The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940

by Walter Benjamin
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316

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.

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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, but only to things. The truth is that he related best to people who helped him in his search, through things, for the truths that define human experience. Just as Scholem was his “rabbi,” Brecht was his instructor in Marxism and social observation. Benjamin was one of the first to recognize Brecht’s genius; what attracted Benjamin was the poet’s ability to use language in the service of social revolution in a manner that was as semiologically exciting as soviet realism was dull and propagandistic. Indeed, Benjamin found Brecht’s Marxism so seductive that one could argue it cost him his life.

Instead of answering Scholem’s call to Jerusalem, Benjamin lingered in Paris in the early 1930’s—not only to work on his great “Passagen-Werk” (arcades project), a study of nineteenth century Parisian street life through which he hoped to unlock the social and historical secrets of Baudelaire’s poetry and milieu, but also to be close to Brecht, who held court after Hitler’s coming to power in a retreat in rural Denmark called Svendborg. It was there, on repeated visits, that Benjamin absorbed Brecht’s satirical vision as well as his version of Marxist aesthetics. Both proved pertinent to his own Baudelaire project. By remaining in Europe into the mid-1930’s, Benjamin finally was mired in the swamp of Nazi persecution. Max Horkheimer, who had found asylum in the United States, obtained a visa for Benjamin to teach at the Institute for Social Research, which had moved from Frankfurt to New York City. In late 1940, France’s Vichy government made it extremely difficult for Jews, with or without visas, to escape. Benjamin fled across the Pyrenees and, under the mistaken assumption that the Spanish border guards would force him to turn back, committed suicide.

Can one generalize about these extraordinary letters? Do they have a quality that distinguishes them sharply from the correspondence of other modern literary figures? This is difficult to answer. Benjamin was unique in every sense of the word. His wide-ranging intellect, the mind of a polymath, enabled him to range over a wide variety of facts and allusions no matter what subject he was actually addressing. The remarkable thing is that his letters never seem pedantic or artificial, or, for that matter, unfocused. After a few personal remarks, Benjamin usually launches into a discussion of a text or project. He loves to discuss the distribution of his own writings: who has what essay; what is on the front burner and the back. In an introductory essay by Theodor Adorno, which was written originally in 1966 for the first German collection of the correspondence (published in 1978), Benjamin is described as follows: “[H]e seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, into language.” This is a bit extreme, particularly when the tact and gently ironic qualities of Benjamin’s personality—as revealed in his letters—are taken into account. Nevertheless, Adorno is pressing on the nerve of a quality in Benjamin that does seem prominent in his letters. They often appear as “an arena of movement” on which the entire range of his constantly working intellect is brought to bear. Benjamin is often spoken of as one of the last German Romantics. In the early letters to members of the Youth Movement, Benjamin reveals his youthful moorings in the salient concepts of German Romanticism: nature, symbol, and, above all, the power of the imagination. He reminds one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was heavily influenced by the German Romantics and whose letters and notebooks bear a strong resemblance to Benjamin’s own writings. There is the same fascination with disparate phenomena and a confidence in the shaping imagination that will eventually triumph.

This raises the most controversial and perennially interesting question revolving around Benjamin. Was he a humanist who yearned for an ultimate synthesis that would reveal the hidden truths of creation, or was he an inspired semiotician who delighted in displaying the indeterminacy of language and social experience? Postmodernism has made heavy use of the latter Benjamin. As postmodernism recedes from the center of the intellectual stage, it is possible that the other Benjamin may well rise as a corrective angel. If something like this happens, Walter Benjamin’s correspondence will be reread, with all of his other works, with exactly the kind of deep reading he himself concentrated on the writings of others.

Sources for Further Study

ArtForum. XXXIII, November, 1994, p. 35.

Chicago Tribune. July 17, 1994, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, April 1, 1994, p. 445.

Library Journal. CXIX, April 15, 1994, p. 84.

The Nation. CCLIX, October 31, 1994, p. 497.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, July 31, 1994, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, June 13, 1994, p. 59.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, July 17, 1994, p. 5.

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