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

This view would have the most far-reaching consequences for Benjamin’s career. He develops it further in his famous essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which begins with the bold claim that what the reader holds in his hands is not “commentary” but criticism, which “seeks the truth content of a work of art.” This task is then given a mystical formulation:

If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a burning funeral pyre, then the commentator stands before it like a chemist, the critic like an alchemist. Where for the former, wood and ash remain the sole objects of his analysis, for the latter only the flame itself preserves an enigma: that of what is alive. Thus the critic inquires into the truth, whose living flame continues to burn over the heavy logs of the past and the light ashes of experience.11

For Benjamin, then still in his late twenties, this invocation of alchemy may have been no more than a simile, but his friend Scholem took such statements very seriously. Scholem shared Benjamin’s dissatisfaction with Kant and with the denatured “liberal” theology that grew up in his wake; Scholem, too, found the bourgeois pieties of Wilhelmine culture empty and stifling. But rather than turn to Romanticism, he began to study the mystical kabbalistic texts of medieval Judaism, from which he hoped to gain historical perspective on the spiritual dissatisfactions with “debased” experience, to learn how they arose in the history of religion, and to understand the reactions to them. This is the light in which he began to see Benjamin’s early writings—and it is a clarifying light.

Scholem’s research taught him that Judaism had always experienced a deep tension between the discipline of the law, which was a preparation for redemption, and a powerful messianic impulse, which regularly strained against such discipline and sought immediate, direct contact with the divine. This impulse was antinomian, apocalyptic, and utopian. It rejected any simple appeal to tradition or historical progress, believing instead in “transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed into ruins because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.” Traditionally, Jewish orthodoxy had tried to stifle this impulse, going so far as to deny or distort its history. But all such efforts were doomed because “the power of redemption seems to be built into the clockwork of life lived in the light of revelation.” The “anarchic breeze” of messianism was destined to blow through the house of orthodoxy whenever the living sources of religion had been relegated to the cellar. “It is a profound truth,” Scholem writes, “that a well-ordered house is a dangerous thing.”12

In his view, German Judaism of the early twentieth century was one such house. Hermann Cohen, the leading figure of the neo-Kantian philosophical school, was the most prominent proponent of reinterpreting Judaism as an ethical system, which he undertook in works such as The Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (1929).13 In his other writings Cohen asserted that Jews and Germans could exist harmoniously in a liberal society, which he considered Germany to be. Against this consensus an entire generation of young Jewish thinkers would rebel, some before World War I, others just after. Scholem and Benjamin belonged to this generation, as did Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, Ernst Bloch, and Leo Strauss. In their letters, Scholem and Benjamin seem very conscious of their affinities with these writers, and they discuss them frequently. Both were particularly taken with Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption (1921), which they considered a significant critique of both Kantianism and liberal Judaism, and with the stories of Kafka, which offered, as Scholem later put it, “an intuitive affirmation of mystical themes which walk a fine line between religion and nihilism.”14

This “fine line” is the kabbalistic line, and the more Scholem followed it in Jewish history, the more he believed he could trace its path through his generation of Jewish youth seeking redemption in a profane world. Within this generation, no figure attracted and perplexed him more than Benjamin. Beneath Benjamin’s complaints about the poverty of modern experience or the coldness of reason, beneath his vitalistic celebrations of art and language, Scholem heard the age-old voice of those called “masters of a holy soul” in kabbalistic lore.15 Such souls were blessed with great powers of perception and were capable of reviving desiccated religious cultures. But, as Scholem also knew, they were equally vulnerable to illusion and self-destruction—especially under modern secular conditions, and especially when they turned to politics.


Benjamin’s interest in political questions began to develop only in the Twenties, after the war and just as his private life was beginning to unravel. In 1920 economic conditions in Germany forced his return from Switzerland, and once in Berlin he fell out with his parents, who were putting pressure on him to find a regular job. To complicate matters further, in 1921 both Benjamin and his wife, Dora, fell in love with other people—she with Walter’s old schoolmate Ernst Schoen, he with the sculptress Jula Cohn, the sister of another friend. A temporary separation was agreed upon, then a reconciliation for the sake of their young son. Neither affair lasted, but the marriage was shattered and the couple finally divorced in 1930.

