Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a German cultural critic and essayist best known for his account of the impact of new technology on aesthetics. Born to a Jewish merchant family in Berlin, Benjamin grew up in Charlottenburg and Grunewald. Although Jewish, his family was not especially observant. Benjamin took an interest in messianism in later life, but he never developed an affinity for Judaism or Zionism, much to the distress of friends like Gershom Scholem who tried to persuade him to relocate to Israel.
His undergraduate career, like much of his life, was peripatetic. He did two years of an undergraduate degree in philology at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg (where his fellow students included Martin Heidegger), but did not find the city congenial and returned to Berlin to continue his studies at the Royal Friedrich Wilhelm University (where he attended lectures by Georg Simmel). Exempted from military service when war broke out in 1914 because of extreme short-sightedness, Benjamin moved again and completed his philosophy degree in Munich, where he studied with Heinrich Wolfflin and met the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
In 1916 he moved to Switzerland and completed his doctorate at the University of Berne, where he met Ernst Bloch. Thereafter he returned to Germany, but his career did not progress smoothly from doctorate to habilitation, the prerequisite to a professorial appointment. Indeed, his thesis, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928), translated as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1977), sought to explain in allegorical terms the type of drama known as Trauerspiel (mourning play), popular in Germany in the early part of the Baroque period (i.e. the 16th century). Central to Benjamin’s work is the claim that Trauerspiel is of a different order from tragedy, with which it is generally compared because it is rooted in history rather than myth. Unfortunately for Benjamin, his examiners at the University of Frankfurt were not persuaded by this claim, and his thesis was failed in 1925, effectively destroying his chances of an academic career.
Of necessity, he took to freelance writing as a means of supporting himself, and though he never ceased to think about academic subjects, he never wrote another strictly academic book. Predominantly he wrote a book and theatre reviews for Frankfurter Zeitung (at the invitation of Siegfried Kracauer) and Literarische Welt (at the invitation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal). Living and working in Frankfurt, Benjamin maintained a peripheral but significant relation with key members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno, with whom he sustained an important and longstanding correspondence. He traveled to Moscow in this period and wrote a highly sympathetic journal recording his experience there.
More typical of his new style was Einbahnstrasse (1928), translated as One-Way Street (1978), an enchanting collection of travel vignettes and street-level observations published in the same year as the book on Asja Lacis, whom he had met on Capri a few years earlier, introduced him to Bertolt Brecht, who was to have a significant influence on him. He would later write a series of essays on Brecht that were put together and posthumously published as Versuche uber Brecht (1966), translated as Understanding Brecht (1973). Benjamin was also engaged in a long-term translation project at this time as well; he was part of a small team producing a German version of Proust’s magnum opus, A la recherche du temps perdu.
The next ten years were very productive for Benjamin, in spite of the enormous turmoil in his life. He began work on, but didn’t complete (the posthumously published) Das Passagen-Werk (1982), translated as The Arcades Project (1999), an enormous compilation of images and quotations relating to Paris in the 19th century. He also completed a series of essays on Baudelaire that were intended to preface this project, which developed Baudelaire’s idea of the flaneur as a sociological icon of the 19th century. In 1936 he published what is probably his most famous essay, ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit‘ (1936), translated as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1968), proposing that art in the modern age lacks the aura of previous eras.
As a Jew, his life was made very difficult by the rise of fascism in Germany and like many of his Frankfurt School colleagues, he was forced into exile, though sadly he ultimately acted too late. He left Germany in 1933 but didn’t try to get out of Europe until 1940, by which time France had already fallen. He managed to get as far as the border town of Port Bou, where he died of a morphine overdose, whether accidentally or intentionally isn’t known. His posthumous reputation, particularly in the Anglophone world, was assured by the collection entitled Illuminations (1968), edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt. It was further enhanced by Terry Eagleton’s short book, Walter Benjamin: or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981), written, as he says, to get to Benjamin before his enemies did. Eagleton highlights Benjamin’s technique of reading history ‘against the grain’ as a strategy for doing critical theory in the age of postmodernity.
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