The Anxiety of Influence: Adorno’s Grappling with Walter Benjamin’s Mysticism


Anyone who reads Walter Benjamin can sense, from the very first sentences of any of his essays or books, that his writing is influenced by mysticism. But Benjamin was torn between mysticism and the political. While his friend Gershom Scholem encouraged him to pursue the mystical and the theological, other friends, like Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, suggested that Benjamin move more toward the political. With this tension in mind, it’s fascinating to see how Adorno describes Benjamin’s mystical tendencies in his essay “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin.” In Adorno’s descriptions we can see that he was grappling with Walter Benjamin’s mystical influences and the mystical aspects of his work. To be sure, one can sense Adorno’s anxiety around this subject.

Adorno begins his attempt with a simple statement about the main, singular theme of “Benjamin’s philosophy”:

The reconciliation of myth is the theme of Benjamin’s philosophy. (234, Prisms)

After he points this out, Adorno notes that this theme, “as in good musical variations,” “rarely states itself openly.” Rather, it hides and has to be read by way of hermeneutics that is acutely aware of the things we find in esoteric texts. Adorno associates this kind of hermeneutics with Kabbalah and, strangely enough, blames Kabbalah (and Gershom Scholem, indirectly) for the theme’s failure to be stated in a clear manner and “legitimated”:

Instead it remains hidden and shifts the burden of its legitimation to Jewish mysticism, to which Benjamin was introduced in his youth by his friend, Gershom Scholem, the distinguished student of cabbala. (234)

Because of this influence, Adorno is confused. He knows Benjamin was influenced by Kabbalah but he doesn’t know to “what extent” Benjamin was “influenced by the neo-platonic and antinomian-messianic tradition.”   Apparently, Benjamin never told him and kept the extent of his influence to himself.   Benjamin didn’t shoot from the hip; he kept his cards to himself. But there is much evidence that he did make use of the mystical-textual ruse.

There is much to indicate that Benjamin – who hardly ever showed his cards and who was motivated by a deeply seated opposition to thought of the shoot-from-the-hip variety…- made use of the popular mystic technique of pseudo-epigraphy.

Adorno suspects he did this because Benjamin no longer believed that one could access truth through “autonomous reflection.” The text is “sacred.” And like a Torah exegete, one needs to be surprised by the truth, to come across it by way of textual commentary and criticism. Instead of language being the “bearer of meaning or even expression,” Benjamin thought of language as the “crystallization of the ‘name.’”(234).

Why would Benjamin do this?

Adorno surmises, after grappling with Benjamin’s mystical tendencies, that Benjamin appealed to the notion of the sacred text because he was looking to save something of the “theological heritage” from oblivion:

He transposed the idea of the sacred text into the sphere of enlightenment, into which, according to Scholem, Jewish mysticism itself tends to culminate dialectically. His ‘essayism’ consists in treating profane texts as though they were sacred. This does not mean that he clung to theological relics or, as religious socialists, endowed the profane with transcendent significance. Rather, he looked to radical, defenseless profanation as the only chance for the theological heritage which squandered itself in profanity. (234)

The “key to the picture puzzles is lost,” but, says Adorno, they “must, as a baroque poem about melancholy says, ‘speak themselves.’”(235). Adorno mocks this when he suggests that this “procedure resembles Thorstein Veblen’s quip, that he studied foreign languages by staring at each word until he know what it meant”(235).   In other words, simply looking at words – just looking at them – would in some way save something of a theological heritage.  This suggests form, but not content.  Adrono says that, given this approach to language, “the analogy” between Benjamin and “Kafka is unmistakable.” However, while Kafka retained, in his most “negative” moments, an “element of the rural, epic tradition,” Benjamin retains the more “urban.”   Although Adorno’s rural/urban contrast is interesting, he doesn’t develop it. Apparently, it’s just a side note.

The next line shows us that Adorno just gives up: Adorno skips to Benjamin’s “mature period” because grappling with Benjamin’s mystical character makes him too anxious and, quite frankly, frustrated.   This Benjamin, the mystical one, is “immature.” Adorno wants to deal with the more mature Benjamin who apparently leaves mysticism behind.

