May 22, 2024

Walter Benjamin’s Notes On Various Topics, Part 2

Translated by Rachel Thomas.  Edited  by Carl Raschke.

The following is the second part of a series of translated fragments (or “short prose”) from the writings of Walter Benjamin, beginning around the time of World War I.  The first part can be found here.  Some of these fragments, such as the section on the famous “liar paradox” (or “Cretan paradox”) of Epimenides,  have been translated elsewhere.  Some have never been translated.   They are assembled from the German text published online by Der Spiegel magazine as part of Project Gutenberg. – Ed.


A basic dogma of modern science today is is that the truth about every arbitrarily defined field may be investigated (i.e., “specialism”). It is that, finally, through a maximum limitation of the field truth would mechanically result, so to speak, just as if movement would be initiated by a contraction from the outside in active centers. However, certain limitations are inimical to the truth and, as such, a false limitation and definition underlies the field of psychology.. One hypothesis is that man, among other abstractions, is recognizable by his moral destiny. This proposition is seemingly false.

Any previous psychology and every method of research, which may feel tempted to assume the name, leads by virtue of its epistemological or general philosophical presuppositions into the abyss. In the end, it raises the question: how do mental behaviors arise in human beings? This question is wrong in two respects. First, there is no mental behavior in the sense of any kind of bodily differences in character, or even in appearance. The alleged difference that alien spiritual life, in contrast to our own, is only indirectly given to us through the interpretation of foreign corporeality, does not exist. Alien, as well as our own, spiritual life is given to us directly, and always in a certain connection or at least on a certain ground of corporeality. In principle, foreign spiritual life is not perceived differently than one’s own.  It is not opened up, but it is seen in the physical, which belongs to the spiritual life.

Only the degrees of the emergence of the physical are different. Consequently, the object of psychology is not the world of self-perception, but a world of perception. And only this. Psychology is (if this is an ultimate epistemological category) a descriptive science, not an explanatory one. The perception described in it is pure, and that is the pure (apocalyptic) perception of humanity. That which remains in humanity after the moral catastrophe, after conversion and purification. This is nothing “inner” – internal is only the moral (and of course this sentence if a metaphor) – but something external: perception, which is only given to fellow human beings. But this is only pure, only external, only perceptible, and thus completely perceptible after the moral restitution of humanity. So the presupposition of psychology is morality, the construction of pure human beings necessarily presupposes the doctrine of the purified.

The relationship of the human to language, i.e. how God shapes us in language, is the object of psychology. Also here belongs the physical, in that God works directly – and perhaps incomprehensibly – linguistically.

What the awakened soul madly traversed

Yet became pure semblance from my lands.

Because language is the canon of perception and the tangible person is the object of psychology, the relationship of the human figure to language is the object of psychology. This relationship is hidden as long as morality remains problematic. (When I speak to a person, and doubt rises in me about that him, his image becomes cloudy, I still seem him, but I can no longer perceive him).

The Problem of Perception

 In Berlin, people informally say for someone whom they consider insane: “he belongs to Dalldorf.”   In Vienna: “to Steinhof.  In Paris they speak of Charenton in the same sense. So everywhere the view has remained alive that the expulsion from the community. The complete disconnection between the community and an individual human being is fundamental to mental illness. Institutions for the sick may not be located within the cities like other hospitals for this reason.

In fairy tales those born under a lucky star see magical gardens where other people do not notice anything.  They come across treasures when others pass by carelessly. That cannot be taken to mean that the magical gardens or treasures make themselves invisible to other people, though visible to the fortunate, or that suddenly the perception of other entities suddenly languishes, but increases in the case of the lucky ones. But the only possible opinion of such views is that lucky people have a different, happier perception that ordinary people, without either of them being wrong, or therefore without either of them being true.  Perception is not affected by this alternative.

