Walter Benjamin: How WWI Changed the Meaning of ‘Barbaric’
On the 'Monstrous Development of Technology'
Our children’s storybooks contained the fable of the old man who, on his deathbed, convinced his sons that a treasure was buried in the vineyard. They simply had to dig for it. They dug and dug but found no sign of the treasure. But when autumn came, the vines yielded a harvest like none other in the land. The sons realized their father had given them the fruit of his experience: true wealth lies not in gold but in hard work. We were presented these lessons drawn from experience as threats or blandishments the whole time we were growing up: “Still wet behind the ears, and he’s got opinions!”
Everyone knew exactly what experience was: older generations had always shared theirs with the young. They did so succinctly, with the authority of age, in proverbs or at length and volubly, in stories, sometimes as stories from distant lands recounted to children and grandchildren by the fire. What happened to that custom? Can we still find people able to tell a proper story? How are the words of the dying passed on from generation to generation like an ancestral ring? Who, today, has a helpful proverb ready to hand? Who attempts to deal with the young by evoking past experience?
No, this much is clear: experience’s stock has fallen and did so for a generation that underwent, from 1914 to 1918, one of the most horrific experiences in world history. Perhaps this is not as surprising as it seems. Was the observation not made at the time that people returned mute from the battlefield? They did not come back richer in experiences they could impart, but poorer. What flowed into the flood of books about the war that appeared ten years later was anything but experience, which streams from lips to ears. No, this was not surprising at all.
For experiences have never been refuted more thoroughly than strategic ones were by trench warfare, economic ones by inflation, physical ones by hunger, ethical ones by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars found itself under the open sky in a landscape in which only the clouds were unchanged and where, in the midst of it all, in a force field crossed by devastating currents and explosions, stood the tiny, fragile human body.
This monstrous development of technology has brought a completely new kind of poverty to human life. The flip side of this poverty is the oppressive wealth of ideas that has come from the revival of astrology and yogic wisdom, Christian Science and palmistry, vegetarianism and gnosis, scholasticism and spiritualism and has spread among—or, rather, over—the population. For this is not a true revival, but a galvanization. Think of Ensor’s marvelous paintings in which a specter haunts the streets of great cities: an endless throng of petty bourgeois revelers in carnival costumes with flour-covered grimacing masks and sequined crowns streams through the streets. These paintings are perhaps first and foremost a portrayal of the horrific and chaotic renaissance in which so many have placed their hopes.
Yet what is clearly evident here is that our poverty of experience is merely a part of the greater poverty that once again has an aspect as distinct and precise as that of the beggar in the Middle Ages. Of what value is our entire cultural heritage if we have no connection to it through experience? The consequences of feigning or misappropriating experience are too clear in the mishmash of styles and ideologies created in the last century for us not to find it honorable to acknowledge our poverty. Let us admit it: our poverty of experience is not only an impoverishment of private experience but of human experience as a whole. It is, therefore, a new kind of barbarism.
Barbarism? Indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive notion of barbarism. For where does poverty of experience lead the barbarian? It leads him to start again from the beginning, to start fresh, to make do with little, to rebuild with next to nothing and without looking left or right. Among the great creators there were always those ruthless spirits who began by wiping the slate clean. What they needed was a drawing board; they were constructors. One such constructor was Descartes, who wanted nothing more for his entire philosophy than a single certainty, “I think, therefore I am,” and he took it from there. Einstein, too, was such a constructor, whose interest was suddenly captivated by only one thing in the entire realm of physics, the small discrepancy between Newton’s equations and the observations of astronomy.
Artists were driven by this same desire to begin again from scratch when, like the Cubists, they adopted the methods of mathematicians and built the world from stereometric forms or, like Klee, adopted the methods of engineers. For Klee’s figures were, so to speak, conceived on a drawing board, and like any well-designed automobile, every element of whose bodywork responds to the exigencies of the motor, their expression accords with their internal structure. Their internal structure rather than their inwardness: this is what makes them barbaric.
Here and there, the best minds began some time ago to reflect on these things. They are marked by their utter lack of illusion about our era and their complete commitment to it. It is the same thing when Bert Brecht declares that communism does not consist in the just distribution of wealth but of poverty, and when the precursor of modern architecture, Adolf Loos, writes: “I write only for those who have a modern sensibility I do not write for those who are consumed with nostalgia for the Renaissance or the Rococo.” An artist as intricate as the painter Paul Klee and one as programmatic as Loos—both reject the traditional, ceremonious, noble image of man adorned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past and turn toward their naked contemporary who cries like a newborn in the soiled diapers of the present era.
No one has greeted this era with as much joy and laughter as Paul Scheerbart. He has written novels that, from a distance, resemble those by Jules Verne, but quite unlike Verne, whose fantastic vehicles only ever transport little English and French pensioners through outer space, Scheerbart is interested in the question of what completely new, lovely, and lovable creatures our telescopes, our airplanes, and rockets will turn the man of yesterday into.
