Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal and translated by Jonathan Lutes, with Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese, Verso, 394 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1781685754
“One can only correctly comprehend something from the outside if one knows it on the inside; that is true for machines just as it is for living things.” Walter Benjamin: “A Visit to the Brass Works”
“It’s always nice,” writes Walter Benjamin, “when what’s in a book is not just what the title promises, but all sorts of wonderful things you never would have imagined when you picked it up.” Radio Benjamin exemplifies this statement as its publication breaks new ground, revealing yet another entry point into Benjamin scholarship in anglophone literature. This volume, edited by Lecia Rosenthal, provides a comprehensive set of annotated English translations of Benjamin’s works for radio. They include: twenty-nine radio stories for children, five critical reflections on the medium of radio, eight literary talks for radio and two radio plays. Each of these pieces Benjamin composed, and in many cases, delivered, between 1927 and 1933, as part of the Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt “Youth Hour”.
Radio broadcasting was one of many endeavours undertaken by Benjamin during his years of critical and creative output. Born in 1892 into a wealthy middle class Jewish family in Berlin, his life began prosperously; by its end, however, things were very different. In September 1940, while on the run from the Nazi regime, Benjamin committed suicide in Portbou, a border village in Catalonia, close to the French/Spanish border. He ingested a lethal dose of morphine after his visa to enter Spain ‑ in an attempt to escape the dangers of Nazi-occupied France ‑ was rejected by border police. As a geographical and historical space, Portbou is important indeed. Situated at the intersection of two fractious lands, those seeking refuge from the savagery of a second world war sought this threshold of freedom to escape the threat of captivity. For Benjamin though, its significance is twofold. Not only does it mark the site of his untimely end, but, as a physical manifestation of “in-betweenness” it symbolises the indefinable space inhabited by his life and works.
In Radio Benjamin, we see a number of moments exemplifying this characteristic. “The Cold Heart”, one of the collection’s radio plays, reveals how, for its young listeners, radio must exist as a strange “Voice Land”, furnishing the possibility of communicating to, and being “heard by thousands of children simultaneously”. However, what arises in this instance is the realisation of radio’s limits: “One certainly can see in Voice Land, but one cannot be seen […]. Whoever wishes to enter Voice Land must be very modest. He must surrender all finery and relinquish all external beauty, so that nothing is left but his voice.” Yet, regardless of the impossibilities one encounters while listening to, or speaking on the radio, these writings reveal Benjamin’s attempts to assert the creative potential of this medium. From anecdotes about Berlin dialect (“Street Trade and Markets in Old and New Berlin”), to disasters in China (“Theatre Fire in Canton”), from lessons on how to talk your boss into giving you a raise (“A Pay Raise?! Whatever Gave You That Idea!”), to brainteasers (“The Crazy Mixed-Up Day: Thirty Brainteasers”); each text in this collection reinforces radio’s ability to mediate the unique singularity and imaginative potentiality that Benjamin extracts from any subject matter drawing his interest.
For all their fluency, however, these compositions also present a conflicted image of Benjamin. Rosenthal’s introduction points out how he regarded his broadcasting as “some piddling radio matters”, undertaken to help him “simply to earn a living”. Yet if we situate these writings within the colourful constellation of his work as a whole, the texts in this volume are just as important as any other projects undertaken by him. Radio Benjamin contains a number of overlaps between the author’s more sophisticated writings on philosophical and literary figures such as Kant (“The Lisbon Earthquake”), and Goethe (“The Gypsies”). It also contains broadcasts relating to the criticisms he makes of industrial capitalism (“The Railways Disaster at the Firth of Tay”), and the position of the human in modernity (“The Rental Barracks”). In such instances, this co-mingling of projects marks more than a mere convergence of interests; it enacts a working through of Benjamin’s complex and creative engagements within these various fields.
It is significant that Benjamin’s writings for the “Youth Hour” investigate these intellectual themes. In doing so, he blurs the lines between seriousness and playfulness, undermining the traditional reverence surrounding them. For him, canonically complex and highbrow thinking can and should be regarded in certain instances as child’s play. The texts that make up Radio Benjamin, reveal their author’s enduring appreciation for the simplicity and innocence of childhood, seeking to highlight the importance of this unique, privileged and fleeting moment in the development of human cognition. This Benjamin reinforces in his 1928 text One Way Street:
[Adults] cannot see that the world is full of the most incomparable objects that capture children’s attention and dictate what they do […]. [Children] feel irresistibly drawn to the detritus created by building and gardening, housework, tailoring and carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the material world turns to them and to them alone. In putting such products to use they do not so much replicate the works of grown-ups as take materials of very different kinds and, through what they make with them in play, place them in new and very surprising relations to one another […]. Children form their own material world, a small one within the large world, and they do it themselves.