Although the outward shape of Benjamin’s life changed dramatically during this trying period, his first political writings show remarkable continuity with the theological speculations of his Swiss years. In 1920 he published “The Critique of Violence,” a dense and not altogether successful essay on Georges Sorel’s Réflections sur la violence, which was becoming a key text for thinkers on the radical right and left. Benjamin criticizes Sorel, but he shares Sorel’s view that bourgeois life and parliamentary politics are based on an illegitimate official violence, and he proposes that a different kind of violence—a regenerative, “law-making” violence—can bring about a new social order. Less explicit about violence, but no less apocalyptic, is the short “Theologico-Political Fragment” written later that year. Here Benjamin writes that although “only the Messiah himself consummates all history,” history does not prepare for his arrival: the messianic moment comes unannounced, bringing history to an abrupt, perhaps violent stop. To strive for the passing away of the natural world is, Benjamin says here, “the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.”

If Benjamin had never written another word about politics after these essays, we would probably understand him today as a proponent of that diffuse strain of vitalism in early twentieth-century Continental thought that drew many intellectuals to radical right-wing views and movements after World War I. As a young man Benjamin had sought out Ludwig Klages, the popular (and later anti-Semitic) philosopher whose magnum opus, The Mind as Adversary of the Soul, attacks the rationalistic tradition of Western philosophy for distorting the vitalistic sources of knowledge, will, and aesthetic experience.16 Benjamin also carefully studied and wrote on the works of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the nineteenth-century ethnologist whose theories of pagan myth and symbols had recently been promoted by the Stefan George circle, of which Klages was an early member. Benjamin’s correspondence shows that throughout his life he was fascinated with these right-wing theorists of myth, eroticism, power, dreams, and imagination—though it must be added that he was always repelled by their politics once he understood them.17

Benjamin’s notion of criticism as alchemy, his conviction that politics is a matter of apocalyptic nihilism, and his fascination with right-wing vitalism all came together in his major work of the Twenties, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama).18 Benjamin had moved to Frankfurt in 1923 to pursue the advanced degree that would have permitted him to teach in a university and to be recognized, as he later put it, as “the foremost critic of German literature.” It was a disastrous decision from nearly every standpoint. His professors were hostile to his planned dissertation on the long-neglected German “sorrow-plays” (Trauerspiele) of the seventeenth century, which they considered an idiosyncratic subject. Moreover, Benjamin seemed determined to flout every academic convention, writing in the most esoteric of styles and prefacing his book with a willfully obscure “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” that summarized his views on Plato, German idealism, Romanticism, beauty, works of art, language, and symbolism. The author himself described these indigestible pages to Scholem as a display of “unmitigated chutzpah” comprehensible only to students of Kabbala. Benjamin finally withdrew the dissertation when he was warned it would be rejected.

Had his professors made their way past the introduction, they would have discovered that the book was a genuinely important investigation, inspired by the work of the art historian Alois Riegl, into the allegorical dimensions of a forgotten literature.19 Benjamin portrays the baroque period as one of acute historical crisis, the moment when Europeans became conscious of the breakdown of the religiously ordered medieval world but before the birth of the modern. It was a time of peering into the abyss, of an awareness of the absolute separation between heaven and earth. “The hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world,” and baroque man feels himself transported toward a “cataract,” toward “catastrophic violence.” According to Benjamin, the sorrow-plays were allegories of this experience. They presented a world without order or heroes, suffused with the melancholy of statesmen, tyrants, and martyrs, who are wracked by guilt.

By his own admission, Benjamin’s theological and political reflections in the Trauerspiel book were also inspired by the right-wing legal theorist (and later Nazi functionary) Carl Schmitt, whose Political Theology had just been published in 1922.20 Two features of Schmitt’s work evidently attracted Benjamin. One was Schmitt’s assertion that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” The other was Schmitt’s characterization of all legal norms as resting, explicitly or implicitly, on a sovereign “decision,” which either applied rules generally to people’s actions or announced an “exception” to them. This doctrine, which came to be called decisionism, is summarized in Schmitt’s statement that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”21 The sorrow-plays, in which princes, ministers, and even assassins were portrayed at their moments of ultimate decision and ultimate fate, represented baroque life just as Schmitt imagined all political life to be: as a permanent “state of emergency.”22

None of these ideas appears to have surprised Scholem. In his 1964 essay “Walter Benjamin,” he wrote:

