(The following was originally published on Version.org on May 11, 2010. Each Version editorial item adheres to the following formal constraint: a maximum of 500 words, 5 images, or 50 seconds.)
One of the most important moments in the German sociologist Max Weber’s career happened 25 years after his death; when his wife, first cousin, and biographer, Marianne, destroyed the history of his nervous breakdown. Max worked relentlessly on the document until his death in 1920. Only Marianne had read the draft. Its erasure covered over a possible future, wherein Weber wrote the first great autoethnography in sociology. Instead, she eased Max’s account back underground as the American army was approaching at the end of World War 2. She was afraid the Nazis would use the manuscript to discredit his work. Another explanation is that Max’s coverage of his illness competed with her own history, in which she appears in the third person like an omnipotent angel. What did come from Max’s breakdown was the 1905 essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In 1919, he revised the essay into a book. This time, the footnotes were longer than the original text; mimicking the nervous conditions that inspired the work. It was Harvard professor Talcott Parsons’ translation of this version that solidified Weber’s reputation in the United States and established him as a founding father of sociology. With Marianne’s blessing, Parsons replaces Weber’s own imagery in the famous phrase titling this essay. He changes “steel casing” to “iron cage,” invoking the Puritan, John Bunyon’s “man in the iron cage,” an account about an imprisoned professor eerily like Weber himself. It’s a brilliant substitution that draws Weber away from comparisons to his contemporary Franz Kafka, whose Gregor suffered his own nervous breakdown encased in an exoskeleton. Once more pieces are added to Weber’s cloak—a clinging wool coat, alligator shoes, a goddess’s corset, a pair of red spectacles—the casing hardens up. The cloak becomes heavier and indistinguishable from the person. It proliferates into a network of commodities anchored deep inside the person, forming a new Achilles. Weber might’ve seen this in his destroyed manuscript (only Marianne knew) but Walter Benjamin, at the edge of Weber’s circle, saw something similar; a nervous, post-Protestant ethic emerging in modern capitalism. In his unfinished Arcades Project, Benjamin found a prefiguration of the steel casing in the iron and glass structures that formed the 19th century Paris arcades into modernist ruins. The arcades were breeding swamps for rust, commodity fetishization, and encased identities. Benjamin worked on this history until his suicide on the Spanish border scuttling like a beetle from the Nazis, lugging a heavy suitcase. There, in a small bedroom by the Mediterranean, he pulled the steel casing off himself like a child’s blanket as the morphine tablets melted in his stomach. At the end, he was mouthing a secret history of Paris that he told only his lost lover Asja. Goodnight map of Manhattan, goodnight x-ray, goodnight pipe, goodnight glasses, goodnight watch. According to the Spanish authorities, this was all that remained of Benjamin’s project; no manuscript, only mnemonic devices that couldn’t be turned on, as if they were solid iron.