Hope in the Past: On Walter Benjamin

Critical Inquiry 4 (3):491-506 (1978)

Abstract
It is no accident that the book Benjamin wrote as a reader of himself, A Berlin Childhood, also begins with the description of a park, that of the Tiergarten zoo. However great the difference may seem between this collection of short prose pieces and Proust's three-thousand-page novel when viewed from the outside, Benjamin's book illustrates [his] fascination... A sentence in his book points to the central experience of Proust's work: that almost everything childhood was can be withheld from a person for years, suddenly to be offered him anew as if by chance. "Like a mother who holds the new-born infant to her breast without waking it, life proceeds for a long time with the still tender memory of childhood" . Also reminiscent of Proust is the description of the mother who, on evenings when guests are in the house, comes in to see her child only fleetingly to say good night; so, too, is that of the boy attentively listening to the noises which penetrate into his room from the courtyard below and thus from a foreign world. The studied elevation of the newly invented telephone to the level of a mythical object is anticipated in Proust as well. And the relationship to and influence of the earlier work can be demonstrated even in the use of metaphor. But little is gained by this approach, and it would not be easy to refute the objection that such similarities lie in the authors' common raw material: childhood, the fin de siècle epoch, and the attempt to bring them both into the present. Peter Szondi was professor of comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin at the time of his death in 1971. His many influential works include Theorie des modernen Dramas , Versuch über das Tragische , and a five-volume collection of his lectures. Harvey Mendelsohn is the principle translator of the fourteen-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography; he is currently working on translations of a French commentary on Heraclitus and a selection of Szondi's essays to be published by Yale University Press
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DOI 10.1086/447949
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