In the radio broadcast “Berlin Toy Tour I” we see the author’s attempt to engage with the open-mindedness and innocence of youth, speaking to his audience as if they were his equals: “Grownups have all sorts of specialized shows on the radio, shows of great interest to them […]. Why shouldn’t we make such special shows for children as well? For example about toys.” These radio pieces are an active attempt to take childhood perception as a serious theme for consideration. Rosenthal’s edited volume continues the task Benjamin started. In gathering these particular writings together, and presenting them in a collection worthy of both children and adults, Radio Benjamin succeeds in its attempts to reach a mixed audience, because, as Benjamin points out: “children may find, as they do in all things, something very different in books than an adult does”.
Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” is one of his most influential pieces of literary and cultural criticism. Written in 1939, a central discussion in this essay focuses on storytelling as medium of communication:
[It] does not aim to convey an event per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds the event in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the trace of the storyteller, much the same way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand.
In the broadcast “Kasper Hauser” the author exclaims: “I am simply going to tell you a story.” This is not the only reference to storytelling in this collection. In the radio talk “E.T.A. Hoffmann and Oskar Panizza” Benjamin notes how “[t]he storyteller is less a writer than a weaver”. The contents of Radio Benjamin are all, in their own right, stories. They weave together the wisdom and concerns of the storyteller [Benjamin] in a communicative act that leaves valuable traces on the audience. This, as we see in “Berlin Toy Tour I”, is both educational and aesthetic: “The more someone understands something and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty ‑ whether it’s flowers, books, clothing, or toys ‑ the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees.” Furthermore, storytelling of this kind fosters enthusiasm in its listeners, guaranteeing its continuation as a traditional means of sharing experiences. It also trains its audiences in the art of what the broadcast “Demonic Berlin” refers to as “physiognomic seeing”. This, Benjamin points out, is an imaginative engagement with the everyday, revealing how the “prosaic, sober, enlightened, and rational […] is full of things to charm a storyteller”.
In what is arguably his most famous piece of writing, the 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin critiques radio, cinema and photography for giving rise to the dissolution of traditional means of aesthetic experience. Here he suggests that, with developments in communication technologies, artworks such as paintings, dramas and storytelling lose their authenticity, or “aura”. The mass production of these forms of expression are emptied of their unique relationship to each individual experiencing them. Because of this, there is an experiential void left in the artworks, opening them up to influence from the outside. For Benjamin, fascism adopts technology for its own ideological causes, using artistic media, such as radio, to propagate its own negative ends. The results of such misappropriation of technology are clearly exemplified in Radio Benjamin, as Rosenthal points out:
His last broadcast from Frankfurt was […] on January 29, 1933. This was a selection from what would become his famous text Berlin Childhood Around 1900. The next day, January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor, and the Nazi torchlight parade was sent out over the airwaves as the very first nationwide live broadcast.
Such was the reality that brought an end to Benjamin’s “piddling radio matters”. If he was earnest in his claims that his engagement with this line of work was one undertaken so as to “simply to earn a living” the question we are left with upon reading Radio Benjamin is a simple one: Would these writings have been any different if had he held them in high regard?
At the beginning of his broadcast “Dr. Faust” Benjamin offers the following:
As a boy I learned history from the Neubauer […]. Back then what especially struck me about the book was that most of its pages were divided into large and small print. The parts in large covered princes, wars, peace treaties, alliances, dates, etc., which we had to learn, though I did not enjoy doing this. The parts in small print dealt with so-called cultural history, including the habits and customs of people in earlier times, their convictions, their art, their knowledge, their buildings and so on. Learning these things wasn’t required. We only had to read them over, and this I enjoyed greatly. As far as I was concerned, there could have been even more of it, no matter how small the print. There wasn’t much discussion of it during class. Our German teacher would say: “We’ll hear about that in history class,” and our history teacher: “We’ve already heard about that in German class.” In the end, we heard almost nothing about it.
The compositions that Rosenthal has gathered together in this volume all seek in their own way to draw attention to the “small print”. They do so in an effort to afford it the recognition that Benjamin shows it rightly deserves. Yet, as all these pieces reveal, a certain level of “in-betweenness” and indeterminacy accompanies each text. In the broadcast “Cagliostro” Benjamin reinforces this as he notes: “Powers of observation and knowledge of human nature are even more valuable than a firm and correct point of view.” Achieving correctness is not what the author aims for; instead his attention focuses on highlighting the transience of correctness, in order to preserve the importance of that which is left behind in its wake. “In every object I see an omen,” writes Benjamin,“and I turn one hundred things a day into oracles”; the Youth Hour’s audiences afforded him an appreciative ear with whom he could share these visions.
Seán Fox is a first year PhD student. He is undertaking his research on the work of Walter Benjamin in UCD’s School of Languages and Literatures.