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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin
Full name Walter Benjamin
Born 15 July 1892(1892-07-15)
Berlin, German Empire
Died 27 September 1940 (aged 48)
Portbou, Catalonia, Spain
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophers
School Western Marxism, Frankfurt School
Main interests Literary theory, Aesthetics, Technology, Epistemology, Philosophy of language, Philosophy of history

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (15 July 1892 â 27 September 1940) was a German intellectual (philosopher, sociologist, literary critic, translator, essayist) occasionally associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. His sociologic and cultural critical thought, combining historical materialism, German idealism, and Jewish mysticism, proved a novel contribution to aesthetic theory and to Western Marxism. As a literary critic, his most famous essays are about Charles Baudelaire (1821â67), coiner of the term Modernism; as a translator he produced the Tableaux Parisiens edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), by Baudelaire, and À la recherche du temps perdu (1913â27), by Marcel Proust (1871â1922).

His turning to Marxism in the 1930s, resulted from the influence of playwright friend Bertolt Brecht, whose critical aesthetics developed the Verfremdungseffekt (emotional distancing of the spectator). An earlier influence was friend Gershom Scholem, founder of the academic study of the Kabbalah and of Jewish mysticism. Intellectually influenced by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815â87), Walter Benjamin coined the term âauratic perceptionâ, denoting the æsthetic faculty via which civilization would recover appreciation of myth.[1] Contemporarily, Benjamin's work is oft-cited in academic and literary studies, especially the essays The Task of the Translator (1923) and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936).

Contents

[edit] Life

Walter Benjamin and his younger brother, Georg (1895â1942), and younger sister, Dora (1901â46), were born to a wealthy business family in the Berlin of the German Empire (1871â1918). The patriarch, Emil Benjamin, was a banker in Paris who relocated from France to Germany, where he worked as an antiques trader in Berlin; he later married Pauline Schönflies. In 1902, ten-year-old Walter was enrolled to the Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg; he completed his secondary school studies ten years later. Personally, Walter Benjamin was a boy of fragile health, so, in 1905, the family sent him to boarding school in the Thuringian countryside, for two years; in 1907, returned to Berlin, his schooling resumed at the Kaiser Friedrich School.

In 1912, at the age of twenty, he enrolled at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, but, at summer semester's end, returned to Berlin, then matriculated into the Humboldt University of Berlin, to continue studying philosophy. Elected president of the Freie Studentenschaft (Free Students Association), Benjamin wrote essays arguing for educational and general cultural change.[2] When not re-elected as student association president, he returned to Freiburg University, and studied, with particular attention to the lectures of Heinrich Rickert; in that time he travelled to France and Italy.

In 1914, as Germany and France fought each other in the First World War (1914â18), the intellectual Walter Benjamin began faithfully translating the works of the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821â67). The next year, 1915, he moved to Munich, and continued his schooling at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem; the latter became a friend. In that year, Benjamin wrote about the 18th-century Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770â1843).

In 1917 he transferred to the University of Bern; there, he met Ernst Bloch, and Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890â1964), whom he later married, and they had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918â72). In 1919 Benjamin earned his doctoral degree cum laude with the dissertation essay Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism). Later, unable to support himself and family, the Benjamins returned to Berlin, and resided with his parents; in 1921, he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (The Critique of Violence).

In 1923, when the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) was founded, and later became home to the Frankfurt School, he published Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens. In that time he became acquainted with Theodor Adorno and befriended Georg Luk¡cs, whose The Theory of the Novel (1920) much influenced him. Meanwhile, the inflation in the Weimar Republic, consequent to the First World War, made it difficult for the businessman Emil Benjamin to continue supporting his intellectual son's family, Walter, Dora, and Stefan. At year's end of 1923, his best friend, Gershom Scholem, emigrated to Palestine, a country ruled under the British Mandate of Palestine; despite repeated invitations, he failed to persuade Walter Benjamin (and family) to leave the Continent for the Middle East.

