(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Walter Benjamin was a distinguished literary and cultural critic with close ties to the Frankfurt School, especially to his friend Theodor Adorno. He received a doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Berne in 1919. In a short “Curriculum Vitae (III)” he explains his critical approach: “Such an analysis would regard the work of art as an integral expression of the religious, metaphysical, political, and economic tendencies of its age, unconstrained in any way by territorial concepts.” Good examples of this approach are found in this volume in the pieces on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Kraus, and Franz Kafka. Although he was attracted to the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution, he maintained his distance from Moscow to ensure his freedom as a thinker.

The contents of this second volume are arranged chronologically and grouped by year with representative headings. The topics are diverse and range in length from the three-line “Everything Is Thought” to substantial commentaries on writers and places. Several subjects recur (such as toys, children, hashish) and others are strikingly original, such as “Chambermaids’ Romances of the Past Century” and “Hitler’s Diminished Masculinity.” The thirty- three-page chronology that concludes this volume could profitably be read as an introduction, for it summarizes Benjamin’s activities during the eight years here represented and traces his intellectual exchanges with his good friend Gershom Scholem.

Benjamin went to Moscow early in December, 1926, following Asja Lacis, a Bolshevik actress he had met on Capri. The essay he wrote about his seven weeks there in a freezing city struggling through great changes is vivid and observant. Seeing Berlin through Moscow, he observes, is to see a city of luxury but one that is barren compared to the “fullness” of the Moscow streets. The children’s festivals impress him, especially the vendors of toy carts and spades: “All these carved wooden utensils are more simply and solidly made than in Germany, their peasant origin clearly visible.” The children fascinate Benjamin, with their organization into a “Communist hierarchy” leaving the gangs of delinquent war orphans, besprizornye, to menace night strollers. Generally, Benjamin is pleased with the evidence he sees of the workers appropriating bourgeois culture and of how “the liberated pride of the proletariat is matched by the emancipated bearing of the children.” Benjamin fully approves the didactic cultural innovations, noting such Tretyakov Gallery works as A Conspirator Surprised by the Police and The Poor Governess Enters Service in a Rich Merchant’s House, and he concludes that for a worker or a child, education in art is not dependent on masterpieces but on “topical works that relate to him, his work, and his class.” In “pedagogical theater,” several hundred people crowd into a room where the traditions and values of peasants and industrial workers are dramatized. In the scene that Benjamin witnessed, a peasant midwife was tried for the death of a woman in childbirth, but although she was found guilty, she was given a light sentence that recognized her mitigating historical circumstances and stressed the need for modern hygiene.

In a city where the law permits each citizen a mere thirteen square meters of living space, petty-bourgeois private life has disappeared. Cafés have disappeared because abolishing free trade and free intellect has taken away their patrons, and so only the office is left for social life in an environment “for which nothing counts except the function of the producer in the collective.” Constant meetings preoccupy each citizen, creating tremendous competition in a culture in which Russians betray complete indifference to time and schedules. The taverns remain, however, outposts of “intoxicating warmth” where tea-drinking patrons indulge their “most secret winter lust” on frigid nights.

Benjamin’s colorful sketch of Moscow in a Stalinist winter ends on a note that will grate on many readers’ sensibilities. When describing the Russians’ worship of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Benjamin poses him bent over a table conning Pravda: “When he is thus immersed in an ephemeral newspaper, the dialectical tension of his nature appears: his gaze is turned, certainly, to the far horizon; but the tireless care of his heart, to the moment.” Karl Kraus edited the satirical magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) from 1899 until his death in 1936. Benjamin’s essay on Kraus in 1931, although studded with obliquities (“To fail to recognize the beauty of feminine stupidity was for Kraus always the blackest philistinism”), is an acute analysis of Kraus’s vision of the corrupting influence of bourgeois...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)