Critic or Translator? On Eli Friedlander’s “Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History”

By Sarah MoorhouseApril 7, 2024

Critic or Translator? On Eli Friedlander’s “Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History”

Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History by Eli Friedlander

IN THE ROLL CALL of great Western philosophers, big hitters are often identified by their magnum opuses. Plato? The Republic. Kant? Critique of Pure Reason. Heidegger? Being and Time. The problem with Walter Benjamin, however, is that he never wrote a book that sets out a single, unified philosophy, so many refuse to admit him to this lineup. Of course, there’s his Arcades Project—a titanic work of experimental prose written between 1927 and 1940 and focusing on bourgeois Parisian life in the 19th century—but the book isn’t “philosophy” as we know it. It contains no treatises, no clear argument. It’s also incomplete. In many ways, the sprawling work is representative of Benjamin’s wider oeuvre: dazzling but fragmented. There and elsewhere, Benjamin’s philosophy reads as dilettantish, his attention broad and omnifarious, like the flâneur figures who haunt his prose.

Nonetheless, the task Eli Friedlander sets himself in his ambitious new study Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History is to transform Benjamin’s reputation from that of a philosophizing writer to that of a capital-P Philosopher. As Friedlander acknowledges, resistance to the idea of Benjamin as a philosopher (rather than a cultural historian or literary critic) is “understandable” given the sheer variety of his output, which ranges from essays on Proust and Baudelaire to pieces on Mickey Mouse and toys, as well as “radio plays for children and an endless number of reviews of books.” Philosophy typically becomes more accessible when we’re able to tie a thinker to a particular theory or idea, and, as Friedlander observes, Benjamin’s astonishingly wide array of writing can, for many, prove “just too much.” The main aim of Friedlander’s book, then, is digestion: he sets out to reveal “a ‘Benjaminian’ philosophy” by arguing that the overriding theme of Benjamin’s work is humanity’s relationship to nature.


Benjamin is certainly familiar territory for Friedlander. After all, it was while writing his 2012 biography, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait, that Friedlander first grew convinced that Benjamin’s “unique configuration of philosophy” hadn’t been sufficiently recognized. His new book homes in on this claim, offering what he describes as a “speculative reconstruction” of the writer’s ideas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two volumes work well as a pair: readers hoping for information about Benjamin’s turbulent life story—from his association with the Frankfurt School in interwar Germany to his death fleeing the Holocaust in 1940—should begin with the earlier, more conventional biography. Friedlander’s latest work focuses almost exclusively on Benjamin’s ideas, tackling the full spectrum of his writings. In the space of five sections, Friedlander guides us through both Benjamin’s most abstract subjects—namely, God and language—and his more concrete. He presents each part of the book as a “series of commentaries” rather than an attempt to project his own perspective onto the philosopher’s work, to fill in the blanks in Benjamin’s philosophy with ideas of his own. Friedlander thereby sets himself the exacting scholarly goal of objectivity—a goal that is put to the test as his book progresses.

In reconstructing Benjamin’s philosophy without attempting to extend or develop it, Friedlander takes on a role closer to that of the translator than the critic. He forgoes direct quotation from Benjamin’s writing wherever possible, objecting to its use as an “explanatory ground level that merely need to be mentioned to gain [readers’] assent.” Instead, Friedlander expresses Benjamin’s ideas in his own, paraphrased words, attempting to “translate Benjamin’s often highly concentrated language” as precisely as possible. Of course, the act of piecing together Benjamin’s ideas into a unified philosophy can’t help but involve some filling in. In this way, Friedlander’s book resembles a work of origami, comprised of separate pieces folded together to create the illusion of a single, intricate form. And, just as complex origami sometimes requires glue, Friedlander’s distinctive readings of Benjamin turn out to be an essential adhesive. In particular, the insights he offers about Benjamin’s influences, from Schopenhauer to Goethe, contextualize the philosopher’s work as only retrospective critique can do.


For all its stated ambitions, Friedlander’s methodology is characterized by a certain hesitancy. In his determination to assemble Benjamin’s heterogeneous output into a coherent whole, he holds back from passing judgment on how persuasive the philosopher’s ideas actually are. This reticence appears especially marked in the opening (and perhaps the most challenging) chapter: “God, Nature, and Man in Language.” In it, Friedlander sets out the complex ideas about the purpose of language developed by Benjamin in his early essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (1916). Benjamin’s essay hinges on a reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, and Friedlander ventriloquizes its theological focus: by naming things, we not only participate in articulating or expressing nature but also in creating it. Friedlander explains this point in religious terms, observing how “[t]hrough man’s naming,” according to Benjamin, “that which is unique and self-identical (God) reveals itself in the existing”—how (put simply) we partake in the existence of God by using language.

