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.

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.

The appearance of a translation of Benjamin’s …

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