Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.
No audio recordings of Walter Benjamin have survived. His voice was once described as beautiful, even melodious—just the sort of voice that would have been suitable for the new medium of radio broadcasting that spread across Germany in the 1920s. If one could pay the fee for a wireless receiver, Benjamin could be heard in the late afternoons or early evenings, often during what was called “Youth Hour.” His topics ranged widely, from a brass works outside Berlin to a fish market in Naples. In one broadcast, he lavished his attention on an antiquarian bookstore with aisles like labyrinths, whose walls were adorned with drawings of enchanted forests and castles. For others, he related “True Dog Stories” or perplexed his young listeners with brain teasers and riddles. He also wrote, and even acted in, a variety of radio plays that satirized the history of German literature or plunged into surrealist fantasy. One such play introduced a lunar creature named Labu who bore the august title “President of the Moon Committee for Earth Research.”
Today Benjamin is widely esteemed as one of the foremost cultural critics and theorists of the 20th century. But his career was uneven and marked by failure. In 1925, after the faculty of philosophy in Frankfurt rejected his enigmatic study of German Baroque drama and dashed his hopes for an academic career, he found himself adrift, with little assurance of a regular income. But this failure also brought freedom. His untethering from the university meant that he could indulge in his interests without restraint, and he turned his talents to writing essays that took in the whole panorama of modern life—from high literature to children’s books and from photography to film—and, for nearly six years, he supplemented his earnings with radio broadcasts, some for adults and others meant especially for children. Of the many broadcasts, about 90 in all, that he produced for the radio stations in Frankfurt and Berlin, only a fragment of a single audio recording has been preserved; unfortunately, Benjamin’s voice cannot be heard.
Now transcripts of these broadcasts have been assembled and translated into English in a new volume edited by Lecia Rosenthal, whose incisive introduction assists the reader in appreciating their true significance. One can’t help but wonder what Benjamin would have made of all this attention, since he was inclined to dismiss his radio work as unimportant. In correspondence with his friend Gershom Scholem, he wrote with some embarrassment of “piddling radio matters” and condemned nearly all of it as having “no interest except in economic terms.” Today we know that he was mistaken. The transcripts are more than mere ephemera; they are perfect specimens of Benjamin’s interpretative method, exercises in a style of urban semiotics that he would later apply during his exile in Paris. Hannah Arendt once likened her late friend to a pearl diver who possessed a gift for diving into the wreckage of bourgeois civilization and emerging into the sunlight with the rarest of treasures. The radio transcripts offer further evidence of a genius whose career was ended far too soon.
The transcripts have the virtue of brevity, making them welcome introductions to Benjamin’s ideas for those who may find his major tomes—such as Origin of German Tragic Drama or The Arcades Project—ponderous or forbidding. Although in subject matter they travel a vast terrain, they also have the intimacy of a personal essay spoken right into your ear. A written transcript, after all, is also technically a recording, even if it is a soundless one. When we read these transcripts carefully, we can still hear what scholars of literature like to call “the authorial voice.” But even those who don’t especially care about Benjamin will find his radio tales fascinating as specimens in the history of technological communication, a history that spans the modern era from the early days of wireless journalism to the digital podcasting of our own day. Step into a time machine and travel back a century: You’d hear the voice of Walter Benjamin instead of Ira Glass.