Letter to Gershom Scholem – Walter Benjamin
Berlin-Wilmersdorf, April 17, 1931
[. . .] your letter, though not intended to go beyond ad hominem arguments, breaks through my own position to hit projectile-like the center of the position that a small but extremely important avant garde occupies here at present. Much of what has led me increasingly to declare my solidarity with Brecht’s production is expressed in your letter; this means, however, much in that production with which you are not yet acquainted.
From the tone of these lines you will notice that your logical expectation that your letter will provoke a polemical statement from me cannot materialize. Nor can your letter elicit any expansive or emotional reaction on my part, the reason being that my situation is much too precarious for me to be able to afford this sort of thing. After all, I would not dream of claiming that my situation is infallible or even correct in a different sense – that of being necessarily, symptomatically, productively false. (Such sentences do not accomplish much, but since from such a distance you have recognized so clearly the great outlines of what is going on here, I must try to give you an idea also of smaller things, of the reflexive overtones, so to speak.) In particular you should not think that I am under the slightest illusions concerning the fate of my writings in the Party or the duration of a possible membership in the Party. It would be shortsighted not to regard this situation as capable of change, albeit under no lesser condition than a German Bolshevik revolution. It is not as though a victorious Party would revise its position toward my present writings in the least, but it would make it possible for me to write differently. This means that I am determined to stand by my case under all circumstances, but this case is not the same under every circumstance; it is, rather, a corresponding one. It is not given to me to respond to false circumstances correctly, i.e., with the ‘correct thing.’ Nor is this desirable for as long as one exists, and is minded to exist, as an individual.
Something else that must be formulated just as provisionally is this: there is the question of vicinity. Where is my production plant located? It is located (and on this, too, I do not harbor the slightest illusions) in Berlin W. [West], W.W. [West West], if you like. The most sophisticated civilization and the most ‘modern’ culture are not only part of my private comfort; some of them are the very means of my production. This means that it is not in my power to shift my production plant to Berlin O. [East] or N. [North]. (It would be in my power to move to Berlin East or North, but I would have to do something different there from what I am doing here. I admit that such a step could be demanded for moral reasons. But for the time being I shall not accede to such a demand; I shall say that I, especially I and a great many others whose position is like mine, are being given an extremely hard time.) But do you really want to impede me with my little writing factory located right in the middle of Berlin West quite simply because of my imperious need to distinguish myself from a neighborhood that for certain reasons I must accept – do you want to prevent me from hanging a red flag out of my window, saying that it is only a little piece of cloth? If someone produces ‘counterrevolutionary’ writings, as you quite correctly characterize mine from the Party’s point of view, should he also expressly place them at the disposal of the counterrevolution? Should he not, rather, denature them, like ethyl alcohol, and make them definitely and reliably unusable for the counterrevolution at the risk that no one will be able to use them? Can one ever be too clearly distinguished from the pronouncements and the language of people whom one learns more and more to avoid in life? Is not this clear distinction, if anything, understated in my writings, and should it be increased in a direction other than the Communist one?
If I were in Palestine, it is entirely possible that things would be quite different. Your position on the Arab question proves that you have quite different methods there of unambiguous differentiation from the bourgeoisie. Here there are no such methods. Here there is not even this method. For with a certain justification you could call what I call unambiguous the height of ambiguity. All right, I am going to extremes. A castaway who drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling mast. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.