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TitleIrving Wohlfarth - No-Man's-Land: On Walter Benjamin's "Destructive Character"
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Table of Contents
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	p. 51
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	p. 53
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	p. 55
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		Front Matter [pp. 1-1]
			Review: The Critical Difference [pp. 2-9]
			Review: The Sublime and the Romance of the Other [pp. 10-23]
			Review: Northrop Frye's Literary Anthropology [pp. 24-33]
			Review: Sailing to Byzantium: Classical Discourse and Its Self-Absorption [pp. 34-46]
			No-Man's-Land: On Walter Benjamin's "Destructive Character" [pp. 47-65]
			Review: Anarchism Revisited: A New Philosophy [pp. 66-79]
			Review: A Decelebration of Philosophy [pp. 80-90]
		Back Matter
Document Text Contents
Page 1

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"The Destructive Character"

It could happen that, looking back upon one's life, one might come
to the realization that almost all the deeper relations one had undergone
originated with people about whose "destructive character" everyone
was unanimous. One day, perhaps accidentally, one would come up
against this fact; and the more violent the shock, the better one's chances
of portraying the destructive character.

The destructive character's only watchword is: Make room; his only
activity: clearing out. His need for fresh air and free space is stronger than
any hatred.

The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying re-
juvenates, because it clears out of the way the traces of our own age; it
cheers up because every clearing away means, for the destroyer, a com-
plete reduction of his own condition, indeed the extraction of its root.
Such an Apollonian version of the destroyer imposes itself once one rec-
ognizes how prodigiously the world is simplified when it is tested with a
view to its destruction. Such is the great chain of being. It provides the
destructive character with an all-embracing spectacle of the deepest har-

The destructive character is a tireless worker. It is nature that dictates
his tempo, at least indirectly: he has to forestall it. Otherwise it will itself
take over the destruction.

The destructive character envisions nothing. He has few needs, least
of all to know what will take the place of the destroyed. At first, for a
moment at least, the empty space, the place where the object stood, the
victim lived. Someone will turn up who needs it without occupying it.

The destructive character does his job. It is only creative work that he
avoids. Just as the creator seeks out solitude for himself, the destroyer
must continuously surround himself with people, with witnesses to his

The destructive character is a signal. Just as a trigonometric sign is
exposed on all sides to the wind, he is exposed on all sides to chatter. To
defend him against it is senseless.

The destructive character is not at all interested in being understood.
Efforts to this end he considers superficial. Misunderstanding cannot af-
fect him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destruc-
tive state institutions, provoked it. The most petty-bourgeois of all
phenomena, gossip, only comes about because people don't want to be
misunderstood. The destructive character lets himself be misunderstood;
he does not encourage gossip.

The destructive character is the enemy of those whose home is their
case [Etui-Mensch] and who merely want their comfort. They line their
shell [Gehause] with velvet, on which they impress their traces. The de-
structive character wipes away even the traces of destruction.

diacritics/June 1978 47

Page 10

min had subjected the most recent version of political aestheticism to sustained
critical annihilation. His review of Krieg und Krieger, a volume of essays edited by
Ernst Junger and devoted to the glory of modern warfare, was simply entitled
Theories of German Fascism [GS, 3, 238 ff.].

