Remembering Isaac Babel and Walter Benjamin
1940 was a terrible year for freethinking intellectuals. As Stalin and Hitler’s pincers tightened, a bullet and a morphine overdose saw off two of the twentieth century’s most fertile and imaginative brains: Isaac Babel and Walter Benjamin. Both left plenty of unfinished business. “They didn’t let me finish,” Babel said one dark night in May 1939, when Stalin’s henchmen took him away. As the secret police ransacked his villa, confiscating the pile of manuscripts of his work in progress— “New Stories”—Babel, his wife Antonina Pirozhkova recounts in her vivid memoir At His Side, “kissed me hard and said: ‘someday we’ll see each other…’” For years afterwards, Babel’s whereabouts were mooted. Was he alive? Which camp was he in? Could he still write? And those New Stories, where were they? Antonina never gave up hope until the mid-1950s when she guessed the awful truth.
Benjamin’s fate was similarly sealed. For a long while he’d been at work on his epic study of the Parisian arcades, research extending and developing his earlier set-pieces on Baudelaire and the flâneur, and Paris as “the capital of the nineteenth-century.” Paris’ “aura” had beguiled Benjamin ever since 1913, after a brief college trip. And as he busied himself there years later, scribbling away under the “painted sky of summer” in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the darkness of the Nazis steadily began to dim his reading light. Benjamin’s friends, especially Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, pleaded for him to leave town, fast, before it was too late. He eventually got out in September 1940, fleeing south. With a U.S. entry visa in pocket, Benjamin made it down to the Pyrenees, to a Spanish border crossing. But after a catalogue of misfortunes and excruciatingly bad timing he was left stranded, his heart giving out, the frontier closed. He couldn’t go on, and O.D.’d on morphine on the evening of the 25th.
These deaths were truly tragic. Such relatively young men, so much left to do, their big brains destroyed by totalitarianism. Poignancy jars more than 60 years on, because we could almost imagine what might have been. We could perhaps visualize a happy ending, a lovely scene, in which Babel and Benjamin actually made it to daylight, are alive and safe, now old men in New York, enriching the city’s Jewish liberal culture.
New York had been on Benjamin’s mind on October 4th, 1938. He’d written Adorno, from Bertolt Brecht’s Danish retreat in Svendborg, of how he’d been studying the details of Manhattan’s streets on a map stuck to Stefan’s bedroom wall. “I walk up and down,” Benjamin told his comrade in New York, “the long street on the Hudson where your house is.” As for Babel, he was tormented by the idea of remaking himself as an émigré. He resisted the temptation in the 1930s, convinced that a writer “mutilates himself and his work by leaving his native country.” And yet, might he have always held out? Might Babel have fled as the rot set in the ’40s and ’50s? His first wife and daughter had already settled in Paris; his mother and sister in Brussels. Might Babel himself have emigrated, first to Europe, later on to the United States, maybe to New York?
In the 1920s, Benjamin was aware of Babel’s Red Cavalry stories. Nobody knows whether they ever met, despite Benjamin’s brief Moscow sojourn in early 1927 and Babel frequenting Berlin later that same year. But if they had met—in old age, in New York—what would they have talked about? They had a lot in common as younger men. Yet now, as worn thinkers, as short bespectacled men, with large paunches and hunched shoulders, one with a shock of disheveled white hair and mustache, the other bald and grinning, each walking unsteadily with a stick, what might be on their minds? Childhood? Passion for French literature? The task of the writer? Outsiderness? Politics and revolution? As a fall sun casts long shadows, two dream-like figures are seen shuffling through the leaves. It’s a crisp, cold afternoon in Central Park, with bright blue-sky overhead. Over the distant din of traffic, we can see their breath and hear the faint whisper of their voices.
“Remembrance is mysterious work, Herr Babel. Remembrance of one’s past; autobiography has a lot to do with time, with sequence, with what makes up the continuous flow of life. What I’m talking about is something different. What I’m talking about is space, about moments and discontinuities. In Berlin, I remember only moments and discontinuities, only spaces: montages, glimpses, motifs. As a child, a child of wealthy bourgeois parents, I needed and sought guides. I needed nursemaids, guides to the city’s wider expanses. You see I had a terrible sense of direction. I still do. I cannot fully orientate myself in New York, even after all these years. Instead of walking east, I go west. I can never tell what is uptown from what is downtown. I can’t make head nor tail of street numbers.
