dialectical passion

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The engagement of the intellectual according to Walter Benjamin

How can the intellectual engage socially when the moral and objective foundations of his position have been undermined? What is the role of the intellectual in an advanced capitalist society, dominated by the division of labor, technical rationalization and imperialism? How to combine a privileged background with an engagement in favor of the dominated class that does not fall into condescension, symbolic violence or dirigisme? These are some of the questions around which a debate is as rich as it is heated. They are also part of a problem that was the object of reflection by Walter Benjamin, an important German philosopher and exponent of the current that receives the name of critical theory. Ideas of his, elaborated nearly a century ago, remain relevant.

Em The Present Social Situation of the French Writer, published in 1934, the philosopher and literary critic takes upon himself the task of producing a propositional interpretation of the theme of the social role of the intellectual, having as reference some outstanding figures of literary currents in France at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century. This reflection is based on a genealogy of the intellectual's forms of engagement that can be divided into three distinct 'moments'. In the third moment, what would be for Walter Benjamin the dialectical passion – the essence of a form of political engagement based on the radical assumption of the opposition inherent to the social status of the intellectual, who assumes the solitary position of someone who denies his own class but who will never belong to another. Such a position, dialectically constructed, critical at its very roots, aims to account for the contradictions, inequalities and impossibilities of its condition.

The purpose of this article is to present the elaboration process of the concept of dialectical passion, hoping to be able to contribute to the contemporary debate.

First moment: The romantic nihilism bourgeois

Maurice Barrés was an intellectual of considerable importance to the intelligentsia of the pre-First French War. It is, in Benjamin's words, a 'romantic nihilist'[I]. His ideas centered on doctrines that "consist of the same basic nihilistic perspective, the same set of idealistic gestures, and the same conformism that results from the synthesis of nihilism and idealism"[ii]. His appeals, driven by an alliance between Catholic-inspired religious sentiments and a certain cult of nature, do not fail to share similarities with fascist impulses found in Italy and Germany at the time. His most influential work, The Uprooted (The Uprooted), represents what, for Benjamin, is his philosophy of heredity –as the name already says, it is about exaltations to the inherited wealth and the privileges that come from this condition. Barrés makes, in this work, a character study of one of his teachers, Jules Lagneau. Unlike Barrés, Lagneau did not receive any inheritance, on the contrary, he was obliged to support his family from the age of twenty, thus being, in Barrés' eyes, a true uprooted. Lagneau is also an important exponent of a political current organized around the Radical party in France. In a way, Lagneau opposes Barrés, but this opposition is based on the same assumptions. While Barrés praises inherited wealth, Lagneau calls for the renunciation of all savings and all accumulated goods. Despite this opposition, both end up defending the ideals of the bourgeoisie, valuing its moral and intellectual wealth.

In this conflict, a third figure appears: Julien Benda. in your book The Betrayal of the Clerics (The Betrayal of Intellectuals), already in the early 1930s, Benda expressed his criticism of the engagement of intellectuals at the time. Benda is uncomfortable with the way in which intellectuals have come to respond to political demands. “According to him, since the emergence of intellectuals, their historical task has been to teach the universal and abstract values ​​of humanity: freedom, justice and humanism”[iii]. The authors mentioned so far, along with many others, would have betrayed these values. Benjamin is quick to expose the weakness of this position. Benda ends up stuck with the morality of a Christian humanism for intellectuals; its place would be something like a monk's cell, isolated in his monastery, “to which the intellectuals – 'the spiritual ones' – retreat to compose the text of the next sermon, undaunted by the idea that it will be presented to rows of seats empty, if it is even presented”[iv].

Charles Péguy is the last figure of this first moment in Walter Benjamin's genealogy. Péguy makes an appeal “to the forces of the land and of the faith to give intellectuals a role in the life of the nation”[v], but, unlike Barrés, without renouncing the libertarian and anarchic elements of the French Revolution. He does not, therefore, fail to appeal to his supporters to attack the leaders and scholars who betrayed the people from which they originated. This position, easily seen as combative, fails, however, to assume and account for the political conflicts of its time.

Second moment: the populist novel

If, until then, we found literary currents whose positioning is compatible – or even allied – with the dominant power, it is with the naturalist literature of Émile Zola that a rupture begins to be outlined, even if it is not able to fully materialize. With Zola, the proletariat gains a privileged place in literature. Naturalism, argues Benjamin, "not only determined the subject and form of Zola's novels, but also provided some of their basic ideas - such as the project of representing the heredity and social development of a single family".[vi]. Zola's engaged literature suffers, however, from a serious illness: “the sheer impersonal and simplistic nature of the characters in the said populist novel makes them look like characters from old-fashioned fairy tales, and their expressive power is so limited that it resembles the childish babble of those forgotten puppet figures.”[vii]. It is the serious error in which “the interior life of the disinherited and oppressed is marked by a simplicity of its own, to which authors often like to add an element of moral edification”[viii]. The oppressed, despite gaining a privileged role in literature, appear unified, simplified and emptied. Their form is nothing but the fruit of the intellectual's imagination, which imposes a reality that is not their own. For Benjamin, the products of this new current “show that what we are dealing with are just the old philanthropic impulses in a new form”[ix].

