ON July 7, 1914, a 22-year-old Walter Benjamin, increasingly disillusioned with his time at Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg and in Berlin, wrote to his friend Herbert Belmore: “The university is simply not the place to study.”
Throughout his life, Benjamin would maintain this contentious and problematic relationship with the academy. In 1925, after completing his doctorate on German Romanticism, he submitted his habilitationsschrift, the so-called “second doctorate,” which was necessary to secure a professorship. Even working towards this goal, he confided: “I dread almost everything that would result from a positive resolution to all of this: I dread Frankfurt above all, then lectures, students, etc. All things that take a murderous toll on time […]” He need not have worried: his dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was savaged by the committee that reviewed it (“I was unable — despite repeated, concentrated efforts — to derive a comprehensible meaning from these [art historical observations],” wrote the primary reviewer Hans Cornelius). Benjamin was advised to withdraw it unless he preferred to be rejected. This failure would haunt him throughout his life and contributed to the financial instability that dogged him for the next 15 years. Indeed, his inability to secure a teaching position inside or outside Europe in the 1930s played a significant, if indirect, part in the events that led to his early death in 1940.
The university may not have been the place for Walter Benjamin to study, but now, 100 years later, it has become the place to study Walter Benjamin. Since the early 1970s, the university has lionized and canonized Benjamin, resulting in an exponential explosion of seminars, conferences, dissertations, articles and monographs — he seems to be one of the few seemingly unassailable critics left in the pantheon of academia. A quick search of scholarly articles on Benjamin will return hundreds of results, and a search on Amazon will reveal books in the thousands, in a dozen languages, scrutinizing all aspects of Benjamin’s work. It’s hard to overstate the effect he has had on the world of art and literary theory: his writing influenced writers from W. G. Sebald to Susan Sontag, from Paul de Man to Anne Carson; he (along with Siegfried Kracauer) inaugurated cultural studies as a discipline; and his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” is now the bedrock foundation of both cinema and media studies. Most of all, perhaps better than anyone, Benjamin diagnosed a sense of melancholy that pervades the modern age. “It is the images of melancholy,” he wrote in 1922, “that kindle the spirit most brightly.”
While we tend to vacillate schizophrenically between a kind of techno-futurist cheerleading (“The future’s so bright!”) and reactionary, apocalyptic jeremiads (“The future is doomed!”), Benjamin offered another attitude towards history — one in which we walk among the ruins of an already-present catastrophe, and the highest grace is a kind of vigilant mourning. “In all mourning there is a tendency to silence, and this infinitely more than inability or reluctance to communicate,” he wrote in 1925, but if “Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge,” in its “tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them.”
For years, only a few collections of Benjamin’s essays were available in the United States, but the past two decades have seen a serious attempt to flesh out the amount of his writings in English translation, starting in 1996 with Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’s four volume Selected Writings and the hefty companion volume, the Arcades Project. Now they have augmented this with their nearly 700-page biography, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Serious and imposing, it seeks to gather up and bind the threads of Benjamin’s career, unite the unpublished and the half-finished essays and book projects, weaving together a comprehensive biography both of the man and his thought.
A great strength of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is how it lays out Benjamin’s major works as part of an evolution of thought, providing not only invaluable context to each piece, but tracing each work’s central claims in a lucid and approachable manner. One need not be a PhD to approach this book, and it will intrigue anyone with a passing interest in the intellectual history of the 20th century. With key essays and books given substantive contextualization and explanation, Eiland and Jennings make Benjamin’s work accessible and networked into a larger set of themes and concerns.
Despite its massive length, Eiland and Jennings’s biography reads quickly, particularly the last two thirds. As the book rushes closer and closer to 1940, there is the thrill of the genesis of his mature masterpieces, the claustrophobic horror of the spread of fascism, and Benjamin’s impending death. (As early as the summer of 1937, Benjamin commented that “There is a view onto gloom through whatever window we look.”) Both of these dovetail into the haunting image of a 48-year-old Benjamin, frail and broken, crossing the Pyrenees on foot in a last-ditch hope to escape France, carrying with him a black attaché case in which he claimed was “a new manuscript,” something he said was “more important than I am.” Reaching Port Bou, Benjamin and his companions were inexplicably detained for not having exit visas (the reasoning for this decision was never made clear, and the border would be opened again the next day). There, in that liminal border town on the night of September 26, 1940, Benjamin took his life with an overdose of morphine.
