Robert Walser’s “Berlin Stories” is a collection of vignettes that track his observation during his jaunts through the city. Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” is an attempt by Benjamin to recollect his urban childhood as an adult in exile. They both write about Berlin at the turn of the century but are able to produce images of the city that are at once captivating in their portrayal of a city in constant movement and honest in their dealings with the realities of modern life. In presenting Berlin as both a voluptuous giantess and a protective mother, the authors show that modernity can be both sensual and nurturing.
In Walser’s “Good Morning, Giantess!” the titular figure is the city of Berlin:
“The chest expands, the giantess Metropolis has just, with the most voluptuous leisureliness, pulled on her sun-shimmery chemise. A giantess like this doesn’t dress so quickly, but each of her beautiful, huge motions is fragrant and steams and pounds and peals.” (Walser 5)
By likening Berlin to a giantess, Walser merges images of power and sexuality. The city steams and pounds and peals” but also expands its chest with a “voluptuous leisureliness.” Significantly, the giantess’ power is a mechanical power. Each of her motions “steams and pounds and peals,” invoking images of the modern factory, calling to mind Berlin’s namesake—Europe’s Fabrikstadt.
Additionally, Walser points out that, “A giantess like this doesn’t dress so quickly.” The giantess Metropolis is slow and leisurely, and the language that Walser uses here even slows down the reader—“sun-shimmery chemise.” This language even extends to passages where Walser describes Berlin’s urban rush: “what a ravishing, beguiling haste can be seen in all this ostensible packed-in-ness and sober-mindedness” (11). By using sensuous language and a deliberate pace, Walser makes even Berlin’s hurriedness and crowdedness part of the city’s allure.
However, Berlin, like a giantess, is frightening, even disgusting. Before the day breaks, “before even the electric trams are running,” Berlin is not a giantess, but a monster (3). Placing the reader in Berlin’s cold, early morning streets, Walser writes, “you trot along, rubbing your hands, and watch people coming out of the gates and doorways of their buildings, as though some impatient monster were spewing out warm, flaming saliva” (3). This disgusting image of a salivating monster deviates sharply from the image of a luxurious giantess slowly pulling on her chemise. This is because Walser is showing the reader the “dark side” of Berlin: the class divide. The people “coming out of the gates and doorways of their buildings” are lower class workers or, as Walser puts it, “people of no significance” (4). Walser contrasts these people with Berlin’s upper class, namely, “refined persons who make it a habit to arise late” and “the children of wealthy, beautiful parents” who are still asleep as the hoi polloi make their morning commute.
Alternatively, in Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” the city of Berlin acts as a surrogate mother. Benjamin calls the loggias in which he grew up while living in Berlin “the cradle in which the city laid its new citizen” (Benjamin 38). By merging images of Berlin with images of maternity, Benjamin introduces the city as a nurturer and protector. By carrying over images of maternity to a city as urban as Berlin, Benjamin is showing how memories of his Berlin childhood can be just as tender and innocent as “memories of a childhood spent in the country” (38). According to Benjamin, “The rhythm of the metropolitan railway and of carpet-beating rocked me to sleep,” and this imagery demonstrates Berlin’s ability to “nurse” young Benjamin in spite of its urban technology and elbow-to-elbow housing arrangements. Overall, Benjamin attempts to forge an image of the city that is nurturing and protective, despite its lack of rolling fields and lowing cattle.
The juxtaposition of maternity and technology occurs later in the text when Benjamin describes the household telephone:
“The night from which [the noises of the telephone] came was the one that precedes every true birth. And the voice that slumbered in those instruments was a newborn voice. Each day and every hour, the telephone was my twin brother.” (48)
Here the reader encounters a young child’s wonder at modern technology, but, interestingly, Benjamin illustrates this by invoking images of maternity. Benjamin ascribes to the ring of the telephone the life-giving function which gives birth to both the voices on the other end of the phone call and young Benjamin himself. In other words, the telephone brings life into the home but also calls everyone within earshot of its ring into existence. However, in 1900, the German countryside had virtually no telephones while in Berlin these same devices were commonplace in middleclass family homes. By extending the maternal, life-giving language to the city’s technology, Benjamin establishing Berlin and its modernity as a city full of life.
However, besides its ability to give life, the telephone also “multipl[ies] the terrors of the Berlin household” (49). The language that Benjamin uses to describe himself working up the courage to answer the phone as a child is fraught with violence and fear. According to Benjamin, “There was nothing to allay the violence with which [the telephone] pierced me,” shifting the image of the telephone from life-giver to violent penetrator (50). Earlier, Benjamin described the way the telephone slowly conquered his home, moving from a “dark hallway in the back of the house” to the front room, and now the phone has become a violating and intrusive presence (48). In this way, Benjamin paints an image of a modern childhood in an urban city that is nurturing and full of life but also filled with violence and fear in the form of technology.
Between Robert Walser’s “Berlin Stories” and Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood Around 1900,” Berlin becomes both a voluptuous giantess and a nurturing mother. Berlin as giantess paints an image of the city that is sensual and leisurely, and Berlin as mother establishes the city as protective and life-giving. Of course, Berlin is far from a utopia, but these images transform what was at the turn of the city a dirty, overcrowded, and in many ways ugly city into a place that both of these authors is able to present proudly and lovingly to the reader.