Illuminations. Essays and Reflections
Walter Benjamin was born in 1892. He killed himself in 1940 when he was refused permission to cross from France into Spain in order to take ship from Lisbon to the United States, where he would have joined his émigré associates Adorno and Horkheimer at the Institute of Social Research in New York. He was of that Jewish class in which it was normal for fathers who had made a success in the world of business to support their sons in the life of independent scholarship, and although his father happened not to wish to do this Benjamin nevertheless pursued such a life, intending to make himself the best German critic. Miss Arendt, in her Introduction to this book, emphasizes the peculiarity of such Jewish intellectuals; they administered, as Moritz Goldstein remarked, “the intellectual property of a people which denied them the right and the ability to do so,” and because there was very little in their own lives to connect them with the religion or manners of their fathers they were often as much at odds with the Jewish as with the larger community.
Benjamin showed a characteristic wavering between the two available possibilities of affiliation: Communism and Zionism. But he remained, in spite of persistent misfortune and uncertainty, his own man, a unique and puzzling figure. He was a collector, and had a large library; he preferred to live in Paris; his extreme idiosyncracy, which Hofmannsthal at once recognized as genius, caused his closest associates, such as Adorno, to suppress his work. His entire life seems, on one view, to have been, in Miss Arendt’s phrase, a matter of bungling and bad luck, right down to its end, which would have been averted if he had arrived at the frontier twenty-four hours earlier.
When he died his work was known to a few; it is only in the past fifteen years or so that Benjamin’s name has become well known, and that in limited circles. But they widen, and so do the claims made for him. He is referred to as a great critic, the greatest, perhaps, of his time.
Reviewers of this book, therefore, are likely to be oppressed by two considerations, first that they have taken on something exceptionally important, and secondly that they have taken on something unusually difficult. The first appearance in English of a writer who is the subject of such high claims amply justifies the first sentiment, and the idiosyncracy of his method as well as the complexity of his historical situation excuses the second. Hannah Arendt shows an almost Benjaminite boldness of metaphor in her attempts to characterize that idiosyncracy, but she seems more authoritative, because more intimately concerned, as the expositor of a tragic historical situation.
Robert Alter in a brilliant Commentary review challenges her sharply on her reading of Benjamin’s political, social, and racial position, and the focusing of argument there seems to me, however sensitive the discussions of Benjamin’s criticism as such, to leave …