As omnipresent as this tragic fate is throughout the book, Eiland and Jennings also provide a host of surprising (and even delightful) details of Benjamin’s life, which round out the melancholic caricature of him in favor of a complex, conflicted individual. We learn how he avoided military service in World War I due to severe sciatica (his wife Dora later confided to Gershom Scholem that she’d used hypnotic suggestion to implant symptoms of sciatica in him without his knowledge, so that he’d convincingly demonstrate them to the draft board). We discover that throughout the 1920s he was close friends with Franz and Helen Hessel, the husband and wife who would become the basis of the characters in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim; and that he bought Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the small painting he’d make famous in his last great essay, “On the Concept of History,” for the paltry sum of 1,000 marks ($14).
Eiland and Jennings also trace the phantom of suicide that dogged Benjamin throughout his life, from two early college friends who killed themselves shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, to the physician Ernst Joël, who supervised Benjamin’s hashish experiments and committed suicide in 1929, through to Benjamin’s own recurring suicidal thoughts throughout his life. In August of 1931, he writes in his diary of one such plan to kill himself: “I was mainly preoccupied with my plan — with wondering whether or not it was unavoidable, whether it should be best implemented here in the studio or back in the hotel, and so on.” As much as his death on the Spanish border may seem like a tragic fluke — considering that a day later he might very well have been on his way to the United States — in fact his entire life circled around the idea of suicide, an inevitability that does little to diminish the tragedy of Benjamin’s final days.
Beyond the biographical, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is chiefly concerned with the intellectual history and development of the man and his writing. As the book follows this trajectory, one major strand begins to stand out above all others, a central tension that both explains the appeal of Benjamin’s work and its resistance to clear explication. From a very early point in his life, Benjamin was convinced that a grand unified theory of literature existed and that he could tease it out. “I am very interested,” he wrote in 1920,
in the principle underlying the great work of literary criticism: the entire field between art and philosophy proper, by which I mean thinking that is at least virtually systematic. There must indeed be an absolutely fundamental principle of literary genre that encompasses such great works as Petrarch’s dialogue on contempt for the world or Nietzsche’s aphorisms or the works of Péguy […].
This idea of an underlying principle that could be systematically teased out was what he strove to elucidate in the introduction to The Origin of German Tragic Drama (and was partly what Hans Cornelius found so incomprehensible). In a letter to his lifelong friend and correspondent, Gershom Scholem, he described the introduction of that book as “unmitigated chutzpah — that is to say, neither more nor less than the prolegomena to an epistemology […] dressed up as a theory of ideas.” It was this unmitigated chutzpah that led Benjamin to give the introduction the imposing-sounding title “Epistemo-Critical Prologue,” and one sees a recurring tendency in Benjamin’s essays to conclusively declaim some over-arching, universal theme of human experience — particularly evident in titles of some of his most famous essays: “Critique of Violence,” “On the Concept of History,” “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” and “On the Mimetic Faculty.”
But this desire for a grand unified theory of language, aesthetics or politics — one that could connect Baudelaire to Kant to medieval drama to Charlie Chaplin — is often at odds with the style of Benjamin’s writing. By the late 1920s he had been influenced sufficiently enough by Surrealists like André Breton and Louis Aragon, and their “profane motifs” as he called them, that he began to incorporate a more fragmented, associative style to his writing. This fragmentation would become the hallmark of some of Benjamin’s best works — One Way Street and Berlin Childhood around 1900, among others. These works do not follow a sustained, linear argument, but operate instead through aphorism, vignette, free association, and metonymy.
