Walter Benjamin for Children, An Essay on his Radio Years

Jeffrey Mehlman, (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 117p.

Reviewed by Philip Beitchman

This slim but exciting little book has to do, first of all with some 30 broadcasts that Walter Benjamin prepared and delivered for German Radio between 1929-1932 specifically for children, maybe 7-14 or so, each consisting of a 20 minute talk or monologue. A main emphasis was on introducing the youth to various, some of them classical, natural catastrophes, for instance the Lisbon earthquake of the 1750's that so shook the optimism of Voltaire and the century (Aufklarung für Kinder [Enlightenment for Children] was the name of the series in German), a flood of the Mississippi of 1927, the Pompeii disaster as came through the famous letter of Pliny the Younger; another subject was various episodes of lawlessness fraud and deceit, much of it recent, for instance bootlegger's boats that were bringing rum or whatever to America through the prohibition blockade, postage stamp (and cancellation) counterfeiting, the 'miracles' of Faustus; or in a minor key that Mehlman makes much of, through an analysis developed on basis of Freud's Jokes and the Unconscious, "tea" that's sold to passengers at a stop of a liquor-less train, with the understanding that it's really booze, but which turns out to be tea as in Freud's "you told me you were going to Cracow thinking that I would assume Lemberg, but you're really going to Cracow, so why are you lying to me!" In short, lots of funny little stories, cute aperçus and deconstructing allusions, with also some strange dog stories, illustrating the loyalty of man's best friend as opposed to treachery of the other humans.

Illustrating... well, reason why the book would be promulgating a sort of Cabala, teaching somewhat more discreetly the lessons of Jewish mysticism, especially in its powerfully heretical antinonomian currents, as so profoundly disseminated by Benjamin's close friend Gershom Scholem, that of the great apostate Sabbatai Zevi. He was the Jewish "false messiah" of the 17th century who Pied Pipered Judaism into a cabalistic catastrophe.

Zevi had been 'to the mountain', like Moses before him, and had received that sensational 11th commandment, which was to disobey the first 10, incarnating also the realization of the law in its transgression; this was an obsession that Benjamin had to have picked up from Scholem (citing many references to it in their communication and contact).

Mehlman, accordingly, does a minute analysis and search of Benjamin's radio stories for children for evidence of this kind of subversive Cabala -, then comes to his very definite conclusions that Benjamin was being the (secular-heretic) cabalistic rabbi in storytelling for the kids. Bitterly ironic and contradictory, then, would be these shows being called "enlightenment for children", since Benjamin would be in opposition to the notion that the Enlightenment, at least in the humanist and humanitarian guise it has assumed for us, would make any sense of the structurally corrupt and deceiving world around us; as such an Enlightement was merely a fairy tale (the idea of progress?) only for children under 12 whom now Benjamin wants to disillusion!

But a deeper irony seems to be that the subversive "enlightenment" Benjamin professes instead for children here, has more to do with the reason and reasoning of De Sade than that of a Rousseau, Diderot, Condillac or Condorcet, for he sees these programs as heady lessons for kids in the cabalistic heresy and gnostic gnosis that this world, however otherwise it is in the interests of some to present it, is or might as well be in the hands of an evil demiurge. Understanding that comprises "enlightenment for children"!