See collections of his essays edited by H. Arendt (1968, 1978); his Moscow Diary (1986); The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940 (1966, tr. 1994) edited by Manfred R. and Evelyn M. Jacobson; Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (1981) by G. Scholem; studies by R. Wolin (1982), S. Handelman (1991), and B. Witte (1991); essays by G. Scholem (1965, 1981).
Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and Jewish mysticism as presented by Gershom Scholem.
As a sociological and cultural critic, Benjamin combined ideas drawn from historical materialism, German idealism, and Jewish mysticism in a body of work which was a novel contribution to western philosophy, Marxism, and aesthetic theory. As a literary scholar, he translated Charles Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens and Marcel Proust's famous novel, In Search of Lost Time. His work is widely cited in academic and literary studies, in particular his essays The Task of the Translator and The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility. Influenced by Bachofen, Benjamin gave the name "auratic perception" to the aesthetic faculty through which civilization would recover a lost appreciation of myth.
Benjamin enrolled at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg in 1912, but at the end of the summer semester returned again to Berlin and enrolled at Friedrich Wilhelm University to continue his studies of philosophy. Benjamin became president of the Freie Studentenschaft, and began to write essays arguing for the need of educational and general cultural change. Failing the re-election in that student's association, Benjamin again took up studies in Freiburg, attending the lectures of Heinrich Rickert. After visits to Paris and Italy he returned to Berlin.
As World War I began in 1914, opposing Germany against France, Benjamin began translating with great care and interest the French poet Charles Baudelaire. The following year he moved to Munich, continuing his studies at Ludwig Maximilians University, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem. His lifetime friendship with Scholem was due not only to the very fact they both were Jewish but, above all, to their shared interest in art. The same year Benjamin wrote a paper on the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
Benjamin moved to the University of Bern (where he first met Ernst Bloch) in 1917. He married Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890-1964) the same year, and the following year they had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918-1972). In 1919 Benjamin earned his Ph.D. cum laude with the essay The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik). They returned to Berlin, to live with Benjamin's parents, because of financial problems. In 1921 He published Critique of Violence (Kritik der Gewalt). Walter and Dora separated in 1928, and one year later he moved to the University of Heidelberg where he tried an academic career.
In 1923 Benjamin published Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens. The Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School) was founded that year. Benjamin met Theodor Adorno and became a friend of Georg Lukács (whose The Theory of the Novel, published in 1920, strongly influenced him). The economic crisis in Germany caused his father to have serious difficulties in continuing the financial support he gave to Benjamin. At the end of 1923 his best friend, Gershom Scholem, emigrated to Mandatory Palestine (which had been occupied by the British Army during World War I). In the following years Scholem tried to persuade Benjamin to join him.
Benjamin's paper "Goethe's Elective Affinities" ("Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften") was published by Hugo von Hoffmansthal in the magazine Neue Deutsche Beiträge in 1924. Together with Ernst Bloch, Benjamin spent several months in the Italian island of Capri, writing his habilitation thesis, on The Origin of German Tragic Drama. There he read, by suggestion of Bloch, Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness, and first met Asja Lācis, a Bolshevik Latvian actress living in Moscow. She would remain an important and lasting intellectual and erotic influence on him.
A year later, The Origin of German Tragic Drama was rejected by the Frankfurt University, effectively closing the door to an academic career for the 33 year old scholar. Together with Franz Hessel (1880-1941), he translated the first volumes of the novel In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), by Marcel Proust. The next year Benjamin began writing for the German newspapers Frankurter Zeitung and Die Literarische Welt, so he could afford living several months in Paris. His father died in 1926 and, in December, Benjamin travelled to Moscow to meet Asja Lācis, but found her sick in a sanatorium.
In 1927 Benjamin started The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), his monumental and unfinished study which Benjamin worked on until his death. The same year in Berlin he met Gershom Scholem for the last time, and considered moving to Palestine. In 1928 Benjamin published One-Way Street (Einbahnstraße) and The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels). In 1929, he was introduced to Bertold Brecht by Asja Lācis, then Brecht's assistant, in Berlin.
After two years of separation, Benjamin was divorced from his wife in 1930. Avoiding the repressive activities of the Nazi Party and the SA, in 1932 he spent several months on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Then he moved to Nice, where he planned to commit suicide. With the Reichstag fire, in 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Führer and his dictatorship started the persecution of the Jews. Benjamin sought shelter in Svendborg, at Bertold Brecht's, and Sanremo, where his ex-wife lived, before moving to Paris.