Perception and Embodied Subjectivity*

Because of our corporeality we are ultimately placed directly through our own embodied subjectivity in the world of perception, that is, in one of the highest layers of language. The bodily subject, however, is blind, or incapable for the most part, of separating the semblance of being en masse from its messianic form. It is very important that our own embodied subjectivity is inaccessible to us in so many respects.  We cannot see our face, our back, our whole head, which is the most noble part of our body. We cannot make ourselves vanish with our own hands. We cannot embrace ourselves, and so on. We protrude into the world of perception, so to speak, with our own feet, not with our heads. Hence the necessity that in the moment of pure perception our embodied subjectivity transforms us.  Hence the sublime torment of the eccentric personality in their own (embodied) subjectivity.

There is a history of perception, which is in the final analysis the history of myth. The body of the perceiver was not always the only vertical coordinate to the horizontal of the earth. Even the upright walk of man, which has only been gradually achieved, makes it possible to foresee earlier examples of a different kind of perception. But otherwise this is possible and necessary. Knowledge of measured distances will not always have dominated facial recognition (in the case of a child, one who without gripping organs remains immobile, would constitute his world of vision, another other hierarchy of distances). The history of perception comes about through the alteration of nature and the material transformation of the body, but it receives its spiritual meaning and culmination (mastering, synthesis) in myth. In it, the mechanisms of perception are slowly constructed and transformed, and determine the way in which soul and nature function together – right, left, above, below, in front, behind.

Two spouses are merely components of the community, whereas two friends are its leaders.

Friendship belongs within the order of innovative solitude.  Only in the anarchic does it have the dominant position in keeping with its nature.

Friendship and love are not different in themselves, only different with respect to theirs role in the community, and of course insofar as there is no sacrament which transforms friendship into a divine regulation. This is the singular element that makes friendship dangerous.  It is a “sacramentless” choice.

Modern society does not know friendship at all.  Friendship is something peculiar to the Greeks, in which the genius arose in its purest historical form. It also plays a role in its mythology. Does it play a role in Judaism?

What friendship means today does not deserve this name. It had to be brought down by today’s pseudo-religious (but also by the religious?) system.

How do friendship and love relate to each other in the order of genius? 

On Marriage

 Eros, love has as its sole direction the mutual death of lovers. It unwinds like a thread in a labyrinth that has its center in “the death chamber.” Only there does the reality of sex enter into love, where the agony itself becomes the struggle for love. On the other hand, sex in itself flees its own death as well as its own life, and blindly and strangely it invokes death as its alien life on this flight. It vanishes into nothingness, into that misery where life is only a non-death and death is only non-life. So the boat of love must pass between the Scylla of death and the Charybdis of sorrow. and it would never succeed in doing so if God at this point of the journey did not make it ipso facto indestructible.

For as the sexuality of expectant love is completely alien, so must it be entirely distinct for whatever endures. It is never the condition of its existence and always that of its earthly continuation. In the sacraments of marriage, however, God makes love immune to the dangers of sexuality as well as the perils of death. In fact, he exaggerates the dangers of sexuality for spouses, because he affirms it, more precisely because he wants them to be responsible to each other in their sexuality. For human beings cannot be accountable for their urges, only for what they do with them.

But God advocates for responsible sexuality only in marriage, and so the enormous danger of sexuality remains everywhere else.  Sexuality, nevertheless, belongs to life, and it is only through the path of asceticism that the pious can be led safely.

(What constitutes this mysterious transformation of love through the enduring sacrament is the feminine.)

On Shame

 The following remark of Goethe conveys the most secret meaning of the blush that comes upon human beings when they experience shame: “If certain naked parts of monkeys appear colorful, with elementary hues, this indicates how far such creatures are removed from perfection.  For it can be said that the nobler a creature is, the more is everything clothlike in it woven together. The more its superficial characteristics correspond with its internal organization, the less can it exhibit the elementary colors. Where everything tends to make up a perfect whole, any detached specific developments cannot take place.” (Theory of Colors, 666.)

Sublime indeterminacy, even what is inconspicuous among all other entities so far as color is concerned, manifests itself to humanity in the blush, from which nature for the most part withdraws in this almost discolored shading of the body and in which its grace seems to triumph more than in splendor.  Shame is destroyed in the blush. But not by base violence. Because the redness of shame does not stain the skin, it contains no inner conflict, or inward decomposition below the surface. It is not announcing anything inwardly. If it did so, it would again truly be reason enough for a new shame found within the fragile soul of humanity.

