“The essence of the mythical event is return.”
- W. B. from The Arcades Project
When Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Portbou, Spain in 1940, he was known to a certain part of the German-speaking intellectual world as an important literary critic. But at the time of his death, that world only existed in the most fugitive manner; the end of the Weimar Republic meant the practical disappearance of the intellectual milieu in which Benjamin had only a few years earlier begun to secure his reputation. In the first years after his death, his name continued to circulate among a few devoted friends, who for the most part were occupied with saving themselves. After the war, it became possible to think of redeeming the dead. Embedded in Benjamin’s last written words was a prophetic warning: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
The effort to redeem Walter Benjamin’s work met with many difficulties. From the moment of his death, controversy surrounded his remains and the manner in which they would be preserved. Each controversy evolved partially from the character of Benjamin’s relationships to those who would act as his redeemers and the “secretiveness that bordered on eccentricity” which he maintained among them. The myth of Benjamin that grew through their efforts at redemption enabled his work to eventually be published in its entirety in Germany, including his letters, notes, juvenilia, and uncompleted manuscripts, promising a kind of reputation reserved for few literary critics, seeming to enable Benjamin’s work to be received as if in the “fullness of its past...citable in all its moments.”
As new translations of Benjamin’s work continue to be issued in the English-speaking world, the longed for moment of redemption remains caught in the myths that were employed to attest to its enduring value and make its publication possible. If his ambivalent relationships to his redeemers, and their ambivalence toward each other, left residues on the theoretical interpretation of his work, the manner in which his biographical narrative would be reported by them would equally condition the quality of his reputation. The valorization of his work depended as much on the mythicization of his life--and his death--as on the work itself. It may be, in any case, that the tenuous antinomy between life and work--often challenged by the dictum that all criticism is autobiographical--will exhaust its usefulness in the examination of Benjamin, for whom it might be more appropriate to say that all life is criticism.
Having watched for several years as the political and social atmosphere of the country declined through the years of economic depression, Benjamin had begun planning his death as early as 1931. Two years before Hitler came to power and declared war on intellectuals in Germany, Benjamin made a trip to the Côte d’Azur with a few friends, including Bertolt Brecht, who had already succeeded in scandalizing the theater world in Germany a few years earlier. It was one of the countless trips to southern Europe that he made motivated by the “irresistible impulse to flee Germany.” During the trip Benjamin seriously contemplated suicide.
Always meticulous about writing materials, he devoted the last sheets of paper he had with him to writing a diary that summed up his personal struggles at the time. He speaks of being “tired of the struggle”: tired of the struggle for money; tired of his personal situation. A feeling of inward tranquility is accompanied by fatigue associated with memories from the past that cause him to be dissatisfied with his life. He relates this dissatisfaction to a sense of impotence regarding the “hopeless situation of cultural politics in Germany,” and complains about the factionalism with which those around him bitterly debate over differences that he considers of minimal substance. For reasons of professional solidarity, he writes, the uselessness of their differences are never exposed. He then adds: “to take the full measure of the ideas and impulses that preside over the writing of this diary, I need only hint at my growing willingness to take my own life.” A little later he imagines that the “handwritten marks of [his] destiny” have covered over the fact that his dearest wishes have in fact been granted. It is as if he envisioned a mystical force scribbling a fateful decree over his papers, forecasting dark events in the future that would eventually reveal the futility of his ever-growing accomplishments. This decree would come in the form of the revocation of his German passport. In his diary from 1931, he retrospectively imagines that a particular event marked a turning point in his life:
I have a very clear memory of the shock I received when I saw the headline in an evening paper in the hand of a woman selling newspapers on the corner of Friedrichsstrasse and Unter den Linden: “Ban on Foreign Travel.” A regulation had been issued restricting foreign travel to those people who were able to deposit a sum that was perhaps tenfold what I had available.
The event would seem to have a great importance for a writer who, despite the ban, would begin his career as a critic publishing travel diaries and reports on cultural developments in Italy, Russia, and France. In August 1931, he expresses uncertainty with regard to his plans to take his life. His desire is encumbered by doubts regarding the proper moment and location. In a journal entry that he titled “Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death” he begins by complaining of the rejection of a proposed book on Goethe, and writes:
if anything can strengthen still further the determination, indeed the peace of mind, with which I think of my intention, it must be the shrewd, dignified use to which I put my last days or weeks. Those just past leave a lot to be desired in this respect. Incapable of action, I just lay on the sofa and read. Frequently, I fell into so deep a reverie that I forgot to turn the page. I was mainly preoccupied with my plan, with wondering whether or not it was unavoidable, whether it should best be implemented here in the studio or back at the hotel, and so on.
