Félix Valotton, L’âge du papier, Le cri de Paris, 23 janvier 1898
Emmanuel Alloa has an interesting article in Boundary 2 which treats various articulations of community and literary community through the journal projects of Novalis, Benjamin, and Blanchot.
Emmanuel Alloa, ‘The Inorganic Community: Hypotheses on Literary Communism in Novalis, Benjamin, and Blanchot’, Boundary 2, vol.39, no. 3 (1 August 2012), pp.75–95.
In this post I have extracted Alloa’s commentary on Walter Benjamin’s four journal projects, and this is followed by the complete text of Benjamin’s ‘Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus’ (1922). All quotations are from Alloa unless otherwise specified (important additional information is drawn from the work of Esther Leslie and Erdmut Wizisla). Further exploration of Benjamin’s orientation towards, and criticisms of, intellectual communities and groupings around journals (the association with Bataille could also provide interesting insights into Blanchot’s formation) can be drawn from Michael Weingrad, ‘The College of Sociology and the Institute of Social Research’ in New German Critique, no. 84 (2001): pp.129–61.
Benjamin’s Journal Projects
1/ 1910s: On the Fringes of the Wandervogel Circle
In 1905 Benjamin attended a progressive school in Haubinda, Thuringia, under the tutelege the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken’s Wandervogel youth movement promoted spirituality and intellectual development under a rubric of ‘youth culture’. Benjamin remained in contact with Wyneken up to 1915 when he broke with him over the former’s support for World War I.1 ‘Rather than joining the Wandervogel youth movement, Benjamin participated in the gatherings of the group around the maverick reformer Gustav Wyneken, and from 1910 to 1914 contributed to his journal Der Anfang (The beginning). Benjamin was the spokesperson of the newly founded Sprechsäle, [the forum of the Free Students’ Association] where students could meet and discuss matters of the spirit. Already by that time, as the undelivered speech to students suggests, Romanticism, as well as the idea of the symposium, was an inspiration to Benjamin, who wanted to reach out to some universal spirit, but within an elective community.2 In a conversation with Carla Seligson in 1913, Benjamin drafted his vision of an ideal community, whose only bond would consist in sharing a secret. A community, as a letter to Seligson reads, “is bound by the acute consciousness that solitude remains insuperable.”’3 Benjamin definitely distanced himself from this community, of which the reunions at the Sprechsäle in Berlin constituted the prototype in 1914, after a tragic event. Shortly after the outbreak of war hostilities, Seligson’s companion, Fritz Heinle, with whom Benjamin had plans to publish a new journal,4 committed suicide as a symbolic condemnation of the outburst of globalized violence.’ (Alloa, pp.80-81)
Stefan George’s Blätter für die Kunst, 1907
2/ 1920s: Angelus Novus
‘Later journal projects—such as the Angelus Novus, on which Benjamin had been working in 1921 on behalf of the editor Weißbach and which would be aborted once more—clearly carried the imprint of an overall rejection of any kind of esoteric publication organ for which the journal of the Stefan George circle, the Blätter für die Kunst, represented the emblem. In the manifesto he drafted for his Angelus Novus journal, Benjamin makes this unmistakably clear:
Nothing appears more important to the editor than that the journal should forgo all appearance and simply express the truth of the situation, which is that even the purest will and the most patient labor among the different collaborators will prove unable to create any unity, let alone a community. The journal should proclaim through the mutual alienness [wechselseitige Fremdheit] of their contributions how impossible it is in our age to give a voice to any communality—even though this common forum might suggest otherwise— and should make plain to what degree even this connection remains on trial only.
It is no coincidence, then, that Benjamin intended to contribute to his own journal an essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which finally, as it became obvious that Angelus Novus was never going to see the light of day, appeared in the Neue Deutsche Blätter, thanks to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The essay on Goethe, all too often decontextualized, must thus be reread in the context of research about a literary community, where it becomes almost oracular: a relation not of blood but of distant resonance, and which reminds us of the formula Benjamin had once used when addressing the circle of the Sprechsaal in Berlin in 1915: “not a friendship of brothers and comrades, but a friendship of foreign friends.” Or to put it in other terms: thinking about the bonds of community not so much in terms of genealogical provenance but in terms of elective affinities. (Alloa, pp.81-82.)
