Walter Benjamin Biography

Biography

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2142 words.)