- "I Develop a Flame for the Bed":Walter Benjamin and Hélène Cixous
I now have in the house, in which, all unsuspecting, I have been writing for over forty years, Benjamin's Bed. A Bed that's escaped the most tragic of fates.—Hélène Cixous (2009)
There also remains that exaltation that comes over me from not knowing what to do with all this, with the knowledge I have of your eyes, of the immensities your eyes explore, to the point of not knowing what to write, what to say, what to show of their pristine insignificance. Of those things I only know this: that I have nothing to do now except suffer that exaltation about someone who once was here, someone who was not aware of being alive and whom I knew was alive, of someone who didn't know how to live, as I was saying, and of myself who knew it and who didn't know what to do with the knowledge, with that knowledge of the life he lived, and who didn't know what to do with me either.—Marguerite Duras (1982)
In her introduction to the collection of essays by Walter Benjamin entitled Illuminations, Hannah Arendt wrote, "With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker, [Benjamin's] clumsiness invariably guided him to the very center of a misfortune, or wherever something of the sort might lurk. … He was wholly incapable of changing his life's conditions even when they were about to crush him" (Benjamin 1969, 7). According to Arendt, Benjamin was someone living in the intersection of weakness and genius. He was "speaking about himself when, in complete agreement, he quoted what Jacques Rivière had said about [Marcel] Proust: he 'died of the same inexperience that permitted him to write his works…'" (7). Arendt viewed Benjamin's suicide in 1940 in part as the consequence of an ineptitude and misjudgment that comes of not knowing how to change one's life conditions, and more generally, of not knowing how to live.
Commenting on the theme of knowing how to live, Jacques Derrida, in what is said to be his last interview, acknowledges a line from the opening of Specters of Marx: "Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like [End Page 361] to learn to live finally." To which he adds, when one addresses someone and says "je vais t'apprendre à vivre," it means "to mature, but also to educate," though idiomatically it can mean that one is going to whip someone into shape, that one is going to teach someone a lesson (2007, 23). Arendt's introduction to Benjamin does this after the fact in a spirit of interminable mourning, of an endless suffering. Derrida, who is sensitive to this kind mourning, puts matters as follows near the very end of his life in the fall of 2004: "Can one learn to affirm life?… To answer your question, I never learned to live. In fact, not at all!" (24). But what does it mean to "learn to live"?
Walter Benjamin's suicide in 1940 came after at least eight years of trying to figure out what to do with his life, not that he didn't have alternatives. After World War II, beginning with Hannah Arendt's introduction to Illuminations, a gradual sense of guilt and remorse over Benjamin's death began mounting in not only West Germany, but throughout many other parts of Europe. This wave of regret over the death of a lonely Jewish genius, known to influential people, but left to fend for himself as an exile in Occupied France, also has made its impact in the United States, albeit well into the 1980s. Here too people have asked whether more couldn't have been done to save Walter Benjamin from his terrible fate. In France, this question has haunted discussions of Benjamin, if only because it is in France that Benjamin received so little attention and support during his lifetime.1
Among the odd effects of what has become a very guilty collective conscience, with respect to Benjamin's career and fate, has been the prevalence of what elsewhere...