On the Occasion of Walter Benjamin’s 119th Birthday

The treasure-dispensing giant in the green forest or the fairy who grants one wish
– they appear to each of us at least once in a lifetime. But only
Sunday’s children remember the wish they made, and so it is
only a few who recognize its fulfillment in their lives. – Walter Benjamin

Benjamin Birthday Cake! Photoshop by Nadya.

There is a Yiddish expression offered on someone’s birthday which is affectionate and contains a subtle blessing: “Bis hundert und zwanzig.” In other words, people are wished a life that extends to their 120th year. So what should we do if someone dear (if not near) somehow turns 120? What are they wished then and each year thereafter? I offer these questions as a point of entry for considering Walter Benjamin, a writer whose life ended in suicide as he contemplated his chances of eluding the Nazi Gestapo some seventy-three years before this question may have become material for those around him.  Today marks the 119th anniversary of Benjamin’s birth – the last time someone could have addressed him with the wish of living to 120.

Walter Benjamin was a literary critic, philosopher, memoirist, and collector during Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic. Among his adventures were sojourns from Berlin to Moscow to witness the building of history and to Marseilles to smoke hashish and to Riga to have his love rejected. His last seven years were spent in exile while his works were banned and burned in his native land. Under other conditions, Benjamin’s Francophile desires would have found their easy appeasement in Paris, but the Third Reich cast an increasingly tall shadow and he became, tragically, a prisoner in the country of his dreams. In his forty-eight year life, Benjamin ran with Bertolt Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, Asja Lacis, Theodor and Gretel Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, Hannah Arendt, Georges Bataille, Leo Strauss, Max Brod and Gershom Scholem. And in many ways, Benjamin’s thought is a playful and poetic montage of the ideas of his associates – a “constellation” of Romanticism, Idealism, Marxism, Surrealism, and Jewish mysticism that is more than its unlikely parts: “Satan is a dialectician, and a kind of spurious success…betrays him, just as does the spirit of gravity.”

Einbahnstrasse by Sasha Stone (1928)

Benjamin brought to this heady mix his fascination, at once childish and insightful, for art and artifacts as relics containing clues to history. The scion of an antiquities dealer, Benjamin discerned an impending revolutionary–cum-spiritual cataclysm by contemplating and indexing paintings, books, and the most banal debris of economic life he could find, regarding them as might wily Detective Columbo if he was prodigiously stoned. As Bloch wrote of Benjamin’s book One Way Street, “when the current cabaret passes through a surrealist philosophy, what emerges into the light of day from the debris of meanings…is a kaleidoscope of a different sort.” The spooky thing is that Benjamin’s apocalyptic vision of lawmaking described in 1921 as “bloody power for its own sake” came to pass in many ways a little more than a decade later.

Walter Benjamin lived in a milieu of such vastly assimilated German-Jewish life that he had little formal understanding of Jewish culture, Yiddish, Hebrew, or even the Jewish religion.  He did, however, harbor an abiding interest in Jewish mysticism and mused furtively over those bits of religion and culture he encountered.  And he certainly seemed to have found spiritual sanction for his already-existing fetishization of objects in the Kabbalist’s meditations on words, names, and numbers.  According to this mystical orientation, influenced by neo-Platonism, reality has multiple dimensions – like a faceted diamond – only a few of which are directly accessible to us. We may approach them only indirectly, as they appear to us as abstract notions like numbers, letters, names, and sentiments. In such times as Benjamin playfully, and perhaps also earnestly, speculated on the mystical significance of language and numbers, he may have come to consider 119 alongside its constitutive outside, the number 120, the last year we can legitimately hope for someone else.  If so, it is entirely likely that Benjamin, a thinker who invited the mystical, would have been intrigued by the delimiting function of 120 and may have further speculated on 121 as a possible portal to other dimensions.  Operating, then, as a detective, Benjamin may have investigated the year 120 as a future crime scene – a time-place where this phrase will be eternally transcended. Looking outward, 119 years of life may have been considered the furthermost edge of his generation, a remote vantage from which to contemplate the eternity of space, like a balcony atop “Saturn’s ring.” Upon returning from such reveries, Benjamin would hopefully have finally mentioned that the actual root of this folk expression comes from the biblical datum that Moses lived to be 120. This, then, could have been followed by an analogy that is possibly both specious and interesting, like noting that Moses and Benjamin never completed their exodus from brutality.

