Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (b. 15 July 1892–d. 27 September 1940) was a 20th-century literary critic, theorist, and essayist. Benjamin’s collected writings are heterogeneous in topic and approach. They include works that experiment with different styles of writing, including his pioneering use of montage technique. He also wrote journalistic essays, fragmentary prose pieces, and traditional scholarly topic-based essays. His studies of literature and art include celebrated pieces on Romanticism, Goethe, Baudelaire, and the figure of the storyteller. His work is notable for the way it describes the impact on human experience of the accelerated erosion of tradition in modernity. Although he was respected and known to a small intellectual circle in his lifetime, the impressive reputation his writings enjoy is largely posthumous. His work cannot be extracted from the difficulties of the historical period and personal circumstances in which he lived. Following the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, Benjamin lived in exile from his native Germany. He first spent time in Ibiza, Spain, in 1932, then Nice, France, before finally moving to Paris in 1933. He had three stints at Bertolt Brecht’s house in Svendborg, Denmark (he last visited Brecht in 1938), and short breaks to conserve his finances in San Remo, Italy with his ex-wife, Dora, who eventually sought refuge, along with their son, Stefan, in Great Britain. Following the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 and the German invasion of Poland in September, Benjamin was interned in a camp for two months in France as a German “citizen,” although the German state had revoked his German citizenship in May of the same year. Stateless and, as war engulfed Europe, vulnerable as a Jew to deportation to a German concentration camp, his friends only managed to obtain a visa for him to the United States in August 1940. He was ultimately unable, however, to secure safe passage from Europe. Benjamin fled with other refugees across the Pyrenees to the Franco-Spanish border in September 1940. Held back at the border town of Port Bou without the requisite exit visa from France, Benjamin took his life with a massive dose of morphine. The next day the border was opened to the refugees. He is buried in Port Bou.
The most widely read introductions to Benjamin’s writing provide broadly chronological and reasonably comprehensive discussions of his work, and generally give some account of the important friendships and intellectual influences on his writing. There are three essays that stand out for the general picture they give of Benjamin’s thought. Their competence with its range and technical difficulties has made each of these standard essays in the literature. Arendt 1968 looks at episodes of Benjamin’s extraordinary bad luck, such as the closure of the Franco-Spanish border on the day he attempted to cross it. Arendt’s essay is a tour de force in its combination of the personal and the philosophical, and it is written in her characteristically lucid style. Habermas 1991 succinctly characterizes the mode and the mood of criticism in Benjamin’s writing as one of “rescuing” the past. Habermas refers to the wide and unusual circle of friends in Benjamin’s life as part of the diverse ecology that has driven successive waves of interpretation. Among the friends of Benjamin, Habermas mentions members of the French College of Sociology like Bataille and Leiris, surrealists like Louis Aragon, the expert on Jewish mysticism and theology Gershom Scholem, as well as Frankfurt School members Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Steiner 1998 puts forward the view that Benjamin’s oeuvre is not systematic and that his relation to the philosophical tradition is that of a magpie, highly selective and bent to his own purposes. This reading of Benjamin, which emphasizes his idiosyncrasies, has recently been contested by scholarship that scrupulously treats the consistent philosophical influences on his thinking (see Specific Approaches: Philosophy for the critical literature relevant to this topic). Steiner’s essay is important, however, because it elucidates what until very recently was the prevailing image of Benjamin: a literary thinker who had an eccentric relation to philosophically evocative concepts like Leibniz’s “monad.” Steiner’s “Introduction” is the preface to the English translation of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which is one of Benjamin’s most important early works. The “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” to this book elaborates many of the key ideas of Benjamin’s thinking, and Steiner’s “Introduction” gives an overview of ideas of considerable significance for his subsequent intellectual itinerary. In addition to these three important essays, there are a number of impressive recent book-length overviews, including Ferris 2008, Leslie 2007, and Steiner 2012. Ferris provides a scholarly overview of Benjamin’s important pieces of writing and his intellectual development, and he includes detailed bibliographies of scholarship on Benjamin in English. Steiner provides synoptic chapters on Benjamin’s influences and contemporary reception. The focus of the book is the rigorous analysis of the major works of the corpus. Steiner’s analysis emphasizes the philosophical core of Benjamin’s writing. Leslie’s accessible study weaves biographical detail into a chronological account of significant pieces of Benjamin’s writing. She argues against some of the received ideas of Benjamin as a lonely and isolated figure, stressing instead the important intellectual relationships and friendships in his life. This is a constant refrain in biographical treatments of Benjamin (see Biographical Context and Criticism for critical literature in this category). Leslie argues that Benjamin’s writing requires us to revise what is pertinent for a biographical study, since his writing gives lucid form to an epoch and thus provides the historical framework for understanding his life. She identifies his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (Benjamin 2002, cited under Important Works: Writing in Exile, 1933–1940) as his most influential piece of writing. Her study is unusual among other overviews for the weight it gives to his radio productions. Habermas’s and Uwe Steiner’s texts were originally published in German. Although shorter than these studies, Osborne and Charles 2015 is a succinct account of the important periods of Benjamin’s thinking. It provides solid analysis of specific works of Benjamin’s, most notably of the composition and major themes of The Arcades Project (Benjamin 1999, cited under Monographs). Finally, Gilloch 2002 provides a good introduction to Benjamin’s life and corpus by focusing on his early notion of criticism. Gilloch analyzes the way that criticism fosters an afterlife for the works it considers.