It is unclear from his journals what prevented him from exercising his plan in 1931; his diaries trail off into literary reflections and never return to the subject of suicide. In the following years, the trail of notes, diaries, letters, articles, and unfinished manuscripts he produced almost seem to have been purposefully left for interpreters to retrospectively make sense of the suicide he was planning, although he cannot have anticipated the dramatic events that would eventually compell him to regard death as preferable to the future he was able to foresee. In November, 1931 he published an article on the “Destructive Character” in the Frankfurter Zeitung, consistently alluded to when the question of his suicide is discussed. Benjamin ended this almost aphoristic short essay on a type of personality clearly associated with his historical moment with the statement:
The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.
The sentence has often been quoted by those attempting to understand Benjamin’s personality, though he based the description on a close friend from the period who, unlike most of his acquaintances was neither an intellectual nor someone whose life was likely to be the object of interpretations for intellectual historians. In its immense quotability, the denseness of material held together in “authoritative sentences,” as his devoted friend Gershom Scholem called them, Benjamin’s life and work lent itself to being made to stand for something.
In July of the following year, Benjamin wrote a letter in which suicide still figures prominently in his thoughts to Scholem, who he had long considered the “protector of his career” because of the archive of his work that Scholem maintained. In the letter he went so far as to sum up his accomplishments and failures, and to anticipate which projects he would be unable to finish in his lifetime. Foremost among them was his philosophical history of Paris in the 19th century, which would occupy him throughout his exile after 1933.
If he was looking for a dramatic moment that would retrospectively illuminate his life’s work, the circumstances that led up to his death in Portbou left little to be desired. Despite having only the most limited control over the events that determined his ultimate decision to commit suicide in Portbou, such decisions as he was able to make under the extreme difficulties he faced at the end of his life served those who committed themselves to his memory with an abundance of anecdotes that would enable them to produce the aura of pathos around his intellectual career. The processes of historical recovery set in motion by the circumstances of his death have been regarded as a kind of immanent example of the practical implications of his intellectual work: the interventions of critics in the construction of his biographical narrative imitated his own obsession with the recovery of a past whose memory had been obscured by changing facades and new historical conditions.
Benjamin’s first posthumous acceptance began with a dramatization of his personal struggle against fascism, which was placed in the context of critical theory in Germany, then took on a more monumental aspect through Hannah Arendt’s appreciation in 1967. In the process, Benjamin’s biography became so closely tied to his ideas that his writings took on mythological significance. By enabling him to be referred to as a victim of National Socialism and fascism, his death and his rescue reinforced his work’s claim to represent the possibility of radical redemption for society. The danger, of which Benjamin shows an acute awareness in his writings on Goethe and Kafka, was that one’s work might be redeemed too cheaply. In Benjamin’s first major essay on a German literary subject, he attacked critics who were reducing Goethe to a nationalized monument to Germany. Some years later, when Kafka’s work was receiving a sanitized posthumous reception through Max Brod’s biography and criticism, Benjamin similarly attacked Brod’s writing for its sanctimony and bonhomie.
Though the story of Benjamin’s death and the survival of his manuscripts have remained compelling for intellectuals in Europe and in the West, its popular interest and its political implications for the contemporary world have remained limited by the biographical, historical, and theoretical contexts in which their interpretation originated, if not in the character of the writings themselves, despite repeated attempts to make larger claims for his work. It is all the more important, then, to attempt to distinguish what mattered to Benjamin during the period leading up to his death in Portbou from what mattered to his contemporaries after the war, and finally, to evaluate the manner in which his legacy is recreated for our time.
By documenting Benjamin’s posthumous rise from obscurity, this essay attempts to take seriously the critical concept of history in which the survival of culture is regarded as inseparable from violence. When the manner in which cultural phenomena receive value is treated historically, the ideas that serve to glorify them, such as “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” become empty advertising slogans for cultural achievements that in themselves merely testify to the impotence of human intelligence in the face of systemic forces. In posthumous fame, the barbaric aspect of culture is revealed not so much in the failed struggle of the writer to make his mark in the face of overwhelming forces, as by the process of valorization that occurs in his absence. Each of his posthumous victories comes with an expense; the more his work comes to be valued and the more his biography is supposed to reveal about the past, the more the assimilation of the past by the narratives of the present obscure the real losses suffered. The losses are transformed into victories, the wreckage is gradually recycled, packaged for international distribution, preserved in museums, used to boost tourism to the site of the ruins. Finally, the failed writer becomes merely another testament to an unbroken line of inheritance claimed by the imperial present. When Benjamin wrote, in his 1936 essay on the technological changes that were transforming the state into an ever-more effective tool to legitimate violence, that mankind’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order,” he was anticipating not only the naturalization of political violence, but also the ease with which the destruction of individuals would be assimilated, so long as their deaths could be made to represent something meaningful in culture.
