From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Method of this work: literary montage. I have nothing to say only to show" [...] -- Walter Benjamin
Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (15 July 1892 – 26 September 1940) was a German philosopher, literary critic, social critic, translator, radio broadcaster and essayist. Combining elements of German idealism or Romanticism, historical materialism and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory and Western Marxism, and is associated with the Frankfurt School. Among his major works as a literary critic are essays on Goethe's novel Elective Affinities; the work of Franz Kafka and Karl Kraus; translation theory; the stories of Nikolai Leskov; the work of Marcel Proust and perhaps most significantly, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. He also made major translations into German of the Tableaux Parisiens section of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal and parts of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.
His turn to Marxism in the 1930s was partly due to the influence of Bertolt Brecht, whose critical aesthetics developed epic theatre and its Verfremdungseffekt (defamiliarisation, alienation). An earlier influence was friend Gershom Scholem, founder of the academic study of the Kabbalah and of Jewish mysticism.
Influenced by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815–87), Benjamin coined the term "auratic perception", denoting the aesthetic faculty by means of which civilization may recover an appreciation of myth. Benjamin's work is often cited in academic and literary studies, especially the essays "The Task of the Translator" (1923), "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) and his unfinished magnum opus the Arcades Project.
Benjamin and his younger siblings, Georg (1895–1942) and Dora (1901–1946) were born to a wealthy business family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews in the Berlin of the German Empire (1871–1918). The patriarch, Emil Benjamin, was a banker in Paris who relocated from France to Germany, where he worked as an antiques trader in Berlin; he later married Pauline Schönflies. He owned a number of investments in Berlin, including ice skating rinks. In 1902, ten-year-old Walter was enrolled to the Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg; he completed his secondary school studies ten years later. Walter Benjamin was a boy of fragile health and so in 1905 the family sent him to Hermann-Lietz-Schule Haubinda, a boarding school in the Thuringian countryside, for two years; in 1907, having returned to Berlin, he resumed his schooling at the Kaiser Friedrich School.
In 1912, at the age of twenty, he enrolled at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, but, at summer semester's end, returned to Berlin, then matriculated into the Humboldt University of Berlin, to continue studying philosophy. Here Benjamin had his first exposure to the ideas of Zionism, which had not been part of his liberal upbringing. This exposure gave him occasion to formulate his own ideas about the meaning of Judaism. Benjamin distanced himself from political and nationalist Zionism, instead developing in his own thinking what he called a kind of "cultural Zionism"—an attitude which recognized and promoted Judaism and Jewish values. In Benjamin's formulation his Jewishness meant a commitment to the furtherance of European culture. Benjamin expressed "My life experience led me to this insight: the Jews represent an elite in the ranks of the spiritually active ... For Judaism is to me in no sense an end in itself, but the most distinguished bearer and representative of the spiritual." This was a position that Benjamin largely held lifelong.
Elected president of the Freie Studentenschaft (Free Students Association), Benjamin wrote essays arguing for educational and general cultural change. When not re-elected as student association president, he returned to Freiburg University to study, with particular attention to the lectures of Heinrich Rickert; at that time he travelled to France and Italy.
In 1914, as Germany and France fought each other in the First World War (1914–1918), the intellectual Walter Benjamin began faithfully translating the works of the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). The next year, 1915, he moved to Munich, and continued his schooling at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem; the latter became a friend. In that year, Benjamin wrote about the 18th-century Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843).
In 1917 he transferred to the University of Bern; there, he met Ernst Bloch, and Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890–1964) whom he later married. They had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918–1972). In 1919 Benjamin earned his doctoral degree cum laude with the dissertation Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism). Later, unable to support himself and family, he returned to Berlin and resided with his parents. In 1921 he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (The Critique of Violence). At this time Benjamin first became socially acquainted with Leo Strauss, and would remain an admirer of Strauss and of his work throughout his life.
In 1923, when the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) was founded, later to became home to the Frankfurt School, Benjamin published Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens. At that time he became acquainted with Theodor Adorno and befriended Georg Lukács, whose The Theory of the Novel (1920) much influenced him. Meanwhile, the inflation in the Weimar Republic consequent to the First World War made it difficult for the father Emil Benjamin to continue supporting his son's family. At the end of 1923 his best friend Gershom Scholem emigrated to Palestine, a country under the British Mandate of Palestine; despite repeated invitations, he failed to persuade Benjamin (and family) to leave the Continent for the Middle East.
In 1924 Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge magazine, published Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (Goethe's Elective Affinities), by Walter Benjamin, about Goethe’s third novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809). Later that year Benjamin and Ernst Bloch resided on the Italian island of Capri; Benjamin wrote Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), as an habilitation dissertation meant to qualify him as a tenured university professor in Germany. He also read, at Bloch’s suggestion, History and Class Consciousness (1923) by Georg Lukács. He also met the Latvian Bolshevik and actress Asja Lācis, then residing in Moscow; she became his lover and was a lasting intellectual influence upon him.
