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:...
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