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 Fewer still—only his closest friends—were acquainted with the unpublished writing that included some of his most profound thought.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.”
In this way, Benjamin viewed the seventeenth-century drama as opening a prospect onto a very modern scene of spiritual emptiness and confusion. As Eiland and Jennings put it:
On the stage of the Trauerspiel, the allegorical objects appear as ruin and rubble—and so open for the spectator a prospect onto a history from which the false glimmer of categories such as totality, coherence, and progress has been stripped away.
Benjamin’s ability to locate in the buried past a semblance of the present, to retrieve meaning from what appears obsolete, was never more successfully engaged. Yet he failed to cultivate the connections required for academic success, and the book he produced was so brilliantly idiosyncratic that when he presented it to the philosophy faculty of the University of Frankfurt, the assigned reader could not make heads or tails of it. “For the rest of his life,” Eiland and Jennings write, Benjamin resented the “pedantry, pettiness, and prejudice that robbed him of his degree.”
His years as a student and would-be professor saw him produce some of his most important and difficult work, from the 1916 essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” to his long study of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. But much of this writing remained unknown: the Goethe essay didn’t come out in print until 1924, when Hugo von Hofmannsthal took an interest in it, and the language essay had to wait until after Benjamin’s death to be published. “By late 1922,” Eiland and Jennings point out, “his published output since the days of the youth movement eight years earlier was precisely three slender articles.”
Had Benjamin found a way to survive in the academy, his work might well have continued to take the form of long essays and book-length studies of the history of literature. It’s possible that these were the forms best suited to his native genius, which was at heart a theological genius. This becomes particularly clear in an essay like “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” which sets forth an explicitly mystical conception of language as a form of divinely mediated exchange between God, men, and things:
There is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is in the nature of all to communicate their mental meanings.
This conception of language has an affinity with traditional Jewish mysticism, as do other elements of Benjamin’s work, down to the overt messianism of his last essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Just how Benjamin gained access to this kabbalistic tradition is a good question; certainly it was not at home, where he had virtually no Jewish education. The usual answer is that he learned about it from Scholem, who in the years of his friendship with Benjamin was making himself into the twentieth century’s leading scholar of Jewish mysticism. But Eiland and Jennings note in passing that, as early as the mid-1910s, Benjamin acquired a set of the collected works of Franz von Baader, the early-nineteenth-century Catholic theologian whose own mystical thought was partly inspired by the Kabbalah. While they do not pursue the point, it seems likely that this was one of the roundabout channels by which Benjamin made contact with the tradition of his ancestors.
In the mid-1920s, however, a series of personal and public events turned Benjamin’s career onto a new path. The economic chaos of the Weimar Republic meant that Benjamin’s father was increasingly unwilling to continue to finance his son’s studies. “I am determined to put an end to my dependence on my parents, no matter what,” Benjamin vowed, though his own little family—which now included a son, Stefan—continued to live rent-free in his parents’ house. The failure of his dissertation meant that his literary ambitions had to find a new channel. And in 1924, Benjamin met and fell in love with Asja Lacis, a Latvian Communist, who “represented for Benjamin a doorway into…Soviet culture.”
The confluence of these shocks meant that
beginning in 1924, he channeled his energies in precipitously new directions: toward contemporary culture—with an emphasis on popular forms and on what has been called everyday modernity—and…toward a career as a journalist and wide-ranging cultural critic.
Writing for publications like the Frankfurter Zeitung and Die literarische Welt, Benjamin turned his attention to contemporary literature—producing original essays on Kafka, Proust, Karl Kraus, Surrealism—and to aspects of modern mass culture—children’s toys, photography, film. Making use of the technique of Surrealist montage in his book of aphorisms, One-Way Street, Benjamin proved that his outer detachment had not prevented him from taking the measure of the age in the most intimate ways:
Warmth is ebbing from things. The objects of daily use gently but insistently repel us. Day by day, in overcoming the sum of secret resistances—not only the overt ones—that they put in our way, we have an immense labor to perform. We must compensate for their coldness with our warmth if they are not to freeze us to death…. The German spring that never comes is only one of countless related phenomena of decomposing German nature.
Here we seem to hear the essential Benjamin—the man who dwelled constantly on ruin, while never ruling out the possibility of redemption. But what form was redemption to take? In some of his most famous writing of the 1930s, Benjamin gives a Marxist answer to this question. Under the influence of Lacis and, later, Bertolt Brecht, who became a close friend, he came to envision the renewal of society and the world in revolutionary terms. This is especially notable in what is now probably his most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (or, to use the translation that has lately become current, “in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”).
Here Benjamin, who spent so much of his life in the reverential contemplation of artworks, denounces “outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery,” seeing them as incipiently fascist. Instead, he hails the cinema as a school of valuable “distraction,” which trains the viewer to deal with the shocks of modern life. Writing in 1936, Eiland and Jennings remind us, “under the advancing shadow of fascism,” Benjamin seems to commit himself wholeheartedly to a revolutionary liquidation of cultural tradition in the name of a democratic future.
