Walter Benjamin

Experience and Poverty


Published in Die Welt im Wort (Prague), December 1933. Gesammelte Schriften, II, 213-219. Translated by Rodney Livingstone.

Our childhood anthologies used to contain the fable of the old man who on his deathbed, fooled his sons into believing that there was treasure buried in the vineyard. They would only have to dig. They dug, but found no treasure. When autumn came, however, the vineyard bore fruit like no other in the whole land. They then perceived that their father had passed on valuable piece of experience: the blessing lies in hard work and not in gold. Such lessons in experience were passed on to us, either as threats or as kindly pieces of advice, all the while we were growing up: “Still wet behind the ears, and he wants to tell us what’s what!” “You’ll find out soon enough!” Moreover, everyone knew precisely what experience was: older people had always passed it one to younger ones. It was handed down in short form to sons and grandsons, with the authority of age, in proverbs with an often long-winded eloquence, as tales; sometimes as stories from foreign lands, at the fireside. – Where has it all gone? Who still meets people who really know how to tell a story? Where do you still hear words from the dying that last, and that pass from one generation to the next like a precious ring? Who can still call on a proverb when he needs one? And who will even attempt to deal with young people by giving them the benefit of their experience?

No, this much is clear: experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? And what poured out from the flood of war books ten years later was anything […] remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.

With this tremendous development of technology, a completely new poverty has descended on mankind. And the reverse side of this poverty is the oppressive wealth of ideas that has been spread among people, or rather has swamped them entirely – ideas that have come with the revival of astrology and the wisdom of yoga, Christian Science and chiromancy, vegetarianism and gnosis, scholasticism and spiritualism. For this is not a genuine revival but a galvanisation. We need to remind ourselves of Ensor’s magnificent paintings, in which the streets of great cities are filled with ghosts; philistines in carnival disguises roll endlessly down the streets, wearing distorted masks covered in flour and cardboard crowns on their heads. These paintings are perhaps nothing so much as the reflection of the ghastly and chaotic renaissance in which so many people have placed their hopes. But here we can see quite clearly that our poverty of experience is just a part of that larger poverty that has once again acquired a face – a face of the same sharpness and precision as that of a beggar in the Middle Ages. For what is the value of all our culture if it is divorced from experience? Where it all leads when that experience is simulated or obtained by underhanded means is something that has become clear to us from the horrific mishmash of styles and ideologies produced during the last century – too clear for us not to think it a matter of honesty to declare our bankruptcy. Indeed (let’s admit it), our poverty of experience is not merely poverty on the personal level, but poverty of human experience in general. Hence, a new kind of barbarism.

Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism. For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way; to begin with a little and build up further, looking neither left nor right. Among the great creative spirits, there have always been the inexorable ones who begin by clearing a tabula rasa. They need a drawing table; they were constructors. Such a constructor was Descartes, who required nothing more to launch his entire philosophy than the single certitude, “I think, therefore I am.” And he went on from there. Einstein, too, was such a constructor; he was not interested in anything in the whole wide world of physics except a minute discrepancy between Newton’s equations and the observations of astronomy. And this same insistence on starting from the very beginning also marks artists when they followed the example of mathematicians and built the world from stereometric forms, like the Cubists, or modeled themselves on engineers, like Klee. For just like any good car, whose every part, even the bodywork, obeys the needs above all of the engine, Klee’s figure too seem to have been designed on the drawing board, and even in their general expression they obey the laws of their interior. Their interior, rather than their inwardness; and this is what makes them barbaric.

Here and there, the best minds have long since started to think in these terms. A total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it – this is its hallmark. It makes no difference whether the poet Bert Brecht declares that Communism is the just distribution of poverty, not of wealth, or whether Adolf Loos, the forerunner of modern architecture, states, “I write only for people who possess a modern sensibility… I do not write for the people consumed by nostalgia for the Renaissance or the Rococo.” A complex artist like the painter Paul Klee and a programmatic one like Loos – both reject the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past. They turn instead to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present. No one has has greeted this present with greater joy and hilarity than Paul Scheerbart. There are novels by him that from a distance look like works by Jules Verne. But quite unlike Verne, who always has ordinary French or English gentlemen of leisure travelling around the cosmos in the most amazing vehicles, Scheerbart is interested in inquiring how our telescopes, our airplanes, our rockets can transform human beings as they haven been up to now into completely new, lovable, and interesting creatures. Moreover, these creatures talk in a completely new language. And what is crucial about this language is its arbitrary, constructed nature, in contrast to organic language. This is the distinctive feature of the language of Scheerbart’s human beings, or rather “people”; for humanlikeness – a principle of humanism – is something they reject. Even in their proper names: Peka, Labu, Sofanti, and the like are the names of the characters in the book Lesabendio, titled after its hero. The Russians, too, like to give their children “dehumanised” names: they call them “October”, after the month of the Revolution; “Pyatiletka,” after the Five-Year Plan; or “Aviakhim,” after an airline. No technical renovation of language, but its mobilisation in the service of the struggle or work – at any rate, of changing reality instead of describing it.