With the blush every reason for shame is extinguished on the inside. The shameful blush does not rise from within  – and that shameful blush of which we sometimes speak does not arise within the one who is ashamed, but from the outside it pours over the one who is ashamed and extinguishes the shame in him, while at the same time it removes him from shame. For in that dark redness in which shame pours over him, the blush draws him away from the eyes of men, as one were behind veil. He who is ashamed sees nothing, but he alone also remains unseen.

The wonderful power of shame is visible in color. What distinguishes its redness from those florid, accusatory colors of nature that Goethe recognized in the monkey and from which the human body is so deprived, is that it is capable of a deep secret connection, when one reads in Hogarth’s pedantic “Analysis of Beauty” the following: “in order to avoid confusion and because I have already said enough about the receding shadow, I now only want to describe the nature and effect of the first tint of flesh color. For the composition of this color, if properly understood, encompasses everything that can be said of the color of any object at all.” (Ed. Leitner p. 181)

What distinguishes the blush from the colorful shame of a monkey, and what distinguishes the tone of human skin from that of an animal? Goethe remarks that the colors of organic beings are an expression of their inner self. This causes a very strange, peculiar, and in some ways opaque change in the basic nature of color in the organic world. Opaque, because it does not correspond to the pure nature of color to be the expression of something colored, the interior expression of something colored. For pure expression, pure meaning, pure “sensual-moral effect,” as Goethe says, adheres to color, not what is colored. And more precisely – not in the coloration, and not in the color itself,  but in the deepest reason for the coloring. Not the blue thing, not the faded blue, but the blue glow, the blue luster, the blue ray.

These three hold and contain the color of what is simply spiritual. But they appear as shine and sparkle in the organically more profound world of plants, rather than in the higher world of animals. The ray of light, however, only shoots up from the inorganic and from the highest organic substance, from the sun and from the human countenance. As a ray, however, color is never the expression of something interior, but always of its effect.  And if color expresses itself as light and luster (and the purer it is and the less it is from the interior), it reveals how it becomes visible even in the world of plants.

The more color nevertheless becomes the expression of the interior and the less it remains the light of the surface, the more opaque it appears, and the less spiritual. So it is with most animals. Nowhere, however, neither concerning animals nor plants, neither concerning opaque nor vibrant colors, can the hue of color appear.  It can only appear on the human face, when it completely stops shining and gathers itself together with a dark redness. The color of shame is pure.  Its red is not a hue nor a color, but a coloration. It is the red of the transience of the palette of the imagination. For that very purest coloring light is none other than the vibrant, multicolored light of the imagination. To you alone are revealed the colors in which an entity appears, without being an expression of something interior.   And only this colorful appearance is pure and, for its own sake, has an incomparably powerful effect – not to the understanding, to which it does not disclose anything, but to the soul, to whom it says it everything.

A conspicuously vacuous phenomenon is the color of the imagination.  A conspicuously vacuous phenomenon is the passing of the blush of shame.


The individual dies, i.e. a scattering occurs; the individual is an indivisible but unfinished entity. Death is in the realm of individuality only as movement (undulation). Historical life always passes away in some place; but it is immortal altogether. It does not depend on the seemingly whole (closed) individual. The is the true opinion about the transmigration of souls.

The person becomes petrified. Senility.

Loyalty only preserves the personality.

The human being becomes free.

The embodied subject vanishes, bursts as a manometer, which bursts at the moment of the highest tension and with its disintegration becomes superficial, irrelevant.

*TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Benjamin in this section uses the German word Leib, in contrast with the more common term Körper, the anatomical word for  “physical body.”  Such a distinction has no counterpart in English.  In German philosophical discourse, however, Leib can also mean the “subjective”, as opposed to the “objective”, body.  We translate the term here as “embodied subjectivity” in the phenomenological sense to convey Benjamin’s meaning. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *