Walter Benjamin entered the English language the wrong way around: he was a myth before he ever had the chance to be a fact. When the first American collection of his essays was published—Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, in 1968—he had been dead for almost three decades. Only a few survivors of Weimar Germany still recalled his brief, illustrious career as a literary critic. Fewer still—only his closest friends—were acquainted with the unpublished writing that included some of his most profound thought. Indeed, if it weren’t for those devoted friends—Georges Bataille in Paris, Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, Theodor Adorno in New York—Benjamin’s papers would not have survived World War II, just as he himself did not survive it.
The Benjamin myth was founded on this early death, which has become over time one of the emblematic stories of the twentieth century. The fall of France in 1940 found Benjamin, like so many other German Jewish intellectuals, living in precarious exile in Paris. He fled south to the unoccupied zone, and managed to obtain a visa to enter the United States; but the Vichy government would not grant him an exit visa, making it impossible for him to leave the country legally. In September 1940, Benjamin joined a party of refugees trying to cross the border into Spain at Port Bou, but after an arduous trek they were stopped by the Spanish police and forbidden entry. Desperate and exhausted, certain that he would be sent back to France and handed over to the Nazis, he killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine.
Benjamin’s fate became a perfect parable of the European mind hunted to its death by fascism. To be a parable, however, means to be subject to interpretation—as no one knew better than Benjamin, since the power of interpretation and the afterlife of literature were two of the central themes of his work. His story has been retold in fiction (Benjamin’s Crossing by Jay Parini) and has inspired other people’s memoirs (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry), as well as numerous academic studies. But Benjamin’s reputation in America was most influentially shaped by two eloquent interpretations in particular.
The first was Arendt’s long introductory essay in Illuminations, which for most American readers was (and perhaps still is) the first thing they read about Benjamin. Arendt, who had befriended Benjamin when they were both exiles in Paris, shared his assimilated German Jewish background, and her essay is in large part an inquest into the ways he was made and unmade by that culture. Raised in the expectation that his upper-middle-class family would support his scholarly pursuits, Arendt writes, he never adapted to the necessity of making a living. He was unable to make professional connections and allies; he could not fit himself into the German university system; he could not protect himself from the dangers of history. “With a…
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