Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142

Article abstract: Unappreciated during his own tragic life, Benjamin became a major influence upon modern cultural criticism after World War II when former colleagues and friends began publishing his work. Using messianic and Marxist ideas in a very idiosyncratic manner, Benjamin criticized all attempts to mask the suffering of humanity with an aesthetic illusion.

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Early Life

Walter Benjamin was born July 15, 1892, to an upper-middle-class Jewish family living in the West End of Berlin. From his father, a dealer in art and antiquities, he acquired an early interest in culture. While at the prestigious Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, he was influenced by the antiauthoritarian educational concepts of Gustav Wyneken, eventually taking on a leadership role in the Youth Movement and publishing articles in their journal Der Anfang. He separated from the group when they enthusiastically accepted World War I, which Benjamin avoided by feigning sciatica. In Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, and Bern, where he studied philosophy, Benjamin came under the influence of Zionists and leftists, including Martin Buber and Ernst Bloch. His doctoral dissertation, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (the concept of art criticism in German Romanticism), completed in Bern in 1920, examined Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s metaphysics and Friedrich Schlegel’s aesthetics.

In 1917, Benjamin had married Dora Pollak, their only child Stefan being born that same year. When the financial support of his parents became strained by the mounting economic crisis in the Weimar Republic, the couple was compelled to return to Germany so that Benjamin might seek suitable employment.

In 1925, Benjamin submitted his manuscript Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928; The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1977) as a Habilitationsschrift to teach aesthetics and literary history at the University of Frankfurt. Ill suited by temperament for a university career, and with a theoretical argument for cultural engagement that was unlikely to be appreciated by apolitical German academics, he was forced to withdraw the application. Freed from domestic responsibilities with the collapse of his marriage after 1924, Benjamin set out to become a free-lance intellectual, hoping to support himself with literary journalism. He also soon turned down the possibility of a teaching position in Jerusalem, obtained for him by his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem. Ultimately he would fail in this attempt to become an independent man of letters, his genius only being recognized after his death. Benjamin’s tragic life has come to represent the twentieth century alienation about which he so perceptively wrote.

Life’s Work

Benjamin launched his career as a literary critic by publishing several major essays on ethics, violence, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which appeared in journals such as the Frankfurter Zeitung, Die Literarische Welt, and Die Gesellschaft, and by translating works by Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, and Marcel Jouhandeau. In these early essays, as in his thesis on the German drama (Trauerspiel), Benjamin attacked the aesthetic delusion, which covered up the tragedies of human experience by mimicking the totality of nature or by evoking a deceptive harmony of language. In one of his first essays, about Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, 1872), Benjamin argued that criticism should reveal the calamity of the human condition by radically demolishing any symbolic representation of nature that would suggest an order to man’s existence. Behind the allegorical representation of faith in the baroque tragic drama, his thesis uncovered the civilizational trauma of thirty years of war and plague. Allegory showed the importance of apprehending language in a primordial fashion, verbalizing without mediation things in themselves. For Benjamin, only a language free of human intention could reveal such metaphysical truth. The dialectical tension between all literary imagery and historical reality, which should be exposed by the critic to shock the reader or viewer, would be a recurrent theme throughout his work. Every “document of civilization” was also in some way a “document of barbarism,” as were all “cultural treasures.”

The complex philosophy of language by which Benjamin understood the function of words was complemented by a great mastery of his native tongue, German, allowing him to give the highest abstractions a sensuous richness. Embracing Brecht’s concept of “crude thinking” by which the language of practice is used to articulate theory, Benjamin denied that the dialectician could only explain himself through arcane linguistic formulations. Both the argument and style of his writings thus brushed continually against the grain of linguistic or symbolic illusion.

As the critique of modern culture developed, Benjamin saw the fault lying less in language itself and more in the social role of bourgeois intellectuals who turned literature and art into commodities, sold and possessed rather than experienced politically. Culture should articulate the alienating and negative dimensions of human experience, thereby revealing the contradictions of industrial society. For example, the shock of Baudelaire’s assaultive use of sacred images in unholy contexts exposed the social truth lying behind the trancelike pretense to normality in bourgeois art.

After 1924, Benjamin’s interest in a materialistic analysis of modernity was increasingly enriched by contact with left-wing intellectuals, such as Asja Lacis, a Latvian actress who introduced him to Bertolt Brecht. He was particularly impressed with the Marxist critique of culture set forth by György Lukács in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstein (1923; History and Class Consciousness, 1971). In 1926-1927, Benjamin visited Moscow and reported enthusiastically on the wave of artistic experimentation that followed the Russian Revolution, but typically he admitted that he was too much of an “anarchist” to join the Communist Party. Nevertheless, he believed that “significant literary work” would come only from “a strict alternation between action and writing.”

The Nazi takeover of the German state in 1933 forced Benjamin to Paris, where he furthered his interest in French culture, and to Denmark and Ibiza, where he enjoyed extended visits with Brecht. After 1935, there appeared in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (journal for social research), published by the exiled Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a number of important articles by Benjamin on nineteenth century French culture and modern urban life. A stipend from the institute had been secured for him by Theodor Adorno, one of its leading members.

Throughout his later essays, Benjamin defined the task of criticism as the recovery of everyday life, fragmented by the alienating and reifying forces of capitalism. The 1867 World Exhibition in Paris was, for example, a microcosm of the world of commodities wherein the emphasis on individualistic buying and selling prevented realization that production should serve human needs. The discontinuous events of modernity, experienced disjointedly through capitalistic consumerism, technological fetishes, and the crowded metropolis, estranged man from even the integral nature of his own experience.

