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The Riddle of Walter Benjamin

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910–1940

edited and annotated by Gershom Scholem, by Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Manfred Jacobson, translated by Evelyn Jacobson
University of Chicago Press, 651 pp., $45.00


In 1968 Hannah Arendt edited Illuminations, the first collection of essays by Walter Benjamin to appear in English. At that time little was known about Benjamin outside Germany, except that he was a talented and idiosyncratic literary critic who had committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. The essays Arendt selected for Illuminations primarily reflected his literary achievements. Most of the volume consists of dense ruminations on Kafka, Baudelaire, Proust, Brecht, and Leskov, and it includes a charming essay on book collecting. Only the last two essays, on the mechanical reproduction of art works and on the philosophy of history, give any clue to Benjamin’s more profound philosophical ambitions.

In Germany, however, a bitter debate was already raging over those ambitions when Illuminations appeared. Theodor Adorno and his wife, Gretel, had edited the first German collection of Benjamin’s selected writings in the mid-Fifties. This two-volume set was intended to secure Benjamin’s place in the pantheon of the Frankfurt School, which had supported and published him in the 1930s. In the Sixties, however, the Adornos came under strong, generally unscrupulous, attack by members of the German New Left, who charged them with bowdlerizing Benjamin’s revolutionary Marxism. This political dispute was only intensified with the publication in 1966 of Benjamin’s selected correspondence, edited jointly by Adorno and the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem, one of Benjamin’s oldest friends.

These letters showed that although Benjamin professed to be a Marxist of sorts from the mid-Twenties on, from his first days to his last he was profoundly absorbed by theological questions. This aspect of his thought appears most clearly in his exchanges with Scholem, which make up the largest surviving portion of his correspondence. What began in Germany as a narrow squabble over Benjamin’s legacy soon became a significant controversy over the relation between political and theological ideas.

In spite of Benjamin’s lifelong preoccupation with theology and politics, English-speaking readers have largely concentrated on his literary criticism and ignored his philosophical writings, which have been central to his readers on the continent. The sorry state of English editions of his works has only perpetuated our provinciality in this regard. A second collection of essays chosen by Arendt was published in 1978, three years after her death, under the title Reflections, and, in the years since, two of Benjamin’s three completed books have appeared in English, along with a few collections containing newly translated essays. These publications, however, are only a small fraction of Benjamin’s writings.1

Despite the lack of material—or perhaps because of it—an enormous Anglo-American industry of post-structuralist and postmodernist interpretation has grown up around the translations we have, distorting Benjamin’s real concerns. Apart from specialists familiar with the German background to his work, English-speaking readers are probably no closer to understanding Benjamin’s writings than they were when Hannah Arendt first introduced him in America over twenty-five years ago.2

The appearance of a translation of Benjamin’s correspondence is, therefore, an important event. Even an edition as imperfect and occasionally misleading as this one adds much to our understanding of him.3 When this volume joins the new edition of Benjamin translations to be published by Harvard University Press, it should help to transform the English-language study of his life and works.4


Walter Benjamin was born into a well-off family of Berlin Jews in 1892. His father had made a modest fortune as an auctioneer and art dealer, and later expanded it as an investor. Benjamin wrote two memoirs of his youth, “A Berlin Chronicle” and “Berlin Childhood,” bittersweet reflections on his privileged upbringing in the well-to-do western section of the city, filled with memories of promenades, cool relations with his parents, and absurd luxury. Because young Walter was somewhat sickly as a boy, his parents sent him away for two years to a provincial boarding school, one of whose directors, Gustav Wyneken, was a major force in the German Youth Movement. Benjamin soon began writing for one of the movement’s journals, Der Anfang, and remained allied with Wyneken and his Nietzschean pedagogical movement until the First World War.

