On One Foot: The Study of Tradition in Walter Benjamin
What is left for us while studying Walter Benjamin's work? What is left, perhaps, is the question itself, meaning the right question: I imply here the question of study, discussed below as the study of die ganze Lehre (התורה כולה),-- the whole theory that is embedded "on one foot," and in silence. In the following passages I discuss this conception of study in the context of one of Walter Benjamin’s minor writings titled Zum Planetarium, a piece included in his aphorism book Einbahnstraße, One-Way-Street, published in 1928.1 This text reveals (in concealment) Benjamin's method and his path of study as a modus of critical engagement vis-a-vis the study of tradition, or as a "play" with traditions, in the plural sense. Benjamin's work should be understood, in this context, as a critical reading of the Scripture, often inverted and ironic. Benjamin's engagement with biblical and liturgical sources produced original misinterpretations, attesting also to different lacunae and certain forms of negligence. His powerful readings often seem to deconstruct the conventions of tradition, and lead to "heretical" exegeses of the Scriptures. His radical engagement with the sources, however, opened new hermeneutic possibilities, for these texts are presented and read out of context, trans-lated and re-integrated into modernist and critical frameworks of political theory. The de-contextualization can be seen today as a remnant of Benjamin's thought: Benjamin reinforces-- via the radical reading of the Biblical sources,-- the telling of the Talmudic anecdotes and the emphasis on Kabbalistic figures, the Talmudic vocabulary, and Talmudic study as a form of commnal work and play. And this, we argue, is delivered "on one foot", most concisely, in his Zum Planetarium.
Benjamin's short text deals with the Great War and the return of Rausch, the ecstatic, and (mythical) collective experience of the cosmic order, lost during the modern age. The modern should be understood, in this context, as an age that is governed by the optical representation (astronomical) of the celestial world. Yet, the forgotten "cosmic powers" were felt anew during the years of the First World War, as new forms and modes of Gewalt, power and violence that were revealed in the battle field, and that led to (self-)destruction:
Menschenmassen, Gase, elektrische Kräfte wurden in freie Feld geworfen, Hochfrequenzströme durchfuhren die Landschaft, neue Gestirne gingen am Himmel auf, Luftraum und Meerestiefen brausten von Propellern, und allenthalben grub man Opferschächte in die Muttererde.2
Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth.
The attempt to experience anew the cosmic order and its resources, the elements themselves – earth, air, water and fire,-- collapsed during the War and turned to apocalyptic, destructive visions of power. This new power turned "im Geiste der Technik", with the spirit of technology, into a false mode of control – "zur Naturbeherrschung", a mode of control of nature.
A corrupting effect of Technik,-- turning Gewalt (power/violence) and desire into methods of Beherrschung (control and repression),-- ended with the destructive experience of being.3 Benjamin's critique of the new and technical transformation of nature pointed out to the use of such elements as re-sources of mass destruction. However, Benjamin attached those to a strange vision:
(I)n den Vernichtungsnächten des letzten Krieges erschütterte den Gliederbau der Menschheit ein Gefühl, das dem Glück der Epileptiker gleichsah.
In the nights of annihilation of the last war, the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic.
What was this feeling of bliss exactly? What was the epilepsy standing for, marking perhaps a psycho-pathological collapse? Maybe the ecstasy of divine violence? Or was it standing for a case of collective (masculine) hysteria? How does this vision of the ecstatic body ("the epileptic") turn to stand for a new beginning? Was it a sign of a (fallen/false) birth of a new political community? Benjamin seems to consider the series of left political revolutions that followed the Great War in Europe, particularly the communist and social-democratic movements in Germany. The real challenge for the revolution, however, was to bring the new body,-- born in the battlefield,-- under control. These were the measures of "Gesundung", convalescence, grounded in the "disciplines" of the proletariat. Only "Im Rausche der Zeugung", in the ecstasy of procreation, Benjamin writes, is there a chance of overcoming den "Taumel der Vernichtung", the frenzy of destruction.
