The much quoted “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” generally acknowledged to be Walter Benjamin’s final piece of writing, outlines a method and an ethos for the dialectical historian. This method, it must be recognized, is at the same time a description of the state of mind of and hortatory address to—small wonder—the refugee (that is, it is pre- and de-scriptive). In 1939 or 1940, Benjamin was writing as a moving target; his German citizenship annulled by the Third Reich, he had been living on the run in France. “Theses” was written between an internment and his death by suicide in a Spanish coastal town after escaping across the Pyrenees. In it, he urges that “Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” and, even as he himself entertained strong suicidal urges, describes the underdog, exilic survivor’s traits as “courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude,” that peculiar collective resiliency that supersedes questions of individual survival. Further more, his invocation of the “memory that flashes up in a moment of danger” as the paradigmatic object and method of study for the aspiring materialist historian corresponds also to the paradigmatic cognitive experience of the refugee living in a constant “state of emergency.” 2 The alertness, the charge of adrenaline flashing up in a moment of danger, the fragmentary nature of Benjamin’s essay itself as a series of aphorisms and S.O.S.’s all indicate the desperate conditions under which intellectual survival and creative expression is undertaken.
KeywordsJewish History German Citizenship Discussion List Sexual Masochism Lyric Poetry
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- 1.Walter Benjamin, “Robert Walser,” Selected Writings Volume II: 1927–1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1996), 257.Google Scholar
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