Authors: Walter Benjamin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German essayist and critic

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, 1919

Goethes “Wahlverwandtschaften,” 1922

Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, 1925 (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1978)

Einbahnstrasse, 1928 (One-Way Street, and Other Writings, 1979)

Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert, 1950 (autobiography)

Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, 1955 (Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, 1973)

Illuminationen, 1955 (Illuminations, 1968 [Hannah Arendt, editor])

Briefe, 1966 (2 volumes; The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin: 1910-1940, 1994)

Versuche über Brecht, 1966 (Understanding Brecht, 1973)

Gesammelte Schriften, 1974-1985 (6 volumes; partial translation as Selected Writings, 1996-1999 [2 volumes])

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, 1978 (Peter Demetz, editor)

Moskauer Tagebuch, 1980 (Moscow Diary, 1986)

Das Passagen-Werk, 1982 (2 volumes; The Arcades Project, 1999)

Briefe und Briefwechsel, 1994-1997 (2 volumes; partial translation as The Complete Correspondence: 1928-1940, 1999)

Biography

Walter Benjamin (BEHN-yah-meen) is considered a major cultural critic whose profoundly complex works reflect both a melancholic messianism and an idiosyncratic Marxism. Benjamin was little appreciated during his own life, which ended tragically in suicide. Only after World War II–when Theodor Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, and Gershom Scholem, distinguished scholar of the kabbalah, began publishing his works–did Benjamin’s influence on modern cultural theory begin to be felt.{$I[AN]9810001318}{$I[A]Benjamin, Walter}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Benjamin, Walter}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Benjamin, Walter}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Benjamin, Walter}{$I[tim]1892;Benjamin, Walter}

Born in 1892 into an affluent Jewish home in the West End of Berlin, Benjamin received his secondary education at the prestigious Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, which brought him under the influence of the antiauthoritarian concepts of Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin became a leader in the so-called Youth Movement but broke with the group over its enthusiastic acceptance of World War I, which Benjamin avoided by feigning sciatica. He married Dora Pollak in 1917, their only child Stefan being born the same year, but the couple separated after 1924. Studying philosophy in Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, and Bern, Benjamin made contacts with Zionists and leftists, including Martin Buber and Ernst Bloch. His doctoral dissertation, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (the concept of art criticism in German Romanticism), which examined Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s metaphysics and Friedrich Schlegel’s aesthetics, was published in 1919 in Bern. Rapidly rising inflation in the Weimar Republic and pressure from his parents to find suitable employment forced Benjamin to return to Germany.

Better suited by temperament to be an independent man of letters than an academic, Benjamin nevertheless sought a university career by submitting in 1925 The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a qualifying paper in order to teach aesthetics and literary history at the University of Frankfurt. He withdrew his application, however, when it became clear that the faculty barely understood his difficult theoretical discussion of the Baroque drama of grief. Here, as throughout his work, Benjamin sought a criticism of redemption by which the historical/material truth of a work of art would be released from the aesthetic delusion, the pretense to totality.

After giving up a chance to teach in Jerusalem, offered by his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem, Benjamin embarked on a career as a literary critic, publishing important essays on ethics, violence, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and translating the works of Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, and Marcel Jouhandeau. Contact with left-wing intellectuals, particularly the Latvian actress Asja Lacis, who introduced him to German playwright Bertolt Brecht, increased his interest in Marxism. Furthermore, he was much impressed by an early work of Georg Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923; History and Class Consciousness, 1971). Benjamin visited Moscow in the winter of 1926-1927; his work Moscow Diary was the direct result of that visit. Although he declined to join the Communist Party, claiming too many “anarchist” tendencies in his personality, he was deeply interested in new currents within Soviet culture.

After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Benjamin began a life of exile in Paris, with extended visits to his friend Brecht in Denmark. Supporting himself in part on a stipend from the so-called Frankfurt School of critics, whose journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (journal for social research) published a number of important articles, he developed his penetrating analysis of nineteenth century French culture and modern urban life (for example, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism). These interests were to have culminated in his unfinished, image-laden masterpiece, the “Passagen-Werk” (arcades project), which through the architectural arcades of nineteenth century Paris shows the sociotechnological basis of art and the fetishes of modern culture.

Throughout Benjamin’s work, there is an effort to brush against the grain of linguistic and symbolic illusion in the belief that only a language free of intention can reveal truth. In Goethe’s “Wahlverwandtschaften” (Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”), he argues that the appearance of totality in the symbolic work of art, mimicking nature, should be unmasked to uncover the expressionless in human experience. Beyond the allegory of the Trauerspiel lies the trauma of war and plague in the seventeenth century. Every “document of civilization” is thus also a “document of barbarism.” The experience (Erfahrung) of integrated collective memory and tradition, destroyed by the experiencing (Erlebnis) of the discontinuous events of modernity, leaves the storyteller without a craft.

