The Reconciliation of Myth: Benjamin's Homage to Bachofen
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The Reconciliation of Myth:
Benjamin’s Homage to Bachofen

In the “Tiergarten,” the first chapter of his autobiographical work, Berlin Childhood Around Nineteen-Hundred, Benjamin recalls how, as a child, he experienced the paths, monuments, and people of the park as a “labyrinth” replete with all kinds of mythological figures. Entering the park like a second Theseus following his Ariadne along the thread of erotic sensations, he discovered therein the myth-realm of the ancient gods as transfigured in the bourgeois decorations of the Second Reich, most visibly so in the aristocratic monuments of Friedrich Wilhelm and Queen Louise: “They towered up from their round pedestals among the flower beds as if spellbound by magic curves that a watercourse had inscribed before them in the sand.” 1 As he invoked these primal visions thirty years later, Benjamin realized that they prefigured “the features of what is to come,” that is, he recognized in his early experiential impressions the topical concerns that were to determine his life and works. He then understood that he had been finding signs of “the return of the ancient gods” everywhere:

Under their sign the Old West of Berlin was transformed into the West of antiquity, whence the western winds come to the mariners, who navigate their boat with the Hesperidan apples slowly upward the Landwehrkanal, in order to cast anchor near the Herkules Bridge. And yet again, as in my childhood, the Hydra and the Nemean lion found a place in the wild bushes around the big star. 2

This chapter may serve as the key to Benjamin’s entire life and works: it reveals what Benjamin himself would have called his “origins.” Benjamin conceived [End Page 165] of origin (Usprung) in genealogical rather than in biological terms, contending that it was not to be found in the moment of intuition but rather in that of recognition. “The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis.” 3 It occurs, Benjamin continues, when “an idea will constantly confront the historical world, until it is revealed fulfilled, in the totality of its history.” 4 And if, according to Benjamin (quoting Karl Kraus), “origin is the goal” of all philosophical and historical inquiries, then, in Benjamin’s own case, the “origin” must be found in that singular idea by which he had sought to illuminate his historical world. This was an idea which should be “revealed fulfilled, in the totality of its history” in his entire work. In order to find that idea we must concentrate, as it were, on the “eddies” of his life; that is, we must discern his particular current in the intellectual trends of the time and find out how and with what he emerged from it. What, then, were Benjamin’s “origins”? When and where did he recognize what his experiential impressions in the Tiergarten really meant?

In his memorial biography, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, Gershom Scholem recounts some of the most important of these moments. One of them occurred between 16 and 18 June 1916, while Scholem was visiting Benjamin’s house in Seeshaupt near Munich. Scholem recalls their last and most memorable conversation on that occasion:

During a discussion of whether Hegel had wished to deduce the world, we turned to mathematics, philosophy, and myth. Benjamin accepted myth alone as “the world.” He said he was still not sure what the purpose of philosophy was, as there was no need to discover “the meaning of the world”: it was already present in myth. Myth was everything; all else, including mathematics and philosophy, was only an obscuration [Verdunkelung], a glimmer [Schein] that had arisen within it. 5

Reflecting on these words, Scholem notes that “Benjamin’s decided turn to the philosophic penetration of myth, which occupied him for so many years, beginning with his study of Hölderlin and probably for the rest of his life, was manifested here for the first...