Benjamin’s early correspondence contains much discussion of the Youth Movement, though one also witnesses his growing awareness of his status as a Jew in Germany. We know little about the Benjamin family’s attitude toward Judaism except that they were liberal without being entirely assimilated. We learn here that young Walter, like many German Jews drawn to the early essays of Martin Buber, flirted with political Zionism in the summer of 1912. But in a letter to his friend Ludwig Strauss later that September, he wrote: “I see three Zionist forms of Jewishness: Palestine Zionism (a natural necessity); German Zionism in its halfness; and cultural Zionism, which sees Jewish values everywhere and works for them. Here I will stay, and I believe I must stay.” This would remain his position throughout his life.5

Benjamin’s attitude toward political Zionism reflected a more fundamental inclination to escape the ugly political atmosphere of the period. Among the surprises contained in these letters is the utter absence of political commentary as the First World War began, and its meagerness for some years thereafter. Benjamin first appears to us as an “unpolitical man”—if not quite like Thomas Mann, then like so many others of his generation who abandoned the faltering institutions of bourgeois Europe in order to explore aesthetic experience and irrationalist “philosophies of life” (Lebensphilosophien).

Nonetheless, despite Benjamin’s attempts to ignore the war, it intruded from every side. In August 1914, in despair over the coming catastrophe, two of his closest friends committed suicide together in the apartment where his Berlin circle often gathered. Not long afterward Wyneken published a nationalistic manifesto, “Youth and War,” provoking Benjamin to dissociate himself from his former teacher and the Youth Movement. He obtained an exemption from military service in 1917 by faking an attack of sciatica, and by that summer was in voluntary exile in Switzerland with his wife, Dora, whom he had married that April. His new friend Gershom Scholem, who obtained an exemption by feigning mental illness, arrived in Bern in 1918, and they began the intense intellectual exchange that would prove so fruitful for both men.

Scholem and Benjamin had first met in 1915, though Scholem remembered seeing Benjamin participate in a public debate on Zionism two years earlier. As Scholem recounted in his two memoirs, he and the older Benjamin were immediately drawn to each other, despite philosophical and religious differences. Scholem, too, had grown up in the bosom of the liberal Judaism of Berlin, but he was appalled by the cultural compromises it represented, with both Christmas trees and menorahs. When he received a picture of Theodor Herzl as a Christmas present one year, he was so disgusted that he began to learn Hebrew, mastering it quickly. By 1917 his family had turned him out of the house for becoming a Zionist, and he had decided to study the history of Kabbala.

Benjamin did not share this passion and did not even know Hebrew. But Scholem sensed in Benjamin a devotion to the spiritual like that of a scribe cast out into another world, who has set off in search of his ‘scripture.’ “6 The more Scholem studied the traditions of Jewish mysticism and messianism, the more he came to see Benjamin as “a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane.”7

The publication of Benjamin’s correspondence in Germany drew attention for the first time to his early philosophical writings, with their strong theological overtones. Read along with the letters of the period, they largely confirm Scholem’s instinct about the spiritual temperament of his friend. One of the earliest of his writings to survive is a short, unpublished manuscript of 1917–1918 entitled “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy.”8 Both Benjamin and Scholem had begun their philosophical studies by reading Kant, whose work had recently been revived at the University of Marburg. Like the early Romantics, they were simultaneously attracted and repelled by Kant’s rigorous distinction between the phenomenal world open to science and the noumenal world of moral ends; they were attracted by the recognition of a metaphysical realm beyond the material, repelled by the needle’s eye that Kant placed between the two. Benjamin took it as a philosophical challenge to overcome Kant’s distinction within the frame of Kant’s own thought, calling this “the central task of the coming, philosophy.” What philosophy needs, he writes, is the “epistemological foundation of a higher concept of experience,” which will make “religious experience logically possible.” This theological conception of experience is echoed in a 1918 letter to Scholem, in which Benjamin states that all ethics need a foundation in metaphysics, in order to understand “the absolute divine context of order, whose highest sphere is doctrine and whose embodiment and first cause is God.”

Statements like these are common-places in the history of philosophical Romanticism. The desire to reaffirm religious experience in the wake of Enlightenment secularism had long before been expressed in the works of Hamann, Jacobi, Schleiermacher, Novalis, and Friedrich Schlegel. Typically, such writers turned toward a crypto-theological view of language as an alternative to Kant’s philosophy, and Benjamin followed their lead. In 1916 he wrote to Martin Buber:

Every action that derives from the expansive tendency to string words together seems terrible to me….I can understand writing as such as poetic, prophetic, objective in terms of its effect, but in any case only as magical, that is as un-mediated.