Benjamin's short text, this fragment, embodies the ambiguous experience of Gewalt, power and violence, imprinted itself in the dialectic of destruction and production, a dialectic in which the element of justice is also embedded. However, the dominant modes of power seemed to collapse into the grammar of Technik: the mobilization, the transformations, and the instrumentalization of being on earth. Even the mythical experience of the cosmic order, the ecstasies of being, which were re-called in 1914, were doomed to be reframed in the technical form, the Gestell.
Benjamin's critique of the mythical forms of experience and the transformation of the cosmic into the European war-machine are significant. His commentary about the revolutionary dimension of power, revealed during the long nights of the War, is genuine. Benjamin's short text proves to be a capsule of radical political thinking which is left for us to study. However, the right question that should primarily concern us, we argue, is the question of study itself. The question we have to ask before we turn once again to study Benjamin's critical theory is that of studying as such: what and how to study?
Before one engages with the complexities of Benjamin's short text, learning its conceptual tensions regarding the question of Gewalt; before we incorporate the "weak" messianic power that is embedded in his thought;4 before we continue to examine the implications of this text and its "relevance" for the contemporary political order,-- challenged ourselves by new technical preconditions of experience and occupied with new means of violence-– we have to address the path, the way, or the very movement of study; before (and after) the engagement with Benjamin's critical conversation with Ludwig Klages's life-philosophy and theory of Rausch, or with Ernst Jünger's theory of war and experience (and perhaps with Karl Kraus's as well);6 before diving into the essence of Benjamin's text and its form, we have to consider that the fragment is opening like a wound, a texture of writing of violence, eine Wunde; before turning to the path of scholarship – we have to recall the opening words of Benjamin's own text:
Wenn man, wie einst Hillel die jüdische Lehre, die Lehre der Antike in aller Kürze, auf einem Beine fußend, auszusprechen hätte, der Satz müßte lauten: "Denen allein wird die Erde gehören, die aus den Kräften des Kosmos leben".7
If one had to expound the teachings of antiquity with utmost brevity while standing on one foot, as did Hillel of the Jews, it could only be in this sentence: "They alone shall possess earth who live from the powers of the cosmos."
The opening sentence of Benjamin's text is written like a secret, in an enclosed form, in Entbergung, revealing and concealment simultaneously, signifying a path of learning that is grounded in a deep notion of tradition.
The first sentence in Benjamin's text, recalling "die jüdische Lehre",-- the Jewish learning of the Law, the Torah,-- implies a specific understanding of tradition and requires an engagement with Talmudic methods of study. This, however, does not imply just the conventions and norms of Rabbinic studies, but rather the inversion of the Midrash, the classical method of Biblical exegesis. In fact, Benjamin's text recalls an Aramaic tale, an Aggadah that challenges the discourse of the Law, Halacha. We are dealing here with the contradictions and the concealments of the study of the Law, the Torah (in Hebrew: סתרי תורה). Benjamin does not follow the path of oral, traditional study, the path of Torah, but takes a detour and adds an inversion: What Benjamin offers as a guide in the paths of (Jewish) study are only indirect signs in the realm of the tale. This view implies a certain poetic (re/de-)contextualization of learning, a new emplotment of studying, grounded in the Talmudic tale which, however, has been torn apart and stripped of its original context. Furthermore, not only does Benjamin de-contextualize the Talmudic tale and turns it into a damaged citation (a limb without a body, or what is told "on one foot"), but he also diverts our attention to the Greek concept of study, "die Lehre der Antike", the ancient Law of study. In other words, the opening of Benjamin's text reveals the conditions of his critique by bringing together the Jewish and the Greek, the idea of Talmudic learning and the theory of a mythic and cosmic powers, a view that returns in his depiction of the Great War.