The wish that one live beyond the culturally sanctioned, and quite generous, lifespan of 120 is redolent of the posthumous reception of Benjamin’s work throughout the humanities. The fervent interest in his work throughout the humanities since the 1980s is so unlikely as to seem almost a form of Messianic fulfillment on an individual scale. After all, his life was unfulfilled in most respects. He was a failed academic, a divorcee whose affair was an awkward mess, a minor radio personality whose voice was never recorded, and a writer whose masterworks were unfinished or forever lost in history. Years later, his work even achieved “fame” on its own terms when, in 1969, his most significant essay was mistranslated as “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Harry Zohn. For Benjamin, a work has achieved “fame” when it its translation transmits information not contained in the original. Two generations of scholars and art critics referenced his most significant essay through a misleading title, when now, as if language shifted its tectonic plates under our feet, the essay is emphatically translated as “Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”  In the digital age, articles like this one are re-posted with attention to errata, such as mistaking today for his 121st anniversary, whereas it is only his 119th.  If only Zohn had used WordPress his translation would have been unfinished and arguably better for it.  Perhaps as the author of that essay – however titled – Benjamin would have come to consider fame in the age of American Idol in terms of having a finger puppet refrigerator magnet in one’s visgage. “All that is holy is profaned,” sayeth Marx. What does familiarity breed? So much for the “aura” of the author, eh?

In his essay on “The Metaphysics of Youth” Benjamin contemplates one’s diary as a temporal domain, an inner life expressed in writing which begins in medias res, with life already in motion, and which can never be concluded by an author whose death occludes continued authorship. The project is never finished and the life, as written in the diary, exists in its own sort of time, like the life the mind, an eternal moment delimited by birth and death, and unable to experience either. Benjamin’s life is thus suspended within the pages of his books, essays, memoirs, and personal effects – as in his Paris address book shown below. Something of his life may sometimes seem to flash in our minds as we read him, just as Benjamin once suggested that art and artifacts can communicate something of their creation in flashes. In this sense, Benjamin’s work has escaped the bounds of the moment in which it was written, although it has yet to allow its readers to tear the fabric of time and usher in the Messianic moment of utter destructiveness in which history is fulfilled and completed.

Of course, I cannot literally wish Walter Benjamin 120 years of existence because I have no known way of communicating it to him. I can, however, wish it for him in spirit, and I do. Whether this wish, now communicated in language, effectively gives him happiness, is beyond the scope of this essay to determine, but my wish that it do so has some affinity with Benjamin’s own work. In his essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” Benjamin posits language as constitutive of thought and life as we know it – not merely a conduit for them – as, in his example, a divine speech act once set the universe in motion with illumination: “Let there be light.” Likewise, Benjamin may have noted that the wish that someone live to 120 implies a blessing, as in the Yiddish expression: “From your mouth to God’s ear.” As this is the last time I may properly wish Walter a 120th year,  I am ever-more concerned that it take the form of a blessing where numbers and sentiments are tangible – on the other side of language.

This essay is dedicated to Lionel Ziprin, z”l.

20 Responses to “On the Occasion of Walter Benjamin’s 119th Birthday”

  1. Dj Dead Billy Says:

    great article

  2. Yana Saito Says:

    Thank you, very much, for the many insights in this article.
    It is really quite inspiring!!

  3. RCB Says:

    GREAT essay–both a scintillating analysis and an inspired tribute. I’ve been obsessed with Benjamin for over half my life, and this masterfully captures, both in substance and style, the dance of playful evanescence, blunt honesty, mystical mischief, and vivid insight that imbues his work its aura of permanence: as if it’s been here all along and will only grow ever more indispensable with the passage of time. Thank you JW–what a pleasure! I look forward to reading more of you in the future. This should be anthologized or built into a book.

  4. Bob Davis Says:

    Mr. Wengrofsky’s tribute honoring Walter Benjamin and Benjamin’s 121st birthday illustrates well Benjamin’s philosophy of language as constitutive of thought’s abstruse, intangible, and sensory-imbued ideas. Notably established in Wengrofsky’s homage is not just Benjamin’s broad, deep philosophy and unique artistry, but his ability to constellate in his own illuminated galaxies of meaning the stellar influences of intellects and artists clustered around him contemporaneously. His whole opus greater than the sum of its parts, Benjamin offers a notable synthesis of his zeitgeist.