It’s not surprising that Benjamin’s thinking in this vein alarmed Scholem, who wrote him letters from Jerusalem deploring his Marxist tendencies. More unexpected is what Eiland and Jennings reveal of the reactions of Max Horkheimer and other members of the Institut für Sozialforschung, which during his Paris exile represented Benjamin’s main source of financial support. Horkheimer, anxious to avoid any provocation that would cause the French government to view the exiled institute as too radical, warned Benjamin not to call openly for revolution in “The Work of Art.” The institute even struck the word “socialism” from the essay before it was published in its house journal.
The story of Benjamin’s intellectual development in the 1930s can be cast as a three-way struggle for his allegiance between Scholem, representing Judaism and Zionism; Adorno, representing a sophisticated cultural Marxism; and Brecht, who stood for a more engaged and straightforward communism. In this triangle, which mixed personal allegiances with ideological ones, the sympathies of Eiland and Jennings seem to lie with Brecht. For them, the Communist Benjamin was not a betrayal of the early theological Benjamin, but a valuable evolution. His biographers credit Benjamin with a greater tolerance for intellectual risk than some of his friends could accept: “It would be his fate…that not one of his friends and intellectual partners…would ever comprehend or even tolerate [the] ‘comprehensive and mobile whole’” of his intellectual convictions. As he wrote to Gretel Karplus, a close friend who would go on to become Adorno’s wife: “My life no less than my thought moves in extreme positions.”
The extremities of Benjamin’s life during the 1930s are movingly captured in these pages. Even before he was forced to leave Germany, Benjamin was an incurable itinerant, never spending too long at home in Berlin before he was seized by the urge to travel—to Moscow, Paris, Capri. This made him a poor father and husband, and his marriage to Dora, which was effectively dead by the early 1920s, ended formally in a bitter divorce in 1929–1930.
When Hitler took power, and publishers and editors began to cut off contact with their Jewish writers, Benjamin’s ability to support himself was devastated. From then on, his travels seem less like explorations than like the tossing and turning of an insomniac who can’t find a comfortable position—“a desperate longing to be anywhere but where he was.” There is something deeply poignant about the image of Benjamin in Ibiza, in the summer of 1933, squatting in a building under construction, with no plumbing or windowpanes: “By moving into these quarters,” he wrote a friend, “I have reduced what I need to live and my living expenses to a bare minimum, below which it would seem impossible to go.”
Perhaps his true home in these years was the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he did research on nineteenth-century Paris for his unfinishable study, The Arcades Project. This enterprise, first conceived in the 1920s as a brief “montage text combining aphorisms and anecdotal material on French society and culture of the mid-nineteenth century,” expanded over the following decade into an incomplete magnum opus. Taking as its focus the glass-enclosed shopping arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, the so-called Passagenwerk became a laboratory for Benjamin’s part-mystical, part-Surrealist, part-Marxist method of historical reconstruction. If he could assemble enough of the age’s symptomatic detritus—“advertisements…shop signs, business prospectuses, police reports, architectural plans, playbills, exhibition catalogues,” and so on—Benjamin hoped to achieve what Eiland and Jennings call “the redemption of the past in constellation with the now.”
Such a recuperation of the past was the constant goal of his critical writing, except that in The Arcades Project his target was no longer a novel by Goethe or seventeenth-century plays, but an entire society and historical epoch. Such a resurrection by images and fragments was perhaps unattainable by definition, and the chaotic conditions of Benjamin’s life in the 1930s made it certain that he could not impose order on his ever-expanding research archive. Instead, not unlike Pound’s Cantos, Benjamin’s Arcades Project—which was not published in English until 1999—achieved a kind of modernist grandeur in its very ruined incoherence.
Eiland and Jennings make a convincing case that Benjamin’s suicide in the fall of 1940 was not, as Arendt suggested, yet another of his blunders, but the natural outcome of a long struggle. Benjamin’s depression had led to him to seriously consider suicide as early as 1932, to the point of writing a will and several farewell letters to friends. When war was declared in September 1939, the ailing Benjamin was interned by the French government, along with many other exiles from Nazism, on the grounds that he was a German national. The two months he spent in “hunger, cold, filth and ‘constant din’” further taxed a system worn down by years of poverty. Yet a fellow prisoner described Benjamin in terms that show he was essentially unchanged. In the authors’ summary, he was “someone sunk so deeply into himself that he comes to be viewed by those around him as a kind of seer.”
By the time he tried to cross the Spanish border, the forty-eight-year-old Benjamin could barely manage the journey without suffering a heart attack. The news that the border was closed, it seems clear, was only the last straw, breaking his will to carry on with an increasingly difficult struggle. In accepting this death, Benjamin trusted to posterity to redeem his life and work from the obscurity in which they seemed destined to lie. Eiland and Jennings’s book is the latest vindication of that trust, and of the messianic principle Benjamin articulated in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption.”