Before (but also "after") reading Benjamin's Zum Planetarium-- dealing with the corruptive (technical) implications of transforming cosmic powers in times of war,-- we find ourselves recalling a Talmudic anecdote dedicated to the wisdom of Hillel. Why recalling this specific text? As shown above, we have been led along a path of study that contains both the before and the after of the text: Rading in this way offers a prologue (an opening) and an epilogue at the same time. This way, we are asked to read Benjamin from the beginning and from the end, simultaneously. This gesture of reading, moving back to the "beginning" of the text at the very "end" of our collective scholarly effort of reading Benjamin himself raises an ironic question: What has been left for us in Benjamin if the "end" turns to be a "new beginning"?
then again, the entry-point into Benjamin's text is a story, often told in its shortest version. In this case, it is a Talmudic legend about Shamai and Hillel, two significant figures from the age of the Mishna who were mentioned frequently in the Talmud, and who embodied two different schools (and disciplines) in the Jewish Halachic tradition. The story itself is told in the midst of a Halachic discussion concerning the lighting of candles on Shabbat eve. The story, itself a detour or an interruption of the Halachic discourse (the discourse of the Law), is honoring the wisdom of Hillel. For Hillel is often considered to be the representative of a "soft" Halachic approach. What this story adds is that it is Hillel's learning, his wisdom, his path of study, that is truly the more difficult aspect to comprehend. We read…
שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי, אמר לו: גיירני על מנת שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת. דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו. בא לפני הלל, גייריה. אמר לו: דעלך סני לחבר
8.לא תעביד זו – זו היא .כל התורה כולה, ואידך - פירושה הוא, זיל גמור
Another Gentile came to Shamai saying: "Convert me on the condition that thou teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shamai pushed him away with the builders' measure he held in his hand. He thereupon came to Hillel, and the latter accepted him. He told him: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow; this is the whole law. All the rest is a commentary to this law; go and learn."
Hillel sends the Gentile back into the world, blessed and doomed by the imperative of study, an imperative spoken in Aramaic. The Torah's "go and learn" implies the requiremenet to become one with the study as a path of being, in this world (in Hebrew: דרך ארץ). This imperative, perhaps, is what's left for us as a reminder, as a remnant of the opening, the beginning of a difficult path of study, when we return ourselves to discuss Benjamin's work. Thus, we are the ones left with the imperative of study, a path of learning and being, positioned as a detour (and as a play) in the realm of tradition, demanding a move towards one's fellow, the neighbor: "Go and learn [it]".
1 Walter Benjamin, "Zum Planetarium", Einbahnstraße, Gesammelte Schriften, Band IV.1., Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991, 146-148.
2 Benjamin, "Zum Planetarium", S. 147.
3 Benjamin's analysis of the mythical forms of violence [being] embedded in the political order, both as constituting and preserving power is found in his essay "Zur Kritik der Gewalt", Zur Kritik der Gewalt, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1965.
4 The argument on the "weak messianic power" is found in Benjamin's late work Theses on the Concept of History (=„Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen“, Zur Kritik der Gewalt, 79).
5 Compare with Nitzan Lebovic's remarks on Klages's concept of Rausch and the impact of his book Vom kosmogenischen Eros on Benjamin's thought: Nitzan Lebovic, The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 89-109.
6 On the contemporaneous context to reading Benjamin's piece see: Irving Wohlfarth, "Walter Benjamin and the Idea of a Technological Eros: A tentative reading of Zum Planetarium", in Perception and Experience in Modernity, H. Geyer-Ryan (Ed.), Benjamin Studies (1), Amsterdam 2002, 65-110.
7 Benjamin, "Zum Planetarium", 146.
8 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, Chapter 2
Galili Shahar is professor of comparative literature in the department of literature at the Tel Aviv University. His main area of research and teaching includes modern German literary studies, Jewish and Hebrew writing. He also teaches poetry, drama, and Rabbinic studies. His dissertation (2001) dealt with dramaturgical theories and philosophies of play and acting in 18th century Germany. Among his recent publications are Kafka's Wound (2008) and the Remnants of Revelation (2011) dealing with the German-Jewish experiences of writing-the-body in which the dialectic of tradition and modernism is also reflected. His recent book, titled Bodies and Names (2015), studies the materialist conditions of representing sacredness in the 20th Jewish literature. Since January 2013 he serves as the director of the Minerva Institute for German history at the Tel Aviv University.