This happens because this current forgets “the fact that the essence of revolutionary training and experience is to recognize and exploit the class structure of the masses”. Zola's literature lacks any theoretical foundation. As a result, he can only “choose themes that partially hide the author’s lack of insight and education”[X]. Another work that shares this defect, according to Benjamin, is Journey to the End of the Night (Journey to the end of the night) by Céline, in which the Lumpenproletariat is protagonist. Céline “succeeds in vividly portraying the sadness and sterility of a life in which distinctions between business day and holiday, sex and love, war and peace, city and country have been blurred. But he is incapable of showing us the forces that shaped the lives of these excluded.”[xi].

In addition to this absence of any political theory that could guide a critical engagement worthy of the complexity, diversity and depth of the chosen themes, another element joins the reasons that limit the populist current: conformism. This conformism makes twentieth-century novelists unable to see the world in which they live. The reason for this, says Benjamin, is sheer fear. Intellectuals know that the bourgeoisie, successful in its seizure of power, no longer needs their work in defense of humanist values. “For the second time in the bourgeois era, its intellectuals entered a militant phase. But whereas between 1789 and 1848 they occupied a leading position as part of the bourgeois offensive, now their role is defensive.”[xii]. Intellectuals are concerned with defending the reliability of their position, which makes authors seek only to order the chaos of literary production, in an effort to adapt to society. This does not mean that they are completely given over to the production of bourgeois ideology, but that they are thrown into a middle class, in which they float insignificantly. As a result, “the intellectual imitates the outward appearance of proletarian existence without even being remotely connected to the working class. He then seeks the illusory position of being outside the class system.”[xiii]. Even Zola, who rejects the French society of the second half of the XNUMXth century, ends up trapped in conformism – precisely because his position is similar to this simplistic distance between the author and his object.

Another recurrent problem in the works of intellectuals from this second period concerns the separation that is made between the writer and the novelist. The novelist tends more and more to dissociate the social from the psychological in his narratives, going so far as to ignore the former. Benjamin associates the reduction of the social element of individual experience to the conformism of his generation of intellectuals: “they insist on observing the life of a character in a novel as an isolated process that was initially fixed within the framework of an empty time”[xiv].

For Benjamin, two authors escape this dilemma. Gide and Proust. In In Search of Lost Time it is precisely the memory of the productive moment that is erased. “The world that Proust portrays excludes everything involved in the production. The snob attitude that prevails is nothing more than a consistent, organized and hardened observation of existence from the point of view of the pure consumer. His work conceals a ruthless and penetrating critique of contemporary society.”[xv]. Proust's merit is to make himself always present as an author, making himself available to the reader. Author and work are, for Benjamin, not separable, and a novelist who takes responsibility for his work must be directly involved in it. This question appears as central to Paul Valéry. Valéry set out to “explore the intelligence of the writer and, especially, the poet as an inquisitor; he calls for a break with the widely held view that it is self-evident that writers are intelligent, as well as the even more widely held view that intellect is irrelevant to the poet.”[xvi]. This leads to a critique of the ideas of inspiration and chance, and demands a radical appreciation of the author's involvement in what he writes. Valéry succeeds in carrying out this task of integrating his intellectual life into his work, but fails to go beyond his private life. Who will carry out such a feat is André Gide.

Third moment: the dialectical passion

With Gide, we reach the third stage of Walter Benjamin's genealogy. Now, we can dedicate ourselves to his most important reflection contribution, the notion of dialectical passion. To that end, let's quickly recap how we got here.

We started from an essentially bourgeois position, for which the difference between classes and social conditions was not central, nor considered as a problem. In it, despite the internal disputes, there is no criticism of the role of the intellectual, nor of society itself, which is capable of dealing with the conflict between social classes. We then move on to a second moment, in which the oppressed, dominated and underprivileged gain prominence. This protagonism, however, is an incomplete negation of the bourgeois condition, and not a true emancipation. As much as it deals with the exposition of violence, inequality and contempt, there is no real progress, since all these elements are nothing more than caricatures, designed by an intellectual who is unaware of the real complexity of social conflicts - after all, he lacks a political theory, a true nonconformity and the ability to implicate his own social condition in his activity. Finally, the third position makes the 'synthesis' of the contradictions between the two previous ones: it recognizes the bourgeois element inherent to the origin and social position of the intellectual, but it also inscribes an engagement with the working class and with the oppressed by society. Instead of seeking a false 'just mean', such a position radically assumes this contradiction and is capable of oscillating between extremes.

