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 Fewer still—only his closest friends—were acquainted with the unpublished writing that included some of his most profound thought.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 precision suggesting a sleepwalker,” Arendt writes, “his clumsiness invariably guided him to the very center of a misfortune.” Even his death, she suggests, was a proof of his bad luck: he happened to try to cross the Spanish border at just the moment when it was impossible.
Every portrait says something about the sitter and something about the artist, and Arendt’s portrait of Benjamin is no exception. Arendt, who survived the ordeals that killed Benjamin and so many others, remembers him with a combination of love and admiration and dismay. Her essay leaves a powerful impression that what killed Benjamin—and by implication, the German Jewish civilization that produced him—was a fatal inwardness and unworldliness, which is as culpable as it is pitiable: “His outlook was typical of an entire generation of German-Jewish intellectuals, although probably no one else fared so badly with it.”
Quite different in tone is the other landmark essay on Benjamin, Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn.”* For Sontag, writing out of an American setting rather than a German one, Benjamin’s inwardness and unworldliness are precisely what make him so lovable. In particular, Sontag dwells on Benjamin’s melancholy, the saturnine temperament that informs his work as well as his biography: “His major projects…cannot be fully understood unless one grasps how much they rely on a theory of melancholy.” This melancholy, which unfitted him for life, is also what made Benjamin the perfect interpreter of a catastrophic epoch: “He felt that he was living in a time in which everything valuable was the last of its kind.” If Arendt defines herself in opposition to Benjamin, Sontag clearly identifies with him as the archetypal intellectual.
After so much mythologizing and appropriation, the subtitle of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, the new biography by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, sounds a welcome note of objectivity. (Early on, the authors take a swipe at Sontag’s essay: “It is…misleading to characterize him, as certain influential English-language treatments have done, as a purely saturnine and involuted figure.”) Benjamin’s was a critical life because it was the life of a critic; but this book, too, is a critical life, in that it presents its subject with a certain objectivity and dispassion. “This biography aims for a more comprehensive treatment by proceeding in a rigorously chronological manner, focusing on the everyday reality out of which Benjamin’s writings emerged, and providing an intellectual-historical context for his major works.”
What this entails is a careful synthesis of all the available sources for Benjamin’s life—letters, diaries, reminiscences of friends—with all of his major writings, to produce the comprehensive account that has been sorely lacking until now. By the same token, however, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life lacks what a more literary treatment might offer—a sense of intimacy with its subject, an evocation of what he was like as a person and how his personality is reflected in his work.
If Walter Benjamin remains an elusive figure, in this biography as in his many-faceted, often arcane writings, it is not because the facts of his life are mysterious or hard to understand. Indeed, one might say, Benjamin’s life is exactly what you would expect from the collision of such a man with such an era: a prolonged disaster. He was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892, to a “thoroughly assimilated Jewish family of the Berlin haute bourgeoisie.” His father was a successful art dealer and investor, and Benjamin grew up in an atmosphere in which all challenges to bourgeois order were repressed or ignored. As he recalled in 1932, in his memoir A Berlin Chronicle: “The poor? For rich children of his generation, they lived at the back of beyond.” Yet as Arendt saw, everything about this upbringing would fail to prepare Benjamin for the life he was destined to experience in the twentieth century. Jewish assimilation, patriarchal authority, the expectation of steady prosperity—all would be overturned by the series of events that started with World War I.
Benjamin’s intellectual career, however, started even before 1914. As Eiland and Jennings show, at the age of twelve Benjamin was sent to Haubinda, a boarding school whose faculty included the famous educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken’s teaching centered on “the idea of a ‘new youth’ as heralding a new human being,” and it found an eager follower in Benjamin, who would spend the next decade as an increasingly prominent writer, speaker, and organizer in the student movement. While Wyneken’s ideas remain even in Eiland and Jennings’s account a little nebulous, it is easy to see that Benjamin found in them an introduction to the realm of spirit.
In 1914, however, when Wyneken threw his support behind the German war effort, Benjamin, who was aging beyond the category of “youth” in any case, broke with his mentor. By this time he was a university student, embarking on what would prove to be several of the most important relationships of his life. This included his romance with Dora Pollak, whom he married in 1917, and his intellectually crucial friendship with Gershom (then still Gerhard) Scholem, whom he first met at a pacifist lecture in 1915. During this time Benjamin avoided the draft through a series of ruses—pretending to have palsy, drinking black coffee all night to induce tremors—and in 1917 he was able to move to Switzerland. Clearly he was an outright opponent of the war, and never seemed to feel a duty to enlist, as most young men of his generation did.
Typically, however, Scholem recalled that Benjamin only ever mentioned the war in one conversation, and Eiland and Jennings note that the subject is almost missing from his correspondence. Once he abandoned the activism of his student days, Benjamin seems to have immediately adopted the attitude that would define the rest of his life—a kind of passive resistance to public life. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life makes clear how intimately Benjamin’s biography was shaped by the history of Europe during his lifetime. Yet he seems to have passed through these events—the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weimar Republic, inflation, the rise of fascism, and the promise of communism—as a guarded, detached observer, in keeping with a personality that preferred interpretation to action.
His very bearing, Scholem recalled, seemed like a plea for anonymity: Benjamin “dressed with studied unobtrusiveness, and was usually bent slightly forward. I don’t think I ever saw him walk erect with his head held high.” Eiland and Jennings remark on his wary cultivation of solitude: “His strictly codified manners, his maintenance of an impermeable wall between his friends, and his rigorous avoidance of personal matters in conversation and correspondence alike.” Despite their distaste for Sontag’s “saturnine” myth, their own Benjamin comes across as unmistakably melancholic and introverted—a mind so sensitive to its environment that a glancing encounter with people and events was more than enough to feed it.
Journalism, even the kind of insistently intellectual literary journalism that Benjamin produced, seems like an unlikely career for such a personality. And in fact it was only belatedly that Benjamin resigned himself to the need to make money by writing for newspapers and magazines. From the mid-1910s until 1924, he sustained an increasingly unlikely ambition to find a place for himself in the German university system. His longest completed book, The Origin of German Trauerspiel, a study of seventeenth-century baroque drama, was written as his Habilitationsschrift, the second dissertation required to earn a teaching position. This dense and brilliant book was an early example of what Arendt called Benjamin’s work as an intellectual “pearl diver,” one who “delves into the depths of the past” in order to retrieve its “rich and strange” relics. Baroque drama was a genre held in low esteem by German critics, yet to Benjamin it became a case study in the paradoxical nature of allegory. Allegory is a way of reading that claims to impose order on the world; yet Benjamin sees it as a confession of chaos, in which “any person, any thing, any relationship can mean any other arbitrary thing.”