The Ruins of Walter Benjamin

The Origin of German Tragic Drama

by Walter Benjamin, translated by John Osborne
New Left Books (London), 256 pp., £7.25
Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin; drawing by David Levine


But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The reputation of the German philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin is now secure; paradoxically it has been given its firm basis by the disputes among those who believe they have a claim upon him, and by the widely differing interpretations of his work. The history of the dispersal of his papers and their posthumous publication has been determined by these conflicting and disparate claims.

Just before his death in 1940, some of his manuscripts were confiscated by the Gestapo: these have now turned up in East Germany. Many others were preserved through the war at the Bibliothèque Nationale by the surrealist author Georges Bataille. Benjamin’s great friend Gershom Scholem, professor of Jewish mysticism in Jerusalem, had many copies; most of the rest came from Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, one of the founders of the idiosyncratic version of Marxism called the Frankfurt School. Scholem openly disapproves of the Marxist influence on Benjamin; Marxists in turn generally discount, or attempt to ignore, the theological elements always present in his work.

His publisher in the West is the fashionable and respectable left-wing firm of Suhrkamp. The East Germans publish another edition, and accuse the Western editors of denaturing Benjamin’s late Marxist thought. The two editions show little divergence.

Benjamin’s work has been less an influential force than a quarry: he has been pillaged but not imitated. He provided what seemed most original in Marshall McLuhan’s theories and in André Malraux’s writing on art. The structuralists—whoever they were (no one answers to that name any more)—have claimed him as their own, but then so have mystics, neo-idealists, liberals, and followers of Bertolt Brecht. Frank Kermode has called him the greatest critic of the century, but Kermode’s own work has remained relatively untouched by Benjamin’s methods. Benjamin’s study of what might be called the post-history or the afterlife of works of literature has spurred the recent interest in the “history of reception” among younger critics in Germany—principally Hans Robert Jauss—but they cannot be said to share his philosophy. Only the late Peter Szondi, the most distinguished German literary critic since Benjamin’s death, has shown a genuine affinity for Benjamin’s thought. Most academic work pays him a brief homage, lists his work in the bibliography, and otherwise ignores him.

Plundered without acknowledgment, appropriated without confrontation—his work has met with a degree of misunderstanding that would no doubt have seemed suitable to Benjamin himself, who was thoroughly aware of its esoteric nature. This esoteric quality adds to the work’s…

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