Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1377
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, dream reveries, a dialogue between “The Genius” and “The Prostitute,” and a meditation on the way women turn from “language” to “silence.” These are largely erotic fantasies—“our fleeting soul invites a woman to come”— but, in the main, they are exercises in the semiotic imagination, playing with words in a way that evokes feelings associated with autoeroticism. The young critic is playing with himself.
“Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin,” an early critical essay (1915) unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, celebrates Hölderlin’s power to create unified forms that despoil themselves in search of the infinite but never lost their unity in “absolute form.” Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem called this essay “deeply metaphysical,” but it is also cryptic, verbally audacious, and almost ruthless in its linguistic intensity. Benjamin is both the Kantian worshiper of beauty and the Nietzschean exposer of the prison house of language.
At this time, Benjamin became active in a radical group of the German Youth Movement, a group opposed to the conservative fraternities as well as the back-to-nature Wandervogel movement. World War I was about to begin, and Benjamin’s political spirit was up. He attacks the traditional fraternities for poisoning the spirit of German youth in an essay entitled “The Life of Students,” which was eventually published in 1915. What surprises the reader is that in the very midst of these polemics, he writes a brilliant, aphoristic fragment on the relation of “color” to “beauty.” The first follows in the wake of the latter. Benjamin is challenging Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Farbenlehre (theory of colors) and reaffirming the Kantian equation of beauty with disinterestedness. In other words, the young critic is still committed to philosophical idealism. The mind will not give in to Nature, not in politics or aesthetics. Language remains its baffling but endlessly suggestive home.
“No tragedy exists outside human dialogue.” The very play of language allows for redemption through the unity language makes possible. Benjamin’s connecting “play,” what Friedrich Schiller called theSpieltrieb, with transcendent unity proves he was attracted to the joy in contraries characteristic of romantic irony. This may explain his trust in the power of language, despite its inscrutability and elusiveness, to take us closer to true knowledge than the “mathematical- mechanical Lines” of modern science. These are the ideas put forward in a pivotal unpublished essay, “The Coming of Philosophy,” which he wrote in the last year of World War I.
His first major publication, “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism” (1919), is a brilliant meditation on the close connection between Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s all knowing “I” and Friedrich Schlegel’s theory of romantic irony, the driving force of an ever changing universal poetry defined by eternal becoming. The instrument of this creative many- sided imagination is language, according to Schlegel, and Benjamin connects language and wit to stress the epistemological powers inherent in the romantic formulas of meditation, reflection, and creativity. Indeed, by 1920 he was able, without hesitation, to conflate art and philosophy:
The multiplicity of works of art is harmonious, as the Romantics perceived, and, as the latter also suspected, this harmony does not stem from a vague principle peculiar to art and implicit in art alone. Rather, it arises from the fact that works of art are ways in which the ideal of the philosophical problem makes itself manifest.
This statement sounds more Kantian than it really is. Note that the ideal Benjamin speaks of is the “ideal” of a “problem.” An “ideal problem” is an oxymoron, an emblem of romantic irony. It is also a sign for Benjamin’s critical system, a system dedicated to piercing the mystery of the unity of language by collecting its shards wherever they might turn up.
They turn up in history, the dustbin of our fragmented past. The “truth content” of any work of literature is now the truth that “will no doubt be hidden from the poet and the public of his time.” To bring out these truths becomes the duty of the literary critic, and Benjamin proceeds to illustrate his theories in what was to become his first truly prominent essay, a study of Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities. The year is 1924. The essay was published in a prominent journal, Neue Detusche Beitrage.
Soon he would meet Adorno and Berthold Brecht and begin that remarkable and tragic career which ended when he committed suicide on the Spanish border in 1940 to avoid being shipped back to certain death in Vichy France. Yet he was rediscovered and by the end of the twentieth century was the most honored literary critic of the century. Readers will eagerly await the volumes that lie ahead.
A few words should be added about the editing of this important edition. Readers new to Walter Benjamin are advised to make full use of the chronology in the back of the book. It would be a good idea to read an entry for a specific year in Benjamin’s life and then read the fragments and essays produced in that year. This strategy provides an excellent introduction to his life and thought in just the right combination to help the reader understand the development of his ideas.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXXII, February 15, 1997, p. 134.
Washington Times. January 5, 1997, p. B8.
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