4. Between liberalism, Marxism and anarchism

Benjamin saw in pacifism no alternative to the cult of war but only its mirror

image. His own Critique of Violence (1921) was a theory of the "divine" counter-
violence capable of "arresting" the continuity of "mythical" violence [GS, 2, 1, 199].
He rediscovered it in Georges Sorel's conception of a proletarian general strike
which would aim not at political and economic blackmail but at the "suspension of
law" and the "demolition of the state" [202, 194]. As a "pure means" such action
would, regardless of its possibly catastrophic consequences, be "non-violent"; the
state, however, brands such action as violence pure and simple [ibid.]. Awareness
that the state and its laws were founded on revolutionary violence [rechtsetzende
Gewalt] was, Benjamin argued, eroded by the latter's transformation into a law-and-
order conservatism [rechtserhaltende Gewalt] which legitimized the suppression of
subsequent revolutionary subversion merely by identifying it as violence. Modern
parliaments thus exhibited a weakened "sense of the constitutive violence vested in
them" [190, 202]. Unscientific though Benjamin's political analysis may have seemed,
it was uncannily accurate. In the Weimar Republic liberal democracy and ideology
were to prove no match for fascist violence. "While he spoke," Benjamin noted in
1938 after a political discussion with Brecht in Denmark, "I felt the impact of powers
equal to those of fascism," powers that "sprang from depths of history no less deep
than fascist power" [UB, 120]. The destructive character can take on the dark forces
of latter-day, "enlightened" myth only because his own force goes equally deep. It is
a matching combination, at once modern surface and archaic depth, "signal" and

"oracle." Oracles do not, of course, abide by parliamentary procedures. To invoke
such "destructive state institutions" at the critical juncture when parliamentary
democracy was trying to preserve itself from destruction was to invite political mis-
understanding. Benjamin had invoked Sorel's rehabilitation of violence without feel-

diacritics/June 1978 55

Page 11

ing impelled to elaborate on its political ambiguity. Disregarding the rules of liberal
scholarship, he had "cited" it out of context. From a liberal standpoint this was
tantamount to a leap into the wrong camp, a blurring of crucial distinctions.

But a middle-of-the-road verdict on the extremism of The Destructive Character
would itself have blurred decisive political dividing-lines. A comparison with Thomas
Mann's Doktor Faustus indicates as much. So broadly are the interrelations between
nihilism, aestheticism, and political barbarism there construed that no positive no-
tion of destruction can be visualized that is not a sinister portent of fascist violence.
From the old-world humanist standpoint of Mann's narrator Serenus Zeitblom no
hard-and-fast distinction could utimately be made between Benjamin's destructive
character and Jonger's front-line hero. His portrayal of the so-called "Kridwiss cir-
cle," a group of proto-fascist conservatives who champion Sorel in the name of a
"deliberate rebarbarization" [Doktor Faustus (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1963), pp. 393,
397], is a case in point. "Their world was at once old and new, revolutionary and
regressive," no more or less reactionary than "the path that leads back round a
sphere" [393, 395]. In the image of the sphere "progress and regression," left and
right, pre- and post-bourgeois impulses, both the reconciliation of myth and en-
lightenment and its diabolical parody, are interlinked as part of the same vicious
circle. This no doubt accurate diagnosis of the dangerous games that certain intellec-
tual cliques played simultaneously supplies the ideological scheme for an all-
purpose defense-mechanism. How The Destructive Character would have been read
on this basis can be deduced from Zeitblom's shocked reaction to the Kridwiss
circle's claim that the First World War had definitively demolished bourgeois tradi-
tions. What most alarms him is that this should be announced in accents of joyful
wisdom. That a cultural avant-garde should denounce the culture it feeds on-"and
cheerfully at that" [392]-Zeitblom can only interpret as an act of "self-denial" [394].
Anxious humanists might likewise be expected to confuse the destructive character
with the common enemy. It is, however, a different "relation of regression and
destruction" [GS, 1, 3, 1244] that he embodies; and in shedding bourgeois selfhood,
he rids himself in the process of its accompanying forms of self-denial.