His financial situation got worse. Benjamin collaborated with Max Horkheimer and received some funds from the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), which by now had relocated to New York. He met other German intellectual and artist refugees in Paris and became a friend of Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse and Kurt Weill. In 1936 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" was first published in French by Max Horkheimer (L'Œuvre d'Art à l'Époque de sa Reproductibilité Technique), in the Institute for Social Research's journal (Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung).
In 1937 Benjamin worked on The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire (Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire), met Georges Bataille, and joined the College of Sociology. In 1938 he paid a last visit to Bertold Brecht, now in Danish exile. Hitler removed the German citizenship from the Jews and Benjamin was incarcerated for three months in a camp near Nevers.
Returning to Paris in January 1940, he wrote his Theses on the Philosophy of History (Über den Begriff der Geschichte). In June, the Wehrmacht broke the French defences. Benjamin flew to Lourdes with his sister, one day before the Germans entered Paris. In August, he obtained a visa to the United States, which had been negotiated by Max Horkheimer. Attempting to elude the Gestapo, Benjamin failed to reach Portugal (officially a neutral country) through Spain, on his way to the United States. Apparently, he took his own life on September 27, 1940 at Portbou, a border town in the Pyrenees, Catalonia, swallowing an overdose of morphine compound, after the group of Jewish refugees he joined was intercepted by the Spanish Police . However, many details of his last days remain unclear and there is a fair amount of speculation, including the theory that he was murdered by Stalinist agents (read more about his Death, below).
Benjamin corresponded extensively with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht and occasionally received funding from the Frankfurt School under Adorno's and Horkheimer's direction, even after this had moved to New York City. The competing influences of Brecht's Marxism (and secondarily Adorno's critical theory) and the Jewish mysticism of his friend Gerschom Scholem were central to Benjamin's work, though he never completely resolved their differences. On the other hand, some later critics, such as Paul de Man, have argued that Benjamin's writings dynamically flow between these different traditions in order to create a kind of internal critique out of their juxtaposition. "On the Concept of History" (often referred to as the "Theses on the Philosophy of History"), among Benjamin's last works, is, according to some readers , the closest approach to such a synthesis.
The following is Benjamin's ninth thesis from the essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History":
The project begins with a lengthy "Epistemo-Critical Prologue" in which Benjamin sets out the philosophical stakes of his work: the combination and elaboration of parts of the Platonic theory of ideas, the Hegelian historical sublation, and the Leibnizian monad. Encapsulating the one within the other, Benjamin gives the Platonic form a historical instantiation, but only in the sense that it is monadic. Within aesthetic objects of study, there is contained the monad of its historical development, and when this monad is placed within a constellation of other objects, it reveals to the scholar the historical development of the idea. Thus, in the Trauerspiel itself, what appears to be an ahistorical accumulation of fragments is instead already in some sense historical.
Within the main text itself, there are two main divisions: first, a distinction between tragedy and Trauerspiel, where Benjamin clears away the interpretations that precede his work, and second, a lengthy discussion of the relation of allegory to symbolism and the way in which allegory might open onto his modified platonic notion of the idea. In the first section, Benjamin notes that tragedy and Trauerspiel differ in their conception of time: the tragedy is eschatological insofar as its plot leads to a defined end-point, where characters and stories reach a fatalistic resolution; whereas the Trauerspiel takes place only in space, time stretches out forever towards the promised but undisclosed Last Judgment, so characters are therefore paralysed from all action and can only wait—thus there is no resolution and no sense of time passing. In short, in Trauerspiel, time is spatialized. Part of what makes Trauerspiele so inscrutable is that their relationship to history is only ever allegorical, in the sense that the play presents fragments and broken shards of history without narrativizing them, as we are accustomed to seeing in most plays. These fragments, when placed on the stage, rather than maintaining a denotative relationship to history, where history is told, the spatial constellation of these fragments reveals a true idea of history. Benjamin's book constantly performs this constellating of monads, presaging in dependent clauses what will be said more fully later, itself constantly reaching back to earlier sections of the book. Benjamin's project, then, is most famously summed up very early in the book, writing, "the baroque knows no eschatology and for that very reason it has no mechanism by which it gathers all earthly things in together and exalts them before consigning them to their end" (p. 66).