One can understand the essence of Gide's intellectual position from the way he criticizes and reinterprets the uprooted from Barrés. For Gide, it is precisely this uprooting that 'forces' originality. “It was in the name of this originality that Gide carried out the exploration of the entire field of possibilities that such disposition and development opened up for him. And the more awesome these possibilities were, the more relentlessly he fought to make them a place in his life.”[xvii]. This 'path', more than a position, of exploring one's own condition was adopted by Gide, who authorized the radical deepening, fearless of any contradiction. “This fundamental rejection of the right mean, this commitment to extremes, is the dialectic – not as an intellectual method, but as blood and passion. Even at extremes, the world is still whole, it's still healthy, it's still nature. And what drives him to such extremes is not curiosity or apologetic zeal, but dialectical passion. "[xviii].

Gide assumes the position of someone who sees himself immersed in values, positions and morals in contradiction with each other, and makes this contradiction the power of his intellectual engagement. For the French author, “an action in which I do not recognize all the contradictions within me betrays me”[xx]. Benjamin notes that Gide refused to assume the 'free genius' position typical of bourgeois ideology. Going beyond Valery, who had already “integrated his production into his intellectual life, Gide integrated his into his moral life”[xx].

Gide's movement, driven by this dialectical passion puts him in a situation similar to that of the protagonists of The Human Condition (The Human Condition) by André Malraux. In the novel, “the episode of the revolutionary uprising in Shanghai that was successfully contained by Chiang Kai Shek is neither politically nor economically transparent. It serves as a background for the representation of a group of people with an active role in these events. However different their roles, however different these people are in their character and background, and however hostile to the ruling class they may be, they have one thing in common: they all come from it.”[xxx]. This peculiar, negative position, in which Malraux's protagonists find themselves, should not be avoided, but assumed. “The fact that these intellectuals abandoned their own class in the name of common cause with the proletariat does not mean that the latter accepted them into its ranks. Nor should they. This is the dialectic in which Malraux's heroes live. They live for the proletariat; but do not act like proletarians”[xxiii]. It is a profoundly lonely position, and to the intellectual engaged by dialectical passion there is no way out. Not assuming it, or he remains in his initial privileged condition, or tries to be what he is not and belong where he does not belong. Malraux's problem, and the greatest risk of this condition, is to universalize it, to make it The Human Condition, because with that he repeats the mistake of the populist intellectual, who only projects his conceptions on those whose cause he thinks he defends.

Finally, there is Walter Benjamin's proposal for the engaged intellectual: to assume this position, which, in fact, is a process of discovery and criticism of oneself and the world through contradictions, without fear of going to extremes. Make use of both theory and experience, in such a way that he is fully involved in his works, being aware of his position – what it allows and, mainly, what it prevents. Assuming, in the end, the loneliness that results from the conflict between their individual background and their engagement in social struggles, and transforming the weight of this condition into potency. Here's the dialectical passion.

*Daniel Pavan is majoring in Social Sciences at USP.


[I]    BENJAMIN, Walter. “The Present Social Situation of the French Writer” In: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931 – 1934. Org. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England. (Free translation into Portuguese). p.745

[ii]   Ibid.“Decantatore 745” (Presenze grafiche).

[iii]  Ibid.“Decantatore 748” (Presenze grafiche).

[iv]  Ibid.“Decantatore 749” (Presenze grafiche).

[v]    Ibid.“Decantatore 750” (Presenze grafiche).

[vi]  Ibid.“Decantatore 751” (Presenze grafiche).

[vii] Ibid.“Decantatore 751” (Presenze grafiche).

[viii] Ibid.“Decantatore 752” (Presenze grafiche).

[ix]  Ibid.“Decantatore 752” (Presenze grafiche).

[X]    Ibid.“Decantatore 752” (Presenze grafiche).

[xi]  Ibid.“Decantatore 752” (Presenze grafiche).

[xii] Ibid.“Decantatore 753” (Presenze grafiche).

[xiii] Ibid.“Decantatore 753” (Presenze grafiche).

[xiv] Ibid.“Decantatore 755” (Presenze grafiche).

[xv]  Ibid.“Decantatore 755” (Presenze grafiche).

[xvi] Ibid.. “Decantatore 756” (Presenze grafiche).

[xvii]     Ibid.. “Decantatore 757” (Presenze grafiche).

[xviii]    Ibid.pp.757, 758

[xx] GIDE apud BENJAMIN, Ibid.p.758

[xx]  Ibid.“Decantatore 758” (Presenze grafiche).

[xxx] Ibid.p.761

[xxiii]     Ibid.p.761

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