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things to charm a storyteller

By Polly Dickson.


Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso, 2014)

‘Dear Invisible ones!’
– Benjamin’s beginning address in ‘Children’s Literature’ (1929)

It speaks from within the home, with the voice of a guest. And, like a guest, ‘upon arrival, it is usually assessed just as quickly and as sharply’ (‘Reflections on Radio’, 1930-1). The voice of radio, unhampered by flesh or face, rings of unbelonging.

Radio Benjamin (2014), edited by Lecia Rosenthal, is the first book in English devoted entirely to Walter Benjamin’s work for radio. It artfully compiles some forty radio programmes and plays produced and broadcast between 1927 and 1933, most of them translated here for the first time into English by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana K. Reese, and places them alongside a selection of his theoretical writings on radio.

Listener and broadcaster in these texts have a furtive, strained relationship. Inhabiting the same room – for ‘the radio listener, as opposed to every other kind of audience, receives the programming in his home’ (‘Reflections on Radio’) – the two are invisible to one another: to each other, they are Benjamin’s ‘dear invisible ones’. Theirs is a highly mediated intimacy that can be stifled immediately – an intimacy that lacks both touch and body. Benjamin’s broadcast is a space of compromise, where the valence of sound is afforded only by the conspicuous loss or suspension of sight and touch. As Rosenthal puts it in her introduction: ‘the impossibility of giving a complete account remains an essential component of the medium of sound broadcast and audio performance itself’.

There is a word to fit this necessary concession of the radio voice: acousmatic. ‘Acousmatic sound’ is sound that we hear with a cause that we cannot see; sound from an invisible source. Benjamin’s texts are already a curious group of creatures, with topics ranging from ‘True Dog Stories’ (1930) to the Borsig car factory (‘Borsig’, 1930), from ‘The Mississippi Flood of 1927’ (1932) to ‘What the Germans were reading while their classical Authors were writing’ (1932). There are drifting scenes lifted from childhood, bright accounts of tales of fraud and swindle and disaster, didactic ‘listening models’ (Hörmodelle) offering advice for the workplace, and a handful of raucous plays. And the texts are made more curious still for having undergone a double upheaval, twice removed from their sensory places of origin. First is the acousmatic loss: the compromise of the radio voice which can be heard only at the loss of its visual base. The second is the loss of sound itself – for, with the exception of a fragment from the play ‘Much Ado about Kasper’, no recordings of the texts remain. It is a fact that prickles, constantly, in reading them. In the face of what they may have lost, writes Rosenthal: ‘we must read and imagine what we cannot hear’.

Benjamin’s own dubiousness towards the (still relatively young) medium of radio is made obvious in excerpts from his letters to historian Gershom Scholem and others expressing disregard for the pieces and stressing his financial motives in producing them: ‘the series of countless talks… are of no interest except in economic terms’; ‘the work I do simply to earn a living’. But at moments, Benjamin’s tired scepticism reaches a more acute distaste for the strange power of the radio voice. Radio, after all – as it gives stage to the bodiless voice and invites it into the homes of the masses – was to gain quick, easy hold under Fascism. The last airing of Benjamin’s radio work, a talk that contained the beginnings of his autobiographical Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (1950), was aired on 29 January 1933, the day before Hitler became Chancellor and the National Socialists made their first live nationwide broadcast.

‘Much Ado about Kasper’, one of two radio plays for children in the collection, offers perhaps the most politically unnerving account of the radio voice. It is also one of the only pieces that Benjamin grudgingly appraises, judging it ‘notable from a technical point of view’. Kasper, a stock German puppet character and the play’s unfortunate protagonist, is approached by Herr Maulschmidt, a radio announcer who wants to give him voice, as it were (the name Maulschmidt suggests a meaning like mouth-forger), by putting him on the radio and promising him an audience of listeners ‘all over the world’. Kasper, frankly unconvinced, gives a brief broadcast long enough only to let out a flurry of insults and threats. Then, on the run from the police – and blundering through a series of strange, noisy adventures at a fairground, then at the zoo, surrounded by children – he finds, on returning to his home and recounting his adventures to his wife, that his bed is secretly miked up and that his narrative has been broadcast on air: ‘You spoke on the radio,’ gloats Maulschmidt, ‘even if you didn’t know it’. Kasper’s doleful response – ‘I’ve just heard for the first time what radio is’ – suggests that what radio is is the sound of repeated narrative, copied noise: in a voice not, after all, given so much as taken.