These new creatures, by the way, already speak an utterly new language. What is significant about this language is its arbitrary construction in contrast to organic languages. This is the distinctive trait of the language spoken by Scheerbart’s human characters, or rather, by his “folks.” For they reject all resemblance to mankind—a principle of humanism. Even in proper names: the characters in the book named after its hero, Lesabéndio, are called Peka, Labu, or Sofanti. The Russians also like to give their children “dehumanized” names. They name them “October” after the month of the Revolution, or “Pyatiletka” after the five-year plan, or “Aviakhim” after the airline. There is no technical renewal of language; instead it is mobilized in the service of the struggle or of work—used, in any case, to change reality, not describe it.
Scheerbart, to return to him, places the greatest value on housing his characters—and, following their example, his fellow citizens—in accommodations worthy of their status: in adjustable and displaceable houses like those Loos and Le Corbusier have since designed. It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard and smooth material, to which nothing can be fixed. Glass objects have no “aura.” In general, glass is the enemy of secrecy. It is also the enemy of property. The great writer André Gide once said, “Every object I want to own becomes opaque to me.” Do people like Scheerbart dream of glass buildings because they are apostles of a new poverty? Perhaps a comparison will tell us more at this point than theory.
When you enter a bourgeois drawing room of the 1880s, for all the sense of intimacy and comfort it may radiate, the strongest impression you get is that “you have no business being here.” Indeed, you have no business being there because there is not the slightest space on which the owner has not already left his mark: on the shelves with his knickknacks, on the armchair with his throw rug, on the windows with his transparencies, in front of the fireplace with his screen.
Brecht had a fine phrase that will help us get away, far away: “Erase all traces!” is the refrain in the first poem of “A Reader for Those Who Live in Cities.” In the bourgeois drawing room, the opposite attitude has become the custom. In return, the intérieur requires the occupant to adopt as many habits as possible, habits more suited to the interior in which he lives than to his life. This is clear to everyone who has witnessed the absurd state the occupants of these plush chambers worked themselves into when something in the household broke. Even the way they showed irritation—and they are virtuosos of this affect—bore every resemblance to the reaction of someone who had “the trace of his days on earth” erased.
Scheerbart with his glass and the Bauhaus with its steel have accomplished this: they have created rooms in which it is difficult to leave any trace. “In light of the foregoing,” Scheerbart wrote twenty years ago, “we can certainly speak of a ‘glass culture.’ This new glass milieu will utterly transform mankind. And now we can only hope that the new glass culture will not encounter too many opponents.” Poverty of experience: this does not mean that mankind is longing for new experiences. No, they long to be freed from their experiences; they long for an environment in which they can show their outer poverty and ultimately their inner poverty as well to best advantage, to assert it so purely and clearly that it becomes something respectable. They are not always ignorant or inexperienced. One can often say the opposite: they have gulped it all down, “culture” and “people,” and are now suffering from surfeit and fatigue. No one feels the sting of Scheerbart’s words more than they: “You are all so tired—and the only reason is that you do not focus all your thoughts on a very simple but very magnificent plan.”
Sleep follows fatigue, and it is not rare for dreams to compensate for the day’s sorrow and dejection and show the very simple but very magnificent existence we don’t have the strength for when awake. The existence of Mickey Mouse is one such dream. It is an existence filled with wonders that not only surpass but also ridicule the wonders of technology. For what is most remarkable about these wonders is that they are all improvised without the assistance of any machinery out of Mickey Mouse’s own body, out of his supporters and his opponents, out of the most ordinary pieces of furniture, or just as often out of a tree, clouds, or the sea.
Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort are perfectly united here. And before the eyes of people worn out by the endless complications of daily life, people for whom the purpose of life seems but the most distant vanishing point in an infinite horizon of means, appears the liberating image of an existence that in every twist and turn is self-sufficient in the simplest and most comfortable of ways, in which an automobile weighs no more than a straw hat and the fruit on the tree swells as quickly as a hot-air balloon. But let us keep our distance, even take a step back.
We are now impoverished. We have given away one piece after another of our human heritage, often pawning it for a hundredth of its value in exchange for the small change of the “up-to-date.” The economic crisis looms at the door and behind it, a shadow of the coming war. Holding on is now the reserve of a few powerful people who, God knows, are not more humane than the many; they are in most cases more barbaric, but not in the good way. The rest have to make do as they can and begin again with little. They have made common cause with those who have devoted themselves to the radically new, founded on insight and renunciation. In their buildings, paintings, and stories, humanity is preparing to survive culture, if it comes to that. And the main thing is, they laugh as they do it. Their laughter may sound barbaric now and again. Let it. It may be that the individual will surrender a bit of humanity to the masses who will return it to him one day with compound interest.
From The Storyteller Essays by Walter Benjamin, translated from the German by Tess Lewis. Used with permission of The New York Review of Books.