Adorno tells us that Benjamin exchanged the mystical exegetical hermeneutic for a more political one:

During his mature period, Benjamin was able to give himself over to socially critical insights without there being the slightest mental residue, and still without having to ban even one of his impulses.   Exegetical power became the ability to see through the manifestations and utterances of bourgeois culture as hieroglyphs of its darkest secret – as ideologies. (235)

What many people might miss is that this kind of Benjamin, the more political one, is in Adorno’s comfort zone. He doesn’t have to grapple with this side of Benjamin’s work. To be sure, while Brecht wanted Benjamin to drop Kafka and the mystical, Adorno prompted Benjamin to create an “image of the bow” as the model for his Kafka essay: it would retain the tension between the political and the mystical.

But, as we can see from the above passage, Adorno had little patience for this. He had no interest in Benjamin’s mystical influences because, as we saw above, Benjamin could not “legitimate” his main theme. The “reconciliation of myth,” for Adorno, had to be legitimated through an exegesis directed at “bourgeois culture” and its “darkest secret…ideologies.” Anything short of that made Adorno anxious. We also see that what Adorno was anxious about is the fact that he had no idea how influenced Benjamin was by neo-Platonism and the antinomian-messianic tradition.   One wonders why. Perhaps Adorno was worried that if Benjamin was very influenced by these mystical traditions and beliefs, his interest in political exegesis would ultimately be of secondary importance to him.   And that worry is legitimate since that would suggest that Benjamin was more interested in the possibility of religion and faith than in politics.

3 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Influence: Adorno’s Grappling with Walter Benjamin’s Mysticism

  1. I’m not sure the tension between Adorno and Benjamin could or should be framed simply as that between politics and mysticism. If anything, Adorno was influenced by the “theological motifs” Benjamin adopts, and in fact Adorno makes these motifs central to his own work. Benjamin is also never tempted away from politics, insofar as his entire corpus deals with inheretance and struggle. Both Benjamin and Adorno follow a thoroughgoingly secular, materialist theology. For Benjamin at least, the task of criticism is always to dispel myth with the axe of reason. Concepts like that of hell and the “correspondences” of Baudelaire become for him the ossified artifacts of a natural history, just as utopian nature becomes assimilable to the commodity. The objection mounted by Adorno isn’t that Benjamin should leave aside theology (he is actually disappointed by the lack of theology in Benjamin’s Baudelaire essay), but rather that his “mystical” influence constitutes recourse to the dialectical image, a method of making dialectics graphic, as he says. Without being mediated by theory, Adorno sees the dialectical image as stalled at the crossroads between magic and positivism. What Adorno fails to apprehend as crucial in Benjamin’s appeal to Kabbalistic tradition is the historical significance of this dialectics at a standstill. Benjamin’s so-called appeal to mysticism isn’t a lapse into religious faith, it’s the key to Benjamin’s radical critique of time—a point Agamben later picks up. The “weak messianic” power of this picture puzzle requires theory for Adorno, a possibility that is politically motivating but epistemically impossible. For Benjamin, visual culture is elevated to the level of theory, just as Kabbalah elevates material history to the level of sacred text. The theses on history are thus a kind of methodological primer for Benjamin’s materialist work in the Arcades Project, a way of seeing revolutionary history through its fragmentary images and organizing the materials dialectically in order to “blast” it from the continuum. Adorno’s worry about mysticism fits in here, but it’s a mistake to construe it as being a matter of faith versus politics. Given the larger reception of both their works and the surrounding political context, it ends up being a relatively minor methodological difference. Elsewhere, Adorno actually warns Benjamin that submitting to the influence of the Frankfurt School might impose certain theoretical commitments that would undermine his most original insights.

    • I deeply appreciate your nuanced response to my post. I, in fact, agree with much if what you are articulating. What most interests me, however, is the distinction between the mature and the immature vis-a-vis mysticism and politics. One need only read the letters between Benjamin and Adorno to see that Benjamin wanted to win Adorno’s approval and admiration by being more political in his readings. And, as I note, Benjamin wanted to create a tension between the political and the mystical so as to satisfy Adorno not Scholem.

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