MLN 121.3 (2006) 794-797
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O.E. Tal, one of the many names of Walter Benjamin, never saw the light of day. It is not difficult to fathom why Benjamin might have had reservations about using this particular nom de plume in any of his publications. The palindrome of the Latin verb lateo\—which derives from the Greek le\tho\ and means to be hidden, concealed, or secured—would have been a more telling pseudonym for either Freud (the theorist of the latent) or Heidegger (the philosopher of a-le\theia). Appropriately enough, Marion Picker keeps "O.E. Tal" in the critical apparatus of her book Der konservative Charakter: Walter Benjamin und die Politik der Dichter (21). Her study nevertheless brings to light why Benjamin might have considered this particular pen-name in the first place: it obviously conceals, and thereby enacts, the very principle of pseudonyms. Benjamin's well-known predilection for hiding his proper name might very well be revealing in a biographical or psychological sense. (Heidegger, for one, argues that the false name as a matter of principle discloses the truth about an author, and Freud's vocabulary almost inevitably surfaces in Adorno's sketch of Benjamin's elusiveness.) The focus of Picker's work, however, is neither the biographical datum nor the psychological symptom. Der konservative Charakter instead examines the name, including the false one, as the site at which Benjamin's politics are hidden in plain view.
Two texts by Benjamin occupy a similarly obvious, and hence all the more effective, hiding-place in Picker's study. The title of her book evidently alludes to "Der destruktive Charakter," a portrait of sorts inspired by Benjamin's acquaintance with a certain Gustav Glück. But just like "Schicksal und Charakter," an essay which seeks to establish the mutual exclusiveness of its two key terms, "Der destruktive Charakter" never comes to the fore. A passage from the brief sketch serves as an epigraph to the introductory chapter, and Picker repeatedly mentions the longer essay in passing. Neither one of these two texts, however, becomes the avowed subject of sustained analysis. While this ruse might qualify Der konservative Charakter as a pseudepigraph (albeit one in which it is not the author, but the text at issue, which is in doubt) Picker does not frivolously play hide-and-seek with the reader. On the contrary, there are good reasons why her allusions remain so cryptic. "Schicksal und Charakter," Benjamin wrote a few years after the publication of the essay, tried to release the "sprachliche Leben" sealed into the two words named in its title. Had [End Page 794] this attempt been successful, its author would have experienced the "Glück" of having language itself confirm his thought. Benjamin came to believe, however, that he had forced his insights and his initial "Frontalangriff" almost missed its target. Picker accordingly tackles the title-figure of her study—and the texts most openly related to it—in a more roundabout manner.
Der konservative Charakter consists of a series of detours which, although they cover different ground, now and again intersect, run parallel, or retrace each other's steps. But the character these criss-crossing movements so cautiously approach is not the intrinsically anonymous figure Benjamin sought to delineate in his essay. The character Picker examines neither lacks a name, nor does it strictly speaking have one; it rather is a name from the very outset: namely, "Benjamin." The attempt to read the character "Benjamin"—which is different from, but not unrelated to, Benjamin's reading of "character"—guides Picker's circuitous path through his writings. The name "Benjamin," Picker argues, acquires meaning only insofar as its bearer seeks to assume it. If he thereby treats his given name as though it was an assumed one, the detour through the latter might be the only route leading to the former. Picker compares the assumed name to a translation that renders the...