The stateless man who died on the border of France and Spain is posthumously assigned a national and cultural identity, though the republic that he once belonged to, which stripped him of his passport before the end of his life, no longer exists; worse, he becomes a part of intellectual history. Benjamin henceforth appears as a cultural treasure of Western Europe; those who will study his life and work will be taught the importance of the historical moment in which all seemed to be lost. But a complete picture of the impetus behind his philosophical history would infinitely multiply the sorts of objects to be retrieved from their particular states of loss--not the least of which being those volumes of works with distinguished titles and men with grey temples and moustaches peering out from the shelves of bookstores, whose authority had been established before one had the opportunity to form any kind of judgment.
At the time of his death, it is difficult to speak of a public reputation for Benjamin, and not simply because of the lack of a public in his condition of exile. Though he complained about the limited reception he received in France, he avoided making public political statements about the situation in Germany, and most of the work that he did publish was printed in an obscure German-language intellectual journal in the United States.
But fifteen years earlier, Benjamin had set himself the task of becoming recognized as the greatest critic of German literature, and by the time of his permanent exile in early 1933, he had practically succeeded in this task. The work that established this reputation included hundreds of reviews and short pieces printed in newspapers, literary and intellectual journals; and dozens of radio addresses. He had published several theoretical essays and book length studies, some of which had achieved critical success, though little financial success. The mid-to-late 1930s essays that have been most fundamental to his posthumous reputation, if they were published at all, appeared under the most unfavorable circumstances imaginable. After his death it was left to his close circle of admirers and advocates to assemble his more than three decades of essays and other work, written under wildly varied circumstances and published in no longer extant journals, into an order that would present a comprehensive picture of his work and thought. But despite the persistent efforts of people who had been close to him, more than a decade after his death his work still remained either unpublished or out-of-print.
From very early in his career, well before he had established a substantial body of work, Benjamin had carefully attended to the survival of his manuscripts by maintaining an archive of his published and unpublished essays, which he regularly sent to his oldest friend, the religious historian Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem. It was from this archive, as well as through the extensive correspondence he maintained with Scholem and others, that it was eventually possible to reconstruct his intellectual career and make an appeal for Benjamin’s importance that extended beyond the relatively obscure context of the work written under the direction of the Institute for Social Research.
When Arendt introduced Benjamin to the American public in 1967, she quoted Benjamin’s old friend Gershom Scholem, who had called Benjamin “the only true critic of German literature.” Frank Kermode’s review of Illuminations in The New York Review of Books, entitled “The Incomparable Benjamin,” provides a good sense of how the enormous claims being made for Benjamin must have struck English-speakers who had never heard his name. “He is referred to as a great critic, the greatest, perhaps, of his time,” Kermode says somewhat flatly, as if afraid to be taken in by a hoax.
In her essay that irrevocably placed Benjamin at the center of the intellectual life of the Weimar period, Hannah Arendt observed that, although Benjamin was not unknown during his lifetime, the disparate character of his publications and his dislocation in the last years of his life may easily have allowed him to disappear altogether from literary history. The rhetoric employed in the first editions of his work exploited this situation to establish a sense of duty on the part of the reader. Even apart from the mysteries surrounding his suicide, the dramatic historical circumstances enabled him to be presented as the object of a pathos that went far beyond a simple appreciation for his work. One of the effects of this pathos was for Benjamin’s work to take on a holy character, almost as if he himself had been swept up by his call for a radical history that would blast a lifework out of time and give birth to a prophetic figure.
The posthumous fate of Benjamin’s writings surrounds his work with a mythological allure. His literary afterlife uncannily resembles the phenomena with which he occupied himself: literary figures who had been objects of neglect during their lifetimes and who he made to represent lost aspects of their age. His method of philosophical history would be reflected in the manner in which his own work would be rescued. Thus, in the intervening years before his manuscripts were collected and the facts of his life became known to the broader public, his associates, largely influenced by his work, laid the groundwork for a theory of culture that not only made it possible to retrospectively refer to his work as a watershed, but that became indispensable to an understanding of the process through which that work would be recovered. And for those who received the work of Benjamin through this form of mediation, the rhetoric of the unlikely survival of his texts added to their sublimity as objects supposed to be uniquely unmediated by the values associated with celebrated works of culture.
