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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1920

Readers who want to get some sense of Walter Benjamin’s formative years should consult the essays in Magill’s Literary Annual for books of 1996 and 1999. The chronological essays at the end of each of the earlier volumes of Selected Writings provide an excellent biographical and intellectual history for the man and his ideas. Here, in volume 4, the story of this remarkable man reaches its “heroic” and “tragic” conclusion. These adjectives are not used lightly. Benjamin’s struggle to sharpen his ideas about literature and culture under the shadow of the Nazi tyranny, which he had to try to elude in the very act of challenging its stranglehold on the European mind, was heroic. The patience, fortitude, and resolution demanded of his weak heart would have driven many a stronger man to despair.

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Benjamin’s decision to commit suicide, undertaken on the mistaken perception that he would be turned over by Spanish authorities to the Vichy police or Gestapo in occupied France, was not an act of weakness. He knew that his heart condition would not tolerate the brutality of a concentration camp, and he took his life before the Nazis could. The tragedy does not lie in the fact that he was mistaken, that on the following day the Spanish guards would have let him pass. The tragedy is that modernity lost its most prescient interpreter. The tragedy belongs to readers.

In the three years that span the period covered in this volume, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, invaded Poland, and crushed France. The persecution of the Jews gathered momentum. Benjamin’s brother was arrested in Berlin, and Benjamin himself was involved in a ceaseless effort to obtain the necessary papers that would enable him to get out of occupied Europe. His hope was to get an affidavit and visa to the United States, where he could bring to completion a long-term project on the French poet Charles Baudelaire. The working title was “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism.”

For a decade Benjamin had toiled in Paris libraries over a massive effort that eventually earned the title of Das Passagen-Werk (1982; The Arcades Project, 1999). By pursuing Baudelaire’s references to the sordid, commodified world, Benjamin amassed a great quantity of observations dealing with the streets, shops, fashions, and urban density of Paris. These observations, which provided the background he felt he needed in order to interpret Baudelaire’s poetry, gradually took on a life of their own and seemed to overwhelm Baudelaire as a topic.

When Benjamin’s patrons, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the Institute of Social Research in New York, urged him in 1938 to prepare some part of his work on the Paris “Arcades” for publication in their journal, Benjamin decided to write an essay based on his research up to the moment, an essay that would justify the great pains he had taken to master the intricacies of Baudelaire’s Paris. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” is the first major entry in volume 4. It was never published in Benjamin’s lifetime. Adorno pounced on Benjamin’s lack of sufficient structure. “This dialectic lacks mediation,” wrote Adorno in a famous letter reproduced in this volume. What he meant was that Benjamin had merely juxtaposed Baudelaire’s poetry to the urban and historical phenomena of “wine tax . . . barricades . . . arcades” (the galleried shops of nineteenth century Paris) but had not adequately analyzed the implications, political and cultural, of the connection.

In the chronology to volume 4, the editors explain that Adorno was unable to understand the “monad” driving Benjamin’s work. What Adorno had dismissed as “wide-eyed presentation of facticity” was actually a “mode of construction” ahead of its time. Benjamin is quoted in defense of his method: “In the monad the textual detail which was frozen in a mythical rigidity comes alive.” A strange combination of holistic and, at the same time, indeterminate discourse, a way of thinking and writing that has become prominent in intellectual circles in modern times—roughly, what is called postmodernism—is prefigured on Benjamin’s essay, which, ironically, sees itself to be a critique of early modernism.

Adorno’s criticism would have been hard to take under normal circumstances, but under the heel of Nazi persecution and with the hope of using the Institute of Social Research as his ticket to the United States, Benjamin could very easily have been reduced to despair. He did fall into deep depression. In early 1939 the Gestapo, aware of his anti-Nazi views, initiated a procedure which deprived him of his German citizenship. He was, for the time being, safe in Paris but stateless.

He was also absorbed in the “notes, reflections and excerpts” that constitute “Central Park,” which he had been composing while writing “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.” Although they were designed to bolster the book on Baudelaire, they seemed to gravitate toward the broader and wider ambitions of The Arcades Project. There are extensive ruminations over allegory and its affinity to modern materialism. He had called these reflections “Central Park” in a spirit of hope; he saw himself bringing this daunting bit of scholarship to resolution once he was safely settled in New York—somewhere close to what he imagined as the idyllic retreat of a great city park. Once the gloom caused by Adorno’s attack had dissipated, Benjamin put aside “Central Park” and returned to the Baudelaire essay in earnest.

In revision, its title became “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” and this time the institute would eventually publish it in 1940. Its central idea now turned on the distinction between two extremes of experience, momentary or immediate (Erlebnis) and deep or reflective (Erfahrung).Erlebnis had its most important incarnation in shock and Erfahrung in memory: “The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter into long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis].” Baudelaire was tuned to the newly emerging modern world’s taste for shock. As a poet, he reversed priorities and devoted his gift for creative memory to the expression of ephemera; he sacrificed Erfahrung to Erlebnis:

Baudelaire battled the crowd—with the impotent rage of someone fighting the rain or the wind. This is the nature of the immediate experience [Erlebnis] to which Baudelaire has given the weight of long experience [Erfahrung]. He named the price for which the sensation of modernity could be had: the disintegration of the aura in immediate shock experience [Chockerlebnis].

Benjamin had explored this dialectic in two very important works earlier in the year. The first was a series of “commentaries” on the lyrics of the anti-Nazi communist German poet Bertolt Brecht, which was published partially in a Swiss newspaper. Brecht, who was both an admired poet and dramatist, enjoyed conversing with Benjamin and had invited him to share his exile in Denmark. While there, he had gathered the impressions that formed the heart of these fresh and spontaneous commentaries. For Benjamin, a commentary presumes the perfection or “classical” nature of a text and reserves the right to be “authoritarian” in judgment. Benjamin, who never joined the Communist Party, nevertheless saw in Brecht’s simple and honest lyricism the embodiment of the true German culture which Hitler had parodied. In Brecht’s theories of theatrical estrangement Benjamin found another critique of Nazi aesthetics: Hitler wanted Germany to lose itself in a mythic frenzy and admire him from afar; Brecht wanted his plays to close the gap between stage and audience, to shatter the illusion of theatrical awe and force self-conscious thought. Brecht encouraged Erfahrung and eschewedErlebnis.

In 1936 Benjamin had already begun the first version of his most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In 1939 he polished the final version, which, however, was not published until after the war, in 1955. This last version, together with the Brecht Commentaries, labors the difference between shock effect, in this case photography and especially film, and the lost “aura” of specific works of art which encouraged Erfahurung instead of indulging Erlebnis.

Benjamin avoids nostalgia. He knows that modernity cannot reinvent the older contemplative experience of art, but he cautions the modern world to be as self-critical as possible of its penchant for the excitement ofErlebnis. He throws his support to the left and hopes that its political idealism will protect humanity from the demonic marriage between an art based on shock and narcissism and a politics of tyranny:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

Benjamin, however, was unable to settle exclusively for a political platform. The monad he was sure hovered over the particulars in his studies of nineteenth century Paris discouraged a rejection of history through a totalizing of revolution. As he put it in a fragment in 1940: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.”

In the last essay by him, “On the Concept of History,” unpublished in his lifetime, he seems to blend Erlebnis and Erfahrung in one brilliant insight after another: “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Earlier he had praised Marcel Proust’s aesthetic of involuntary memory, which enabled Proust to juxtapose the most immediate and intense experiences in life with great waves of memory that washed the mind in a sea where time lost became time regained. Benjamin’s gift for reading texts with unusual brilliance had much to do with reverence for language and its eerie contract with metaphysical ideas. Well after Benjamin had become interested in Marxism, he wrote the following to his friend, the Swiss critic and poet Max Rychner: “I have never been able to do research and think in a way other than, if I may so put it, in a theological sense—namely in accordance with the Talmudic teaching of the forty-nine levels of meaning in every passage in the Torah.”

Walter Benjamin was a semiotician fascinated by language, but he was also a humanist who, in the bitterness and anxieties of his last years, relied heavily on a deep trust in the contract between the legacies of the past and the hopes of the present. No matter how dark the times, humanity has a contract with its own best self. The true historian intuits the trajectory of human hopes. One of the last paragraphs of his last essay captures the visionary power of Benjamin’s last days:

No state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. . . . [The historian] grasps the constellation (sic., monad) into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time.

Review Sources

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 22 (June 2, 2003): 46.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 17, 2003, pp. 9-10.

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