English-speaking readers have been dealt the works of Walter Benjamin throughout the last twenty years in arresting editions prefaced and edited by Hannah Arendt (Illuminations, 1968) and Peter Demetz (Reflections, 1978). Many critical anthologies have also introduced American and English university students to his work. The edition at hand, however, represents the first serious attempt to present his works with systematic chronology, judicious but inclusive selection, and sensitively accurate translation. The effect is nothing less than electric.
This first volume rounds off the first phase of Benjamin’s intellectual development, what has been called his “metaphysical or theological period” (Richard Wollin in Walter Benjamin, 1982, 1994, p. xii). The later “materialistic” writings, laced with Marxism and culture critique in the spirit of the Frankfurt School of Social Theory (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and others), have enjoyed greater attention because they speak to the political and cultural agenda in place ever since the 1960’s. Nevertheless, the “redemptive criticism” of the early years reached its peak in Benjamin’s single completed book-length work, Origin of Tragic German Drama (1925; English translation, 1977), and represents far more than a merely formative period. When Gershom Scholem, the famous student of the Kabbalah and Benjamin’s friend and guide in theological and metaphysical matters, shared with Theodor Adorno the editing of Benjamin’s correspondence (Reviewed in Magill Literary Annual, 1994), it became apparent to all students of Benjamin how intricately joined his metaphysical and social thinking really was.
To read Benjamin between 1913 and 1926—from the age of twenty-one to thirty-three—is to share in the self-discovery of a creative mind fascinated by signs and symbols for which it must supply the code of interpretation. This search would reach a climax in his theory of allegory in literature, which lies at the heart of Origin of Tragic German Drama. Before he was able to write this work (one which failed to earn him his doctorate), Benjamin served a long apprenticeship with diaries and short essays of philosophical meditation. He also rethought the legacy of Romantic aesthetics and mused over his intuition of an Ursprache, a universal pre-language theorized in the Kabbalah, the source of Jewish mysticism. All these explorations were grounded in the faith he had in his own spiritualized intellect. In one of his earliest essays, “Experience,” he writes, “Why is life without meaning or solace for the philistine? . . . Because he himself is desolate and without spirit. . . . We, however, know something different, which experience can neither give to us nor take away: that truth exists, even if all previous thought has been an error.” Benjamin’s search for a “truth content” in literature would eventually lead him into the historical labyrinth of the Paris “Arcades.” The Minatour or monster he found there is lost in the unfinished fragments of that work, The Arcades Project, which will be published in a separate volume by the editors of this volume.
“An uncomprehended symbolism enslaves us without ceremony.” This phrase provides the keynote to “The Metaphysics of Youth,” a pastiche of journal entries,...
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