To return to Scheerbart: he placed the greatest value on housing his “people” – and, following this model, his fellow citizens – in buildings befitting their station, in adjustable, movable glass-covered dwellings of the kind since built by Loos and Le Corbusier. It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed. A cold and sober material into the bargain. Objects made of glass have no “aura.” Glass is, in general, the enemy of secrets. It is also the enemy of possession. The great writer André Gide once said, “Everything I wish to own becomes opaque to me.” Do people like Scheerbart dream of glass buildings because they are the spokesmen of a new poverty? But a comparison will perhaps reveal more than theory. If you enter a bourgeois room of the 1880s, for all the coziness it radiates, the strongest impression you receive may well be, “You’ve got no business here.” And in fact you have no business in that room, for there is no spot on which the owner has no left his mark – the ornaments on the mantlepiece, the antimacassars on the armchairs, the transparencies in the windows, the screen in front of the fire. A neat phrase by Brecht helps us out here: “Erase the traces!” is the refrain in the first poem of his Lesebuch für Städtbewohner [Reader for City-Dwellers]. Here in the bourgeois room, the opposite behaviour became the norm. And conversely, the intérieur forces the inhabitant to adopt the greatest possible number of habits – habits that do more justice to the interior he is living in than to himself. This is understood by everyone who is familiar with the absurd attitude of the inhabitants of such plush apartments when something broke. Even their way of showing their annoyance – and this affect, which is gradually starting to die out, was one that they could produce with great virtuosity – was above all the reaction of a person who felt that someone had obliterated “the traces of his days on earth.” This has now been achieved by Scheerbart, with his glass, and by the Bauhaus, with its steel. They have created rooms in which it is hard to leave traces. “It follows from the foregoing,” Scheerbart declared a good twenty years ago, “that we can surely talk about a ‘culture of glass.’ The new glass-milieu will transform humanity utterly. And now it remains only to be wished that the new glass-culture will not encounter too many enemies.”

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty – their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty – that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have “devoured” everything, both “culture and people,” and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: “You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on simple but ambitious plan.” Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day – a dream that shows us in its realised form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality. The existence of Mickey Mouse is such a dream for contemporary man. His life is full of miracles – miracles that not only surpass the wonders of technology, but make fun of them. For the most extraordinary thing about them is that they all appear, quite without any machinery, to have been improvised out of the body of Mickey Mouse, out of his supporters and persecutors, and out of the most ordinary pieces of furniture, as well as from trees, clouds, and the sea. Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort, have completely merged. And to people who have grown weary of the endless complications of everyday living and to whom the purpose of existence seems to have been reduced to the most distant vanishing point of an endless horizon, it must come as a tremendous relief to find a way of life in which everything is solved in the simplest and most comfortable way, in which a car is no heavier than a straw hat and the fruit on the tree becomes round as quickly as a hot-air balloon. And now we need to step back and keep our distance.

We have become impoverished. We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another, and have often left it at the pawnbroker’s for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of “the contemporary.” The economic crisis is at the door, and behind it is the shadow of the approaching war. Holding on to things has become the monopoly of a few powerful people, who, God knows, are no more human than the many; for the most part, they are more barbaric, but not in the good way. Everyone else has to adapt – beginning anew and with few resources. They rely on the men who have adopted the cause of the absolutely new and have founded it on insight and renunciation. In its buildings, pictures, and stories, mankind is preparing to outlive culture, if need be. And the main thing is that is does so with a laugh. This laughter may occasionally sound barbaric. Well and good. Let us hope that from time to time the individual will give a little humanity to the masses, who one day will repay him with compound interest.

Posted: January 2018
Category: Essays