A year later, in 1925, the Goethe University Frankfurt at Frankfurt am Main rejected The Origin of German Tragic Drama as Benjamin’s qualification for the habilitation teaching credential; he was not to be an academic instructor. Working with Franz Hessel (1880–1941) he translated the first volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. The next year, 1926, he began writing for the German newspapers Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt Times) and Die Literarische Welt (The Literary World); that paid enough for him to reside in Paris for some months. In December 1926 (the year his father, Emil Benjamin, died) Walter Benjamin went to Moscow to meet Asja Lācis and found her ill in a sanatorium.
In 1927, he began Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), his incompleted magnum opus, a study of 19th-century Parisian life. The same year, he saw Gershom Scholem in Berlin, for the last time, and considered emigrating from Continental Europe (Germany) to Palestine. In 1928, he and Dora separated, then divorced two years later, in 1930; he published Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), and a revision of his habilitation dissertation Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama). In 1929 Berlin, Asja Lācis, then assistant to Bertolt Brecht, socially presented the intellectuals to each other. In that time, he also briefly embarked upon an academic career, as an instructor at the University of Heidelberg.
In 1932, during the turmoil preceding Adolf Hitler’s assumption of the office of Chancellor of Germany, Walter Benjamin left Germany for the Spanish island of Ibiza for some months; he then moved to Nice, where he considered killing himself. Perceiving the socio-political and cultural significance of the Reichstag fire (27 February 1933) as the de facto Nazi assumption of full power in Germany, then manifest with the subsequent persecution of the Jews, he moved to Paris, but, before doing so, he sought shelter in Svendborg, at Bertold Brecht's house, and at Sanremo, where his ex-wife Dora lived.
As he ran out of money, Benjamin collaborated with Max Horkheimer, and received funds from the Institute for Social Research, later going permanently into exile. In Paris, he met other German artists and intellectuals refuged there from Germany; he befriended Hannah Arendt, novelist Hermann Hesse, and composer Kurt Weill. In 1936, a first version of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (L'œuvre d'art à l'époque de sa reproduction méchanisée) was published, in French, by Max Horkheimer in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung journal of the Institute for Social Research.
In 1937 Benjamin worked on Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire), met Georges Bataille (to whom he later entrusted the Arcades Project manuscript), and joined the College of Sociology. In 1938 he paid a last visit to Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Denmark. Meanwhile, the Nazi Régime stripped German Jews of their German citizenship; now a stateless man, Benjamin was arrested by the French government and incarcerated for three months in a prison camp near Nevers, in central Burgundy.
1940: On the Concept of History, escape and suicide
Returning to Paris in January 1940, he wrote Über den Begriff der Geschichte (Theses on the Philosophy of History). As the Wehrmacht defeated the French defence, on 13 June, Benjamin and his sister fled Paris to the town of Lourdes, a day before the Germans entered Paris (14 June 1940), with orders to arrest him at his flat. In August, he obtained a travel visa to the US that Max Horkheimer had negotiated for him. In eluding the Gestapo, Benjamin planned to travel to the US from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach via fascist Spain, then ostensibly a neutral country.
The historical record indicates that he safely crossed the French-Spanish border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia. The Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined. It was told by the Spanish police that it would be deported back to France, which would have destroyed Benjamin's plans to travel to the United States. Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of 25 September 1940 while staying in the Hotel de Francia; the official Portbou register records 26 September 1940 as the official date of death. Benjamin's colleague Arthur Koestler, also fleeing Europe, attempted suicide by taking some of the morphine tablets, but he survived. Benjamin's brother Georg was killed at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in 1942.
The fact that Benjamin was buried in the consecrated section of a Roman Catholic cemetery would indicate that his death was not announced as a suicide. The others in his party were allowed passage the next day, and safely reached Lisbon on 30 September. A manuscript of Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" was passed to Theodor Adorno by Hannah Arendt, who crossed the French-Spanish border at Portbou a few months later, and was subsequently published by the Institute for Social Research (temporarily relocated to New York) in 1942.
A completed manuscript, which Benjamin had carried in his suitcase, disappeared after his death and has not been recovered. Some critics speculate that it was his Arcades Project in a final form; this is very unlikely as the author's plans for the work had changed in the wake of Adorno's criticisms in 1938, and it seems clear that the work was flowing over its containing limits in his last years. As the last finished piece of work from Benjamin, the Theses on the Philosophy of History (noted above) is often cited; Adorno claimed this had been written in the spring of 1940, weeks before the Germans invaded France.
