Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Walter Benjamin's funny, depressing "Unpacking My Library" - Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

There are other ways to read Walter Benjamin now, maybe better ways, but people are still reading the book that introduced him in English, Illuminations (1968, tr. Harry Zorn), carefully assembled by Hannah Arendt.  So I read it, too.

The collection begins, after Arendt’s long introduction, with one of the most depressing essays I have ever read, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), which is also charming and funny and the perfect way to meet a Benjamin who is not an intimidating theorist.

The conceit of the essay is in the title.  Benjamin is a real collector.  The essay is about the collector, a bit of light theorizing about the nature of book collectors filled out with a couple of pages on his greatest triumphs.  He is unpacking his books, which have been in storage for two years, lovingly handling each of his treasures, while somehow simultaneously writing an essay about his love.  Or let’s say dictating the essay.  Talking out loud.

The depressing part is all in the future.  A year later, Benjamin flees Germany for, eventually, Paris.  I do not know what happened to his “several thousand volumes.”  They could not have gone with him.

Nine years after the essay is published, Benjamin has to flee again, from Paris to Spain.  This journey, a fiasco, ends in suicide.

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

Ah, what a line.  Just brutal.  In context, Benjamin is arguing about public versus private collections, that “the phenomenon of collecting loses it meaning as it loses its personal owner,” which is surely true since the meaning of the collection is entirely personal.  Or there exists a meaning that is entirely personal.  Earlier in this paragraph Benjamin opens a box containing his mother’s scrapbooks – talk about personal – “booklike creations from fringe areas” which are a central part of any “living library,” and which Benjamin calls the “seeds” of his substantial collection of children’s books.

I wonder what happened to that copy of Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin that he bought at auction when he was a student, that he treasured so much.  Someone could write a novel following the book around.  Or a history, maybe.

“Unpacking My Library” turns out to be about the fragility of civilization.

I am not much of a collector at this point, but I recognize this line: “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”  But this is true for every reader, even the one who depends entirely on the public library.  The true collection of every reader, the only one that is always there when I need it, is the one in my head.  Is it ever a mess.

Benjamin himself is quite funny in this essay.  “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”  And the second-best way is to borrow books and never return them!  I did not notice so many jokes in the rest of Illuminations.  Oh well.  I will keep writing about it for a couple of days.


  1. I must admit, until recently I wouldn't have connected Benjamin with humour. And his eventual fate kind of colours the way you read him. But The Storyteller has some wonderful dry wit hidden in it so I may have to rethink how I see him!


  2. Maybe the essay is a bad introduction, because it gives the wrong idea. The book as a whole is not exactly packed with laughs. But he has some different modes, as you mention, some of which lend themselves not just to irony but humor.

    When Benjamin is drier, it is easier to ignore his biography. But this essay really rubbed it in.