Since his writings started to appear in the standard German edition, Gesammelte Schriften, seven volumes, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, between 1972 and 1989, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) has been established as perhaps overall the most significant philosopher, literary critic, cultural commentator, theorist of translation, and student of urban studies in the twentieth century, and for the twenty first century, though his writings had begun to appear in English translations through the 1970s.
His influence was greatest upon his younger contemporary Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), many of whose writings are a profound commentary on him and on the Frankfurt School (the Institute for Social Research). The same applies to Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and to his contemporary, Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966). And many others, in the USA and UK and Europe, have owned a huge debt to him. He forms an essential part of this encyclopedia, and the entry here does no more than indicate the main events of his life. His work derives from Marx, from Nietzsche, and Freud, and Brecht, and from Jewish philosophy, partly influenced here by his friend Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), who left Germany in 1923 for Palestine. Much argument has centered on the relationship of Benjamin’s Marxism to a certain Messianic thought in this Jewish philosophy, and there is certainly a debt to Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) and to Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929).
Walter Benjamin was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin and describes much of it in an autobiographical piece, “A Berlin Chronicle” (1932), developed into “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” (1932–1938, but all these unpublished in his lifetime). He studied in Universities in Freiburg, Berlin, and Bern, where he completed his doctorate with a dissertation “The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism.” His Habilitationschrift, to be presented to the University of Frankfurt to allow him to become a University teacher, was, however, failed by its examiners, though it was published at the beginning of 1928 as The Origin of German Tragic Drama: this is a wonderful study of allegory, and melancholy, and of the baroque, and everything in it carries into his later work on cities. He himself was doomed for the rest of his life to freelance work, much of it for the Frankfurt School journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. The year 1926 was when he began to live in Paris and to begin slowly the work which would become the Arcades Project. He had already met the Latvian actress and producer and Bolshevik Asja Lacis (1891–1979), who became both his lover and an inspiration: in One Way Street (1928), the dedication was to her, “This street I named Asja Lacis Street, after her who as an engineer cut it through the author.” In 1926–1927, he was in Moscow. In 1929, he met Bertolt Brecht, who was a huge influence upon him and on his writings on media; here the second version of “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (written late 1935–early 1936, but unpublished in his lifetime, like much else) is essential. An earlier version appeared in 1936 and reappeared in an influential collection of his writings, Illuminations (1955). Also important, and marking his distance from Adorno, less ready to give credence to anything new happening in the context of the “culture industry,” since all that culture bears the signs of commodification, all controlled by the market, is the essay “The Author as Producer.”
In 1932, with the impending threat of the Nazis coming to power, he moved to Ibiza, and then to Nice, and then back to Brecht’s house in Denmark, before moving permanently to Paris. He had already, in the 1920s, translated Baudelaire and parts of Proust; both were also of crucial importance to him, with several long studies of Baudelaire: “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” (1938) and “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), the latter a response to Adorno’s critique of an insufficiently dialectical Marxism. At the same time, he wrote a proposal (an Exposé) of the work which would become the Arcades Project: “Paris: the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935). Rendered stateless because of his Jewishness, as far as Germany was concerned, he was interned at Nevers, in Burgundy at the outbreak of the war, but allowed to return to Paris at the beginning of 1940, where he wrote one of his most interesting pieces, “On the Concept of History,” a collection of aphorisms, a Nietzschean form he often adopted (“Central Park” is another such collection). After the invasion and occupation of Paris, he left the city by train around June 14, leaving his papers with Georges Bataille (1897–1962), the dissident Surrealist and librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale (Bataille kept them safe), arriving in the Pyrenees, then going on to Marseilles, but lacking an exit visa from France, for America. At Port Bou, on the Spanish border, where the border was closed (though Spain was supposed to be neutral), he took his life, dying on 27 September. Suicide had been on his mind before, most notably at Nice; had he not killed himself, he would have been taken to Auschwitz.
Like the detail of his writing, and its poetry, the range of Benjamin’s reading is extraordinary: for example, there are definitive essays on Hölderlin and Goethe; on the German Trauerspiele (the mourning-plays of the seventeenth century, contemporary with the Thirty Years’ War); and on Kafka, the discussions of Baudelaire are defining for studies of much of the nineteenth century. Above all, there is the work on cities: on Naples, Moscow, Marseilles, and Berlin, as well as Paris, where his work for the Arcades Project complements what he was doing with the work on German tragic drama. Essays which cut to the center of his work include, apart from “The Work of Art” essay and the Exposé for the Arcades Project and the two long essays on Baudelaire, “The Storyteller” (1936), “Unpacking my Library” (1931), and “The Collector” section (Convolute H) from the Arcades Project.
The city focuses all his interests, as the place where junk tells as much as the monumental, where ruins point to histories that need to be brought out; as the place where images seize the observer, however distracted he or she may be, with the force of revolutionary change; as the labyrinthine space which can always make the walker lose a sense of self; as the place where capitalism shows itself in its most deceptively illusory forms, and as the unmappable territory which may always yield something new. Benjamin’s work is written in the light of Fascism, and with a sense of war impending, these two being the catastrophes that impel a new thinking of art and its purposes. When he left Paris forever, he must have considered his own work as an epitaph for a Paris and Europe that would be destroyed forever. The Arcades Project attempts to salvage what is in the city, by writing it, creating in a montage effect, a way of making the images in the city live.
- Adorno, Theodor. 2003. The complete correspondence: Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin 1928–1940, ed. Henri Lonitz. Trans. N. Walker. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
- Benjamin, Walter. 1977. The origin of German tragic drama. Trans. J. Osborne. London: Verso.Google Scholar
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