Emil Hesse-Burri, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Bernard und Margot von Brentano on the Le Lavandou beach, France June, 1931
3/ 1930s: Benjamin and Brecht’s Krise und Kritik
The journal Krise und Kritik, which Benjamin had planned jointly with Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930s […] led to more crises than critique,7
From the autumn of 1930 to the spring of 1931, Benjamin and Brecht, with Bernard von Brentano and Herbert Ihering, and with the help of Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Alfred Kurella and Georg Lukács, were planning to bring out a periodical under the name of Krise und Kritik (‘Crisis and Criticism’), to be published by Rowohlt in Berlin. They envisaged a journal in which the bourgeois intelligentsia can account for itself in regard to positions and challenges which uniquely – in current circumstances – permit it an active, interventionist role, with tangible consequences, as opposed to its usual ineffectual arbitrariness.
Although not a single issue of the journal was ever published, the project deserves attention as a development in aesthetic politics typical of the years immediately before the Nazi dictatorship – especially since it characterizes more than just the relationship between Benjamin and Brecht.
4/ 1939: A Journal by Prisoners in Prison the Bulletin de Vernuches: Journal des Travailleurs du 54e regiment
In September, 1939 Benjamin was sent to an internment camp near Nevers, in southern France. After a train ride and a forced march, the prisoners were assigned to the abandoned Château de Vernuches, which had been transformed into a labor camp. (Alloa, p.77)
Benjamin wanted to suggest to the camp commander to publish a literary journal “of the highest level, of course,” a camp journal for intellectuals that would have the purpose of showing to the country who those people who had been incarcerated as “France’s enemy” really were. “Come to my place at 4pm”, he had said. “We will hold our first editorial meeting.” Benjamin dwelled in a shed at the foot of a spiral staircase which formed a sort of roof above his cot. From a piece of cloth, a disciple had fabricated a curtain which cut him off from the others’ gazes. A saint in his cavern, warded by an angel. As I arrived at 4p.m. and swept the curtain aside, not without announcing myself to the angel who was now acting as secretary, two others were already crouched on the straw. The editorial meeting began. From thimbles, we drank brandy which the angel had procured himself from the soldiers, and we discussed the physiognomy we wanted to give to the journal. Benjamin was very serious, almost ceremonious. He didn’t seem to be aware of the comical-macabre side of the situation.10 (Alloa, p.78)
According to Benjamin, the journal, the plans for which were found in Berlin, should have been titled Bulletin de Vernuches: Journal des Travailleurs du 54e regiment11 and was to be distributed not only among the detainees of Nevers but was also gradually to reach “all the other camps disseminated in France.”12 It was to include sociological analyses of camp life, critiques of the improvised musical and theatrical performances within the camp, as well as a book section. The journal was thus to be an ultimate demonstration of the power of the spirit at the moment of its utmost desolation. (Alloa, p.78)
Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus
By Walter Benjamin
The journal whose plan we present here hopes to create confidence in its content by giving an account of its form. This form arises from reflecting on the nature of a journal: a journal should both make a program superfluous and avoid it as an incitement to pseudo-productivity. Programs are valid only when individuals or groups have particular, well-defined goals. A journal that sets out to articulate the experience of a particular way of thinking is always far more unpredictable and unconscious than any expression of will, but by the same token it holds greater promise for the future and is capable of much greater development. Hence, such a journal would be poorly placed to give an account of itself, no matter what terms it chose to express its position. Insofar as reflection is expected of it – and in the right sense no limits can be set to reflection – it should concern itself less with ideas and credos than with foundations and governing principles, just as human beings should not be expected to have full knowledge of their own innermost tendencies but should be conscious of their vocation.
