Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

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Client Account. He spent long days in destitute wandering, unable to finish essays that were long overdue or waiting in desperation for financial compensation from journals and newspapers who had published his latest exercise. He did not just write about Paris as a capitalist dreamscape: he also experienced it that way. But something more was in play. Depressive by temperament and acutely sensitive to noise, Benjamin was better at longing than at fulfillment.

His first marriage, to Dora Kellner, disintegrated, and his later romances, notably with the Latvian Asja Lacis, were no less troubled.


He was tempted more than once, especially during periods of penury, by thoughts of suicide. Already in the early s, when he was gazing upon the Mediterranean from his hilltop chair in Ibiza, he seems to have intuited that he was living on the precipice of civilization, and that the coming political catastrophe would claim him among its victims. In their superb new biography, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings have given us a portrait of this elusive but paradigmatic thinker that deserves to be ranked among the few truly indispensable intellectual biographies of the modern era.

I am tempted to call it a masterpiece.

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Eiland and Jennings are accomplished scholars who share many years of experience in the world of Benjamin. To write the biography of an intellectual is difficult business, since so much of what passes for an event is taking place only in the mind or on the page—but those are the events that really matter. To be sure, not everything by Benjamin is holy writ. After more than half a century, some scholars have erected a shrine to his memory that too often obstructs critical assessment. Those of us who do not worship at this altar occasionally feel that healthy skepticism about Benjamin is taken for sacrilege, as if his memory were wrapped in an aura.

But the best way to pay homage to an intellectual is to tear off the holy vestments that inhibit his mobility. This is especially so in the case of Benjamin, who felt that we could find our way to modern freedom only if the aura were dissolved.

Howard Eiland: Walter Benjamin - A Critical Life

Benjamin was born on July 15, , into a wealthy and well-acculturated family of German Jews in Berlin, the capital of Imperial Germany. The eldest of three children, Benjamin felt himself to be an only child. Already as a boy he was drawn chiefly to book-reading and solitary pursuits such as collecting.

His beautiful memoir, Berlin Childhood around , which appeared in , contains a loving homage to the collection of animals in the Zoologischer Garten. Benjamin would spend most of his own life burrowed among his books. He began his university studies in at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg, where he attached himself to the department of philology and pursued courses in literature and philosophy, attending lectures in neo-Kantianism by Heinrich Rickert.

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Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

Among the students in the lecture hall was the young Martin Heidegger, who would emerge by the mids as a philosophical revolutionary, and, in the early s, would dedicate himself to the Third Reich. He became an ardent participant in the Freiburg School Reform Unit, which followed the teachings of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. For Benjamin, the death of his friend was a trauma from which he would never fully recover.

That autumn, when Wyneken enjoined his followers to embrace the cause of war, Benjamin broke with the movement and publicly denounced its leader, whom he accused of sacrificing youth on the altar of the state.

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  • When his ardor for the youth movement was extinguished, its place in his heart was filled by other passions that were no less tinged with utopianism and no better suited to his bookish temperament. It is a striking feature of this biography that the major political events of the early twentieth century seem to pass by like scenery glimpsed from a passing train: the First World War remains elsewhere, a storm in the distance.

    In October , Benjamin managed to secure a deferment from military service by flunking his medical exam: great volumes of black coffee the night before did the trick. Throughout his life he remained a stranger to politics in the conventional sense. He was prone to theorizing in the most abstract way about the political convulsions of the modern age, and drew back instinctively from this-worldly political commitments. His beloved friend Scholem, whom he first met in the summer of and who conspired in the coffee-drinking scheme , was a dedicated Zionist who would emigrate to Palestine in the early s.

    That Benjamin borrowed with some frequency from Jewish sources is clear. This vision of apocalyptic history held Benjamin captive as he set about writing his study of German baroque drama in the mids. The Origin of the German Trauerspiel was, according to his biographers, in many respects the pivot of his entire career, as it united his earlier studies of literature with a theory of language and a nascent philosophy of history.


    The result has all too often been a partial, or worse, mythologized and distorted portrait. With this credo in place, the biography is open to assessment, corresponding to its structure, in two registers. These are not exhaustive of the questions posed by this biography. But they are obviously the most immediate ones.

    In reality, after his early failure to secure a habilitation for his work on the Trauerspiel —scarcely surprising, given its difficulty—Benjamin was a far from inconspicuous figure in late Weimar culture, never short of admirers and not often of commissions: a prolific contributor to a wide range of publications, whose One-Way Street had enthusiastic reviews, and even whose Trauerspiel —once it appeared as a book—was discussed at length in scholarly journals, not to mention one of the leading literary periodicals of the time.

    Nor was he in any sense socially or intellectually isolated. In fact, across the pages of Eiland and Jennings, little is more striking than the number of notabilities of one kind or another who were friends, contacts, acquaintances or well-wishers. There too, his writing was not simply ignored, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction —translation corrected by Aron—attracting the attention of Malraux, among others.

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