The play is a brawl of recycled noise – one must wonder about its ‘technical point of view’, about how things would sound were this piece ever to be heard in full again. We would hear Kasper wandering blindly through fog, Kasper bickering with Maulschmidt, Kasper playing at interpreting animal noises for the amusement of children, and leading extended conversations, firstly with himself, then with the strange figure Lipsuslapsus:

KASPER: What should I do with my life so that later on I will regret nothing?
KASPER: How do I begin to assess my abilities?
KASPER: Should I not perhaps study philosophy? For what is a man without wisdom?

It is a discomforting performance – though not a little strained (and particularly in translation) – of the impish echo, snatching words and peeling them away from their sense (lapsus is Latin for a lapse, slip, error). The play was originally conceived as a kind of guessing-game. Its first broadcast on 10 March 1932 called upon its child audience ‘to guess what the noises mean, and to share their opinions with the radio station’. Again, Benjamin’s radio work drives his listeners’ attentions towards the uncoupling of sound from its origin. His worry about ‘what radio is’ refers not just to the simple, though insidious, suggestion of undercover surveillance. It has also to do with radiophonic reproduction, with radio’s recycling of noise. Benjamin makes a drama of sound, encouraging his listeners (presumably adults as well as children, given it aired at the somewhat unchildish timeslot of 7:45-8:45 in the evening) to become more critically attuned to the practice enabling and underlying their listening: shifting focus to the piece of technology through which the play is performed and mediated.

Elsewhere in Radio Benjamin, such misgivings about form are coupled with a tone of sincerity requisite for storytelling. Even at his most sceptical, Benjamin never wanders far from this necessary earnestness, this conviction in narrative, particularly in his talks for children:

Have you ever had to wait at the pharmacy and noticed how the pharmacist fills a prescription? On a scale with very delicate weights, ounce by ounce, dram by dram, he weighs all the substances and specks that make up the final powder. That is how I feel when I tell you something over the radio. My weights are the minutes; very carefully I must weigh how much of this, how much of that, so the mixture is just right. (From ‘The Lisbon Earthquake’, 1931)

Storytelling is an act of curation. The telling must be timely; the teller must take care and deliberation as he loads visual material into the verbal field – the age-old issue of ekphrasis – without risking capsize (or overdose). Narrative, for Benjamin, is an indubitably visual, tactile business. Later, in ‘The Storyteller’ (1936), he will explicitly compare it to material craftsmanship. Here, its translation to radio demands the alchemical care of the pharmacist weighing out his powders ‘so the mixture is just right’.

Benjamin’s storyteller par excellence is E. T. A. Hoffmann, the German Romantic author of fantasy and horror tales of the early nineteenth century. Hoffmann features in two pieces here – ‘Demonic Berlin’ (1930), a talk for children, and ‘E. T. A. Hoffmann and Oskar Panizza’ (1930), a lecture for the series ‘Parallels’ of the Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk-Zeitung. Benjamin’s fascination is fixed on Hoffmann’s ‘predilection for the bizarre, the unconventional, the eerie, the inexplicable’, and for his ‘uncommon observational ability’. Tellingly, Benjamin’s depiction of Hoffmann is always as the surfacing of a bodiless voice. He fancifully re-creates Hoffmann’s own voice, telling stories amongst literary companions in the punchhouse: ‘“Pardon me for cutting you off, my dear, but do you not see that accursed little imp creeping out from under the floorboards in the corner, just over there to the right?…”’ And he recalls, too, the voice of his own schoolteacher, making the curious promise: ‘“To what end someone would write such stories, I will tell you sometime soon.”’ That lilting question – to what end someone might tell such stories – fumbles its way implicitly through all of these talks.