Even in authors whose picture of the world exhibits mostly reactionary traits he heard the subterranean rumblings of revolution, and generally he was keenly aware of what he called “the strange interplay between reactionary theory and revolutionary practice.” The secularization of Jewish apocalyptic doctrine is plain for all to see and nowhere denies its origin.23

Yet for Benjamin’s friends on the left, this taste for reactionary writers was a puzzle, indeed an embarrassment.24 Even in 1930, long after Benjamin had converted to Marxism and was collaborating with Brecht, he dedicated a copy of the Trauerspiel book to Schmitt, proclaiming that he found his own work on aesthetics confirmed time and again in Schmitt’s writings.25 It is not really puzzling that Benjamin should have taken such authors seriously; virtually everyone—including the avant-garde—was drinking from the same murky waters in the interwar period. The real puzzle is that he would later pursue his theological-political quest on the hard, unwelcoming terrain of Marxism.


Those who knew Walter Benjamin recognized that he underwent a conversion (his word) from theological speculation to Marxism in the 1920s, although neither they nor his later readers have ever agreed on what that conversion meant. We can date the experience to the summer of 1924, which Benjamin spent on Capri in the company of the philosopher Ernst Bloch. There he met a woman named Asja Lacis, a radical Latvian Communist who worked with Bertolt Brecht in political theater and later became a victim of Stalin’s purges and spent a decade in a Kazakhstan camp. As we witness in his correspondence, Benjamin immediately fell in love with Lacis, and during their on-again, off-again affair over the next few years he was transported into a left-wing milieu that until then had held little interest for him. Scholem immediately noted the change in his letters, which now contained veiled references to Lacis. After returning to Berlin, Benjamin tried to allay his friend’s concerns, writing that “I hope someday the Communist signals will come through to you more clearly than they did from Capri” and promising to explain “the various points of contact I have with radical Bolshevist theory.” He then plunged into the study of Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and had Lacis introduce him to Brecht, whom he began visiting in the summer and with whom he established a deferential relationship that had an unfortunate effect on his writing.

Benjamin’s explanations and self-justifications of his turn to Marxism continued until the mid-Thirties and mark the high point of this extraordinary correspondence. In May 1925 Benjamin wrote to Scholem that if his current publishing plans did not work out, “I will probably hasten my involvement with Marxist politics and join the party”—though he was also toying with the idea of learning Hebrew instead; soon afterward he wrote to Martin Buber that he was being torn between “cultic and Communist activity.” After his move to Paris in 1926 to work on a translation of Proust, he once again tried to explain his new thinking to the baffled Scholem. His reasoning was anything but reassuring.

I do not concede that there is a difference between [religious and political] forms of observance in terms of their quintessential being. Yet I also do not concede that a mediation between them is possible. I am speaking here about an identity that manifests itself only in the sudden paradoxical change of one form of observance into the other (regardless of which direction), given the indispensable prerequisite that every observation of action proceed ruthlessly and with radical intent. Precisely for this reason, the task is not to decide once and for all, but to decide at every moment. But to decide…. If I were to join the Communist Party someday (something that, in turn, I am making dependent on one last twist of fate), my stance would be to behave always radically and never logically when it came to the most important things…. [T]here are no meaningfully political goals.

The essential unity of the theological and political, the “meaninglessness” of political goals, the dominance of fate, the need for a radical, illogical decision “regardless of the direction”—in a few sentences Benjamin summarizes all the major themes of his early political writings, though they are now presented as consistent with Marxism rather than with the writings of Georges Sorel or Carl Schmitt. Benjamin’s Marxism first appears in his letters as an irrational act of commitment, as an act of “decisionism.”

Benjamin’s attraction to Marxism was widely shared at the time, but remains a puzzle. Although his early writings had defended the independence of a spiritual realm beyond “debased” modern experience, he now called himself a materialist; after criticizing historical progress in the name of a vague apocalyptic messianism, he now called himself a Marxist supporting Communist political action. How was this possible?