In 1924, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge magazine, published Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (Goetheâs Elective Affinities), by Walter Benjamin, about Goetheâs third novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809). Later that year, Benjamin and Ernst Bloch resided in the Italian island of Capri; Benjamin wrote Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), as an habilitation dissertation meant to qualify him as a university instructor in Germany. He also read, at Blochâs suggestion, History and Class Consciousness (1923), by Georg Luk¡cs. In the event, he also met the Latvian Bolshevik and actress Asja Läcis, then residing in Moscow; she became his lover and was a lasting intellectual influence upon him.

A year later, in 1925, the Goethe University Frankfurt, at Franfurt am main, rejected The Origin of German Tragic Drama as Benjaminâs qualification for the habilitation teaching credential; he was not to be an academic instructor. Working with Franz Hessel (1880â1941), he translated the first volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), by Marcel Proust. The next year, 1926, he began writing for the German newspapers Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt Times) and Die Literarische Welt (The Literary World), that paid enough for him to reside in Paris for some months. In December 1926 (the year his father, Emil Benjamin, died), Walter Benjamin went to Moscow to meet Asja Läcis, and found her ill, in a sanatorium.[3]

In 1927, he began Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), his incompleted magnum opus, a study of 19th-century Parisian life. The same year, he saw Gershom Scholem in Berlin, for the last time, and considered emigrating from Continental Europe (Germany) to Palestine. In 1928, he and Dora separated, then divorced two years later, in 1930; he published Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), and a revision of his habilitation dissertation Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama). In 1929 Berlin, Asja Läcis, then assistant to Bertolt Brecht, socially presented the intellectuals to each other. In that time, he also briefly embarked upon an academic career, as an instructor at the University of Heidelberg.

In 1932, during the turmoil preceding Adolf Hitlerâs assumption of the office of Chancellor of Germany, Walter Benjamin left Germany for the Spanish island of Ibiza, there residing some months; he then moved to Nice, where he considered killing himself. Perceiving the socio-political and cultural significance of the Reichstag fire (27 February 1933) as the de facto Nazi assumption of full power in Germany, then manifest with the subsequent persecution of the Jews, he moved to Paris, but, before doing so, he sought shelter in Svendborg, at Bertold Brecht's house, and at Sanremo, where lived his ex-wife Dora.

As he ran out of money, Benjamin collaborated with Max Horkheimer, and received funds from the Institute for Social Research, then relocated from Germany to the US, at Columbia University, in New York City, New York. In Paris, he met other German artists and intellectuals refuged there from Germany; he befriended Hannah Arendt, novelist Hermann Hesse, and composer Kurt Weill. In 1936, L'Åuvre d'Art à l'Époque de sa Reproductibilité Technique (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1926) was first published, in French, by Max Horkheimer in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung journal of the Institute for Social Research.

Walter Benjamin

In 1937 Benjamin worked on Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire), met Georges Bataille (to whom he later entrusted the Arcades Project manuscript), and joined the College of Sociology. In 1938 he paid a last visit to Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Denmark. Meanwhile, the Nazi Régime stripped German Jews of their German citizenship; now a stateless man, the French government arrested and for three months incarcerated Walter Benjamin in a prison camp near Nevers, in central Burgundy.

Returning to Paris in January 1940, he wrote Über den Begriff der Geschichte (Theses on the Philosophy of History). As the Wehrmacht defeated the French defence, on 13 June, Benjamin and his sister fled Paris to the town of Lourdes, just a day before the Germans entered Paris (14 June 1940), with orders to arrest him at his flat. In August, he obtained a travel visa to the US, that Max Horkheimer had negotiated him. In eluding the Gestapo, Benjamin planned to travel to the US from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach by traversing Gen. Francoâs fascist Spain, then ostensibly a neutral country.

The historical record indicates he safely crossed the Franco-Hispanic border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, on the costa brava. Yet, the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined. Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of 25 September 1940, yet the official Portbou register records 26 September 1940 as the official date of death.[4]

[edit] Works

The most important of Walter Benjaminâs works are:

Benjamin saw in it the "Angel of History", in the Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee, 1920.

Walter Benjamin corresponded much with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht, and was occasionally funded by the Frankfurt School under the direction of Adorno and Horkheimer, even from their New York City residence. The competing influences â Brechtâs Marxism, Adornoâs critical theory, Gerschom Scholemâs Jewish mysticism â were central to his work, although their philosophic differences remained unresolved. Moreover, the critic Paul de Man argued that the intellectual range of Benjaminâs writings flows dynamically among those three intellectual traditions, deriving a critique via juxtaposition; the exemplar synthesis is "On the Concept of History" (Theses on the Philosophy of History).

