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  • Divining Benjamin:Reading Fate, Graphology, Gambling
  • Eric Downing (bio)

Near the end of his 1929 essay on surrealism, and in the context of serious discussions of the occult, Walter Benjamin suggests a connection between investigations into reading and into telepathic phenomena,1 a theme he returns to again, in the context of reading and more ancient traditions of magic, in his 1933 essay "Doctrine of the Similar."2 This connection he suggests between reading practices and the occult is a profound one, both historically and for Benjamin's own time and work, and not just in terms of telepathy. Some of the earliest practices of reading were not of letters, words, or books, but of stars, entrails, and birds, and these practices had a significant impact on the way reading was understood in the ancient world. And the relations between such ancient magic and reading were still (or again) of crucial importance to the modernists of the early twentieth century, including Benjamin and his sustained interest in what he called 'das magische Lesen.'

What I will present here is part of a larger project devoted to tracing out the more salient connections in both the ancient and modern worlds between the practices of reading and of magic, and particularly those of magic most closely aligned with practices of divination. [End Page 561] I choose to concentrate on those aspects of magic most associated with divination because these seem historically most associated with the reading of both literature and the world, and because I believe that tracing out the often ignored genealogy of this future or fortune-telling aspect of reading reveals one of the most fascinating chapters in the modern reception of antiquity.3


That Walter Benjamin was preoccupied with issues of magic and divination is clear. It figures prominently in his works, from the first paragraph of one of his earliest publications, "Fate and Character" (1919), to the last section of one of his last pieces, "On the Concept of History" (1940). But the exact nature of that preoccupation is not clear, even if it does seem remarkably consistent; indeed, as is characteristic of Benjamin's thought in so many other respects as well, the complexity of his position is not so much a matter of change or development as it is of an intricate mode of negation and affirmation that was there from the start. On the one hand, there is an undeniable suspicion, even rejection, of divination and "predicting the future" that runs throughout his work. We see it already in "Fate and Character," but it is even more evident in pieces such as "Light from Obscurantists," his review of Hans Liebenstoeckl's The Occult Sciences in the Light of Our Age (1932), or his essay "Experience and Poverty" (1933). Here, Benjamin unequivocally attacks what he calls the "stupidity, low cunning, and coarseness" of the contemporary modes of magical divination, "the last pitiful by-product of more significant traditions," and he seems explicitly to include in his critique of magic and fortune- or future-telling the misguided "hunger of broad sections of the people for happiness" (Glückshunger).4 The resistance to magical thinking [End Page 562] is obviously of a piece with his principled distaste for the tenets of "Lebensphilosophien"; for the phantasmagoria of commodity culture; the emergence of fascism with its "magic of blood and glitter"; and eventually, too, for that form of Marxism that divined future happiness in the fated progress of social history.5 In all this, Benjamin could be said to share (along with Freud, Mann, and others) in the skeptical, disenchanted enlightenment stance that gained such increased urgency amid the resurgent "barbarism" of the early- to mid-twentieth century.6 And added to this secular tradition, there was also a religious ground supporting Benjamin's suspicions of divination as well. As he reminds us at the end of "On the Concept of History," "Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future," and while this ban on future-knowing is perhaps most fully explored in the context of his famous essay on Kafka, it seems safe to say that "No Future" is an injunction implicitly guiding much of his thought.7...


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pp. 561-580
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