“Yes, Herr Babel, I remember street images, walking with my mother in Berlin, in our ‘theater of purchases.’ I always kept half a step behind her. My habit was intolerable to her. I walked with her in dreamy recalcitrance. On her I blame my inability in practical life. I was pampered, inept, solitary—couldn’t make a cup of coffee, still can’t. My ‘primal acquaintances’ were with streets and neighborhoods; with old Berlin houses. For a while I played with the idea of setting out my bios graphically on a map, no ordinary map. On it would be decisive benches in the Tiergarten, routes to different schools, cold grave stones, prestigious cafes long-gone but not forgotten, tennis courts where empty apartments blocks stand today, halls emblazoned with gold and stucco that the terrors of dancing classes made almost the equal of gymnasiums.
“That was my lived Berlin, my gateways to the city. So many entrances to this maze, so many staircases, scary staircases, with bad odors and bodies pressing so closely to mine, and classrooms nearby. On this map, too, would be all our houses. Like all wealthy families, we moved a lot—indeed every year. And there would also be Peacock Island. I remember Peacock Island as one of the first great disappointments of my life. There I didn’t find in the grass the peacock feathers I craved. I saw plenty of peacocks strutting up and down, but they couldn’t console me! I wanted peacock earth.”
“I, too, knew peacocks, Walter. But my great disappointment was doves. Once, I must have been about nine, I saw a peacock, with its shining tail, sat on a perch, like the sun in a damp autumn sky, moving its small impassive head this way and that. This was at the hunter’s market, and it was there that I bought a pair of cherry-colored doves from Ivan Nikodinych. I dreamed about doves with all the power of my soul; and then, one afternoon in 1905, after I’d finally bought them, Makarenko the cripple, smashed the doves on my temple.
“No one in the world, Walter, feels new things more intensely than children. My father promised to give me money to buy doves if I’d gain entry into the preparatory school in Nikolayev. The town is now a district of Odessa. Out of forty boys, only two Jews could enter. I had an aptitude for learning so I eventually got in. Being small of stature and puny, I was bookish and nervous and suffered headaches. Too much study. I was a dreamer. Just like you, my friend.
“Walking along the street did not seem to me an idle occupation. As I walked, I had good dreams, and everything, everything was native and familiar. Isn’t this what you mean by ‘primal acquaintance,’ Walter? I knew the signboards, the stones of the houses, the windows of the shops. To this day I remember the atmosphere; I feel it, and love it. I still feel the scent of my mother, the scent of her kindness, her words and smile. I love it because in it I grew, was happy and sad and dreamy, passionately and uniquely dreamy.
“Many Sabbath afternoons I spent with my grandmother. I dragged my books, my music stand and my dreaded violin. ‘Study Isaac,’ my grandmother always insisted, ‘study and you will attain everything—wealth and fame. You must know everything,’ she used to say. But one thing I couldn’t get, nor would ever know, was the violin. Even Zagursky couldn’t help me. The sounds crawled out of my violin like iron fillings! During practice I placed Turgenev or Dumas on the music stand, devouring page after page. Sometimes I’d skip practice altogether, elope down to Prakticheskaya Harbor. There my liberation began. The heavy waves by the sea wall distanced me further and further from our house. The wisdom of my grandfathers sat in my head: we are born for the pleasure of work, fighting, and love; we are born for that and nothing else! I needed to run outside to fresh air, to freedom. But I had no strength to raise my drooping head.”
“Oh yes, when I think of freedom and a drooping head, Babel, I think only of Paris. It spoke to the wanderer like a twig snapping under his feet in a forest. Paris taught me the art of straying, fulfilling my dreams, losing myself, answering uneasy expectations, surpassing graphic fantasies. It disclosed itself to me in the footsteps of a hermetic tradition. I can’t think of the Metro opening its hundreds of shafts all over the city without recalling my endless flâneries. Signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks and bars, walls and quays, railings and squares, arcades— all immerse the solitary walker in the world of things, in the depths of a sleep in which the dream image wants to show the people their true faces. What kind of regimen cities keep over our imagination!”