This alternation between the grand and the fragmented led ultimately to the Arcades Project — one of the great unfinished works of the 20th century, whose incomplete status itself (alongside Pound’s Cantos and Ralph Ellison’s second novel) reveals much about the tensions of 20th-century literature. The Arcades Project began in 1927 as a projected 50-page essay, and would become, by the end of Benjamin’s life, a sprawling, unfinished collection of observations, quotes and aphorisms, stretching over a thousand pages. Originally conceived as taking possession of “the legacy of Surrealism — from a distance,” Benjamin hoped to use Surrealism’s stylistic and formal cues to produce something of far more rigor and philosophical seriousness. Surrealism’s style, in other words, could be bent to serve the will of the dialectician: a Marxist critique of material culture in the form of a fever dream. Benjamin was perhaps the first philosopher to utilize the style and tone of modernism and the avant-garde. Not in the sense of Proust or Joyce, writers who took philosophy and incorporated it into their fiction, but as a writer who instead took the stylistic cues of high modernism and Surrealism and employed them in his philosophical work. His writing was closer to Woolf and Eliot than Adorno or Kracauer, but while the former were seeking a kind of immanence, Benjamin sought “truth.” Despite the pyrotechnics and free associations that run through a great many of his essays, Benjamin never lost sight of a deeply felt philosophical inquiry. If Surrealists like Breton, Aragon and other proponents of montage never needed their free associations to add up to anything, Benjamin was convinced that by using the fragmented principles of Surrealism and modernism, he could break through to a philosophic principle that underlay all of modernity.
Thus, the perennial contradiction that runs through all of Benjamin’s work — the rigorous dialectical thinking is just one more part of the montage, and it’s never entirely clear if the rest of the montage holds further hidden truths of that philosophy, or if it exists as noise and interference.
How, then, does one approach such writing? In his essay, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” Benjamin proposes the role of the critic as anatomist: someone whose job it is to destroy the work of art in order to extract its essence. “Benjamin’s criticism is never merely interpretive or evaluative,” Eiland and Jennings write, “but rather expiatory and redemptive: it is an activity that ‘destroys’ its object only to plumb it for the truth it might contain.” As if he anticipated the intellectual cottage industry surrounding his oeuvre, Benjamin’s methodology has been turned on his own work. All of his writing is anatomized and annihilated, including the poetry and essayistic flourishes of his work that makes it so unique and so compelling — all in a joyless search for his promised Grand Unified Theory of Literature, lying somewhere in there amidst the jumble and cacophony of his writing.
This search has inspired intense speculation about Benjamin’s black attaché case and its contents. In the chaotic days after his suicide, the attaché case was lost, and in the decades since, speculation has run wild as to the case’s contents, that last manuscript. Was it the final draft of the Arcades Project, or a revised version of “On the Concept of History,” or an entirely new project now forever lost? Critics and biographers have salivated with the prospect of its resurfacing — the Arcades Project itself was miraculously discovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1981, forgotten amongst the papers of French philosopher Georges Bataille — as though in it would contain the keys to all the mysteries, all the uncertainties.
Among its strengths, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life dispels the notion of Benjamin as the solitary genius; we get a comprehensive picture of pre-war German intellectual culture, a dynamic and flourishing community of writers, thinkers, and artists that was largely obliterated by the Nazis. But this is an unintended consequence of the book, because Eiland and Jennings are out to convince you, in fact, that Benjamin is a lone, singular genius, born sui generis and fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, full of wisdom and insight. The book opens inauspiciously, with a passive-verbed, nonsensical statement proclaiming that Benjamin “is now generally regarded as one of the most important witnesses to European modernity.” If there is a shortcoming in the intellectual tenor of the book, it is that none of his writing — including his early juvenilia — is presented as anything less than a fully formed and brilliant masterpiece.
This is forgivable, but their treatment of aspects of Benjamin’s personal life is less so. It is undeniable that Benjamin was a deadbeat father to his son Stefan; he never had any real interest in raising a child, taking an interest in Stefan only when it related to his own intellectual pursuits (such as the young boy’s language acquisition). His treatment towards his wife Dora verges from negligent to horrific: his affairs were numerous, including a long running romance with the Latvian communist Asja Lācis, and he saw Dora primarily as a source of cash to bulwark his own unsteady income. “All he is at this point is brains and sex; everything else has ceased to function,” Dora wrote Scholem in June of 1929. “During the winter he lived with me for months without paying anything, cost me hundreds, and at the same time spending hundreds on Asja. When I told him my money was running out, he proposed divorce.” And yet despite damning documents such as this, Eiland and Jennings bend over backwards to expiate these sins, speaking of Dora’s “commitment — not so much to her husband but to his destiny as a writer,” as if to excuse the years of emotional abuse and neglect.