The ninth thesis in the essay âTheses on the Philosophy of Historyâ presents:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

[edit] The Origin of German Tragic Drama

The Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928), is the theoretic and empirical analysis of German politics and culture during the Counter-Reformation (1545â1648), via the critical study of the 18th-century theatrical Trauerspiel (Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, Bourgeois Tragedy) genre, that Walter Benjamin in 1925 presented to the University of Franfurt as the (post-doctoral) dissertation meant to earn him the Habilitation (qualification) to become a university instructor in Germany.

An EpistemoâCritical Prologue establishes the dissertationâs philosophic purpose: the combination, development, and synthesis of elements from (i) the Platonic theory of ideas; (ii) the Hegelian historical sublation (Aufheben); and (iii) the Leibnizian monad. By encapsulating the one within the other, the Platonic idea (form) exists as an historical instantiation, yet only in the monadic (unitary) sense. To wit, the study of an æsthetic object is the study of its monad and its historical development; therefore, when said æsthetic object (monad) is placed within a group of related objects (constellation), the juxtaposition reveals the historical development of the idea represented by the æsthetic object. Hence, by extension, in the Trauerspiel proper, what apparently is an ahistorical accumulation of narrative fragments, is, instead, an historical narrative.

The précis of The Origin of German Tragic Drama is: âthe baroque knows no eschatology, and, for that very reason, it has no mechanism by which it gathers all earthly things together and exalts them before consigning them to their end.â The dissertation is two-fold; the first part distinguishes between tragedy (trauer) and Trauerspiel, by analysing and establishing previous interpretations as precursors to The Origin of German Tragic Drama; the second part establishes the relation between allegory and symbolism â and how allegory might progress to a modified Platonic notion of the idea of Bürgerliches Trauerspiel (Bourgeois Tragedy).

The distinction between tragedy and Trauerspiel is in their conceptions of time; the tragedy is eschatological, because its plot progresses to a defined ending, wherein the story and the characters are fatalistically resolved; the Trauerspiel occurs in physical space, whilst time perpetually extends towards the promised (but unknown) âLast Judgementâ, thereby paralysing the characters to inaction, able only to await judgement â thus, there is no catastrophe (dramatic resolution), because there is no sense of time elapsed; therefore, in the Bourgeois Tragedy, time is space. Moreover, unlike the narrative structure of conventional dramaturgy, part of what makes Trauerspiele (tragedy plays) inscrutable is that their relationship to history only is occasionally allegorical, i.e. Bourgeois Tragedy presents fragments of history that were not synthesized as a coherent (historical) narrative. Yet, when staged, the historical fragments do not remain denotative in relation to history (wherein they narrate history), because their spatial (spaceâtime) relationships with the constellation (group) containing them, reveal a true idea of history.

In the changing political climate of German society in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin expected that the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928) would culturally relate to the German belief in political and historical progress, by demonstrating the intellectual futility of raw historicism, and, like-wise, demonstrating that in the Trauerspiel the resuscitation of historical object and fact is infeasible. In the event, the abstruse (theoretically complex and referentially obscure) dissertation proved unaccessible to its academic judges when submitted for earning the Habilitation for Benjamin to be officially granted venia legendi (permission for lecturing). Professor Schultz of University of Frankfurt found The Origin of German Tragic Drama inappropriate for his Germanistik department (of German Language and Literature), and passed it to the department of æsthetics (philosophy of art), the readers of which department like-wise dismissed his dissertation. In the event, in 1925, the University (among them Max Horkheimer) recommended to Walter Benjamin that he withdraw Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel as an Habilitation dissertation, and avoid formal rejection and concomitant public embarrassment; he abided the advice, and three years later, in 1928, he published The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a book. [5]

[edit] The Arcades Project

The Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927â40), was Walter Benjaminâs final, incomplete book about Parisian city life in the 19th century, especially about the Passages couverts de Paris the covered passages that extended the culture of flânerie (idling and people-watching) when inclement weather made flânerie infeasible in the boulevards and streets proper.

