Walter Benjamin (BEHN-yah-meen) is considered a major cultural critic whose profoundly complex works reflect both a melancholic messianism and an idiosyncratic Marxism. Benjamin was little appreciated during his own life, which ended tragically in suicide. Only after World War II—when Theodor Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, and Gershom Scholem, distinguished scholar of the kabbalah, began publishing his works—did Benjamin’s influence on modern cultural theory begin to be felt.
Born in 1892 into an affluent Jewish home in the West End of Berlin, Benjamin received his secondary education at the prestigious Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, which brought him under the influence of the antiauthoritarian concepts of Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin became a leader in the so-called Youth Movement but broke with the group over its enthusiastic acceptance of World War I, which Benjamin avoided by feigning sciatica. He married Dora Pollak in 1917, their only child Stefan being born the same year, but the couple separated after 1924. Studying philosophy in Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, and Bern, Benjamin made contacts with 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), which examined Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s metaphysics and Friedrich Schlegel’s aesthetics, was published in 1919 in Bern. Rapidly rising inflation in the Weimar Republic and pressure from his parents to find suitable employment forced Benjamin to return to Germany.
Better suited by temperament to be an independent man of letters than an academic, Benjamin nevertheless sought a university career by submitting in 1925 The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a qualifying paper in order to teach aesthetics and literary history at the University of Frankfurt. He withdrew his application, however, when it became clear that the faculty barely understood his difficult theoretical discussion of the Baroque drama of grief. Here, as throughout his work, Benjamin sought a criticism of redemption by which the historical/material truth of a work of art would be released from the aesthetic delusion, the pretense to totality.
After giving up a chance to teach in Jerusalem, offered by his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem, Benjamin embarked on a career as a literary critic, publishing important essays on ethics, violence, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and translating the works of Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, and Marcel Jouhandeau. Contact with left-wing intellectuals, particularly the Latvian actress...
(The entire section is 1091 words.)