Lecture: Klaus Müller-Wille

“HC Andersen, Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Reading”

Klaus Müller-Wille, University of Zürich

In 1926 Walter Benjamin published a small essay with the unpretentious title ”A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books”. The essay contains nothing else than a subtle and innovative theory of reading. In the beginning of his argumentation Benjamin alludes to “one of Andersen’s tales” that describes a picture book where everything was alive. Benjamin concludes: “Pretty and unfocused, like so much that Andersen wrote, this little invention misses the crucial point by a hair’s breadth. The objects do not come to meet the picturing child from the pages of the book; instead, the gazing child enters into those pages, becoming suffused, like a cloud, with the riotous colors of the world of pictures. Sitting before the painted book, he makes the Taoist vision of perfection come true: he overcomes the illusory barrier of the book’s surface and passes through colored textures and brightly painted partitions to enter a stage on which fairy tales spring to life.” Relating to this passage I will outline two theses in my talk. First of all I think that in this case not Andersen’s subtle tale but Benjamin’s own reading of this tale could be described as “pretty and unfocused.” Secondly I will try to use the tales “The Wild Swans” and “The Snow Queen” in order to outline Andersen’s complex theory of reading that anticipates many of Benjamin’s interests.