[edit] Writing style

Susan Sontag said that in Walter Benjaminâs writing, sentences did not originate ordinarily, do not progress into one another, and delineate no obvious line of reasoning, as if each sentence âhad to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyesâ, a âfreeze-frame baroqueâ style of writing and cogitation. âHis major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destructâ.[6] The difficulty of Benjamin's writing style is essential to his philosophical project. Fascinated by notions of reference and constellation, his goal in later works was to use intertexts to reveal aspects of the past that cannot, and should not, be understood within greater, monolithic constructs of historical understanding.

Walter Benjaminâs writings identify him as a modernist for whom the philosophic merges with the literary: logical philosophic reasoning cannot account for all experience, especially not for self-representation via art. He presented his stylistic concerns in The Task of the Translator, wherein he posits that a literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. Moreover, in the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original, source-language text are elucidated, while previously obvious aspects become unreadable. Such translational mortification of the source text is productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities, between historical objects, appear and are productive of philosophical truth.

[edit] Death

Walter Benjamin's grave in Portbou

Benjamin committed suicide in Portbou at the Spanish-French border, while attempting to escape from the Nazis. The party he was with were told they would be denied passage across the border, which would have been a step towards freedom (Benjamin's ultimate goal was the United States). While staying in the Hotel de Francia, he apparently took some morphine pills and died on the night of 27/28 September 1940.[7][8] The fact that he was buried in the consecrated section of a Roman Catholic cemetery would indicate that his death was not announced as a suicide. The other persons in his party were allowed passage the next day, and safely reached Lisbon on 30 September. A manuscript copy of Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" was passed to Adorno by Hannah Arendt, who crossed the French-Spanish border at Portbou a few months later, and was subsequently published by the Institute for Social Research (temporarily relocated in New York) in 1942.

A completed manuscript, which Benjamin had carried in his suitcase, disappeared after his death and has not been recovered. Some critics speculate that it was his Arcades Project in a final form; this is very unlikely as the author's plans for the work had changed in the wake of Adorno's criticisms in 1938, and it seems clear that the work was flowing over its containing limits in his last years. As the last finished piece of work we have from Benjamin, the Theses on the Philosophy of History (noted above) is often cited; Adorno claimed this had been written in the spring of 1940, weeks before the Germans invaded France. While this is not completely certain, it is clearly one of his last works, and the final paragraph, about the Jewish quest for the Messiah provides a harrowing final point to Benjamin's work, with its themes of culture, destruction, Jewish heritage and the fight between humanity and nihilism. He brings up the interdiction, in some varieties of Judaism, to try to determine the year when the Messiah would come into the world, and points out that this did not make Jews indifferent to the future "for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."

[edit] Legacy

Since the publication of Schriften (Writings, 1955), fifteen years after his death, the work of Walter Benjamin, especially the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), is of seminal importance to academics in the humanities disciplines, e.g. in the work of Michael Chanan. The essay's prescience is more notable in the 21st century, wherein mechanical reproduction and its consequences upon art surpassed what Benjamin foresaw, thus his insights to Modernism illuminate the field in a time when pseudo-intellectual obscurantism threatens.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ p. 170, "The Reconciliation of Myth: Benjamin's Homage to Bachofen". Mali, Joseph. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 60, No. 1. (January 1999) pp. 165-87
  2. ^ Experience, 1913
  3. ^ Moscow Diary
  4. ^ Jay, Martin The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923â1950.
  5. ^ Introducing Walter Benjamin, Howard Cargill, Alex Coles, Andrey Klimowski, 1998, p. 112
  6. ^ Susan Sontag Under the Sign of Saturn, p. 129.
  7. ^ Leslie, Esther (2000). "Benjamin's Finale". Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism. Modern European Thinkers. Pluto Press. p. 215. ISBN 9780745315683. http://books.google.com/books?id=FXUN34lH-jgC&pg=PA215. Retrieved August 28, 2009. 
  8. ^ Lester, David (2005). "Suicide to Escape Capture: Cases". Suicide and the Holocaust. Nova Publishers. p. 74. ISBN 9781594544279. http://books.google.com/books?id=R1nkj-xSzYgC&pg=PA74. Retrieved August 28, 2009. 

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