In a changing political climate, Benjamin hoped that this book would relate to the German belief in political and historical progress by showing the absolute futility of raw historicism, just as in the Trauerspiel the resuscitation of historical objects and facts is absolutely impossible. Instead, the massive complexity and profound obscurity of the book meant that it fell on largely deaf ears. When submitted as a Habilitation thesis (a higher degree in the German academic system that, after a PhD, gives legal authority to teach in a university), Professor Schultz of Frankfurt University found it inappropriate for his own department of "Germanistik" (the department of German Language and Literature), and passed it off to the department of aesthetics (philosophy of art). The readers in that department called it an "incomprehensible morass" and the university recommended that Benjamin withdraw the thesis in order to avoid the embarrassment of a public rejection. After some consideration, Benjamin did so.
Through his writings Benjamin identifies himself as a modernist for whom the philosophical merges with the literary: logic-based philosophical reasoning cannot account for all experience, and especially not for self-representation through artistic mediums.
His concerns regarding style are exemplified in his essay The Task of the Translator, in which he argues that any literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. In the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original are elucidated, while formerly obvious aspects become unreadable. Benjamin considers this mortification of the text productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities between historical objects appear and are productive of philosophical truth.
Benjamin may have committed suicide in Portbou at the Spanish-French border, attempting to escape from the Nazis. The circumstances of his death are unclear. He appeared to be ill when he arrived in Portbou, having crossed a wild part of the Pyrenees in refugee fashion, and the party he was with were told they would be denied passage across the border, which would have been a step towards freedom (Benjamin's ultimate goal was the United States). While staying in the Hotel de Francia, he apparently took some morphine pills and died on the night of 27/28 September 1940. The fact that he was buried in the consecrated section of a Roman Catholic cemetery would indicate that his death was not announced as a suicide. The other persons in his party were allowed passage the next day, and safely reached Lisbon on 30 September. A manuscript copy of Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" was passed to Adorno by Hannah Arendt, who crossed the French-Spanish border at Portbou a few months later, and was subsequently published by the Institute for Social Research (temporarily relocated in New York) in 1942.
One way of interpreting these facts is that though the entire group of travellers was stopped, Benjamin was in fact the main target. As an emigrant Jew, a radical writer who had made close friends with Brecht and Adorno, and a fierce critic of Nazism he would have been well-known to the Gestapo and it is a well documented fact that the Spanish border police were cooperative with the Germans. Once he was dead, following this interpretation, there would be no point in holding back the others (who did not know Benjamin). Benjamin certainly was aware that he was risking his life whether he went south or stayed behind in Paris; the latter meant certain death and probably torture at the hands of the Gestapo. It does not seem that he was using any forged identity papers when attempting to cross into Spain, and this would make it easier for the border police to identify him. In all probability Benjamin did not know people who were in the more advanced escape business, and his portliness and distinctive face made it hard for him to disguise himself anyway.
A completed manuscript which Benjamin had carried in his suitcase disappeared after his death and has not been recovered. Some critics speculate that it was his Arcades Project in a final form; this is very unlikely as the author's plans for the work had changed in the wake of Adorno's criticisms in 1938, and it seems clear that the work was flowing over its containing limits in his last years. As the last finished piece of work we have from Benjamin, the Theses on the Philosophy of History (noted above) is often cited; Adorno claimed this had been written in the spring of 1940, weeks before the Germans invaded France. While this is not completely certain, it is clearly one of his last works, and the final paragraph, about the Jewish quest for the Messiah provides a harrowing final point to Benjamin's work, with its themes of culture, destruction, Jewish heritage and the fight between humanity and nihilism. He brings up the interdiction, in some varieties of Judaism, to try to determine the year when the Messiah would come into the world, and points out that this did not make Jews indifferent to the future "for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."
An alternative theory of his death considers the possibility that Benjamin was actually murdered by Stalinist agents. He might have earned his place on Stalin's hitlist by the fact that his last book Theses on the Philosophy of History has been read as an analysis of the failures of Stalinism. The lost manuscript could well have been an elaboration of his criticism of Stalinism and its loss not so much an accident as the very cause for the murder.