Walter Benjamin’s Radio Plays for Kids (1929–1932)

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Image by Wal­ter Ben­jamin Archiv, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Many nov­el­ists and poets—from Oscar Wilde to Neil Gaiman—have excelled at reach­ing adults as well as kids, but it’s incred­i­bly rare to find an aca­d­e­m­ic who can do so. Two of the few excep­tions that come to mind are the ever pop­u­lar C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both well-respect­ed Oxford schol­ars and more-than-able children’s authors. We can add to that short list a rather unex­pect­ed name—that of Wal­ter Ben­jamin: apoc­a­lyp­tic Marx­ist the­o­rist and lit­er­ary crit­ic, stu­dent of mys­ti­cal Judaism and Kab­bal­ah, men­tor and friend to Han­nah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, and Her­man Hesse, and children’s radio host. Dur­ing the years 1927 and 1933, while work­ing on his mon­u­men­tal, and unfin­ished, Arcades Project and teach­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hei­del­berg, Ben­jamin also main­tained a live­ly pres­ence as a broad­cast­er, where “he found him­self,” Crit­i­cal The­o­ry tells us, “writ­ing on a vari­ety of top­ics for… all ages, includ­ing chil­dren and ado­les­cents.”

Benjamin’s youth and adult pro­gram­ming has been col­lect­ed by Ver­so press in a new book enti­tled Radio Ben­jamin, which “brings togeth­er some of his most acces­si­ble” think­ing. “Fas­ci­nat­ed by the impact of new tech­nol­o­gy on cul­ture,” writes Ver­so, Ben­jamin “wrote and pre­sent­ed some­thing in the region of eighty broad­casts using the new medi­um of radio.” Between 1929 and 1932, he deliv­ered around 30 broad­casts he called “Enlight­en­ment for Chil­dren” (Aufk­lärung für Kinder), many of which you can hear read in the orig­i­nal Ger­man by Har­ald Wies­ner at Ubuweb (Ger­man speak­ers, lis­ten to an episode above). These, Ubuweb informs us, focused on “intro­duc­ing the youth to var­i­ous, some of them clas­si­cal, nat­ur­al cat­a­stro­phes, for instance the Lis­bon earth­quake of the 1750’s that so shook the opti­mism of Voltaire and the cen­tu­ry.”

Anoth­er of Benjamin’s sub­jects was “var­i­ous episodes of law­less­ness, fraud and deceit, much of it recent.” Dur­ing one such broad­cast, “The Boot­leg­gers,” Ben­jamin won­ders aloud rhetor­i­cal­ly, “should chil­dren even hear these kinds of sto­ries? Sto­ries of swindlers and mis­cre­ants who break the law try­ing to make a pile of dough, and often suc­ceed?” He admits, “It’s a legit­i­mate ques­tion.” He then goes on to elu­ci­date “the laws and grand inten­tions that cre­ate the back­drop for the sto­ries in which alco­hol smug­glers are heroes” and tells, in fas­ci­nat­ing detail, a few “lit­tle tales” of said heroes.

Ben­jamin, writes Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, played the role of “a Ger­man Ira Glass for teens,” with a kind of pop soci­ol­o­gy that also taught lessons about lan­guage, phi­los­o­phy, and class prej­u­dice. In anoth­er episode, “Berlin Dialect,” he “cel­e­brates ‘Berlin­ish,” a crude dialect of the work­ing class that was ditched as Berlin­ers sought to become more ‘refined.’” “Berlin­ish is a lan­guage that comes from work,” he explained, “It devel­oped not from writ­ers or schol­ars, but rather from the lock­er room and the card table, on the bus and at the pawn shop, at sport­ing are­nas and in fac­to­ries.”

The type­scripts of Benjamin’s radio plays for chil­dren were seized by the Gestapo after his sui­cide in 1940 and “only escaped destruc­tion by bureau­crat­ic error.” They were only pub­lished in Ger­man in 1985. The high the­o­rist him­self appar­ent­ly looked down upon this work but, Ver­so writes, these “plays, read­ings, book reviews, and fic­tion reveal Ben­jamin in a cre­ative, rather than crit­i­cal, mode… chan­nel­ing his sophis­ti­cat­ed think­ing to a wide audi­ence.” As such, these radio broad­casts may—as Jef­frey Mehlman argues in Wal­ter Ben­jamin for Chil­dren—help us bet­ter under­stand “one of this century’s most sug­ges­tive and per­plex­ing crit­ics.”

via Crit­i­cal The­o­ry

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wal­ter Benjamin’s Mys­ti­cal Thought Pre­sent­ed by Two Exper­i­men­tal Films

Free Audio: Down­load the Com­plete Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia by C.S. Lewis

Por­traits of Vir­ginia Woolf, James Joyce, Wal­ter Ben­jamin & Oth­er Lit­er­ary Leg­ends by Gisèle Fre­und

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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