The vocation of a journal is to proclaim the spirit of its age. Relevance to the present is more important even than unity or clarity, and a journal would be doomed – like the newspapers – to insubstantiality if it did not give voice to a vitality powerful enough to salvage even its more dubious components by validating them. In fact, a journal whose relevance for the present has no historical justification should not exist at all. The Romantic Athenäum is still a model today precisely because its claim to historical relevance was unique. At the same time it proves – if proof were needed – that we should not look to the public to supply the yardstick by which true relevance to the present is to be measured. Every journal ought to follow
the example of the Athenäum. It should be rigorous in its thought and unwavering in its readiness to say what it believes, without any concessions to its public, particularly where it is a matter of distilling what is truly relevant from the sterile pageant of new and fashionable events, the exploitation of which can be left to the newspapers.
Moreover, for any journal that conceives itself in this way, criticism remains the guardian of the house. If in its infancy criticism was forced to combat commonplace viciousness, the situation nowadays is different. Formerly, the stage was dominated by products that were backward – looking
and tasteless and by producers who were naive bunglers. Now it is confronted at every point by talented fakes. Furthermore, for over a century every grubby literary rag in Germany has advertised itself as an organ of criticism, so that redoubled efforts are needed to restore criticism to its former strength. Both critical discourse and the habit of judgment stand in need of renewal. Only a terrorist campaign will suffice to overcome that imitation of great painting that goes by the name of literary Expressionism.
If in such annihilating criticism it is essential to fill in the larger context – and how else could it succeed? – the task of positive criticism, even more than before and even more than for the Romantics, must be to concentrate on the individual work of art. For the function of great criticism is not, as is often thought, to instruct by means of historical descriptions or to educate through comparisons, but to cognize by immersing itself in the object. Criticism must account for the truth of works, a task just as essential for literature as for philosophy. Such a view of the importance of criticism is incompatible with reserving a few columns for it at the end of each issue, as an act of duty. This journal will have no “critical section ” and will not stamp its critical contributions with the mark of Cain by distinguishing them typographically from the rest of the journal.
Precisely because the journal intends to devote itself to literature as much as to philosophy and criticism, the last-named must not remain silent about what it has to say concerning the first. If we are not deceived, a dangerous and in every sense crucial period for German literature began at the turn of the century. Hutten’s words about the age and the joys of living in it, words whose tone seemed de rigueur in the program of every journal, are as difficult for literary artists to adopt as they are for anyone else in Germany at the present time. Ever since [Stefan] George’s recent enrichments of the German language have begun to look obsolete, the first work of every aspiring young writer seems to consist of a new poetic thesaurus. And little as may be expected from a school whose most enduring monument may be seen in its vigorous exposure of the limitations of a great master, even less do the transparent mechanisms of their latest productions inspire confidence in the language of their authors. Even more clearly than in the age of Klopstock – rnany of whose poems sound as if they are what contemporary
poets aspire to – even more completely than for centuries past, the crisis of German poetry coincides with the fate of the German language, a fate that will not be determined by knowledge, education, or taste and that in a certain sense will be decided only once the crucial statements have been ventured. However, once the frontier has been reached beyond which a provisional declaration of intent cannot responsibly go, it is superfluous to state that contributions in prose and verse will bear the above in mind and that the literary contributions of the first issue in particular desire to be understood as decisions in this spirit. Alongside these, there will be space subsequently for the work of other writers who, taking up a place in the shadow of the first group or even under their protection, but purged of the free – floating violence of our celebrated rhapsodists, will strive to tend a fire they have not themselves ignited.
Once again, German writing in its current state stands in need of a genre that has always had a beneficial effect on it in its periods of great crisis: translation. In the present instance, however, the translations of the journal wish to be understood not just as providing models to be emulated, as was the case in earlier times, but also as the strict and irreplaceable school of language – in – the – making. Where the latter is at a loss to discover a substance of its own on which it might feed, important works from other, related cultures offer themselves along with the challenge to abandon superannuated linguistic practices, while developing new ones. In order to make this – the formal merit of true translation – clearer, every work that should be judged primarily according to this criterion will be accompanied by its original text. The first issue will go into the question at greater length.