Gershom Scholem thought he had the answer. As he would later write, in all messianic movements and thinkers there is a dangerous impulse to “press for the end,” to try to achieve here on earth what has been promised to us only in heaven. Religious history shows that “every attempt to realize [this impulse] tears open the abysses which lead each of its manifestations ad absurdam.”26 Such manifestations can develop in surprising directions as those caught up in them seek heaven on earth. Scholem had already studied how certain kabbalistic heresies in Judaism had preached a doctrine of “redemption through sin” and replaced the discipline of Torah with a mysterious anti-Torah that made material gratification a path to salvation. “Praised be he who permits the forbidden,” taught the would-be Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, and the forbidden was usually profane in nature.27

Reading Scholem’s historical writings along with his letters to Benjamin, we begin to understand the depth of his reaction to the latter’s leftward turn. Not only was Marxism a materialistic heresy, but Scholem realized that Benjamin’s genuine sacred insights would be lost in their profane transformation. And perhaps not just his insights. Benjamin gave every sign of being a man standing at the brink of an abyss, or, as one Christian acquaintance remarked, “of a person who has just climbed down from one cross and is about to mount another.” Scholem was especially concerned that Benjamin would enter active Communist politics, and feared that this was not only an act of intellectual self-deception: in the political atmosphere of Weimar, it could be a threat to Benjamin’s life.

Scholem put the matter bluntly in a letter of 1931.

There is a disconcerting alienation and disjuncture between your true and alleged way of thinking. That is, you do not attain your insights through the strict application of a materialist method, but entirely independently of it [or] by playing with the ambiguities and interference phenomena of this method…. [You] could be a highly significant figure in the history of critical thought, the legitimate heir of the most productive and most genuine traditions of Hamann and Humboldt. On the other hand, your ostensible attempt to harness these results in a framework in which they suddenly present themselves as the apparent results of materialistic considerations introduces an entirely alien form element from which any intelligent reader can easily distance himself…. I am so dismayed that I must say to myself that this self-deception is possible only because you desire it, and more: that it can last only as long as it is not put to the materialist test. The complete certainty I have about what would happen to your writing if it occurred to you to present it within the Communist party is quite depressing…. It would become unambiguously and explosively clear that your dialectic is not that of the materialist whose method you try to approach, at the very moment you were unmasked by your fellow dialecticians as a typical counterrevolutionary and bourgeois…. I fear that the high cost of this error will be borne by you…. You would not, of course, be the last but perhaps the most incomprehensible sacrifice to the confusion of religion and politics.

As it turned out, Scholem’s worry that Benjamin would commit himself body and soul to communism proved unfounded. Benjamin’s Marxism remained desk-bound, and every encounter he had with real Communist politics left him disaffected. In the fall of 1926 he made a brief trip to Moscow to visit Asja Lacis and, as we learn from the diary he kept there, his journey to the heart of the Revolution was a personal and political fiasco: Moscow was far from being a utopia, Benjamin spoke no Russian, and Lacis had other lovers. He had brought with him an article on Goethe commissioned by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, only to have the editors reject it as both heterodox and dogmatic. “The phrase ‘class conflict’ occurs ten times on every page,” complained one official to his face.28

An understandable chill enters the correspondence between Benjamin and Scholem during the decade following Benjamin’s turn to Marxism. Still, the friends eventually found an occasion for rapprochement in the summer of 1934, when Benjamin sent Scholem a draft of his powerful essay on Kafka. The essay is perhaps Benjamin’s most fully achieved attempt to blend what he called in a later letter “the experience of the modern city dweller” and “mystical experience.” He writes that the stories of Kafka that have been understood as parables

are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it. Kafka might have said that these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine.

Scholem reported himself “98 percent satisfied” with his friend’s interpretation, which presents Kafka as “feeling his way to redemption” in the modern world but failing because he finds religious tradition empty. This failure is summed up in Kafka’s comment to Max Brod that there is an infinite amount of hope in the world, “but not for us.”

The Kafka essay does much to confirm Scholem’s claim, first made in the frustrated-sounding letters of the early Thirties and later in his memoirs, that Benjamin’s most important ideas came from his concern with theological issues, while his idiosyncratic materialism only confused them. It also receives surprising confirmation from Bertolt Brecht, with whom Benjamin was staying in the summer of 1934. As we learn in the previously unpublished “Conversations with Brecht,” translated in Reflections, Brecht, a consistent materialist, was disappointed in, and baffled by, Benjamin’s theological backsliding in the Kafka essay. Benjamin faithfully reports Brecht’s objection that Kafka is an “obscurantist,” a “Jewboy,” a “skinny, unlikable creature” whose mystical depths were at the farthest remove from the “crude thinking” the times demanded. Benjamin’s celebration of Kafka’s failed messianism simply advanced “Jewish fascism,” Brecht charged, by fueling the bourgeois desire for charismatic leaders.