Notably, Friedlander presents this and other claims without contextualizing Benjamin’s religious beliefs. The effect is a kind of tacit agreement, even identification, with Benjamin’s spiritual views, and readers are left on their own to discern how convincing these are. Additionally, due to its lack of commentary on—much less actual provision of—secular readings of Benjamin’s philosophy, the book sidesteps areas of possible 21st-century reconsideration, much less contention. This is evidently intentional, since Friedlander’s professed project is to write a book able to stand in for the definitive work of philosophy Benjamin himself never produced. Bearing that in mind, any intervention of Friedlander’s personal perspective (or introduction of contemporary or otherwise anachronistic concerns) would represent a digression.

On one hand, this detached handling of Benjamin’s ideas ensures that Friedlander’s work will have lasting salience. On the other hand, when Friedlander does offer a rare nod to our present moment, we glimpse avenues of critical discussion he might have fruitfully developed throughout the book. At the end of chapter 12 (“First and Second Nature in Art”), Friedlander allows himself to muse that Benjamin’s warnings about technology without social transformation are reflected in “the tendency of present-day humanity toward self-annihilation, which becomes more and more apparent in the climate crisis.” The idea of humans’ self-annihilating tendencies, set out by Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935) and “Critique of Violence” (1921), has its roots in the politics of interwar Europe: as Friedlander puts it, technology facilitates new forms of violence under fascist regimes. And, in our current age of nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence, Benjamin’s broadly defined “technology” carries even more weight. Friedlander’s concise, almost throwaway reference to climate change thereby leaves us grappling with the scope of a single word, technology—which has evolved dramatically in the decades since Benjamin’s lifetime—and its potentially devastating repercussions.


To read Walter Benjamin and the Idea of Natural History is to observe a scholar making a continuous calculation: In effectively mapping out Benjamin’s philosophy, how much of his own perspective is enough? How much would be too much?

Similar questions underpin Benjamin’s ideas about translation, which Friedlander raises in his opening chapters and returns to repeatedly. For Benjamin, a translator should not attempt to introduce new meanings into their translation. Instead, as Friedlander explains, they must seek “to echo in [their] own language the way of meaning of the original.” Here, as is the case on numerous occasions throughout the book, we aren’t given a tangible example. Still, we can find one in Friedlander’s own methodology: by avoiding quotation and aiming to present Benjamin’s material unaltered and unobstructed, Friedlander puts Benjamin’s instructions about translation into practice at nearly every turn.

For his part, Benjamin was fascinated by translation because he saw in its maneuvers the broader goals of philosophy. In “The Task of the Translator” (1923), Benjamin claimed that translation is “purposive for the expression of the innermost relationship of languages to each other.” Since languages are “interrelated in what they want to express”—that is, our relationship to nature—translation brings us closer to what Benjamin describes as the “pure language,” a higher whole to which all languages are related. He goes on to posit that “this very language, in whose divination and description lies the only perfection for which a philosopher can hope, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translation.”

Language sits at the heart of Benjamin’s philosophy of nature—and our position within nature—because, in Friedlander’s words, “languages present aspects of one and the same world.” And because, as Benjamin insists, “no single language can attain” the pure language to which it is, like all languages, related, the very separation of words from the things they describe must become our medium for understanding the world. As humans, we come from nature, yet in developing language, we set ourselves apart from it: through words, we attempt to pierce the scrim of the observable world and are constantly rebuffed.

This takes us, finally, to the place of literature in Benjamin’s philosophy. If our consciousness separates us from the world, then for Benjamin language occupies the borderline between our minds and the unreachable objects of our attention. Words, Benjamin suggests, create a “veil” through which we form an understanding of nature—and in literature, we find language’s thin skein woven most finely. Occasionally, writers use this metaphor self-consciously: in her 1931 novel The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind hums hither and thither with its veil of words for everything.” Yet, generally speaking, if Benjamin’s pure language is inaccessible, then the project of literature is not to obscure it but to draw as close to it as possible.

Benjamin didn’t simply theorize about literature—he wrote it. Friedlander’s book concludes with a commentary on the riches of The Arcades Project, the closest we have to a magnum opus by the author. In it, the “veil” image recurs: Friedlander comments on Benjamin’s flâneur, who “veils himself in the crowd” and for whom the crowd is itself a “veil.” (The isolated figure of the flâneur also brings Benjamin’s abiding preoccupation with forms of separation between humans and nature into focus.) Even as Friedlander tries to assemble a single philosophy for Benjamin, the significance of his work as literature cannot be ignored. The strength of Benjamin’s ideas lies in the variety of their guises: he makes us marvel at the unruliness of the world—and recognize the challenge of attempting, through language, to contain it.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Moorhouse grew up in London and holds BA and master’s degrees in English literature from the University of Oxford. Based between Oxford and London, she works as an editorial assistant for Sage Publishing and an entry writer for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lit Hub, The Bookseller, the Oxford Review of Books, and Necessary Fiction, among other publications.


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