    I mention this because existing book readers among us should begin—as Wengrofsky has done here—to prioritize and to recognize in critical prose the names of 20th-century book writers whose importance may become lost when, as our reading increasingly becomes cybersptial, the inevitable shuffling, discarding, and forgetting of books continues. Wengrofsky notes how well Benjamin’s legacy has endured, but we must continue to celebrate other timely birthdays.

  5. Steve Mundie Says:

    The article rings warm and true. In particular, the idea that “Moses and Benjamin never completed their exodus from brutality” should linger long in the mind of the thoughtful. Such a eulogy will keep Benjamin alive for many years to come.

  6. L. Conley Says:

    I knew not of Walter Benjamin prior to this essay, but now feel compelled to go in search of and to know this man and his work. It is such a great gift when writers outside the spotlight of mandatory reading and socially acceptable reprints are made present and vibrant by such as Mr. Wengrovsky. Benjamin would seem to have been a sponge and a mirror simultaneously of his peers and his times. The hunt to know him is an anticipated pleasure.

  7. Jeff Perlah Says:

    Fascinating article.

  8. Brad Usher Says:

    Very insightful and thought provoking piece

  9. Jonathan Engel Says:

    The article is a delight to read and recalls a richer, earthier, more ironic era of Mitteleuropa culture. Wengrofsky is an emissary from a vanishing world of New York intellectualism. The piece is a gem.

  10. Katrina Galore Says:

    Long live the Weimar Republic! Thank you for the intriguing article, Mr. Wengrofsky.

  11. Richard Lloyd Says:


    Today we are going to talk about how the Sun works, and how it adheres to the three forces designated under the names centrifugal (Siva), centripetal (Vishnu) and revolving (Brahma).

    First of all the Sun revolves around its own axis in approximately 11 Earth days. This is the mostly invisible third force. After the Big Bang (which was neither big, because it originated from a singularity — called the bindu in Sanskrit, and it was not a bang because there was no atmosphere to carry sound), the explosion of the universe into existence was under the purview of the centrifugal force, of Siva the creator and destroyer. At the beginning the universe was almost entirely hydrogen, with a small amount of helium and lithium in it. Then under the purview of the centripetal force under the auspices of Vishnu the preserver, matter coalesced through gravity, which is a form of love, in to what are called second-order Suns according to the nomenclature of Gurdjieff.

    These Suns then began squeezing together the hydrogen. This squeezing causes friction which creates heat, or tapas, which is also known as ardor — another form of love. Eventually the immense pressure of the centripetal force raised the temperature of the atoms until they danced apart into the state known as plasma. Depending upon the size of the Sun it could arrive at a tipping point when it begins to glow hot. Jupiter is a sun which is not large enough to pass this tipping point, but it’s still radiates enough energy to be detected and has small amount of its own light — unlike smaller planets.

    Our Sun is a yellow star — medium-sized. Hotter Suns burn towards the blue spectrum and smaller Suns towards the red. Anyway, the centripetal force of gravity squeezes the hydrogen nuclei and free-floating electrons of which the plasma consists, tighter and tighter together, until at the center of the Sun the pressures are so enormous that the hydrogen nuclei are forced by fusion into an isotope of helium. A very small part of this matter simply cannot take the pressure. It surrenders its existence, like a man who has reached his breaking point and cries out “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” This leads to either utter defeat or ego deflation and a spiritual conversion. Such a man may find religion, where as before he thought he ran the ship.

    In any case, in the center of the Sun it is extraordinarily dense and under unbelievable pressure causes the fusion of the hydrogen into helium. But the small amount of matter which simply cannot take it anymore surrenders its existence as a matter and is transubstantiated into radiance, or “energy.” It then begins its long journey towards the outside surface of the sun. Because the inner core of the Sun is so dense, the radiant energy ping-pongs around in a kind of Brownian motion for something like a million years until it reaches the less dense outer layers of the Sun, whereupon it begins moving outwards past the surface of the sun and it emerges at all times in all directions unceasingly in something like 80 octaves of radiant energy. Now it operates under the purview of the centrifugal force.

