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  • Magisterial Writing Experiment
  • Henry Sussman (bio)
Walter Benjamin
Carl Skoggard, ed. and trans.
Publication Studio Hudson
394 Pages; Print, $20.00

Decades before Jacques Derrida bestowed écriture upon the critical world, this a radical whose downbeat on inscriptive media trumped the set-pieces of disciplined discourse, Walter Benjamin plied the turbulent currents of what can be best described as a General Writing. With respect to his own writing practice, particularly after the Habilitationsschrift debacle of 1925, Benjamin revels at the frontiers of a writerly polymorphous perversity. A scriptural hermit crab, he simply luxuriated in the squatter's life, taking up residence in one writerly ecology after the next, making, with a vengeance, its formal constraints, as its idiosyncrasies, his own.

Not only is the cycle of seventy-three sonnets that Benjamin, over a ten-year period, dedicated to his youthful intime, Christoph Friedrich Heinle, a labor of love. So is their recent English-language translation, illuminated both by an informative prefatory essay and by meticulous notes on each and every work, by Carl Skoggard.

It was with "Fritz" Heinle that Benjamin shared the inebriating joy, at Freiburg and in Berlin, of his first mature independence. Heinle, sensing mega-turbulence in the offing, together with his lover, Rika Seligson, asphyxiated himself just at the outbreak of World War I (on August 8, 1914 in Berlin). Under Skoggard's loving care, the Sonnets emerge as an integral niche within the sprawling cathedral of Benjamin's multifarious lifetime writing-adventure. In his illuminating essay, Skoggard accounts for the dominant features that he encountered in rendering the Sonnets' singular landscape: the truncated rhythm, the eyeopening caesurae, "long-breathed enjambments," "sprung syntax," and the interlinear stutter-steps proceeding directly from Benjamin's translation theory. Skoggard's translations themselves lavish as painstaking care on the details of rhyme, meter, scansion, and syntax as they do to the broader mythological and historical frameworks just as indispensable to the Sonnets' productive assimilation.

The sonnet cycle dedicated to Heinle was, first and foremost, very much of a piece with Benjamin's unflagging commitment to General Writing. For the subgroups that the Sonnets invariably form as the reader explores the contours of their body correspond to the compelling subgenres of elucidation and theoretical oversight resulting from the diverse discursive occasions of Benjamin's critical prose. Benjamin was neither "slumming" nor launched on a paean of aesthetic exaltation when he devoted a significant block of writing-time to a sonnet cycle in turn dedicated to a comrade with whom he shared "full-service" friendship, ranging from shared undergraduate jaunts and aesthetic takes on the contemporary to idealized love. In composing the Sonnets, as in devising a modernist urban patois and display for One-Way Street (1928), as in reformatting supersized Proustian autobiography to the specifications of a Berlin Childhood Circa 1900 (1950), Benjamin is once again appropriating, in the full philosophical sense of the word, a traditional compositional format, in this case a highly over-determined one, to his multifarious writing practice. Along the way, he significantly gestures to all the traditional literary art forms that might be implicated by such a pitched twentieth-century poetic lament: classical mythology, epic, elegy, prayer, mystical revelation. But the Sonnets, for all the devotion and intimacy toward Heinle with which they are infused (along with the melancholy evolving over time into the telling Benjaminian mood) are less mourning-pageant than magisterial writing experiment, undertaken both with the conceptual rigor and stunning improvisation embedded in his signature.

The cycle of the Sonnets, in sum, may be regarded as a modernist kaleidoscope refracting not only Benjamin's literary fascinations, but the turbulent battleground of his (often antithetical) lifetime friendships. For décor, a significant subgrouping of the poems depends on classical mythological trappings emanating from any number of sources. Chief of these, as Skoggard is well-aware, may be the still-recent rediscovery of Hölderlin, as filtered through the George Circle, triggered by an edition of the Pindaric odes and a separate study by Norbert von Hellingrath. The mythology attached to Heinle's truncated potential, the epic scale of the feelings between him and Benjamin, emerge with particular lucidity...


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