Image by Ayala Tal
As for me, I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the nineteenth century, which I am trying to reproduce based on the characteristics that it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic. Of course, I first have to build myself this telescope.
— Walter Benjamin, letter to Werner Kraft, October 1935.
In 1942, Gershom Scholem, the oldest friend of the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin and his unofficial literary executor, wrote to Benjamin’s ex-wife Dora, in exile in London: “We are almost the last who knew him when he was young […] and who knows how much longer we will survive in this apocalypse.” Two years previously, Benjamin had committed suicide in police custody at the French-Spanish border, overdosing on morphine in fear of what might happen upon his transfer to the German authorities. But in spite of the bleakness of the moment — Benjamin dead, his library and papers scattered, his writings banned, burned, and lost — Scholem was determined to think of the future. He asked for donations of letters and other materials for his Benjamin archive in Jerusalem, for the sake of those who never knew Benjamin, but who might someday read his work: “for future friends of Walter.”
Even with his resolute optimism, in 1942 Scholem could hardly have imagined the flourishing of Benjamin’s posthumous reputation. After a slow beginning in the immediate aftermath of the war, Benjamin’s standing and influence have risen with every decade. With his associations with revolutionary Marxism now largely removed, defused or ignored, Benjamin holds an unshakable position as an icon of the academic humanities. “Benjamin Studies” is a thriving sub-discipline, comfortable with its status as a professional specialism. In German, early, limited anthologies have been replaced by two generations of Collected Works. Where the first was comprehensive, the second is forensic in the vast scope of its philological completism: including color facsimile volumes, the full run of this Critical Collected Works, due for completion in 2018, will cost over $2000. In English, the turn-of-the-century publication of an acclaimed, four-volume Selected Works and the translation of the thousand-page Arcades Project greatly expanded the Anglophone oeuvre, and introduced new generations of “Walter’s future friends” to the breadth of his writing. New French and Italian editions are in progress. And in spite of —or because of — tough times for the publishing business, there is a steady stream of Benjamin books, from scholarly and trade presses: new selections (an English Early Works last year), monographs and biographies, introductions and facsimiles, essay collections, lexicons and semi-fictional ruminations, even the occasional polemical counterblast. The marketing hook this year is the 120th anniversary of his birth. Not such a round number, but why wait for 125? One way or another, Benjamin is an intensely popular figure, and a good commercial bet.
But beyond the name and the famous melancholy face, it is not easy — it has never...read more