Benjamin had hoped to bring these themes together in a masterpiece, the unfinished Arcades Project. By using the sumptuous commercial galleries of nineteenth century Paris, he wanted to write a modern allegory on the sociotechnological basis of bourgeois culture. The embodiment of modern alienation was the flâneur (dawdler), whose stroll past the cafés, brothels, boutiques, dioramas, theaters, newsstands, and baths that jammed the Parisian arcades represented the lonely voyeurism of the urban crowd. The luxuriousness of the shopwindows masked any understanding of the oppression required to fill them, just as exchange value obscured the intrinsic use value of capitalist production. Like the bohemian flâneur, bourgeois intellectuals who posed as critics in actuality legitimated the public’s consumption of capitalist culture.

Benjamin, however, unlike other critics of the materialism of the modern age, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, sought no return to a simpler culture and life. He applauded, for example, advances in aesthetic techniques that might provide artists with the means of redefining the relationship between themselves and their audience. He was enthusiastic about the revolutionary potential of film. Above all else, he wanted to strip culture of the religious mystification that occurred when it was experienced passively. It was Brecht’s blunt interruption of the observer’s empathy with the stage that Benjamin found so enticing. As he argued in his famous and influential essay, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (1936; “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1968), the modern capability exactly to reproduce paintings fortunately destroyed their “aura,” that reverential attitude of the cultivated public toward authenticity. The obsession with artistic genuineness deflected public attention away from the fact that life in bourgeois society was itself inauthentic, standardized, and unnatural. In “Der Autor als Produzent” (1966; “The Author as Producer,” 1978), Benjamin suggested that literature might be politicized if the traditional ways that writers addressed their readers were overturned.

Feeling that there were “still positions to defend,” Benjamin stayed in France well after many of his comrades had fled. Using the ideas of Freud, he attacked the fascist glorification of bodily discipline, sexual asceticism, and nationalistic self-sacrifice. With the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939, and a short internment with other German refugees at Niève, Benjamin appears to have lost some of his faith in the possibility of meaningful political engagement. Turning back to a melancholic messianism found in his own Jewish heritage, his last work, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte” (1942; “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1968), would appear to abandon faith in historical progress. Redemption from oppression could only be found in some eschatological interruption of time, a “Now-time” or Jetzt-zeit, that allowed for the rediscovery of the dreams of humanity. After the Nazi invasion of France, Benjamin acquired a visa in Marseilles to enter the United States and, with failing health, tried to escape to Spain. When an official, attempting blackmail, threatened to turn him and his fellow refugees over to the Gestapo, he took his own life with a massive dose of morphine on September 27, 1940, in Port Bou, Spain. Two volumes of his collected writing appeared posthumously only in 1955. From that date, however, his work acquired an immense influence on postmodern criticism.

Summary

Calling himself the “last of the Europeans,” Walter Benjamin wrote incisively about such diverse things as hashish, child toys, postage stamps, Surrealism, and Kafka. He was, as Hannah Arendt observed, a metaphysician who thought poetically. Seeing no “hermetic self-sufficiency” to any discipline, his thought allowed him to combine conservative aesthetic sensibilities with structuralist and materialist criticism. The eclectic complexity of his thought, his use of aphorism and the short essay, the density of his exposition, make a unified interpretation of Benjamin extremely difficult. As Jürgen Habermas noted, his thoughts like his friends were not always introduced to one another. His ultimate role was as an essayist: Opinion was like oil to a machine, he wrote; one did not dump a can on a turbine, one applied a little at a time to spindles and joints. In many ways his ideas were like the angels in the Talmudic legend, an innumerable host created in order to sing their hymn in God’s presence and then cease and disappear into the void. Benjamin distrusted any limitation on a dialectical understanding of truth. His fragmentary, eclectic manner, what he called “dialectics at a standstill,” well served such an understanding.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Andrew, and Beatrice Hanssen, eds. Walter Benjamin and Romanticism. New York: Continuum, 2002. The twelve essays in this volume address Benjamin’s writings on Romanticism, especially the work of Goethe, Novalis, and Schlegel.

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. Edited by Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. Another diverse selection of Benjamin essays, including several autobiographical pieces (notably on his Berlin childhood and visit to Moscow), and an introduction by Demetz focusing on the different currents creating the complexity of his thought.

Buck-Morss, Susan. Walter Benjamin and the Dialectics of Seeing: A Study of the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989. A penetrating analysis, inspired by a New Left interpretation of Marxism, of what would have been Benjamin’s masterpiece.

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso and New Left Books, 1981. A difficult but important work showing the influence of Benjamin on neo-Marxist and poststructuralist criticism. Eagleton explores three central themes in Benjamin—the baroque allegory, commodities as cultural objects, and messianic concepts of revolution.

Roberts, Julian. Walter Benjamin. London: Macmillan, 1982. A defense of the Marxist interpretation of Benjamin’s thought, understood in the context of the culture and history of the early twentieth century.

Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Translated by Harry Zohn. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981. An interpretation of Benjamin’s romantic messianism by a distinguished scholar of the Kabbalah.

Smith, Gary, ed. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988. A useful collection of essays by leading Benjamin scholars and his friends, including Adorno, Scholem, and Habermas, with an extensive bibliography.

Smith, Gary, ed. Thinking Through Benjamin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A revised edition of essays originally appearing in The Philosophical Forum.

Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. A defense of the position that the “discontinuous extremes” in Benjamin’s work engender its enigmatic majesty and betray its ultimate theological preoccupations, an interpretation heavily influenced by Adorno.

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