Early on in his life, Benjamin developed an ethos towards others that he called eine Freundschaft der fremden Freunde, “the friendship of friends who maintain distance in their relations,” a mode he maintained throughout his life. It was a combination of extreme politeness coupled with emotional distance, a kind of “unsocial sociability,” which made him instantly attractive and alluring to others, while keeping even his close friends and lovers at a remove. It is this attitude that simultaneously made him into an almost mythical presence, while also allowing him to engage with multiple women without feeling particularly emotionally beholden to any of them.
This attitude towards life and his associates may help explain the manner in which his closest friends simultaneously supported him and crippled him, particularly in the second half of the 1930s when his situation was most dire. Gershom Scholem repeatedly badgered Benjamin throughout their friendship to make a full and complete commitment to Judaism and Zionism, forcing Benjamin to admit early on in their relationship his “inability to say something clear on the question of Judaism.” It didn’t damage their friendship in the short term, but by the 1930s, as Benjamin made increasingly desperate inquiries to Scholem about emigrating to Palestine, he was told, “In the long run, only those people are able to live here, who, despite all the problems […] feel completely at one with this land and with the cause of Judaism, and things are not always so easy for the new arrival, particularly for someone who occupies an intellectually progressive position.” It’s true that Palestine was being flooded with European emigrants in the 1930s, and that it would have been a difficult life for Benjamin — but it would have been a life. Given that Benjamin’s plight was obvious to Scholem, his discouragement of his friend’s escape borders on malicious.
Despite this, Scholem remained a lifelong friend and confidant, their friendship a combination of admiration and betrayal — a relationship mirrored with two other names most closely associated with Benjamin: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. While they were instrumental, through the Institute of Social Research, in publishing Benjamin’s works and in keeping him solvent through a stipend, at key moments they abandoned and/or outright betrayed him. Horkheimer, for one, gutted the original publication of the “Work of Art” essay so as to keep the Institute’s journal, Zeitschrift, “from being drawn into political discussions in the press.” And while he continued to support Benjamin through a financial stipend via the Institute, Eiland and Jennings note that this support was never unqualified: “Horkheimer’s increasingly generous support of Benjamin was accompanied by a consistently reserved attitude toward his work and by an apparent reluctance to bring Benjamin to New York.”
Even his longtime admirer Adorno finally turned on Benjamin in his greatest hour of need. He had long pushed Benjamin to write and publish a massive opus on Baudelaire for the Institute, but when he finally delivered, Adorno critiqued it savagely (as with so many of Benjamin’s projects, it was never published in his lifetime). As Eiland and Jennings comment, “aware that Benjamin was wholly dependent on the institute for his livelihood, [Adorno] felt he could dictate not just the choice of subject matter but the intellectual tenor of Benjamin’s work” — as though Benjamin had become some kind of trained philosophical monkey at Adorno and the Institute’s behest. Benjamin’s close friends seem to have viewed him with a mixture of awe, professional jealousy, personal distrust, and outright pity. (Scholem may have correctly diagnosed Horkheimer when he told Benjamin that “such a man can of necessity have only an inscrutable relationship to you, vilely burdened by a sense of embitterment,” but this attitude likely applied to most of Benjamin’s close friends, perhaps even Scholem.)
Only when it was clearly too late did they try to make amends: Horkheimer finally securing Benjamin with not only a visa to enter the United States, but transit visas for Spain and Portugal — almost everything he needed, except the exit visa from France. This is the story of Walter Benjamin — his friends and colleagues belatedly trying to make amends when it was already too late, providing him with almost, but not quite, everything he needed, and in the end giving him just enough rope to hang himself with (or, as it were, just enough morphine). As with the millions of other victims of Nazism and anti-Semitism, it was far easier to memorialize his loss than it was to prevent it.