Literary criticism must recover the fragmented reality of everyday life from the dissolution of capitalistic fetishes that keep humankind from seeing the whole for the parts. The flâneur, the stroller through the Parisian arcades, embodies this alienation by being a lonely voyeur within the human crowd. The abundant luxuries in the surrounding shop windows, commodities whose exchange value shrouds their use value, obscure an understanding of the oppression required by their production. In his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (translated in Illuminations), Benjamin argues that technological advance provides artistic innovations that redefine the relationship between artist and audience and thereby serve to expose the contradictions of capitalism. The modern capacity to reproduce paintings destroys their “aura,” the reverential attitude of the cultivated public toward authentic works of art, thus liberating culture from religious mystification and allowing it to embrace a proper political role. The social truth lying behind a standardized and unnatural life in the modern city can only be attained through “shock experiences,” as in Baudelaire’s assaultive use of sacred images in unholy contexts or Brecht’s blunt interruption of the observer’s empathy with the action onstage.

Benjamin wrote provocatively about such diverse interests as children’s toys, hashish, Surrealism, and Franz Kafka. The original and unorthodox dimensions of his Marxism range from the notion that collecting antiquities, or “ruins,” is a means of escaping the cultural hegemony of history and that returning to a prelapsarian faith is a means of freeing revolutionary impulses. His pessimistic last essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written under the shadow of the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, appears to despair over the possibility of meaningful political engagement.

Embracing the “left melancholia” he had once criticized, abandoning faith in historical progress, Benjamin suggests that redemption from oppression can only come from a messianic interruption of time, a Jetztzeit, or “now-time,” that allows for the rediscovery of lost humanity. After the Nazi invasion of France, Benjamin acquired a visa to enter the United States, but, in failing health, he took his own life on September 27, 1940, in Port Bou, Spain, when an official attempting blackmail threatened to report him and his fellow refugees to the Gestapo.

BibliographyAlter, Robert. Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.Benjamin, Andrew, and Beatrice Hanssen, eds. Walter Benjamin and Romanticism. New York: Continuum, 2002. The twelve essays in this volume address Benjamin’s writings on Romanticism, especially the work of Goethe, Novalis, and Schlegel.Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. Edited by Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. Another diverse selection of Benjamin essays, including several autobiographical pieces (notably on his Berlin childhood and visit to Moscow), and an introduction by Demetz focusing on the different currents creating the complexity of his thought.Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. A study of five modernist poets, including Benjamin, whose vision Bernstein sees as an apocalyptic triple whammy of Judaism, Christianity, and Marxism.Bolz, Norbert W., and Willem van Reijen. Walter Benjamin. Translated by Laimdota Mazzarins. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996. Discusses important themes in Benjamin’s work and its role in contemporary philosophy. Includes a glossary, biographical information, and an annotated bibliography of Benjamin’s writings.Brodersen, Momme. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Translated by Malcolm R. Green and and Ingrida Ligers. New York: Verso Books, 1996. An even-handed account of Benjamin’s life.Buck-Morss, Susan. Walter Benjamin and the Dialectics of Seeing: A Study of the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989. A penetrating analysis, inspired by a New Left interpretation of Marxism, of what would have been Benjamin’s masterpiece.Caygill, Howard, Alex Coles, and Andrzej Klimowski. Introducing Walter Benjamin. New York: Totem Books, 1998. An accessible biography of this Jewish philosopher and critic. Also examines intellectual life in twentieth century Germany.Gilloch, Graeme. Walter Benjamin–Critical Constellations. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2001. An intellectual biography from the series Key Contemporary Thinkers.Handelman, Susan A. Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Analyzes Jewish literature and culture, including the issue of cultural assimilation, through Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Emmanuel Lévinas.Richter, Gerhard, ed. Benjamin’s Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Explores the implications for today’s critical concerns of Benjamin’s work.Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1988. Stresses Benjamin’s romantic messianism.Smith, Gary, ed. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988. A useful collection of essays by leading Benjamin scholars and an extensive bibliography.Smith, Gary, ed. Thinking Through Benjamin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A revised edition of essays originally appearing in The Philosophical Forum.Witte, Bernd. Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography. Translated by James Rolleston. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. An interpretive biography.Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. A defense of the position that the “discontinuous extremes” in Benjamin’s work engender its enigmatic majesty and betray its ultimate theological preoccupations, an interpretation heavily influenced by Adorno.
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