If the destructive character lays himself open to the liberal confusion of left and
right, orthodox Marxists could be counted on to charge him with anarchism. To
protect him against them would indeed be "senseless." A strain of "revolutionary
nihilism" [GS, 2, 1, 299] is inseparable from Benjamin's writings. The old struggle
between Marxism and anarchism was far from dead. But Benjamin felt no compelling
need to decide between them. On the contrary, he regularly accentuated his anarch-
ist sympathies whenever he made a move in the communist direction, as if to test
both in the border area between them. His essay on surrealism wants anarchist
"revolt" inserted into the "methodical and disciplined preparation of the revolu-
tion" [GS, 2, 1, 307]; conversely, and synonymously, the political methods of the
communists are to focus on the anarchist goal of ending all political goals [Br, 426].
Marx, Bakunin [GS, 2, 1, 306] and Blanqui [11/, 262] variously figure in Benjamin's
writings as comrades in arms. Such imaginary alliances, it could be objected,
obscure actual historical conflicts. To this there is a concrete historical answer.
Warring factions which no existing state socialism could reconcile were to be made
to interact in the non-man's-land of an openly committed mind. Relations that had
been prematurely broken off needed restoring. The destructive character posts him-
self at their intersection. He conjoins the contradictory forces of a divided yet com-
mon opposition. After all, not only anarchism but Marx too refuses to "envision" the
future, and thereby contaminate it with petty-bourgeois dreams; and, conversely,
organization is Blanqui's watchword. More radical even than radicals, and better-
adjusted, too, the destructive character is an anarchist in the guise of a banker.

Praxis is, according to one of Benjamin's letters, only possible "in religious or
political terms": "I do not grant any essential distinction between the two. Nor for
that matter any mediation" [Br, 425]. The Destructive Character in turn nullifies the
standard alternative between political Romanticism and pragmatic realism. Opposi-
tions which Benjamin disqualified have, however, reappeared in the secondary liter-


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8. "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" (Gramsci)

The Destructive Character is the scene of a peculiar "identification with the

aggressor."'1 Only in the intervening space it simultaneously creates could the text
have come into being. The brief, self-reflexive preamble hints that one of the text's

enabling conditions was the match made between a character who effaces traces and
the writer who retains them. The destructive character, one of those moderns who
have made it their business to "free themselves from experiences" [GS, 2, 1, 218], is
himself the object of an almost Proustian experience. "Looking back upon one's
life," one might, "perhaps accidentally," be jolted into recognizing the pattern of
one's "deeper relations." This could scarcely happen to anyone as shock-resistant as
the destructive character. It is, on the other hand, only by borrowing his technique
that the "blotter" can trace his portrait. In the interval between the shock and its
articulation-the gap between the first paragraph and the rest of the text-the

"mimetic faculty" [GS, 2, 1, 210], which is itself destructive,11 has been at work. Its

object, the destroyer's strength, is itself mimetic-the protective mimicry it takes to

negotiate the jungle of the cities. The way the text imposes itself corresonds to its

subject's faits accomplis. It likens him to an oracle, and itself exercises an oracular

authority all the more mysterious for having removed any overt traces of the occult.
Instead of offering the reader a piece of well-developed characterization, it leaves

empty gaps, eschews progress, makes fresh starts, and prompts misunderstandings
that it neither seeks nor avoids. It proceeds, in other words, like the destruc-
tive character himself. What began as a simple opposition turns out to be an elective

affinity between secretly interrelated positions. To "hand on" his version of the
destructive character, the author has forged a destructive style; conversely, the
destructive character "stands in the vanguard of the traditionalists." The lines are
crossed: the no-man's-land is formed by the x of a chidsmus. Both the destructive
character and The Destructive Character are intersections of tensions. The text sets

up an interaction between the character, himself a conjunction of forces, and his

"other"; and the destructive character is himself the product of that encounter. Was

Benjamin himself a destructive character? A metaphysician, melancholiac and collec-
tor, he inhabited a far from empty space. He was by his own account no "unwritten

page" [Br, 579] and hence could not bring himself to "clear out" of Europe. But in

Brecht, Baudelaire, Kraus, Loos, Blanqui and others he was drawn to destructive
characters that corresponded to and with his own.