    So, half of the earth faces the Sun at any given moment as it rotates on its axis once every Earth Day. How much of the radiant energy given off by the Sun reaches the Earth? Science has calculated that the Earth receives one 200th of one million of 1% of the radiant energy given off by the Sun. That is a staggeringly small percentage, and yet a man standing at the equator will get a sunburn and die of dehydration in very short order. So when we talk about the radiant energy continuously and uninterruptedly being released by the Sun through the centripetal forces which convert hydrogen alchemically into helium by fusion and then radiating outwards through the centrifugal force, we are talking about an amount of energy which is unfathomable by the ordinary mind, and more importantly, it is entirely the result of such pressure as results in the surrender of matter into energy.

    How does this apply to us as human beings?

    First of all, ordinary human beings are opaque and covered with a shell of personality and of instinctual defense mechanisms which cause impressions received from the outside to do one of two things: either they bounce off and are reflected back or they are received and acted upon by an instinctual knee-jerk reaction, completely mechanical — just like when a doctor strikes you with a rubber mallet underneath your patella (kneecap) and your leg twitches. This activity of human beings of either being covered in a shell which rejects the impressions or acting by reflex is completely useless. For a man of either sex become a Man in the sense of the “True Man,” it is required that he becomes “larger” so that he can reach the tipping point and become a sun. To do this he needs to work on himself. Such work is difficult, sublime, elusive and hard to find. But if he finds such a work his opaqueness will begin to disintegrate. This is a dangerous undertaking, because influences from the outside which otherwise would have bounced off now begin to be received, and the influences which are stored within him will begin to be revealed. This is a terrible moment, and a man will do almost anything to avoid it, because he will begin to be seen as he actually is. This creates more pressure and his inner temperature will begin to rise. This is part of the alchemical work and the beginning of the creation of the alchemical vessel as well as slowly turning the entire world and its contents into an alchemical laboratory.

    Supposing that a man reaches this stage and gets past it, he then will become translucent. It is still not reached 100°C in which there is an actual change in state, but inside he will begin to simmer and the lid on the pot of himself will begin to quiver and shake. Then an ordinary man will leak, acting out on his inner impulses which are now under greater pressure. This is called “falling victim of the Makara, or Dragon” who guards the treasure and the entrance to the subconscious and unconscious regions of a man.

    Then the man suffers. His suffering may become unbearable, in which case he will fall back to his ordinary state. But if he is given guidance either by seen or unseen hands, he will begin to understand that this suffering is his entering Purgatory while on earth alive. If it seals up the leaks and continues in his understanding he will begin to boil. If he is clever, he will add salt to the wounds which will raise the boiling point. This is the beginning of what is called “intentional suffering” by Mr. Gurdjieff. Mr. Gurdjieff aligns it with the concept of “conscious labors,” and in such a case a man will place himself in conditions that will create even more and greater suffering for himself. He may even go the way of the Malamat, which is the “way of blame” Jesus himself went the way of the malamat, being a man despised of men and well acquainted with sorrows. There was a famous Sufi who said the following: “I wished to enter heaven so I followed the way of virtue, but when I reached the gates of heaven there was a huge crowd and I couldn’t get in, so I went around looking for another entrance; I tried humility, but again, on reaching its gate I found a large crowd gathered and awaiting entrance; finally I went around the back and saw a gate marked “the way of blame.” There was no one there, so I practiced making myself the object of derision and scorn, and I was able to enter heaven quite easily.”

    So in the alchemical work, which is called the great work and which is the transubstantiation of man into Man, we begin opaque. After the first stage of the work we begin to enter the realm of translucence, where light travels through us. This is a true change of state, and we can then become conduits through which the true light can reach the world and where our own selves are revealed and naked. But we do not as yet create our own light. We have not reached the stage of radiance.

    In order to reach the stage of radiance we need even greater pressure and ardor in the Work. As a diamond is nothing but coal which has been crushed into the state of a gem by the forces of pressure within the Earth, so we too need to increase the pressure which is upon ourselves by “conscious labors and intentional suffering.” To reach translucence we have allowed what suffering we are heir to to become voluntary. But we have not engaged in intentional suffering — greater pressure and suffering induced by our own hand. Now we begin to do this, and there are several methods. The first and the one I have already mentioned to place ourselves in situation in which we are ridiculed or shamed or misunderstood, while we hold fast to our understanding that this is our work. In certain conditions, groups of people may be brought together, each of whom has agreed to undertake this Work. In understanding that they are to work on themselves as well as to assist each other, they might act in a fashion which otherwise would be importune, that is, they may act consciously negative or pugnacious; argumentative and contentious. But this can only be done in special conditions where each person understands that they are being allowed to work on themselves as well as helping each other through this unseemly friction. This requires persons of enormous understanding, otherwise the enterprise fails.

