Left-wing melancholy: On Erich Kästner’s new book of poems

Walter Benjamin
Die Gesellschaft
Vol. 8 (1931)

Today Kästner’s poems are already available in three imposing volumes.[1] However, anyone wishing to study the character of these strophes is advised to stick to the form in which they originally appeared. In books they are too crowded and somewhat stifling, but they dart through the daily papers like fish in water. If this water is not always of the cleanest and has quite a lot of refuse floating in it, all the better for the author, whose poetic minnows can fatten themselves thereon.

The popularity of these poems is linked to the rise of a stratum which took unveiled possession of its economic power positions and prided itself as none other on the nakedness, the unmasked character of its economic physiognomy. This is not to say that this stratum, whose only aim was success, which recognized nothing else, had now conquered the strongest positions. Its ideal was too asthmatic for that. It was the ideal of childless agents, parvenus of insignificant origin, who did not, like financial magnates, provide for their families over decades, but only for themselves, and that hardly beyond the end of the season. Who cannot see them — their dreamy baby eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, their broad pale cheeks, their drawling voices, their fatalism in gesture and mode of thought? From the beginning, it is to this stratum and to this stratum alone that the poet, has something to say, this stratum that he flatters, insofar as from dawn to dusk he holds up a mirror to them, or rather holds it against them. The gaps between his stanzas are the folds of fat in their necks, his rhymes their thick lips, his caesurae dimples in their flesh, his full-stops pupils in their eyes. Subject matter and effect remain restricted to this stratum, and Kästner is as incapable of striking the dispossessed with his rebellious accents as he is of touching the industrialists with his irony. This is because, despite appearances, this lyricism protects above all the status interests of the middle stratum — agents, journalists, heads of departments. The hatred it proclaims meanwhile towards the petit bourgeoisie has itself an all too intimate petit bourgeoisie flavor. On the other hand, it clearly abandons any striking power against the big bourgeoisie and betrays its yearning for patronage at last in the heartfelt sigh: “If only there were a dozen wise men with a great deal of money.”[2] No wonder Kästner, in settling accounts with the bankers in a “Hymn” is as obliquely familial as he is obliquely economic when he presents the night thoughts of a proletarian woman under the title “A Mother Strikes the Balance.”[3] Ultimately home and income remain the leading strings by which a better-off class leads the mewling poet.

Melancholia, by Jacek Malczewski (1894)Melancholia

This poet is dissatisfied, indeed heavy-hearted. But this heaviness of heart derives from routine. For to be in a routine means to have sacrificed one’s idiosyncracies, to have forfeited the gift of distaste. And that makes one heavy-hearted. It is this circumstance that gives this case a certain similarity with that of Heine. The notes with which Kästner indents his poems, to give these shiny children’s balls the appearance of rugby balls, are routine. And nothing is more routine than the irony which, like baking powder, helps to raise the kneaded dough of private opinion. It is only unfortunate that his impertinence is as much out of all proportion to the ideological forces at his disposal as it is to the political ones. Not least does the grotesque underestimation of the opponent that underlies these provocations betray how much the position of this left radical intelligentsia is a lost one. It has little to do with the labor movement. Rather, as a phenomenon of bourgeois dissolution, it is a counterpart to the mimicry of feudalism that the Kaiserreich admired in the reserve lieutenant.[4] Left radical publicists of the stamp of Kästner, [Walter] Mehring, and [Kurt] Tucholsky [5] are the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat. Their function is to give rise, politically speaking, not to parties but to cliques, literarily speaking, not to schools but to fashions, economically speaking, not to producers but to agents. And indeed, for the last fifteen years this left-wing intelligentsia has been continually the agent of all spiritual conjunctures, from Activism, via Expressionism to New Objectivity.[6] However, its political significance was exhausted by the transposition of revolutionary reflexes, insofar as they arose in the bourgeoisie, into objects of distraction, of amusement, which can be supplied for consumption. Continue reading