After reading and writing on Walter Benjamin for nearly twenty years (since I was first introduced to him as an undergrad), I seldom saw any photos of him smiling or happy. Most of the images I saw were pensive or melancholic. One of my graduate school professors, Max Pensky, wrote a book entitled Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning. The image used for the cover is one that is used for the cover is similar to the images we find on his most read books: Illuminations and Reflections.
To be sure, when you do an internet search on Walter Benjamin, the majority of images don’t show him as having fun, smiling, or laughing.
When I posted the screenshot of the Tweet by David Hering with the caption “Possibly the only photo of Walter Benjamin enjoying himself” on the Walter Benjamin Facebook Page (where I am the admin) many people chimed in about the photo and (as of this moment) 275 people have liked the photo (replete with laughing icons, etc). One of the 50 + people who shared the post this morning commented, “Is it just me or isn’t the idea of Benjamin having fun quite disturbing?” Another said, “I can’t unsee this!”
The claim made by the tweeted photo and caption was challenged by a few people on the thread who said that Walter Benjamin liked to have fun (in fact, all the time). I asked them to share photos to visually illustrate their claim and was shown these photos of Walter Benjamin letting loose.
I find this comic angle of great interest to my own work on Benjamin for Schlemiel Theory. The visual complements the textual and we are, after all, learning more and more about his life with all of the books coming out on him.
I have written several essays on Walter Benjamin’s interest in the comic modality and in the schlemiel. To be sure, this topic, like these images suggests another side of Walter Benjamin, one we seldom see. It is good because it directs us to the hidden (dialectical) side of melancholia and tragedy. There is a relationship between comedy and tragedy that Benjamin, himself, was interested in. But more often than not – as you can see from the google image search I did above and in the majority of texts on him and his work – he is portrayed as a serious thinker of melancholy, tragedy, the daemonic, and the apocalyptic.
In the spirit of dialectics, I think it is good to push in the other direction. The tension between the two can produce a new thought (perhaps). As one of Woody Allen’s characters explains, time plus tragedy equals comedy.
To that end, here are some essays/posts I’ve written on Benjamin and the Comic.