“How true, Walter, my friend. It was in St. Petersburg, in the winter of 1916, on a forged passport, without a copeck, that I said to myself: better to go hungry, to go to prison, to be a tramp, than to sit at an office desk 10 hours a day. There is no particular daring in this vow, but I have not broken it and never will. I waited and waited for an exit visa in Kiev. But before I knew it the Nevsky Prospect flowed in the distance like the Milky Way.
“I remember a frozen yellow, foul-smelling street where I first found shelter. Soon I began to eke out a meager living doing translations, from French literature. I remember Maupassant, and the ravishing dark beauty with pink eyes, Raisa Mikhaylovna. ‘Maupassant is the only passion of my life,’ she once told me as we gulped Muscatel ’83. Alas, in her translations nothing remained of Maupassant’s phrasing—his free, flowing style with its long breathing of passion. I told her about style. No iron, I said, can enter the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time. I left at eleven before her husband returned. I swaggered home, swaying from side to side, singing in a language I’d only just invented.
“After each of my stories, I feel several years older, Walter. Don’t talk to me about creative work à la Mozart, about the blissful time spent over a manuscript, about the free flow of imagination. When I’m writing the shortest story, I still have to work at it as if I were required to dig up Mount Everest all by myself with a pick and shovel. My language becomes clear and strong not when I can no longer add a sentence, but only when I can no longer take away from it.”
“For me, Babel, good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. But the more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it. On the other hand, I never stop writing because I have run out of ideas. I never let a thought pass incognito. I keep my notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens!”
“When I write down the first version of a story, it’s a conglomeration of bits joined together by the dreariest connecting links. A clumsy prattle. Absolutely horrible! Slowly, Walter, I throw out the useless words. It’s this sort of pruning, my friend, which brings out the independent force of language and style. The struggle doesn’t need many words. But those words must be good words. As to trite, vulgar, commonplace, contrived clichés—we are very tired of them.”
“Ah, Herr Babel, you remind me of our old journal, Angelus Novus, named after Paul Klee’s painting, and our hopes. Ah, those hopes! Hopes I still have. And the words! Our struggle, our words, our style, sought to articulate the experience of free thinking and criticism, unpredictable and unconscious thinking; thinking and words that held greater promise for the future and are capable of much greater development. We, too, avoided vulgar, commonplace, contrived clichés. Golden fruits in silver bowls we never expected.”
“The style of our period must be characterized by courage and restraint, by fire, passion, strength and joy. And merriment, dear Walter! We must have a new style. In the old days, you know, we were given everything. The Party, the government, they gave us everything, depriving us only of one privilege—that of writing badly! This is a very important privilege for the writer. It was taken away from us and we took full advantage of it. We must renounce that old privilege.”
“Somehow it is right that a writer stands alone. He must be a malcontent, not a leader. Not a pioneer, but a spoilsport, Babel. If we wish to gain a clear picture of the writer in the isolation of his trade, what we see is rag-picker at daybreak, picking up rags of speech and verbal scraps with his stick, and tossing them, grumbling and growling, a little drunk, into his cart. I was a rag-picker at the dawn of the day of revolution.”
“I recall my rag-picker’s cart, and the revolution, and me riding with the Cossacks to Witków, so long ago now. It’s painful to think. The whole business deprived me of my tea! On my cart, I grieved for the future of the revolution. I was a city boy, short and bespectacled, intellectual, a war correspondent, riding on horseback for the first time. They called me ‘four-eyes,’ hated me because I wanted to live ‘without enemies.’ The Cossacks reviled the intelligentsia; you’ve read Gogol’s Taras Bulba haven’t you? They wanted to massacre professors and writers and Jews. I was an outsider. Shrieks, whips cracking, shouts of ‘dirty Yid.’ ‘Ah, so you’re a milksop are you,’ they’d say, ‘with glasses on your nose.’ They killed men with glasses.”
“’Tis true that the work of the melancholic is the total immersion of the eternal voyager. Long ago no one wanted me—Walter Benjamin—in the academy. They didn’t get my Trauerspiel, couldn’t figure it out for the life of them. And the publishers didn’t want any of my own stuff. So many promises! For a pittance, I translated Proust and Balzac, and Baudelaire. The money wasn’t worth the time I had to spend on them. But how can I be bitter? I thought of getting involved with Marxist politics, joining the Party, going to Moscow. We might have met then, eh? I wanted to study Hebrew. I could attain a view of the totality of my horizon only in these two experiences.”