Benjamin was clearly not meant for Communist intellectual labor; his Marxism, if it can be called that, remained too intimately bound up with his original theological concerns ever to be fully disentangled. In a letter to Max Rychner of 1931 he admitted as much, even as he tried to defend his political position:

I have never been able to do research and think in any sense other than, if you will, a theological one, namely, in accord with the Talmudic teaching about the forty-nine levels of meaning in every passage of Torah. That is, in my experience, the most trite Communist platitude possesses more hierarchies of meaning than does contemporary bourgeois profundity, which has only one meaning, that of an apologetic.

Formulations like this placed Benjamin in an intellectual no man’s land where neither Scholem the theologian nor Brecht the materialist could reach him.


Or was it a no man’s land? Theodor Adorno didn’t think so. Adorno is best known today as an important member of the Institute for Social Research, the so-called Frankfurt School, which he officially joined in the Thirties and which since the Twenties had offered a home to Marxists seeking a third way between Communist orthodoxy and bourgeois liberalism.29 He had known the older Benjamin since their student days in Frankfurt and greatly admired him. While indifferent to the theological interests Benjamin shared with Scholem, he took Benjamin’s turn to Marxism as a sign that a productive secularization of his thought was underway and that together they might develop a new theory accounting for the diminished aesthetic experience of the modern period. The two men were on friendly terms throughout the late Twenties and early Thirties, although they became much closer after 1933, when Benjamin fled Germany for Paris at the urging of Gretel Adorno.

Between his conversion to communism and his exile, Benjamin had attained some recognition as a critic in Germany. He earned a modest living by writing for newspapers and respected periodicals like the Literarische Welt, and by working on radio programs. This writing gave him independence and enabled him to travel widely in Europe. But when he emigrated in 1933, a few weeks after the Reichstag fire and just before Hitler assumed dictatorial powers, he had no reliable way of supporting himself. For a while he continued to write for the German press under pseudonyms, but this soon became difficult, and his commissions dwindled. To save money, he spent periods with friends on Ibiza and with Brecht in Denmark. He was even forced to swallow his pride and return for a time to his former wife, Dora, who was running a boarding house in San Remo. The last seven years of his correspondence make for distressing reading, as he hatches impractical plans for his financial salvation, and what promising opportunities arise are spoiled.

Benjamin could never have survived these exile years without Adorno’s selfless efforts on his behalf. When the Institute left Frankfurt in 1933, first for Geneva, then for New York, Adorno arranged for Benjamin to receive a modest stipend for regular contributions to the Institute’s journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. This payment was increased when Benjamin agreed to write a long study of nineteenth-century Paris. The Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk or Passagenarbeit), as it came to be called, had begun modestly enough in 1927 when Benjamin hit upon the idea of adopting the literary montage style of the Surrealists to evoke life in nineteenth-century France. He was inspired by Aragon’s reverie Le Paysan de Paris, which had been published the previous year and which opens with an imaginary, dreamlike tour through the Passage de l’Opéra. He first mentions an essay on the Parisian arcades in 1928, in a letter to Scholem, where he writes that he is confident of finishing it in two weeks.

To everyone’s dismay, the Arcades Project absorbed Benjamin’s creative energies for the next thirteen years and at his death remained a chaotic ruin of notes, clippings, outlines, and fragmentary essays, all of which were miraculously preserved by Georges Bataille in the Bibliothèque Nationale during the war. English-speaking readers unable to wade through this thousand-page morass of material must rely on Benjamin’s last essays to get some sense of his aims. In one of the most important fragments of the Arcades Project, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin contrasts depleted modern experience (Erlebnis) with symbolically rich poetic experience (Erfahrung). He interprets Les Fleurs du mal as reflecting the disintegration of the material world’s “aura,” the symbolic associations that once permitted sacred objects to “return our gaze,” as Benjamin puts it. In his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) he had already analyzed how modern productive forces robbed artworks of their aura, detaching them from the human traditions out of which they had emerged. The Arcades Project would try to show more subtly how the bourgeois nineteenth century had replaced the aura of the material world with a dream world, a “phantasmagoria” subtly reflecting and compensating for the contradictions of capitalist society. It would be a history of bourgeois delusions.

