin’s work, they were seemingly forgotten. After the war, however, Benjamin’s friends Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno, and Gersholm Scholem, began to collect his voluminous essays, reviews, tractates and notes (mountains and mountains of notes that were to go into a book about 19th century Paris, the famous Arcades Project) and publish them. The Berlin Childhood book became a minor hit. Although it is written with Benjamin’s usual combination of epigram and enigma, it was much more accessible than, say, his essay on Baroque drama.

So I had thought that perhaps I would channel, like some Ouija board medium, Benjamin’s spirit in present day Charlottenburg. The Platz is within walking distance of both the address of the Benjamin house on Carmenstrasse and the school he would walk to, which at the time was called the Kaiser-Friedrich-Schule, and is now called the Joan-Miro Schule, due to a sloppy sculpture by Miro in the quad(the late work, in which Miro veered all too often into kitsch).

In Paris, where I live, the psychogeographic drift seems to be an utterly appropriate way to experience the city, which is a cross-section of past and present. I can go to the Palais Royal, have a coffee, and instantly hook up with the ghost of Denis Diderot, the eighteenth century philosopher, who also liked to take a coffee (or chocolate) at the Royal, and used it as the setting for his story of ancien regime scroungers and artists, Rameau’s Nephew. Or I can go to the Quai Anjou, lean upon a parapet, and see the same bridges and same river-scene as struck the eye of Charles Baudelaire when he emerged from the Hotel Lauzon—stoned out of his gourd due to the hashish he and his friends were experimenting with and with his head full of possible verses (or, more prosaically, calculating his buzzkilling debts).

Walter Benjamin in 1928.

However, Berlin is another story. Benjamin’s neighborhood, which in 1900 was upper crust and inclined to be Jewish, was struck by two annihilating shocks in the twentieth century. One was the murder of the Jews and the appropriation of their houses by the Nazis. This happened in Benjamin’s lifetime. The other happened—or began happening—three years after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940.

On the night of November 22 and continuing until November 26, waves of RAF bombers rained down destruction on what Bomber Harris, the British mastermind of the bombing campaign, called the “black heart” of Hitler’s empire. In that week Benjamin’s childhood haunts, around Savigny Plaza and Kurfurstendamm, up to the Tiergarten park—disappeared in flame and destruction. In that space of time, 3758 Berliners died, 9907 were wounded, and an astonishing 500,000 were rendered homeless. From that date until the final battle of Berlin, when the city surrendered on May 2, 1945, the capital of the Thousand Year Reich was systematically reduced to a wilderness of rubble.

Berlin Childhood should, ideally, be read, hypertext style, with books that explore that history: Anthony Beevor’s The Downfall,  W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, the articles on Jews in Nazi Germany (edited by Beate Meyer, et al.). Reading these books gives one an idea of the future floating over Benjamin’s childhood: a future which Benjamin often seems to glimpse. One of Benjamin’s strong points is his eerie sense of the way an omen can leap out of the trivia of everyday life. For instance, in describing the Kaiser Panorama, a proto-cinematic attraction in which photo travel slides were used to depict exotic or familiar geographic places, Benjamin writes:

I went inside and found in fjords and under coconut palms the same light that illuminated my desk in the evening when I did my schoolwork.It may have been a defect in the lighting system that suddenly caused the landscape to lose its color. But there it lay, quite silent under its ashen sky. It was as though I could have heard even wind and church bells if only I had been more attentive.

So – to return to my adventure at the Platz – I wandered by the anchoring restaurant, an expensive Italian place, by the Brazilian wax shop, past an echt German café, and went to a Greek place facing the Plaza. I ordered a souvlaki and asked the waitress what Walter Benjamin meant to her. She gave me an embarrassed smile and said, I’m not into history.

The bookstore about to open in Walter Benjamin Platz. (Roger Gathman)

Which I thought was the only appropriate thing to say about the Walter Benjamin Platz. A cynical thought. After lunch, I gave it one more look and found an actual book store that I’d overlooked. The bookstore had not yet opened, the space was being revamped, yet I was able to attract the attention of a man in the shop who turned out to be the owner, or one of the owners: Christian Dunker.

The bookstore – Geistes blüten, or Flowers of the Mind, had been started elsewhere, Dunker told me. When he had heard that there was an opening at the Walter Benjamin Platz, he jumped at it. Where I saw corporate blandness, Dunker saw a free space that had been wrested from the city by community action, which had demanded an open space in the early 2000s to counter the dense development that had overtaken the previously quiet West End.

Dunker was a Benjamin enthusiast, and he told me that the next year should see a lot of attention focused on the Exile writers because of the opening of a culture center in, of all places, Pacific Palisades. Thomas Mann built a house there during his time in exile, and the house had been up for sale as a cheap pull-it-down at 10 million last year. The German government had intervened, come up with the cash, and was now turning the house into a cultural center. My cynical mood lifted. I shook of the latent conservationist attitude. Sure, everything around here—almost everything in Berlin—that was old was reconstructed. If you cut down at random one of the many trees that line the streets and give the city its distinctive foresty feeling, you would not count growth rings that go beyond 73 years. But the city, with all its ghosts, lived. In the Platz, I suddenly noticed, there were a lot of high school kids lounging around, enjoying the shade on this extremely hot day.

The goofy Miro sculpture at the school Walter Benjamin attended. (Roger Gathman)

What is wonderful and terrifying about Benjamin’s autobiographical writing is not only the sense that the future has doomed it all – but also the sense that the present is compound of alternative futures, that nothing is closed, and that fate is all too often just a sham. Eugene Delacroix once wrote: “A line alone has no meaning. It needs another one to give it expression.” What is true in painting is true in experience: the line of our life has meaning in as much as it is a series of intersections with others—with, in effect, history itself, in its multiple guises: as family, as sex, as trade, as violence, as emotion, as craft, as song, as survival, and even as the appropriation of a tasteless and odorless corporate space. Not all futures need to be catastrophic. It was, perhaps, an un-Benjaminian thought, but it was the one I carried it home from the Un-Benjaminian plaza.

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