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Walter Benjamin on Literature and Redemption
TFW Everything is Apparently the Same, But Radically Different
In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so everyone spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. “l wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn't have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.” The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. “And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked. “I’d have a shirt,” was the answer.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Benjamin’s tale is a tale about storytelling. It takes place on Sabbath, which is called m’eyn olam haba, a taste of the world to come. On this meditative day everyone wonders what redemption will mean for them. For the locals, redemption is a slight adjustment in their lives, more comfort, the attainment of a missing thing. For the stranger, redemption brings even less material improvement, but offers a new perspective on reality, a reorientation to time, and a new sense of identity. In the end, redemption makes no dramatic difference, but what it brings is the awakening of the imagination and the ability to tell a story.
The beggar could have wished for a shirt without wishing to have been a refugee king. The beggar could have wished to have been a refugee king so as to be able to say “At least, then, I’d be a king.” But the beggar wishes to be a refugee king only to have a shirt. Strange. It’s like the joke about the person who orders a hamburger, “I’ll have a burger, but hold the ketchup, the onion, the bread, and the meat.” “I’ll have the kingdom, but hold the kingdom.” The shirt is the trace that one might have been a king. It’s not clear when the beggar speaks if he is wearing a shirt or not. But either way, he’s not swinging for the fences.
I regard Benjamin’s allegory to be a story about the difference between the imagination required for a normal wish (I wish to have X) and the kind of imagination required to be a storyteller or producer of literature. In the literary imagination, a wish is expressed the same as in ordinary life, but is elevated by the backstory. A normal person wishes for a changed future; a storyteller engages in wishful thinking about the past. A normal person wants only incremental change. A storyteller seeks to connect fiction and fact, to bridge the chasm between myth and reality. The material wishes of the locals and the stranger are both plausible. If anything the stranger’s wish for a shirt is more attainable than the wishes of the others. But the stranger’s wish to have been a king is also less plausible. Who wishes to have had everything and lost everything?
On the other hand, the beggar’s performance of his wishes raises a question for his listeners: perhaps his wish is not optative, but descriptive. Perhaps he really is a king, and what he wishes for is not implausible at all. The messiah is figured in rabbinic thought as a beggar. Perhaps the fabulist is the messiah in disguise? Or perhaps literature takes the stuff of abject life and elevates it, giving it the shine of hope. The shirt has a double meaning, then, as it both covers the person, sheltering him from the elements (and recalling the exile from Eden when humanity first learned of its nakedness) and hides his true identity. To wish to have a cover is to wish to have depth. To wish to have the shirt is to wish that one’s story be both apparent and inapparent on one’s sleeve.
Does literature save us? Benjamin’s answer is meek. Fundamentally, it won’t make us rich, it won’t give us the carpenter’s bench, it won’t sate our interpersonal wants. (If it does these things it does so not as literature, but as something else.) It will, however, allow us to become deluded to the point that we can’t distinguish pretense and reality. It will allow us to see everything as a story. It will enable us to identify with archetypes and regard ourselves figuratively. It will, as if by magic, produce just enough of a receipt (the shirt) that we’ll wonder if it isn’t a kind of prayer. In contrast to Freud who regarded all stories as mere “wish-fulfillment,” Benjamin offers a vision of wishing as “story-fulfillment.”
For Benjamin, religion and literature offer us the opportunity to experience our world as apparently the same as it was before the Revelation but fundamentally different. This subtle offering may prove to be the endurance of any life-form that does not suffer death by algorithm and automation.