As originally conceived, the Arcades Project would have been much closer to the studies of dreams, archetypes, and collective memory undertaken by Klages and his followers, who had already employed the term “aura” in their work. But it soon took on a different shape and quite grandiose proportions under the influence of Adorno. When the two men discussed the project in 1929, Adorno immediately saw it as a model of his new critical theory, “the one piece of prima philosophia which has been given to us.” He encouraged Benjamin to expand the project and to ground it more rigorously in Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish. Benjamin later called this meeting the end of his “rhapsodic naivetè” and resolutely began studying Marx, whose work he knew only at second hand through Lukàcs. By the beginning of 1930 he could write to Scholem that the Arcades Project was “the theater of all my conflicts and all my ideas.”

It became a theater of disillusionment. In 1935, in return for the Institute’s support, Benjamin dutifully submitted a clear and well-organized prospectus of his work in progress, which has been translated in Reflections as “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” In it he carefully outlined a new kind of social history capable of embracing architecture, manners, dress, interior design, literature, photography, city planning, and much more. Citing Michelet’s maxim that “each age dreams the next,” he imagined that this new history would teach us “to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” This short essay has proven enormously influential among contemporary historians, who by now have produced a vast, if dubious, literature on the collective unconscious of the nineteenth century along Benjamin’s lines.

To read through the copious material of the Arcades project, though, is a morbid experience. It seems less a study of the ruins of bourgeois life than the ruins of an intellectual’s last productive years. The thirty-six files of quotations and aphorisms—on fashion, boredom, steel construction, prostitution, the stock exchange, the history of sects, and so on—are occasionally revealing, often funny, but generally repetitive and even dull. Yet they have been treated with all the solemnity due Pascal’s Pensées by academic Benjaminians, who have made heroic exertions to restore this unwritten, unwritable work.

Some responsibility for the wreck of the Arcades Project must be assigned to Adorno, who in a series of long letters forced Benjamin to reconceive the project again and again. The letters make clear, however, that Adorno genuinely believed he was saving his friend from himself. Adorno, who saw the Arcades Project as a potential model for secular critical theory about bourgeois culture, worried to see it oscillating in Benjamin’s hands between a vitalistic mysticism and a simple-minded Marxism. Adorno rejected the 1935 prospectus on the grounds that it was “undialectical” and that Benjamin was still “under the spell of bourgeois psychology.” The letter is replete with such convoluted objections as “Haussmann’s class consciousness inaugurates the explosion of the phantasmagoria precisely through the perfection of the commodity character in Hegelian self-consciousness.” Later that month Benjamin replied in a sad, self-deprecatory letter (to Gretel, not Theodor), agreeing with most of the criticisms and promising to do better next time.

During the next four years, in return for his monthly payment from the Institute, Benjamin wrote regularly for the Zeitschrift, frequently on subjects that held little interest for him. Meanwhile the Arcades Project grew more and more out of control, even as his personal situation became increasingly precarious. In 1938, as Europe prepared for war, Benjamin submitted an enormous manuscript on Baudelaire as a miniature model of the Arcades book, only to encounter the same objections that Adorno had raised in 1935. “Let me express myself in as simple and Hegelian manner as possible,” Adorno begins, without a trace of irony. He complained that Benjamin had drawn too direct a connection between the tax on wine and Baudelaire’s poem about wine, in what Adorno calls “an unmediated and even causal manner.” Adorno then added, unhelpfully, that “the materialistic determination of cultural characteristics is possible only when mediated by the total [social] process.” Benjamin was devastated, more letters were exchanged, and a much revised version of the essay was finally published in the Zeitschrift in 1939 as “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.”

Though Gershom Scholem later collaborated with Adorno on republishing Benjamin’s works, he always regretted Benjamin’s association with the Frankfurt School, as did Hannah Arendt. While both were thankful to the Institute for supporting Benjamin financially, neither believed that Marxist critical theory was a meaningful enterprise, or that the term adequately described what was truly important about Benjamin’s writings. And although Benjamin appreciated Adorno’s mind, one senses in his letters a frustration with the editorial constraints imposed by Adorno and Horkheimer, which was exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that his relation with the Institute was based on financial obligation.

