In the 1930s Walter Benjamin began writing his memories of childhood life in Berlin at the turn of the century. His collection was only published after his death.
One cannot in any way describe Benjamin’s account as an autobiography, to do so would be a slight. It is more an assembly of portraits or vignettes of places, objects and experiences that made a lasting impression on the writer. He devotes one such essay to the telephone, hence my interest.
Benjamin maintains the illusion of freshness that comes from a child describing something new and wondrous in his home, but at the same time tempers this with the experience and maturity of adulthood. These two aspects of his narrative merge together seamlessly.
In his discussion of the telephone, Benjamin orders household objects into a hierarchy. In the beginning, items like chandeliers, potted palms, and fire screens enjoyed pride of place in the front rooms of his family’s home. With the passage of time, however, these “died a natural death” and were displaced by newer objects. The telephone, previously “exposed to die” could now make its appearance in the front room, which was now cleaner and brighter. The rooms are now occupied by a younger generation (who presumably understand and tolerate the new technology better than their elders) who have brought the telephone in from the wilderness of the dark hallway.
Benjamin remembers how the telephone was condemned in the beginning to sit between the dirty-linen hamper and the gas meter in a corner of the back hallway (not even the front one). Like dirty washing and the gas meter, obviously the telephone was seen as a necessary evil, and not one that you would be proud for your visitors to see. Its promotion to the front room shows spectacular social mobility in the upwards direction.
How did Benjamin’s family react to the telephone’s ringing? Well, he recalls the curses and threats his father directed towards operators. If the British press is anything to go by, then complaints against telephone companies and their employees seem to be a European norm and nothing new in the early days of telephony. Benjamin’s school friends would also ring him at midday and wake up his parents from their siesta. This did not go down very well with the parents but Benjamin himself questions how this new technology was changing cultural practices.
The ringing of the bell increased “the terrors of the Berlin household.” The young Benjamin needed great effort to master all his emotions, fumble his way down the dark passage, and “quell the uproar.”
It is rare to read someone’s first impressions of a new technology, even rarer to find an account given with such articulation.
Browsing through Berlin Childhood I found another piece entitled “The Larder.” Expecting to read rhapsodies about home-made jams and hams hung up to dry, I was proven pleasantly wrong.
Benjamin describes how his sneaks into the pantry for a secret feast. His allusions to illicit rendezvous and sensuous experiences are deliciously naughty (no pun intended) but also just a little disturbing, if you remember that he is talking about childhood memories. Nevertheless, the images conjured up are delightful. Here’s a small taster (again, no pun intended) as the boy Walter silently enters the pantry: “my hand slipped through the crack of the barely opened cupboard as a lover slips through the night …”
Walter Benjamin. Berlin Childhood Around 1900. tr. Howard Eiland.