Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2117
In 1969, with the publication of Illuminations, Hannah Arendt introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Walter Benjamin. A leading intellectual, literary critic, translator, and free-lance journalist in his native Germany during the 1920’s and 1930’s, his work had fallen into obscurity after his death in 1940. Prior to her death, Arendt selected an assortment of Benjamin’s writings for a second book, which was edited by Peter Demetz and appears under the title Reflections.
The articles which comprise the book do not belie the title, for they provide the multifaceted reflections of a thoughtful man. Not only will Benjamin’s style, intellect, and skillful analysis of the world around him captivate the reader, but he himself will be drawn into the reflections exposed to view. Demetz has provided a valuable, sensitive introduction which guides the new reader to an understanding of the brilliance of Benjamin’s writings without removing the sense of discovery and intellectual challenge inherent in them.
Demetz suggests an approach to this book which eliminates the stigma often attached to philosophical writing, therefore removing the intimidation which a reader might feel who is unfamiliar with some of the persons, institutions, or events mentioned. Arendt organized the articles in four sections which, as Demetz points out, often bring together the chronology of Benjamin’s life and the development of his ideas. However, Demetz recommends a random approach to the book, recognizing that the reader will thereby not only familiarize himself with the growth and change of thought, but also discover some of the contradictions of Benjamin’s ideas, those native to the thinking process of the enlightened intellectual. To read Benjamin in this manner seems, in fact, to parallel his own approach to life, which was spatial rather than temporal.
Walter Benjamin was born in 1892, the son of a Jewish upper-middle-class Berlin family. His father was an auctioneer, art-dealer, and investor; his mother came from a family of lawyers and merchants. Consequently, he grew up fully exposed to those activities which characterized the German bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. As would be expected, he was well educated socially, culturally, and intellectually. Although he pursued his studies at several universities, he was, in reality, a private scholar, most happy when he could withdraw with the books he loved so well. He approached books not only as carriers of information, but also as objects in and of themselves to be cherished and lived with. To occupy oneself with books presupposes a certain degree of isolation, a quality which is apparent in Benjamin’s writings. Isolation, solitude, and melancholy are three characteristics of his reflections on his life and age.
A particular fascination with cities may seem contrary to these characteristics. However, Benjamin’s approach to cities places them in a new light, one which may, in fact, enlighten the reminiscences of many readers on their own visits to foreign places or their return to familiar ones. Reflections contains articles on five cities: Berlin, Marseilles, Paris, Moscow, and Naples. Each city receives an individual treatment, but there is a unifying quality. Benjamin’s approach is “to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest.” Lost in sense experiences, approaching space and allowing it to trigger impressions and reminiscences, the reader is carried along so rapidly through time and space that he is unable to avoid retaining impressions which, in turn, stimulate his own reminiscences. Benjamin’s impressions of Marseilles rely heavily on color and sound, while Naples is characterized by the word “porous,” extrapolating from the geological to the societal. He captures the image of that city which is so familiar to tourists, yet avoids the cliché. The pickpocket is not disarming the unwary traveler, but he finds his prey at a meeting of philosophers, reducing these august figures to the level of the common tourist.
In Marseilles, Benjamin writes: “For childhood is the divining rod of melancholy, and to know the mournings of such radiant glorious cities one must have been a child in them.” As a result, Berlin, the city of Benjamin’s childhood, receives a treatment unlike that of the other cities. With his childhood comes the melancholy that characterizes much of his writing and allows the reader a deeper insight into the character of this individual. “Berlin Chronicle” fully brings out “the mysterious work of remembrance—which is really the capacity for endless interpolations into what has been.” His mother instilled in him a sense of his ineptitude for practical endeavors. Yet while seeming slower, clumsier, more stupid, he secretly thought himself “quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder.” In school, he climbed the stairs alone, entering the classroom after the other pupils, hoping to arrive before the teacher. It was a place of solitude and set the tone for Benjamin’s further encounters with learning. In reflecting on both his walks with his mother and his school days, he wrote: “. . . solitude appeared to me as the only fit state of man.”
Benjamin recounts his memories of childhood through chains of images. His father is associated with the Jewish art auction house, a sense of finances, and a division of sources of goods. His discovery of new sections of the city, his friends, coffee houses, encounters with prostitutes—he relates the memories in a manner which he compares to the unfolding of a fan which never comes to an end of its segments, but rather each fold continues to uncover ever more segments.
While these and other of Benjamin’s reflections can be called autobiographical, they do not constitute an autobiography. Autobiography is about time, but he writes “of a space, of moments and discontinuities.” For Benjamin, time is not the stuff of which life is made. His approach to remembrance may seem reminiscent of the process so skillfully employed by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past. In fact, “Berlin Chronicle” may be a bit too closely related to Proust. However, as a translator of French literature into German, including the works of Proust, Benjamin seems to have found an approach to the past not only attractive to him, but to which he was both literarily and psychologically suited.
