In Conversation with John Schad: Walter Benjamin Revealed

By | May 3, 2012

John Schad is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Lancaster and author of our new fictional narrative The Late Walter Benjamin. 'Set partly in Watford and partly in the haunted wing of the English language' (Ian Macmillan, on BBC Radio 3's 'The Verb'), this documentary novel juxtaposes the life and death of Walter Benjamin with the days, hours and minutes of a working-class council estate on the edge of London in post-war Austerity England. Here John talks about his research for the book, the funny side of Walter Benjamin and why ‘The Metaphysics of Youth’ is his Benjamin essay of choice.

What was the most exhilarating aspect of your research for The Late Walter Benjamin?

Exploring what happened in the final hours of Benjamin’s life, before committing suicide on the Spanish border.  We know, for instance, that he made four telephone calls on the last night of his life; whom, though, did he call?  Again, we know that he once wrote that ‘Erotic motives may be at the bottom of suicide’; so, then, what role did the erotic play, at the last, for the dying philosopher?

Was there any exotic travel or exciting people you met and discussed Walter Benjamin with?

Alas, no – I went to Watford and was bored, but you have to be: ‘People who are not bored cannot tell stories,’ said Walter Benjamin.   Moreover, ‘we penetrate mystery,’ he says, ‘only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world.’

What does your book about Walter Benjamin do differently?

It sees the funny side of Walter Benjamin, hypnotised as I am by his ‘clowning of despair.’  To put it another way, the book revolves around his remark that ‘the comic figure is the only angel suited to this world.’ 

What originally inspired you to study Walter Benjamin? What do they mean to you professionally? And personally?

I'm not sure I can remember.  I had just written Someone Called Derrida. An Oxford Mystery, which is novelistic, albeit real-life, murder-mystery about not only the extraordinary philosopher but also the final years of my father’s very ordinary life.  I wanted to take further the trick of juxtaposing high, continental philosophy and low, English life and death.

Many people think they know Walter Benjamin but what – to your mind – still makes him so special and still relevant to modern readers?

It is , I think, that he is writing about us, always writing about us, and (indeed) has observed that, together, we are the secret Messiah:  ‘Our coming,’ he wrote, ‘was expected on earth, and we have been endowed with Messianic power.’

If readers only had time to read one book by Walter Benjamin, what would you suggest and why?

His 1914 essay, ‘The Metaphysics of Youth,’ (Selected Writings, vol.1). It teaches us how to dance and die, at the same time.

How would you describe your contribution to the immense amount of scholarship on Walter Benjamin? 

It is, I think that I attempt to misread him, to get him ‘wrong,’ if you like; in the sense that the book has him living in 1948, eight years after his death, and in a place he never even visited.  In short, I wrench him out of context, but in so doing I am, I hope, responding to his astonishing insistence that ‘Citation summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely thereby calls it back to its origin.’  

In fifty years time, what will resonant with future generations about the life, works and philosophy of Walter Benjamin?

His insistence that ‘the solution to the riddle of the universe is to be found where we least expect it’ – for example, Watford.

What quote typifies Walter Benjamin? 

‘Every second was the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter’

What will your next book explore?

What happened in June 1956 when Waiting for Godot was performed at the Grand Theatre in Blackpool and nearly everyone walked out, declaring it to be nonsense. It's called GodotOnSea, and like the Late Walter Benjamin it’s a documentary novelThe first chapter can be read in a book I edited called Crrritic!

The Late Walter Benjamin is now available to buy. You can read the first 2 chapters from the book by clicking on the preview button to the left. Tomorrow on our twitter, we will be giving away a copy of this exciting new book! Follow us to be in with a chance of winning!

Jenny Tighe

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