Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German philosopher and critic, published widely on such topics as technology, language, literature, the arts, and society. He left a large body of mostly unfinished work that has been slowly published in his native country. Since the 1980s, this fragmented work has elicited much commentary, including several thousand studies.
"Wemust expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art," wrote the French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, in his work Pieces Sur L'Art. Benjamin used that thought as the basis for what became one of his most famous essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It served as a foundation for the evolution of thought that emerged from the Postmodern school philosophy. In the face of Nazi oppression, the world lost Benjamin to suicide at the age of 48. Those who study the work of Benjamin can only speculate about how much more he might have produced had he not died at such an early age.
A Prosperous Family
Walter Benjamin was born into an affluent Jewish family in Berlin, Germany on July 15, 1892, the son of an art dealer. He was a perennial student until the age of 28, studying philosophy at universities in Berlin, Freiburg, and Munich, Germany. Benjamin graduated from the University of Bern, in Switzerland, earning a Ph.D. in 1919. He had a certain expectation of what his family's wealth could provide. Had events not altered plans for many German Jews during the Nazi era, he might have remained a privileged scholar in his parents' home. Gershom Scholem, the leading authority on Jewish Mysticism and a longtime friend of the philosopher, recalled his first encounter with Benjamin at a 1964 lecture at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. The experience is described in his book, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, published in 1976. "I first set eyes on Walter Benjamin late in the autumn of 1913 at a discussion between the Zionist youth and Jewish members both of Wynecken's 'Anfang' and the Free German Student Association, which he attended as the main spokesman of the latter group. I have forgotten what he said but I have the most vivid memory of his bearing as a speaker. This left a lasting impression because of his way of speaking extempore without so much as a glance at his audience, staring with a fixed gaze at a remote corner of the ceiling which he harangued with much intensity, in a style incidentally that was, as far as I remember, ready for print … he was considered the best mind in that circle in which he was fairly active during the two years before the First World War, for awhile as president of the Free Student Association at Berlin University." By the time the two men met and began their friendship, Scholem said, Benjamin had abandoned that social circle and was living almost entirely in seclusion, harshly casting aside his former friends without warning. He was completely absorbed in his studies by then. "What thinking really means I have experienced through his living example," noted Scholem.
In 1920, Benjamin began work as a literary critic and translator in Berlin. He had considered an academic career, but that pursuit was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his doctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, in 1928. The rise of Hitler in 1933, caused Benjamin to leave Germany permanently and settle in Paris, where he wrote radio scripts, as well as essays and criticism for literary journals. He married at this time and had a son. The marriage was not successful, however, and the couple eventually divorced. Benjamin's decision to remain in Paris in 1939 rather than join friends in Palestine proved to be a fateful one when German troops invaded France. He soon found himself in German-occupied territory.
Benjamin and a group of refugees managed to escape from an increasingly hostile Paris and travel to Spain en route to the United States. When the group was not allowed to board a boat and a local official threatened him with extradition to France, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine and refused medical attention. He died on September 27, 1940 in Port Bou, Spain. As he lived his life in seclusion, so, too, did he die—without hinting to the others of his intentions.
Fascination with Judaism
Benjamin was an avid student of Marx and traveled to the Soviet Union in 1927 in order to view the communist system firsthand. Yet his efforts to understand his own faith and culture remained his persistent passion. Benjamin's Zionist leanings led him to consider resettling in Palestine for many years. By 1930, however, his attempts to immerse himself in the study of historical materialism as a basis for his literary work, kept him from doing so. Still, his love of books, particularly children's books, occupied much of his attention. Benjamin felt that it was the French novelist, Marcel Proust, whose work most exemplified the point at which the child and the adult came together. In the 1930s, his own book, A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, which appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung, dealt with his own recollections of childhood. In discussing his work, Scholem had these recollections of Benjamin: "Though lacking in all the attributes of a German patriot, Benjamin had a deep love for Berlin. It was as a Jewish child whose forefathers had settled in the regions of Mark, Brandenburg, Rhineland, and West Prussia that he experienced his native city. In his description the city flagstones and its hidden corners, which open themselves up before the child's eye, are transformed back into a provincial island in the heart of the metropolis." As a scholar who would generate thousands of commentaries on his work decades after his death, that reflection provided a glimpse into the way his logic was formed. "In my childhood I was a prisoner of the old and the new West, the two city quarters my clan inhabited at the time in an attitude of defiance mingled with self-conceit. This attitude turned the two districts into a ghetto upon which the clan looked as its fief." Benjamin's small and self-contained world of his childhood prepared him for the solitary life of a thinker, traversing cultures, eras, and a future in which he would lay the groundwork for others to understand.
In 1921, Benjamin obtained Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee. It would remain his most precious possession for the next 20 years. As early as July 1932, when he considered taking his own life, Benjamin bequeathed that picture to Scholem. According to Scholem, it represented more than an object of meditation, or memento of a spiritual vocation: "… the Angelus Novus also represented something else for him: an allegory in the sense of the dialectical tension uncovered in allegories by Benjamin in his book about tragic drama." Benjamin spoke and wrote about the picture often. "If one may speak of Walter Benjamin's genius, then it was concentrated in this angel," remarked Scholem.
Benjamin is best known in the United States for his literary and cultural criticism, though his political, philosophical, and religious essays have been studied in greater detail by European commentators. Benjamin was first introduced to the American public in 1968 by Hannah Arendt in a lengthy New Yorker article. According to R. Z. Sheppard in Time, Arendt claimed that he "… was the most important German critic between the world wars." In addition to those noted previously, his many works included, [titles here translated into English, noting the original German publication date, not the later publication of the English translations] One-Way Street, and Other Writings, 1928; A Short History of Photography, 1931; Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1942; Illuminations, 1961; Understanding Brecht, 1966; Moscow Diary, 1968. His works that have not yet been translated into English are, Goethes "Wahiverwandtschaften", 1924-25 (title translated as: "Goethe's 'Elective Affinities"'); Berlliner Kindheit un Neunzehnhundert, (memoirs) 1950; and Derr Beegriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romaantik, (criticisms) 1973. The full scope of his work was not realized even 60 years after his death, in part due to the slowness in publishing and translating hundreds of his works. Critics are in general agreement that Benjamin possessed a uniquely intuitive and keen mind. He was perhaps the most brilliant intellectual of his generation.
Further Reading on Walter Benjamin
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, English translation, 1968.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 12, 15th edition, 1995.
Scholem, Gershom. On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, Schocken Books, 1976.
Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, 1999. Available at: http: //www.galenet.com.