The development of Walter Benjamin‘s Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert (“Berlin Childhood around 1900”) was book-ended by the author’s suicide attempts in 1932 and 1940, the latter successful.
Benjamin began the work in Paris, shortly after leaving his beloved Berlin. It soon became apparent that he would never see the city of his birth again, and in his distress he conceived the book as “immunisation against homesickness”, as he put it. Although nowhere near as influential as his works of cultural theory such as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and dwarfed in scale by the huge, unfinished Arcades Project, this posthumously published collection of childhood vignettes was nonetheless a highly important undertaking for Benjamin. He revised it repeatedly throughout his years of exile. Where the Arcades Project saw Benjamin excavating the Parisian foundations of the modern consumerist society and presenting a faceless, floating cast of flaneurs, prostitutes and rag-pickers, here it was his own past through which he wandered. Nonetheless Berliner Kindheit um 1900 is a work with autobiographical features rather than an actual autobiography.
The extract below is entitled “Tiergarten”, a name given to both a large central Berlin park and the district which abuts it, where Benjamin was born and raised. To the child Walter the landscaped park is an ur-forest, its serene neighbouring canal a mythic river. The child sees things and, like God, names them for the first time so that they become the elements of his own creation myth, with early reminiscences threaded through with inherited memories of antiquity, civilization’s infancy.
Tiergarten was an area girded by privilege but far from insipidly bourgeois; it was an enlightened colony whose handsome villas housed writers, artists, actors, salonnières and – as we saw yesterday – art dealers. This was the “Old West”, so named to distinguish it from the newer, flashier area of western Berlin centred on Kurfürstendamm. It was a world already disappearing as Benjamin set down his recollections. As part of his plans to transform Berlin into Germania, Albert Speer had earmarked it as an ambassadorial district (which it has become once more). Families, many of them Jewish, were forced from their homes, their compensation derisory or non-existent. Numerous buildings were razed.
During the Second World War, Tiergarten’s proximity to Berlin’s government district meant it was subject to particularly heavy aerial bombing. The resulting devastation was near-total and only a handful of buildings survived; whole streets visible on pre-war maps are no longer to be found, and an entire milieu is no more. The traumatised landscape offered fewer traces of its former inhabitants than the long-dead civilizations to which Benjamin alludes and which Tiergarten’s caryatids quoted. All of this makes Berliner Kindheit um 1900 especially valuable.
Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks. No, not the first, for there was one earlier that has outlasted the others. The way into this labyrinth, which was not without its Ariadne, led over the Bendler Bridge, whose gentle arch became my first hillside. Not far from its foot lay the goal: Friedrich Wilhelm and Queen Luise. On their round pedestals they towered up from the flowerbeds, as though transfixed by the magic curves that a stream was describing in the sand before them. But it was not so much the rulers as their pedestals to which I turned, since what took place upon these stone foundations, though unclear in context, was nearer in space. That there was something special about this maze I could always deduce from the broad and banal esplanade, which gave no hint of the fact that here, just a few steps from the corso of cabs and carriages, sleeps the strangest part of the park.
I got a sign of this quite early on. Here, in fact, or not far away, must have lain the couch of that Ariadne in whose proximity I first experienced what only later I had a word for: love. Unfortunately, the “Fräulein” intervenes at its earliest budding to overspread her icy shadow. And so this park, which, unlike every other, seemed open to children, was for me, as a rule, distorted by difficulties and impracticalities. How rarely I distinguished the fish in its pond. How much was promised by the name “Court Hunters’ Lane,” and how little it held. How often I searched in vain among the bushes, which somewhere hid a kiosk built in the style of my toy blocks, with turrets coloured red, white and blue. How hopelessly, each spring, I lost my heart to Prince Louis Ferdinand, at whose feet the earliest crocuses and daffodils bloomed. A watercourse, which separated me from them, made them as untouchable as though they were covered by a bell jar. Thus, coldly, the princely had to rest upon the beautiful; and I understood why Luise von Landau, who belonged to my circle of schoolfriends until she died, had to dwell on the Lützowufer, opposite the little wilderness which nourished its flowers with the waters of the canal.
Later, I discovered other corners, and I heard of still more. But no girl, no experience, no book could tell me anything new about these things. And so, thirty years later, when an expert guide, a Berlin peasant, joined forces with me to return to the city after an extended, shared absence from its borders, his trail cut furrows through this garden, in which he sowed the seeds of silence. He led the way along the paths, and each, for him, became precipitous. They led onward, if not to the Mothers of all being, then certainly to those of this garden. In the asphalt over which he passed, his steps awakened an echo. The gas lamp, shining across our path of pavement, cast an ambiguous light on this ground. The short flights of steps, the pillared porticoes, the friezes and architraves of the Tiergarten villas – for the first time we took them at their word. But above all, there were the stairwells, which, with their stained-glass windows, were the same as in the old days, though much had changed on the inside, where people lived. I still know the verses that filled the intervals between my heartbeats when, after school, I paused while climbing the stairs. They glimmered toward me from the coloured pane where a woman, floating ethereally like the Sistine Madonna, a crown in her hands, stepped forth from the niche. Slipping my thumbs beneath the shoulder of my satchel, I would study the lines: “Work is the burgher’s ornament,/Blessedness the reward of toil.” The house door below swung shut with a sigh, like a ghost sinking back into the grave. Outside it was raining, perhaps. One of the stained-glass windows was opened, and I went on climbing the stairs in time with the patter of raindrops.
Among the caryatids and atlantes, the putti and pomonas, which in those days looked on me, I stood closest to those dust-shrouded specimens of the race of threshold dwellers – those who guard the entrance to life, or to a house. For they are versed in waiting. Hence, it was all the same to them whether they waited for a stranger, for the return of the ancient gods, or for the child that, thirty years ago, slipped past them with his schoolboy’s satchel. Under their tutelage, the Old West district became the West of antiquity – source of the west winds that aid the mariners who sail their craft, freighted with the apples of the Hesperides, slowly up the Landwehr Canal, to dock by the Hercules Bridge. And once again, as in my childhood, the Hydra and the Nemean Lion had their place in the wilderness that surrounds the Great Star.