Arendt, Hannah. “Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. By Walter Benjamin. Edited by H. Arendt, 1–59. Translated by H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Arendt argues that Benjamin’s writing is indebted to the influence of Goethe’s notion of the Ur-phenomenon, which drove Benjamin’s fascination with small things evocative of a greater whole. She cites his intense interest in the grain of wheat in the Musée Cluny engraved with the Shema Israel in support of this interpretation. Her essay is published as the introduction to the first English-language edition of Benjamin’s writing.
Ferris, David S. The Cambridge Introduction to Walter Benjamin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
The strength of Ferris’s study is the focus on the specifically literary and literary-theoretical dimensions of Benjamin’s work. In addition to providing expert analysis of specific essays of Benjamin’s, Ferris’s book documents aspects of Benjamin’s life in prewar Germany, the complex relations he had with members of the Frankfurt School, and the influence his writing has had in different disciplines.
Gilloch, Graeme. Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations. London: Polity, 2002.
Gilloch’s study is especially useful for students of film and media theory. It focuses on Benjamin’s early notion of criticism and connects this to his writing on film and photography. It gives a clear overview of many of Benjamin’s texts and defends the continuing relevance of his conception and practice of criticism.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique.” In On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Edited by Gary Smith, 90–129. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991.
Translation of “Bewußtmachende oder rettende Kritik—die Aktualität Walter Benjamins,” in Zur Aktualität Walter Benjamins, edited by Siegfried Unseld (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 173–223. Habermas’s essay is important because it is one of the few attempts to show how different aspects of the seemingly heterogeneous corpus fit together and how the corpus stands apart from the main lines of those competing to claim influence over his thinking. In particular, Habermas’s essay is one of the first published discussions of Benjamin’s now celebrated early piece “Critique of Violence” (“Zur Kritik der Gewalt”; see Specific Approaches: Deconstruction for further treatment of the critical literature on this essay).
Leslie, Esther. Walter Benjamin. London: Reaktion, 2007.
Like Uwe Steiner, Leslie argues that Benjamin’s significance lies in his acute grasp of the significance of technological changes for human experience. She is critical of the speculative bent in some Benjamin scholarship and the uneasy reception of the Marxist currents in his work in North American scholarship. Her book thus adds a critical account of the styles of successive waves of Benjamin interpretation to its account of his thinking.
Osborne, Peter, and Mathew Charles. “Walter Benjamin.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.
This long entry on Benjamin treats in detail his interest in Baudelaire, and his changing position on the relation between art and technology. It also supplements the commentary it provides on Adorno with attention to Benjamin’s intellectual relations with Brecht. The strength of the piece is the historical map it provides of the evolution of The Arcades Project. The entry includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Benjamin.
Steiner, George. “Introduction.” In The Origin of German Tragic Drama. By Walter Benjamin. Translated by John Osborne, 7–25. London: Verso, 1998.
Steiner argues that Benjamin’s book on German tragic drama was a missed opportunity, since it did not manage to establish scholarly interaction with members of the Warburg School, including Erwin Panofsky. Steiner considers that the Warburg School would have provided better-suited intellectual interlocutors for Benjamin’s range of interests than the members of the Frankfurt School, who, under the force of their financial patronage and control of valuable publishing outlets, which were very limited during Benjamin’s period in exile, sought to shape his last period of writing.
Steiner, Uwe. Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to his Work and Thought. Translated by Michael Winkler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Translation of Walter Benjamin (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2004). Aside from the benefits of its analysis of Benjamin’s writing, this book includes a detailed chronology and bibliography. These are useful tools for gaining a picture of the evolution of Benjamin’s interests alongside the changing pattern of its reception. The focus of Steiner’s account is on the treatment of technological innovations in modernity and their impact on experience. For Steiner this is the continuous theme across the corpus.
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