To Hugo von Hofmannsthal he later remarked that “every truth has its home, its ancestral palace, in language.”

Benjamin attempted to elaborate these intuitions about language and truth in a difficult essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (1916). Here he rejects the “bourgeois” view that language is based on conventions in favor of the “mystical” view that names are divine essences, which had become obscured and confused after Babel. Benjamin, however, insists that by translating human languages into one another, men can begin to reconstruct the “nameless, unspoken” language of nature, which is a “residue of the creative word of God” and out of which “the ultimate clarity of the word of God unfolds.”9

Benjamin was aware that he was treading on the Romantics’ path, and over the next few years set out to confront them directly. He did so in his first scholarly dissertation and only traditionally academic book, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism), which was accepted by the faculty at Bern in 1919. In it he argues that criticism can be so powerful that it becomes more valuable than artistic creation itself. The nineteenth-century Romantics valued criticism because they idealized the poet, the writer, the painter; Benjamin idealizes the critic as a conjurer teasing truths out of the objects in which they have been sealed. “Through Kant’s philosophical works,” he writes, “the concept of criticism took on an almost magical meaning for the younger generation…. To be critical meant to raise thought so far above all constraint that, through the perception of the falseness of constraints, knowledge of the truth takes flight as if by magic.” 10

  1. 1

    R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhäuser, editors, Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, seven volumes (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972–1989).

  2. 2

    Apart from George Steiner’s occasional essays on Benjamin, the clearest account of the Continental debates over his theological and political views has been afforded by the journal New German Critique and the writers associated with it. Among them are Richard Wolin, whose Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption has recently been reissued with a superb new introduction (University of California Press, 1994), and Gary Smith, who has edited an important collection of Continental critical essays, On Walter Benjamin (MIT Press, 1988). Anson Rabinbach has offered the most penetrating treatment of the theological-political problem in his “Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Bloch and Modern German Messianism,” New German Critique (Winter 1985) and his introduction to The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932–1940 (Schocken, 1989).

  3. 3

    The reader’s gratitude for this volume will be muted by the fact that the University of Chicago Press was unable to add any critical apparatus, owing to contractual constraints. For reasons of its own, the press also chose to offer little information about the book’s relation to the German original, and some of that is incorrect. A short “Note on Sources” makes the strange claim that, while the original edition was copyrighted in 1966, it “was published only in 1978.” (In fact the book was published in 1966; the 1978 edition was a revised one.) It then notes that 33 of the 332 letters were originally translated in The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gersnom Scholem, 1932–1940, without further elaboration. That important volume, however, is the translation of a 1980 German collection that includes a great number of Scholem’s own letters to Benjamin, which were miraculously preserved in an East German archive and finally released in 1977. The relation between the book under review and these four other volumes—the two German editions of the Benjamin letters, and the German and English editions of the Scholem-Benjamin correspondence from 1932 to 1940—is left utterly obscure. Nor do we learn that new editions of Benjamin’s letters are currently being prepared in Germany, one of which has just appeared: Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Briefwechsel, 1928–1940 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994).

  4. 4

    Besides a forthcoming edition of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Harvard has commissioned translations for a six-volume Works, selected and edited by Michael Jennings of Princeton.

  5. 5

    This letter, not included in the English edition and only incompletely in the Gesammelte Schriften, is translated from the original copy in Jerusalem by Anson Rabinbach in his “Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse,” p. 96.

  6. 6

    Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), p. 53.

  7. 7

    Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Schocken, 1976), p. 187.

  8. 8

    Recently translated in Gary Smith, editor, Benjamin: Philosophy, History, Aesthetics (University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 1–12.

  9. 9

    This strong theory of translation as unlocking an original, revealed language appears again in Benjamin’s 1923 introduction to Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, titled “The Task of the Translator” in Illuminations.

  10. 10

    Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik,” Gesammelte Schriften, Volume I.1, p. 51.

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