    Another method is to take on the suffering of others, as saints do, but this also carries grave danger, as instead of creating pressure and heat in the alchemical vessel, the vessel may burst through pride or hubris, where the ego forms a bubble on the surface of the vessel and herniates outward like an aneurysm in a blood vessel. This can destroy everything and render the work useless. But taking on the sufferings of others such as nurses or hospice workers do, can create the great pressure needed in the trans-formation of the self and the transubstantiation of the being from translucence to radiance.

    Radiance is the goal. To become a third order Sun. To bathe the earth in the True Man’s warmth, and to illuminate the way for those who are still under the “magic spell” of the Chthonic evil demi-urges which hypnotize mankind for their own purposes. To become like the Sun, which uses the three forces to transubstantiate matter into energy and life, this is the alchemists aim. This is what is meant by having Gold.

    What is it that needs to surrender? What is it in us that needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve Radiance? It is certainly not the ego. The id, ego and superego are the necessary three parts of the personality, which is a mask — a sheath which is needed in the world. No, it is not the ego, but something much deeper which needs to surrender its material existence in order for a man to become Radiant. I have given many clues. Perhaps too many, but those who have ears will hear, and those who have eyes will open them and cease from blinking. The others, ordinary man, will continue on his way as lemmings to the cliff.

  12. nan Says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for paying tribute to someone not to be forgotten. I didn’t know of Walter Benjamin, but Rilke is someone I read daily – and anyone who ran with Rilke and the others you mention was great indeed. He faced the ultimate dilemma, and what an incredible loss to us. Somehow, though, you have brought him back to life in this 121st year. Well done!

  13. Hiawatha Bailey Says:

    Being a cult hero of some reknown myself I find it refreshing that you have a writer that is insiteful enough to reshearch write and inform an otherwise uninformed reading public about such cult figures as Walter Benjamin. I would not have known of him and now I do and I’m the better for it. Keep up the quality work Coilhouse and this Mr. Wengrofsky! I look forward to reading more form this new writer!
    Hiawatha Bailey

  14. Brad Rappaport Says:

    My friend Wengrofsky demonstrates his mastery of the form of Marxist discourse. He imitates the Messianic impulse that animates magical words, words uncanny with energy inherited from the past. Here’s toasting the blood of our lives; would that Benjamin could taste the wine beyond the grave.

  15. JB Says:

    Sorry, But WB was born in 1892, so 2011 is his 119th birthday.

  16. Jack Says:

    Great piece. The limits of language and our inability to understand life are inexhaustible subjects. The Moses and WB comparison is indeed memorable. Education can only take you up to a certain point and beyond it, you need to hire a guide like Benjamin (and/or Rilke). Germany threw away their intellectual tradition and its always a service to be reminded of what we all lost in the orgiastic destruction.

  17. Angeliska Says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you, Jeff for this beautiful elegy to a marvelous man.

  18. Andrew Says:

    Thank you I enjoyed the article. I even used some information gained from it during a conversation at an art opening. Thank you for helping me sound smarter at parties.

  19. John Delman Says:

    Dear Mr. Wengrofsky,
    I trust I can be a little less formal and call you Jeff from now on. On rereading your article on the occasion of Walter Benjamin’s 119th birthday I saw how subtly you segued from one idea or interest of Benjamin’s to another. From a Yiddish expression Benjamin may not have been familiar with you proceed to wish him a happy birthday fully in the spirit of a phantasmagoric essay he himself might have written. The historical setting, his francophilia, fascination with “detritus,” dire political predictions, Kabbalistic meditations, musings on language, and so many others–all these Benjaminian concerns are touched upon in a whimsical format perfectly appropriate for a birthday greeting. The underlying seriousness of the issues is not belied by the humor of the piece, it is reinforced because of Benjamin’s own playfulness in presenting frequently paradoxical ideas. I can say that the first time I read the article I was somewhat disappointed; too much levity. But on reading it a second time I realized you hit it off just right–a really good balance between the facetious and the serious.
    Hope you’re having a good rest of the summer, and enjoy your course on education in the fall.
    Best to you,

  20. Alex Says:

    A touching and witty eulogy, I wish Benjamin’s works (and Jeff’s) many more years of life beyond 120.