We shall never know whether Benjamin’s thought would eventually have developed more in Adorno’s direction, fulfilling the latter’s hope for a new secular, dialectical aesthetics. In the fall of 1939 Benjamin was interned in a French camp for enemy aliens as the drôle de guerre began. He spent the next year desperately seeking an American visa while rejecting his former wife’s pleas to join her in England. In May 1940 the Germans attacked France, and in June Benjamin fled, first to Lourdes, then to Marseilles. In August he finally received a visa with Horkheimer’s help but failed to find a departing ship. Near the end of September he tried to cross the Pyrenees with a group of refugees, only to be turned back by Spanish border guards at Port Bou. That night he took an overdose of morphine and died. The next day the rest of the group made safe passage across the frontier.


Several months after Benjamin’s suicide Hannah Arendt managed to escape from France to Spain. When she passed through Port Bou, she stopped to look for her friend’s grave but could find no trace of it. In her baggage, however, she carried a trace of the man. It was a short essay, a sort of intellectual last will and testament entitled “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Benjamin had given her just before his attempted flight. His expressed wish was that the essay not be published, but when Adorno received the manuscript, he decided it was too important to remain in private hands. It was first printed by the Institute in a mimeographed memorial tribute to Benjamin in 1942, and has since become one of the most controversial of his writings.

The “Theses” reflect Benjamin’s apocalyptic vision of European politics in the late Thirties and his disappointment with communism’s betrayal in the Hitler-Stalin pact. He had remained stubbornly, irresponsibly silent about the Moscow show trials in the Thirties, and throughout the decade could not bring himself to criticize Stalin publicly, even after Asja Lacis had been condemned to the gulag. But Stalin’s pact with the devil finally shattered any illusions he may have had about communism’s redemptive mission. In the Twenties Benjamin had played with the ideas of divine violence, radical decisionism, and political nihilism; in the early Thirties he could still idealize the frenzy of what he called “the destructive character.” But now the real apocalypse approached, bringing with it satanic violence, not the Messiah.

At a deeper level, the “Theses” represent the last dramatic encounter between Benjamin’s theological metaphysics and his historical materialism. The essay opens with an image of the philosophy of history as a chess game, which a puppet called historical materialism can win only “if it enlists the services of theology, which today,” he says, “is wizened and has to keep out of sight.” And what can materialism learn from theology? Essentially that the idea of historical progress is an illusion, that history is nothing but a series of catastrophes piling wreckage upon wreckage, reaching up to the heavens. The members of the working class had been corrupted by the idea of progress, which blinded them to the regressive social consequences that accompanied increased domination of the natural world. They were lulled into ignoring the “state of emergency” caused by the rising forces of fascism, and failed to respond. Materialism must now withdraw with “monastic discipline” from this belief in a progressive historical continuum, replacing it with a conception of history closer to that of traditional Judaism, which believed that “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” As Scholem later remarked, nothing remains of historical materialism in this hermetic text but the term itself.

Scholem’s interpretation of Benjamin as a “theologian marooned in the realm of the profane” has for years proved a stumbling block to Marxists and critical theorists anxious to appropriate this curious thinker’s legacy for their own purposes. Recently, as interest in Germany’s lost Jewish culture has grown, there has been less reluctance to recognize theological elements in his work. A somewhat hazy consensus has emerged in German criticism, to the effect that Benjamin’s secularization left him “torn” between the sacred and profane, the metaphysical and material. As a result of this fundamental conflict in his thought, he now seems an important part of the German philosophical tradition, which has been torn between these principles ever since Kant.

But even this consensus fails to appreciate fully what Scholem’s insight into Benjamin has to teach us. Whatever Scholem’s illusions about Benjamin’s wavering intentions to learn Hebrew or to emigrate to Palestine, he correctly saw in Benjamin the modern incarnation of the type of thinker who cannot be understood apart from traditional religious distinctions. For genuine materialists, there can be no real tension between the sacred and profane, only between illusion and enlightenment. But for the theologically attuned this tension will continue to exist as long as we must find our way in a fallen world. They may cope with it by living within law and tradition, or they may try to abolish the tension altogether. Of these, some withdraw into an otherworldly mysticism or esotericism, some throw themselves fully into the world in hopes of redeeming it with a new law, a new gospel, or a new social order. Others, like Benjamin, flirt promiscuously with both possibilities, remaining a riddle to themselves and to all who encounter them.

This Issue

May 25, 1995