While this is not completely certain, Theses is clearly one of his last works, and the final paragraph, about the Jewish quest for the Messiah provides a harrowing final point to Benjamin's work, with its themes of culture, destruction, Jewish heritage and the fight between humanity and nihilism. He brings up the interdiction, in some varieties of Judaism, to try to determine the year when the Messiah would come into the world, and points out that this did not make Jews indifferent to the future "for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."
Walter Benjamin corresponded much with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht, and was occasionally funded by the Frankfurt School under the direction of Adorno and Horkheimer, even from their New York City residence. The competing influences—Brecht’s Marxism, Adorno’s critical theory, Gerschom Scholem’s Jewish mysticism—were central to his work, although their philosophic differences remained unresolved. Moreover, the critic Paul de Man argued that the intellectual range of Benjamin’s writings flows dynamically among those three intellectual traditions, deriving a critique via juxtaposition; the exemplar synthesis is On the Concept of History (Theses on the Philosophy of History).
On the Concept of History
Composed of twenty numbered paragraphs, Benjamin wrote the brief essay shortly before attempting to escape from Vichy France, where French collaborationist government officials were handing over Jewish refugees like Benjamin to the Nazi Gestapo. The theses are the last major work Benjamin completed before fleeing to Spain where he committed suicide in September 1940.
Margaret Cohen writes in the Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin:
- In the “Concept of History” Benjamin also turned to Jewish mysticism for a model of praxis in dark times, inspired by the kabbalistic precept that the work of the holy man is an activity known as tikkun. According to the kabbalah, God’s attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contam- inated by the presence of evil and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together. Benjamin fused tikkun with the Surrealist notion that liberation would come through releasing repressed collective material, to produce his celebrated account of the revolutionary historiographer, who sought to grab hold of elided memories as they sparked to view at moments of present danger.
'Angelus Novus' painting by Klee
The ninth thesis in the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” presents:
- A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The Origin of German Tragic Drama
Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928), is a critical study of German baroque drama, as well as the political and cultural climate of Germany during the Counter-Reformation (1545–1648). Benjamin presented the work to the University of Frankfurt in 1925 as the (post-doctoral) dissertation meant to earn him the Habilitation (qualification) to become a university instructor in Germany.
Professor Schultz of University of Frankfurt found The Origin of German Tragic Drama inappropriate for his Germanistik department (Department of German Language and Literature), and passed it to the Department of Aesthetics (philosophy of art), the readers of which likewise dismissed Benjamin's work. The faculty, among them Max Horkheimer, recommended that Benjamin withdraw Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels as a Habilitation dissertation to avoid formal rejection and public embarrassment. He heeded the advice, and three years later, in 1928, he published The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a book.
The Arcades Project
The Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927–40), was Walter Benjamin’s final, incomplete book about Parisian city life in the 19th century, especially about the Passages couverts de Paris the covered passages that extended the culture of flânerie (idling and people-watching) when inclement weather made flânerie infeasible in the boulevards and streets proper.
The Arcades Project, in its current form, brings together a massive collection of notes which Benjamin filed together over the course of thirteen years, from 1927 to 1940.
The Arcades Project was published for the first time in 1982, and is over a thousand pages long.
Susan Sontag said that in Walter Benjamin’s writing, sentences did not originate ordinarily, do not progress into one another, and delineate no obvious line of reasoning, as if each sentence "had to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes", a "freeze-frame baroque" style of writing and cogitation. "His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct". The difficulty of Benjamin's writing style is essential to his philosophical project. Fascinated by notions of reference and constellation, his goal in later works was to use intertexts to reveal aspects of the past that cannot, and should not, be understood within greater, monolithic constructs of historical understanding.
Walter Benjamin’s writings identify him as a modernist for whom the philosophic merges with the literary: logical philosophic reasoning cannot account for all experience, especially not for self-representation via art. He presented his stylistic concerns in The Task of the Translator, wherein he posits that a literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. Moreover, in the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original, source-language text are elucidated, while previously obvious aspects become unreadable. Such translational mortification of the source text is productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities, between historical objects, appear and are productive of philosophical truth.
- Zur Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence / 1921).
- Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (Goethe's Elective Affinities / 1922).
- Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of German Tragic Drama [Mourning Play] / 1928).
- Einbahnstraße (One Way Street / 1928).
- Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction / 1936).
- Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Berlin Childhood around 1900 / 1950, published posthumously).
- Über den Begriff der Geschichte (On the Concept of History / Theses on the Philosophy of History) / 1939, published posthumously).
- Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire / 1938).
Since the publication of Schriften (Writings, 1955) fifteen years after his death, Benjamin's work—especially the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936)—is of seminal importance to academics in the humanities disciplines.
- Gertrud Kolmar
- Angelus Novus
- Aura (Walter Benjamin)
- The Briefcase of Walter Benjamin/Benjamin Walter's Briefcase: An Invent/Story by Julian Yates University of Delaware 
- Passages; Homage to Walter Benjamin