A Play by Walter Benjamin? (Review)

~ Radio Benjamin, by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Lecia Rosenthal. Translated by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese (Verso, 2014). ~

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I’m aping the title of this review from what I believe is Walter Benjamin’s only surviving “listening model” (Hörmodell), a genre of radio programming with the didactic goal of presenting to listeners useful responses to everyday life situations. The “model” in question (“A Pay Raise?! Whatever gave you that idea!”), which Benjamin co-wrote with Wolf Zucker, is essentially a miniature radio play in which two characters, one after the other, ask their boss for a pay raise. One meets with success; the other does not. It’s interesting to see how, in early 1930s Germany, this was conceived to be an effective way of engaging with and educating ordinary citizens through the new medium of radio – even if Benjamin’s own position on the Hörmodell is much more critical of its utility (there’s a short essay in the book that makes this quite clear). But I also think it’s an indicative element in a collection that shows the range of literary capacity that Benjamin possesses, quite apart from his more famous essays and critical / philosophical writings. And it, indeed, includes a few radio plays – on which more below.

Radio Benjamin sets out to collect all of Benjamin’s writings for, and on, radio. This makes the book slightly eclectic, as the material is quite varied. Apart from the “listening model” mentioned above, and four radio plays (two aimed at children, two at adults), it also includes a number of short essays and radio talks. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up by so-called “talks for children” – shorter pieces written by Benjamin on some topic or other for a twenty-minute “youth hour” slot, read and broadcast on radio stations in Berlin and Frankfurt. Despite the irony of reading material that was, originally, meant to be spoken and listened to, I actually found this by far the most engaging part of the book. The pieces are short, easily digestible, concern interesting topics – from the history of Berlin to natural disasters to reflections on literary figures such as Faust – and seem to be on the whole accurately researched (even if they sometimes, ahem, ‘quote’ material verbatim from other authors’ works). And there is a kind of narrative thread running through them – even if you need some readerly imagination to think about how they might have been heard and perceived as a broadcast series heard over a number of weeks, as opposed to days on the written page.

The plays are a bit harder to get into, but still interesting – partly because of the sheer novelty, for me, of reading a radio play of any sort, though also because of the sharp awareness of the potentials and limitations of radio as a medium that they demonstrate. (This is one of my academic obsessions, as attested by my other blog.) Not only are there instructions for manipulating sound and voices for dramatic purposes – adding ‘chatting noises’ to give the effect of a large crowd, for example – but the plays (or at least their scripts) also include the nature of radio as part of the narrative itself. There is a lot of fourth-wall-breaking as various characters interact with the ‘radio announcer,’ complain of being taken into a world where they only exist as voices (and so have to leave their fancy costumes behind), and so on. As a historical artifact, I think these plays show quite well how acutely the nature of radio was felt and foregrounded by those who wrote for it at this early stage in its development – apart from, of course, demonstrating how unique the ‘radio play’ actually is as a genre.

Ultimately, though, for me reading Radio Benjamin was less about getting educated about the formal features of the medium, or the early history of radio in Germany, than plunging into the capabilities and talents of Benjamin as a writer. These are not literary-critical or philosophical essays; they are constructed and disciplined in different ways – and effectively, competently so, showing Benjamin’s much greater range than simply that of a cultural theorist. Again, though, there’s little consistency in content between the writings in the collection, apart from the fact that they were all written for (or on) radio. As mentioned, there is a kind of arc that can be discerned through the thirty-odd Youth Hour talks at the beginning; and there are worse ways of expanding your horizons with random trivia – I love random trivia, so I enjoyed them, though of course tastes may differ. (Interestingly, the “talks for adults” included in the collection seem much less organised and engaging; they might try to present more complex arguments, but they still feel considerably less polished than the Youth Hour stuff.) When the materials are all put together, though, it feels more like a collection of curiosities than a volume with any sort of consistency. Interesting, but perhaps not for everyone, and perhaps not to be read linearly or as a typical non-fiction work – and certainly not if you’re looking for more cerebral offerings.

Verdict: recommended… with reservations (and maybe only if you’re a fan of Benjamin’s).

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