Their Denkbild is both "an image from involuntary memory [...] which sud-

denly appears at a moment of danger" [GS, 1, 3, 1243] and a construct "designed on
the drawing-board" [GS, 2, 1, 216]. The authoritative, if not authoritarian, gesture of
the text imparts self-actualizing power to a speculative construction. Like its subject,
it forces, wills, open a passage. The closed formation of its assertions asserts them

against the power of the facts. Its "technique is that of the putsch" [CB, 100]; it too
"forestalls" normal expectations. Embracing a multiplicity of existing idioms, it

"prodigiously" simplifies them; a montage of heterogeneous materials, it is yet all of
a piece. There is indeed scant trace of any breaks that would betray the hidden

presence of inner tensions. They too have been effaced, no more and no less, to
reinforce "the unreality of despair." Where the Baudelairean dandy represented

Io This concept of Anna Freud's recurs in Adorno's writings on Benjamin. Cf. Br, p. 16 and the
following response to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: "'[. .] as if you
were afraid [. . .] of the invading barbarity and had resorted to placing an inverse taboo on the
feared object" [Ober Walter Benjamin (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970], p. 130]. More generally,
Benjamin's critics regularly reintroduce psychological categories precisely at those points where
he himself was looking for ways out of bourgeois interiority. By contrast, Benjamin's One-Way
Street is dedicated to the woman who "engineered it in the author" GS, 4, 1, 85]. The destruc-
tive character evacuates "object relations" and "libidinal cathexes"; he no more "invests"
people than he "occupies" space.

" . 'In my [Karl Kraus's] case psychological insight is combined with the larger capacity to
ignore psychological givens.' This is the actor's inhuman, cannibalistic side" [GS, 2, 1, 358].


Page 20

a fictive persona who redoubled the individualism of the bourgeois monad
inan effort to master the problematic situation of the "lyric poet in the era of
high capitalism," the destructive character has the task of rescuing a still bleaker
situation by dismantling the subject. The flineur "makes a virtue out of necessity,
and in this displays the structure which is in every way characteristic of Baudelaire's
conception of the hero" [CB, 70-71]. The analogous brittleness of Benjamin's post-
heroic hero is heroically denied by the contrary assertion of his unshakeable
strength. But his robust doings remain a fragile fiction, his realism magical, and the
leap beyond the merely literary perhaps still all too literary. In reality-a relevant
criterion in his case, if also the touchstone of the "victors"-the established order
would have little trouble in containing or harnessing his subversion. What "the
drowning man clutches at" is a "straw" [GS, 1, 3, 1243]. How, then, decide whether
the intended embodiment of total vigilance is any more than the mirage of a rescuing
organizer, whether the "organ of historical awakening" [CB, 176] is not a last-minute
dream that mistakes itself for its awakening, a phantasmagoria of the exterior, the
trap of antiromantic Romanticism? Benjamin himself left the question open whether
Blanqui's relative lack of interest in the theoretical underpinnings of socialism might
not have been "rooted in a deep-seated mistrust of the findings that wait for anyone
who immerses himself too thoroughly in the structures that govern existence."

This commentary has essayed a "philological" reconstruction of the buried con-
text in which The Destructive Character intervened. Commentators and philologists
are by profession preservers and readers of traces, "collectors, conservative, con-
serving natures," who, rather than make "situations [. . .] quotable" as destructive
types do, seek to ensure that "things" remain "transmissible" [GS, 4, 2, 1000]. What
nevertheless justifies the commentary in Benjamin's eyes is the urgent need to pre-
serve texts from destruction. "Tomorrow," he predicted, "may bring disasters of
such colossal dimensions that we can imagine ourselves separated from the texts
[.. .] of yesterday as though by centuries" [UB, 44]. An "exhaustive" archeology of
The Destructive Character would, however, rebury it. What needs to resurface is its
force. The only adequate response is to "quote" it, thereby destroying it, but intro-
ducing "prudence and circumspection into the destruction" [Br, 709]. For The De-
structive Character not merely describes its own destructive production, it also pre-
scribes what its reception should be-an exchange at the going rate. "Presence of
mind is of the essence [. ..]. To interpret or to use [the signals], that is the question
[.. .]. If we miss the chance, then, and only then, is it decipherable. We read it. But
now it is too late" [GS, 4, 1, 141]. The present reading stops where intervention
should, belatedly, begin.

Irving Wohlfarth teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon.

diacritics/June 1978 65

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