The intellectual universality contained in the plan for this journal will not be confused with an attempt to achieve universality in terms of content. For on the one hand, it will not lose sight of the fact that a philosophical treatment confers universal meaning on every scientific or practical topic,
on every mathematical line of inquiry as much as on any political question. And on the other hand, it will bear in mind that even the literary or philosophical themes of immediate interest will be given a welcome only because of this approach and on the condition that it be adopted. This
philosophical universality is the touchstone that will enable the journal to demonstrate its true contemporary relevance most accurately. In its eyes, the universal validity of spiritual [geistig] utterances must be bound up with the question of whether they can lay claim to a place within future religious orders. Not as if such orders were already visible on the horizon. What is
visible is the fact that without them, none of the things that are struggling for life can make their appearance and mark these days as the first of a new epoch. For that very reason, it would seem to be the right time to lend an ear not to those who imagine that they have already discovered the arcanum but to those who objectively, dispassionately, and unobtrusively give express-
sion to hardship and need, if only because the journal is not a place for the great. Even less should it be a place for the petty; it should be reserved, then, for those who have found by hard thinking as much as by soul searching that a renewal of things can come about only through confession. This,
however, must be arrived at by an honest path: spiritualist occultism, political obscurantism, and Catholic expressionism will be encountered in these pages only as the targets of unsparing criticism. And even though these pages will eschew the comfortable obscurity of esotericism, they will keep
their distance equally from any easy expectation of greater elegance and accessibility for what they offer. Those qualities can only reward still greater hard, sober effort. Golden fruits in silver bowls are not to be expected.
Instead we shall aspire to rationality throughout, and because none but free spirits are to discuss religion, the journal will feel free to go beyond the frontiers of our language, indeed of the West, and move to a consideration of other religions. It is a fundamental principle that only in regard to poetry shall we confine ourselves to the German language.
Needless to say, there is no guarantee that the universality aspired to will be fully achieved. For just as in its outer appearance the journal will exclude every direct manifestation of the plastic arts, in the same way – although less obviously – it will keep its distance from all science, because there, far more than in the arts and philosophy, the topical and the essential almost always seem to part company. In the list of subjects to be treated in a journal, science forms a link to the problems of practical life, whose burden of true contemporary relevance is normally obscured beneath the surface and yields itself up only to the rarest philosophical scrutiny.
These limitations count for little compared to the inevitable limitations of the editor. Perhaps he may be allowed a few words to outline his awareness of the boundaries of his own horizons and his readiness to acknowledge them. In fact, he makes no claim to survey the intellectual horizons of the age from on high. And, to continue with the image, he would prefer that of the man who stands on his own threshold in the evening when his work is done and in the morning before he sets out on his daily tasks, and who takes in the familiar horizon with a glance, rather than scanning it searchingly, so as to retain whatever new thing greets him there. The editor regards philosophy as his own special field, and this metaphor tries to express the idea that the reader will encounter nothing absolutely alien in the pages that follow, and that the editor will feel some affinity with whatever will be found there. But an even more emphatic implication of the metaphor is that to assess the degree and kind of affinity is not something which will fall to the public, and that nothing links the contributors with one another beyond their own will and consciousness. For just as the journal will refrain from attempting to ingratiate itself with the public, so too shall we resist the equally dishonest attempts of the contributors to curry favor
or create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and community. Nothing appears more important to the editor than that the journal should forgo all appearance and simply express the truth of the situation, which is that even the purest will and the most patient labor among the different collaborators will prove unable to create any unity, let alone a community. The journal
should proclaim through the mutual alienness of their contributions how impossible it is in our age to give a voice to any communality – even though this common forum might suggest otherwise – and should make plain to what degree even this connection remains on trial only, while responsibility to substantiate it rests entirely with the editor.
This point touches on the ephemeral aspect of this journal – a point that has been kept in mind throughout. For it is the fair price exacted by the journal’s call for true contemporary relevance. After all, according to a legend in the Talmud, the angels – who are born anew every instant in
countless numbers – are created in order to perish and to vanish into the void, once they have sung their hymn in the presence of God. It is to be hoped that the name of the journal will guarantee it contemporary relevance, which is the only true sort.
Written in 1922; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Marcus Bullock and Michael W Jennings (Eds.), Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume-1,1913-1926, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp.292-296.