Few reading experiences rival the pleasure of watching the great Clive James eviscerate Walter Benjamin for his abstruse style of writing and the shallowness of his insights:
‘Thus, this very, might, just as’ —it’s the prose equivalent of a velvet fog: breathe it in and you’ll choke on cloth. Benjamin was young, but this style of argument was never to be long discarded. In the next volume, or perhaps the one after that, the critic grown older will be heard on more down-to-earth subjects, but invariably the attendant metaphysical speculation will send his treatment of them spiralling towards the ceiling, like the burnt paper wrapping of an amaretto cookie rising on its self-generated column of hot air. (The first time I ever saw that trick worked in an Italian restaurant, I thought immediately of a thin argument gaining altitude.) Apart from his remarks on the reproducible works of art and their lost aura, Benjamin’s other widely known brainwave is about how the broad pavements of Paris favour café life. The observation is persuasive, if commonplace even for the time it was made, but the prospective reader should be warned that the disquisition it instigated was endless.
I couldn’t stand Benjamin in grad school, and I’m glad somebody roasted him so effectively and irreverently.
One more quote on the subject of Benjamin’s most important book that he never finished because of his tragic suicide:
There is no reason to believe, and every reason to doubt, that the fully realized omnium gatherum would have kept a reasonable proportion between its author’s enviable knack for assessing the significance of what everybody else had already seen and his congenital propensity for inflating the results into a speculative rigmarole that nobody else would ever think or could even follow. The sceptical question lingers; how could a brain as sharp as his churn out so much mush?
Oh, to write like this… (Like Clive James, obviously, and not like the indigestible Benjamin). What a gift.
And it’s not all just poking fun. Right after the quoted passage, James explains how Benjamin’s writing was a reaction against the anti-Semitism of his times. I almost cried, it was so touching.