Out of the 332 letters in this collection, only six are by Walter Benjamin’s correspondents, all by Gershom Scholem and Theodore Adorno, who are also the editors of this volume. In all, Benjamin corresponded with more than thirty individuals, many of them world-renowned: In addition to Scholem and Adorno, they include Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, Martin Buber, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Max Horkheimer, and other important central European intellectuals of the first four decades of the twentieth century. Because this collection consists of letters by Benjamin, the volume reads more like a monologue than the dialogue one would expect in the give-and-take of a correspondence.
To read through these letters is to encounter thought in its richest texture. Benjamin not only shares his insights into writers and poets from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Charles Baudelaire to Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka, but also gives historical, political, ethical, and even metaphysical contexts for these insights that take readers further than literary interpretation. Literary texts for Benjamin were like archaeological fragments that could yield clues to meanings that the dark glasses of the present time have tended to obscure. The secrets Benjamin hoped to reveal were not limited to forgotten history. He was fascinated by semiotics and symbology, the structures and signs of language that encapsulated meanings beyond history. Indeed, he read phenomena like texts and saw in the artifacts of modern life—streets, shop windows, photographs—clues to mystical and political truths.
As Benjamin moved back and forth in his thought between theologically and humanistically centered ideas and social or political theories, he tended to center his thinking in people who embodied the ideas at hand. For example, Gershom Scholem came to stand for Jewish identification in Benjamin—not simply in personal or religious terms. Scholem’s researches in the Kabbalah, the central text in Jewish mysticism, spoke to Benjamin’s fascination with Jewish antiquity, its closeness to the semiotic origins of naming. In February, 1930, Scholem, who had used his influence to get Benjamin a stipend from the Hebrew University to study Hebrew in Berlin so that he could come to Palestine and pursue his Jewish studies there, was moved to remind his friend that he was not bound to his promise because of their personal friendship. Benjamin had repeatedly delayed his departure for Palestine, because he felt the tug of European culture and could not relinquish his dream of becoming Europe’s major literary critic. Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to say no to Scholem’s expectations, even though Scholem insisted that it was in Benjamin’s best interests to decide one way or the other. Benjamin, despite Scholem’s emotional generosity, could not entirely depersonalize the situation: “I have come to know living Judaism in absolutely no form other than you. The question of my relationship to Judaism is always the question of how I stand . . . in relation to the forces you have touched in me.”
This tendency of Benjamin to identify his thinking with a fellow thinker contradicts his oft-quoted remark to the effect that he did not relate to people,...
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