Benjamin’s Hoffmann is the ‘physiognomist of Berlin’. Physiognomy – the act of reading and drawing knowledge from the superficial features of faces and face-like forms – captures the coincidence of the visual and the tactile. It is dependent on the mimetic recognition of the traces made by habit. Faces, in Benjamin’s ‘Doctrine of the Similar’ (written in 1933, around the same time as his later broadcasts), ‘stimulate and awaken that mimetic faculty which responds to them in human beings’: the mimetic faculty, that impulse for seeing similarity in things, responding in turn to ‘the formerly powerful compulsion to become similar and also to behave mimetically’. In the work of reading and recognising features, the physiognomic reader feels them (mimetically), too. Physiognomy, then, underlies the act of representation. And it is for Benjamin a superlatively hoffmannesque skill. Hoffmann’s physiognomic imagination is raw observation coupled with mimetic feedback; the knack of ‘pulling the extraordinary not from his mind alone but from actual people, things, houses, objects, streets, and so forth’. The storyteller’s business lies in what he sees. Faces can be both the strangest and the most familiar things. And so, in the keen eyes of the physiognomist, ‘this prosaic, sober, enlightened, and rational Berlin is full of things to charm a storyteller’.

Benjamin’s admiration for Hoffmann’s elucidation of the eerie and the extraordinary aligns with his rather terse appraisal of the scientist and taxonomist Linnaeus in ‘True Dog Stories’, in which Benjamin sketches out stories of extraordinary dogs. Things, he says, ‘look so new and special when a great scientist looks at them, as if they had never before been seen’. The teller’s task, then, is to make things ‘new and special’; to make things less familiar to us by retrieving them before they fade into the anaesthesis of everyday experience. It is to save them, perhaps, from the blank and deafening sink of information, to save them from ‘noise’, as in ‘The Storyteller’, where ‘it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation…’.

Sound, with its dogged refusal to leave traces of itself behind, is almost impossibly difficult to archive, to make a history of – hence the belated appearance, presumably, of a project like Radio Benjamin. As Douglas Kahn writes in his introduction to The Wireless Imagination (1994): ‘The history [of sound] is scattered, fleeting, and highly mediated – it is as poor an object in any respect as sound itself.’ Radio Benjamin is a great exploration of sound’s use and its history, but it is, as a piece of sound work – like acousmatic sound – deprived of voice and face. History has only contingency to thank for the survival of the manuscripts of these broadcasts, abandoned in Benjamin’s Paris apartment when he fled the city in 1940; manuscripts which eluded Nazi hands due to a bureaucratic error. Material has strange ways of persisting, of sticking around. Sound is a trickier thing to hold on to. Fittingly enough, no recordings of Benjamin’s voice remain.

‘Benjamin’s gaze often falls upon traces of disappearance and the vestiges of obsolete social forms’, Rosenthal writes. If Benjamin’s narration happens in the moment of the loss of things, it is not unlike the stripping away of the sonic from the visual; not so unlike an echoing dialogue held with Lipsuslapsus. The act of mimetic reading is the mode of Benjamin’s own work, the decipherment of history in the face of its disappearance. ‘The historical method,’ he writes in his notes to ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), ‘is a philological one based on the Book of Life. “Read what was never written,” runs a line by Hofmannsthal. The reader called to mind here is the true historian.’ And so when Benjamin asks, in the remembered voice of his schoolteacher, to what end we might, as readers or historians, tell discomfiting stories about ‘the bizarre, the unconventional, the eerie, the inexplicable’, that end might just be to win back the face of things – to call upon, and salvage, visual material at the very moment when it begins to fade. The futility of the act – but perhaps its charm, too – announces itself in the simple address, in the summons: ‘dear invisible ones…’

Photo on 09-11-2014 at 11.07

Polly Dickson is working on a Ph.D. in European Literature at Cambridge University. She currently lives, writes and runs in Berlin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 16th, 2015.