But such a fate, particularly in 1930s Europe, may have been unavoidable for a man who spent his life studiously avoiding allegiances. Like his writing, Benjamin’s life was a jumble of conflicting influences and impulses; Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life reveals a writer perpetually influenced by exposure to different writers, a sounding board particularly receptive to conflicting ideas. His lifelong friendship with Scholem opened him up to Jewish mysticism, but he never let go of his fascination with Christian theology. Likewise, his friendship and affair with Asja Lācis not only complicated his marriage but also led to a sudden revelation of the “intensive insight into the actuality of radical communism,” though he could never quite embrace fully the dialectical Marxism of Adorno. Like a collector, Benjamin never really let go of one methodology or theoretical approach in favor of another: instead he added them all to the mix. It is this trait that on the one hand makes his writing so full of pyrotechnic excitement, and on the other, makes it so difficult to tease out a coherent and fully explicated set of ideas.
Dora Benjamin diagnosed this better than anyone, albeit bitterly, in a letter to Scholem in 1929, at the time still hurting from Benjamin’s ongoing affair with Lācis:
he has always made his pacts: with bolshevism, which he was unwilling to disavow, so as not to lose his last excuse (for if he ever did recant, he would have to admit that it’s not the sublime principles of this lady that bind him to her but only sexual things); with Zionism, partly for your sake and partly (don’t be angry, these are his own words) “because home is wherever someone makes it possible for him to spend money”; with philosophy (for how do these ideas about theocracy and the city of God, or his ideas about violence, accord with this salon bolshevism?); with the literary life (not literature), for he is naturally ashamed to admit to these Zionist whims in front of Hessel and in front of the little ladies Hessel brings him during the pauses in his affair with Asja.
Dora’s words may be colored by her own disgust, but she nonetheless exposes a central problem in Benjamin’s life and work: any attempt at a Grand Unified Theory of Life or Literature was always undercut by a susceptibility to new ideas and conflicting ideologies, resulting finally in a cacophony of contradictory attitudes and approaches.
Benjamin may have been more aware of this than we give him credit. When he sent a copy of his last great essay, “On the Concept of History,” to Gretel Adorno, he wrote of the essay’s fragments: “I am handing them to you more as a bouquet of whispering grasses, gathered on reflective walks, than a collection of theses.” (The first English translation had rendered the title “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a subtle but important misreading of Benjamin’s own intentions.) Among those whispering grasses is Benjamin’s famous passage on the Angel of History:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
This is one of the best, and perhaps most compelling, passages in all of Benjamin’s writings; certainly it’s one of the most well known. It’s a piece that rings with a poetic truth without having to bear the weight of philosophic contemplation. Does an essay like this deserve — and can it withstand — the endless academic spelunking, the emptying out line by line in search of some grand philosophical truth through a process that obliterates the terrible joy and melancholic beauty of the writing itself? Having myself moved away from the academy and the expectations of contemporary theory, I’ve become more and more attuned to the lyrical power of Benjamin’s writing. One is constantly surprised by his turns of phrase, his ability to produce a startling image that resonates beyond theory. I’ve learned to let go of the imperative to explicate each and every line; I no longer believe that each sentence of Benjamin’s scattered prose holds some undiscovered nugget of dialectical brilliance. Instead I’ve decided one can approach Benjamin’s work in the manner of a flâneur: strolling through the Parisian arcades, overwhelmed at times by the sensory overload but mostly removed from the spectacle itself, taking distracted pleasure while allowing much of it to flit by harmlessly.
But such an attitude is the height of irresponsibility in the critical milieu of the late capitalist university, where a bloodless criticism now reigns, where the elusive search for tenure has led to hyper-specialization, and the work of art is now a Voynich manuscript to be deciphered rather than a thing to be savored. There are hundreds of books left to be written on Benjamin, thousands of articles, whole generations of new Benjamin scholars busily toiling in graduate schools. One can no longer linger among the ruins when intellectual progress compels us forward so insistently.
Perhaps there is a secret still left to be found, perhaps in that black attaché case Walter Benjamin took across the Pyrenees, now hidden in an attic or a second-hand junkshop or a dusty library shelf, waiting to be discovered. In it we might finally discover the key to deciphering his corpus, to unlocking the mysteries of his mind, to finally destroying that bouquet of whispering grasses, so as to extract its essence and make it speak lucidly and analytically. But probably not.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith.