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.
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....
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