“Oh, those Rules of the Russian Communist Party! If you only knew, Walter. The whole Party wore aprons that are smeared with blood and shit. With confused poet’s brains, I tried to digest the class struggle—and the pages of the Song of Songs and revolver cartridges.”
“You sound just like old Brecht, Babel. ‘Crude thoughts,’ he’d say, ‘should be part and parcel of dialectical thinking, because they are nothing but the referral of theory to practice. A thought must be crude to come into its own in action.’ Gershom never liked my involvement with Brecht. Nor did Teddie. But my agreement with Brecht was one of most important and most strategic points in my entire position. Both you and Brecht, Babel, have a lot of the poet and the gangster in you!”
“Aha, our Odessan gangsters wore masks and carried revolvers. They had the soul of murderers. They were one of us. They came from us. They were our blood, our flesh. Half of Odessa worked in their shops. Gangsters rolled about the floor and choked with laughter, full-throated laughter: ‘shut your ugly mug,’ they’d roar.”
“Indeed, but how can dialectical materialism spin that vulgar materialism into such fine thread that even strange birds such as you and I, Babel, are caught in it? I don’t know. But I think sometimes that the ‘four gray women’ of Faust II are weavers who also get the coarsest flax to be fine spun. I see in myself not a representative of dialectical materialism as dogma, but a scholar to whom the stance of the materialist seems scientifically and humanly more productive. Though I haven’t been able to do research and think in any sense other than a theological one: in accord with the Talmudic teaching about the 49 levels of meaning in every passage of the Torah.”
“In our socialism, the possessed of devils, the liars, the moonstruck, and destitute sages sat next to each other. Oh, Walter, dense sadness of memories! Who would tell Gedali today where is the revolution and where is the counter-revolution? Yes, I cry to the revolution. Yes, I cry to it, but it hides its face from Gedali, and from me. It sends ahead of it naught but shooting. The sun does not enter eyes that are closed. But shall we rip open those closed eyes? Gedali says the revolution is about pleasure. It is the good deed of good men and women—an unrealizable revolution? I, too, want the International—a Fifth International—of good men and women. I want each soul to be taken and registered, and given first-grade rations. Woe to us, Walter, where is the joy-giving revolution?”
“Gedali is our angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. Gedali, our angel, would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that our angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm, Isaac, is what we call progress.”
“Let’s die for progress, my old German friend. Let’s die for a pickled cucumber and the revolution…”
Two old men reach the park-gate. They can be seen embracing, out on Central Park West, slapping each other on the back, ready to depart their separate ways. They both walk off, slowly, in opposite directions, along the shady side of the street. Soon they disappear in the shadow of the El Dorado whose tan façade seems to quiver in the frosty air.
What remains are their remains: books, short stories, essays, snippets and jottings, radio broadcasts, letters, diaries, reviews, fragments. They themselves are gone forever, their lives closed. But their oeuvre is open, bursting with energy and passion. Babel loved life, reveled in telling stories, marveled at commonplace everydayness. His picaresque tales brim with detail and drama, and are alive with the minor characters that make up major history. He dug adventure and played hard. Benjamin likewise loved life, but with a dark, melancholic undertow. He adored Paris, paced its streets, lapped up its café society, chronicled it close up yet always as an outsider. He loved kids and toys, haunted library stacks, yearned for literary recognition, but never got it in his lifetime. Sixty years on, with glasses on their noses and autumn in their hearts, Benjamin and Babel continue to inspire free spirits everywhere. Their secular ideals once underwrote America’s own ideals of a free, welcoming society, with open borders and a tolerance of strangers. Sixty-years on, Benjamin and Babel can remind us of what’s now slipping away and what we should fight to defend.
The body of this essay presents a fictitious dialogue between Walter Benjamin and Isaac Babel. I’ve used almost exclusively their own words. Only on rare occasions have I paraphrased, tweaking their language slightly, for rhetorical purposes. Inspiration for the piece comes from Benjamin himself, who, remember, wanted to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations.
ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.