Moscow Diary

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By AFRANIO CATANI*

Commentary on Walter Benjamin's Book

“I arrived on the 6th of December. On the train, I memorized the name and address of a hotel in case no one was waiting for me at the station. (At the border, they made me pay the price difference and travel in first class, on the grounds that there was no more room in second). I was relieved that no one had seen me get out of the sleeping car…”. Thus begins the Moscow Diary by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and which covers his visit to the Russian capital, carried out in the period between December 6, 1926 and 1o February 1927).

Three reasons led him to Moscow: his love for Asja Lacis (1891-1979), a Latvian actress and theater director, a woman of definite influence on him and the first to pass on to him information about theater and Soviet cultural policy. Second, his uncertainty about joining the German Communist Party, as he had been thinking about that possibility for over two years. Finally, he also contributed to the consideration of literary commitments assumed before the trip, to write about Moscow in the magazine Die Kreatur (The creature), by Martin Buber, having even received an advance, which helped him finance his stay.

Originally published in 1980, with a preface by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Moscow Diary it was edited by Gary Smith (who also authored the 142 notes to the text), who went to great lengths to decipher Benjamin's tiny handwriting, crammed across the manuscript's 56 pages. In addition, another factor that made publication difficult was, of course, the fact that Asja Lacis was still alive. The present edition also has an appendix, containing a letter from A. Lunacharsky to the editors of Great Soviet Encyclopedia with a negative opinion of Benjamin's article on Goethe.

Moscow Diary records, in his notes, that Benjamin and Asja (a “Russian revolutionary militant from Riga”) met in Capri, in 1924. Benjamin's passion for her was instantaneous, but the romance was always troubled, as she had a small daughter (Dega) and had a romantic relationship with Bernhard Reich (1880-1972), playwright, director and theater critic. Benjamin was married to Dora Sophie Pollak Benjamin (1890-1964) – he was married from 1917 to 1930 – and had a son, Stefan (1919-1972). In 1925 he visited her in Riga, where she was running a theater of illegal agitation and propaganda. Subsequently, Asja resided in Berlin (1928-1930), having lived with Benjamin for about two months. In 1928, he dedicated his book to her. one-way street: “This street is called Asja Lacis, in honor of the woman who, as an engineer, opened it in the author”.

When Benjamin arrives in Moscow, Asja has been admitted to a sanatorium, without his mentioning the exact nature of her illness – yes, because she goes out all the time, walks around, goes to the theaters, attends dinners and, from time to time, is discharged. your suitor. Reich, Benjamin's friend since 1924 – they had written an article together on the theater in 1925 – is his companion on wanderings in the Moscow winter: it is up to him to smooth out the paths of the Berlin visitor, serve as an interpreter, introduce people.

After some time, due to the housing crisis, which in Moscow assumed alarming proportions, he starts sleeping in Benjamin's hotel room. Here and there, throughout the diary, this at least embarrassing situation is present: both talk about politics, theater, cinema, literature, architecture, etc., but do not touch on the fundamental issue that opposed them, namely, the dispute over Asja . In a certain passage of the diary Benjamin writes, symptomatically: “Tonight Reich slept in my room. My hair gets really electric here.”

Benjamin's initial optimism is gradually replaced by progressive disillusionment. Disillusionment with the gentrification of Soviet society and also with the party's reactionary turn on cultural matters. Add to that the cynical and humiliating treatment that Asja gives him. Thus, his failure is threefold: personally, because his affective relationship with Asja reaches an impasse; politically, because he recognizes that a political-party affiliation is impossible, since he is frightened by the way in which “private independence” was suppressed in the name of the general orientation of the Party (Communist); artistically, because he understands – in particular through the rejection of his article on Goethe, written for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia – that writing intensively and subject to extensive regulation, “can produce nothing but sociological verbiage”.

Considered Benjamin's most personal work, the daily it is presented to us “totally uncensored – which means, above all, untouched by its own self-censorship” (Cf. preface by Gershom Scholem). In a moment when despair borders on unbearable, he writes: “For me, Moscow is now a fortress; the rigorous climate (…), the lack of knowledge of the language, the presence of Reich, the rather limited living conditions of Asja”. but no daily there are considerations of various kinds, such as the precarious Soviet political situation; the cultural context; the petty-bourgeois style of decorations; his numerous trips to theaters, cinemas, museums and exhibitions; the unproductive conversations with Moscow intellectuals; the restaurants, cafes, pastry shops and breweries; the bureaucrats of the NEP (New Economic Policy) era; peddlers and street vendors; children's books and old postcards; his countless purchases of wooden toys, houses and paper animals, etc.

Through this Moscow Diary it is possible to penetrate, albeit subtly, into Benjamin's depths. Emotionally, he was in shambles and, faced with an unexpected offer of affection from Asja, he writes: “I felt like a vase with a narrow neck into which liquid is poured from a bucket. I had, little by little, voluntarily closed myself off so much that I became unreceptive to the force of external impressions" (January 18, 1927).

Afrânio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF. Author, among other books, of the shadow of the other (Panorama).

This article is a version, with some changes, of the review published in the extinct “Caderno de Sabado” of the Jornal da Tarde of 07/10/1989.

Reference

Walter Benjamin. Moscow Diary. Translation: Hildegard Herbold). Sao Paulo, Companhia das Letras.

 

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