Benjamin’s stance in relation to life retained the character of the true scholar: contradictory. This is embodied in his relationships with two men, each a leading representative of a different ideology. In 1923, he became acquainted with Theodor W. Adorno, who stirred his interest in radical Communism. It was Adorno who presented the first collection of Benjamin’s writings to the German reading public in the mid-1950’s. In 1935, Adorno was instrumental in making Benjamin a member of the Institut für Socialforschung in Frankfurt, providing him with a regular stipend and the publication of his seminal study of Baudelaire. Benjamin had sought exile in France and was finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living writing reviews during the 1930’s, the period of Hitler’s rise to power and the increasing anti-Semitism in Germany.
A second influential figure in Benjamin’s life was Gershom Scholem, who encouraged him to study Hebrew in preparation for accepting a teaching position in Jerusalem, an endeavor which was never realized. In Scholem’s book, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, he chronicles his relationship with Benjamin and gives a sensitive portrait of this enigmatic individual. For any reader interested in Benjamin’s life, the articles by Scholem enhance the image of this great intellect obtained from his own writings. The strong yet contradictory interests Benjamin held become apparent; the contradiction of true intellect is exposed to view. Yet, in this denial of commitment to a particular ideology lies the strength of Benjamin’s observation. He never satisfied his mentors, but he left the inquisitive reader with philosophical problems to solve—or neglect.
The essay, “Karl Kraus,” is one of Benjamin’s most powerful; however, it may prove perplexing to the reader unfamiliar with this cult figure. It concerns the conflicts of language. Kraus, editor of the periodical Die Fackel, which he wrote from cover to cover, was a critic of the manner of speaking and writing employed by his contemporaries. Through words, he embarked on social criticism of the ethics which led to such word choice. Here Benjamin is the Marxist critic, approaching Kraus’s call to return to the natural language as a battle against the degenerate bourgeois society.
Benjamin’s own interest in language is discussed in “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” He explores the nature of language as symbol, as mask of the world. He sees language not as a mere sign unrelated to existence nor as a symbol of the essence of things, but as a way in which being expresses itself—beyond mere words. It is a metaphysical approach in which man translates God’s creations into names. Here Benjamin views the same topic as a metaphysicist which he views in his article on Karl Kraus as a Marxist.
“One-Way Street” is a collection of personal observations, aphorisms, dreams, and prose epigrams; it is perhaps the most engaging piece in the collection. The language employed is dense. Words have been so carefully selected that they convey impressions which become difficult to leave on the page. One must stop and reflect on each piece. The topics range from the nature of literature, the nature of man, toys, the state of the German economy, to love, death, and the financially motivated publisher. They are slyly humorous, weighty with philosophical thought, and touchingly emotional. However, the divergence of topics and mood is overcome by the consistent use of language. One must thank Edmund Jephcott for his sensitive translation, which captures the linguistic skill of the original.
Although Benjamin took his own life at the age of forty-eight, the conditions seem sadly consistent with his writings. Life had become increasingly difficult in Europe, and, in 1940, Max Horkheimer of the Institut obtained an entry visa to the United States for Benjamin. He picked up the visa in Marseilles and joined a group of exiles. They crossed the French-Spanish border and were told by the Spanish authorities that they were being returned to France the next day, where they would be handed over to the Gestapo. During the night, Benjamin committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine. His fellow travelers were permitted to continue to Lisbon the next day and from there to leave Europe.
It would be difficult to sum up Benjamin’s life. He was an important writer, philosopher, critic, and translator, yet at the same time a man fascinated by naïve art, strange books, and unusual situations. He was a Marxist of sorts, a friend and defender of Brecht, yet lacking the commitment expected by many of his Marxist friends. In “Conversations with Brecht,” his transcendence of convenient categorization is evident. While visiting the playwright in exile, Benjamin recorded conversations almost devoid of his personal opinion. His discussion with Brecht about Kafka, however, pointedly illustrates their unexpressed disagreement and places Benjamin beyond an easy label. His interests were too diverse, his curiosity too great, to be limited strictly. He has gained respect from various left-oriented schools of thought, but as Demetz points out in his introduction, categorization is a disservice to Benjamin:
One would wish that his interpreters, busy with developing current terminologies thrice removed from our cultural experience, would be half as open to the literature and arts of our time.
The interested reader of Reflections will appreciate the additional materials provided by Demetz. His “Editor’s Notes” provide publication information on the articles collected in this book. “Useful Further Readings” provides a springboard for those who wish to seek more information on this writer. It is also interesting to note that one of Benjamin’s important works was published in English in 1978. The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a study of the Trauerspiel which Benjamin submitted with his application for a lectureship at the University of Frankfurt and then withdrew when it became apparent that internal academic politics dictated rejection. Although probably not of interest to the reader merely wishing to acquaint himself with the writings of this relatively unknown writer, its publication in translation indicates the value of Benjamin’s works to the contemporary world.
It is difficult to recognize fully the importance and diversity of Benjamin’s work. However, that two collections have appeared to an appreciative English-speaking audience shows the timeless treatment of his topics and the skillful ability with which he related his ideas. Reflections is a book which provides not only a volume for the serious student of intellectual history, but also a volume for the reader who seeks involvement with ideas on an individual level.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23
Book World. August 27, 1978, p. E3.
Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1410.
Nation. CCXXVII, July 8, 1978, p. 58.
New Republic. CLXXIX, August 26, 1978, p. 36.
Time. CXII, July 17, 1978, p. 91.
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