Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Walter Benjamin, military duty, and suicide

From the Adam Kirsch review of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life:

By 1914 Benjamin "was a university student, embarking on what would prove to be several of the most important relationships of his life.  This included his romance with Dora Pollak, whom he married in 1917, and his intellectually crucial friendship with Gersom . . . Scholem, whom he first met at a pacifist lecture in 1915.  During this time Benjamin avoided the draft through a series of ruses -- pretending to have palsy, drinking black coffee all night to induce tremors -- and in 1917 he was able to move to Switzerland.  Clearly he was an outright opponent of the war, and never seemed to feel a duty to enlist, as most young men of his generation did. . . ."

"Once he abandoned the activism of his student days, Benjamin seems to have immediately adopted the attitude that would define the rest of his life -- a kind of passive resistance to public life.  Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life makes clear how intimately Benjamin's biography was shaped by the history of Europe during his lifetime.  Yet he seems to have passed through these events -- the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weimar Republic, inflation, the rise of fascism, and the promise of communism -- as a guarded, detached observer, in keeping with a personality that preferred interpretation to action.

"His very bearing, Scholem recalled, seemed like a plea for anonymity: Benjamin 'dressed with studied unobtrusiveness, and was usually bent slightly forward.  I don't think I ever saw him walk erect with his head held high.'"

Comment:  I have a sort of Darwinian Freudian prejudice in regard to military service.  Young men for the 200,000 years or so that our specie has existed, and even before that, have had a duty to help defend the tribe.  If through teaching or genetic predisposition that duty still exists in most (some?) of us, and we refuse to fulfill that duty, Freud would say that we will be punished.  Our superego will see to that.  In previous discussions I mentioned encountering men who were quick to explain why they couldn't serve in the military during a war.  They believed in that duty and the fact that they hadn't fought required an explanation.  They at least believed that if one could serve, one ought to.  In Benjamin's case he was apparently influenced by pacifist arguments, but could they truly justify his refusing to serve?  The biographers Eiland and Jennings don't generalize about the effects of refusing military service, but they do suggest that it had an effect on Benjamin: "bent slightly forward" and never seen to "walk erect with his head held high." 

"Eiland and Jennings make a convincing case that Benjamin's suicide in the fall of 1940 was not, as Arendt suggested, yet another of his blunders, but the natural outcome of a long struggle.  Benjamin's depression had led him to seriously consider suicide as early as 1932 . . .  When war was declared in September 1939, the ailing Benjamin was interned by the French government, . . By the time he tried to cross the Spanish border, the forty-eight-year-old Benjamin could barely manage the journey without suffering a heart attack.  The news that the border was closed, it seems clear, was only the last straw, breaking his will to carry on with an increasingly difficult struggle. . . ."

Comment:  Hannah Arendt was only 34 when she crossed the border Benjamin failed to cross.  Perhaps the older Benjamin, unhealthy, with (as seems to be suggested) a bad heart, and with (as is also suggested) clinical depression was so fearful of what he thought his certain fate that he couldn't face it.  There is a hint, at least in the Adam Kirsch review, that had Benjamin served in the Army in World War One, he would have had the "force" to have survived the threat that most others who crossed that border survived.  Was it possible to go away for a few days and then try to cross the border again?  Arendt, Eiland and Jennings hint at something like that -- that Benjamin made a mistake and committed suicide when he could have made it across the border with a little more effort.

Another factor in Benjamin's survival difficulties was that he had not been raised to fend for himself.  It was assumed that he would get his PhD and teach in a University, but anti-Semitic policies kept him from that; then when his father lost his money in the crash of 29  his never having had to "work" made it difficult for him to find a job.  One can become depressed just reading about Benjamin.   I tried to put myself in Benjamin's position but failed.  My own background was very different.  I got a paper route when I was 12 and in the intervening years before I entered the Marine Corps, I worked summers for a company that delivered watermelons to stores.  At other times I stoked boilers for a Dry Kiln company and then my last job was working on the docks salvaging parts of clocks after a warehouse fire.  I was "stacker" (the most prestigious watermelon job), and "foreman" during the salvaging operation; so I didn't lack confidence.  My "jobs" were not forced upon me by my parents, but they didn't have much money; so if I wanted some I had to earn it.  I was expected however to "contribute" to the family coffers when I was working.  In retrospect that pre-USMC work made me more adept and confident in the Marine Corps.  I usually think my Marine Corps experience made me confident in college and subsequently in Engineering, but the earlier jobs probably helped as well.   I noticed another contrast from the article.  I apparently continued to walk like a Marine when I worked at Douglas Aircraft and one person sarcastically referred to me as the "commandant." 


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