An unlikely hero in any age, Benjamin neither directly fought in the wars that determined the history of his time, nor publicly involved himself in polemics in their regard--though his political positions from the First World War to his death are clearly documented in his letters and are reflected in his work and personal circumstances. Martin Buber, Heinrich Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Andre Gide, Hugo von Hoffmanthal, Hugo Ball and Georg Simmel were a few of the more renowned people from the previous generation with whom he had been in personal contact at different stages of his career; his peers, with the exception of Brecht still unknown outside of the circles that concerned themselves with their crafts, coming to international prominence only after his death, included Gershom Scholem, Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, and Hannah Arendt. The image passed down from his acquaintances is of a bookish and exceedingly polite man of unquestionable integrity who believed that it was only possible to depose a Goliath as powerful and encompassing as the combined force of capitalism and modernity through the most intense concentration on the minutia of experience. Beginning his career in the 1920s as a conservative literary critic opposed to the dominant German school as much for its simplistic aesthetics as for its political conformism, in the late 20s and early 30s toying with Marxism and communism, in the mid-30s, Benjamin positioned himself as a peculiar kind of anti-fascist, regarding the contemporary events in Europe through their distanced reflection in physical remnants of the previous century’s history.
In the literature on Walter Benjamin, one begins to hear skeptical remarks concerning the Benjamin “cult” as early as the 1960s in Germany, much as, in the early 1920s Benjamin had waged a protest against the “cult of Goethe” that he associated with the surge of German nationalism leading up to the first World War. Before the end of his life, Theodor Adorno had already begun to resent the growing fascination with his old friend. In our time, theHe thethe life and work of Walter Benjamin has become a fetish object of reflection for those who have seemed to believe that, as our own world produces new horrors, something valuable can be learned from reading and writing about a man who engaged himself in historical and philosophical research on the eve of the century’s most representative and widely publicized carnage, and fought arcane ideological battles with a select few initiates of an obscure brand of neo-Marxist sociology as Europe crumbled around him. His struggles are recounted and debated, his intentions scrutinized, his words repeated and interpreted; antagonists appear and their actions are contested. In recounting the now-well-established facts concerning Benjamin’s biography, the object is not to perpetuate a hagiographic fascination with every controversial moment of his life or to rehearse the ideological disputes in which his work has become embedded, but to call into question the phenomenon of literary martyrdom, the values with which it is associated, and its political implications. The following essay investigates the life history and work of a 20th century intellectual as it was presented to the public through the various stages of his career and after his death. It is not primarily concerned with an exegesis of Benjamin’s writings, but rather the ways in which reference to his writings and biography have been employed to amplify the special value attributed to the man and his work. Neither is it intended to heighten or diminish his importance as an intellectual figure; the ultimate aim is to investigate the processes that allow cultural objects, in this case the work of a German literary critic, to survive and accumulate meaning.
The first section consists of a portrait of the people whose intimate association with Benjamin would resurface years after his death as objects of commentary, and of the social networks through which they came to be acquainted. The second part provides a short history of his writings, including both those that were published during his lifetime and those on which his posthumous reputation was later based, and a sketch of the biographical and historical circumstances in which they were produced and published. Wherever possible, I emphasize his own evaluation of his work and its reception. The third section deals with the stories associated with Benjamin’s death and the survival of his manuscripts that contributed to the emergence of a mythological complex around him. This is followed by a discussion of the major events in his posthumous career: the publication of his selected essays in Germany in 1955, and in the U.S. in 1968; the first memoir devoted to him in 1975; and the publication of his letters in 1978. The final section attempts to draw general conclusions from the circumstances, critical work, and rhetorical devices that produced Benjamin’s posthumous fame.
II. THE CHARACTERS
The struggle for Benjamin’s legacy, traditionally characterized in terms of an antinomy between theological and Marxist interpretation, reflects the debates he had with associates during his lifetime as much as in the traditions that later emerged from their work. It has often been remarked that this schematic antinomy does not go very far in allowing an appreciation of the synthesis that Benjamin forged between these two types of thought. But it would be as superficial to retrospectively analyze Benjamin in terms of the traditions in which his advocates have since become historically embedded¾as if these now-towering figures were always so¾as it would be to systematically parse all of their actions under the presumption that the publication of Benjamin’s manuscripts corresponded to some historically determined necessity. By returning to the point at which Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, Arendt and Scholem, were still establishing their reputations, we might attempt, as Benjamin proposes in his final thesis on the philosophy of history, to “grasp the constellation which [our] own era has formed with a definite earlier one...For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” It is necessary, Benjamin wrote, to “call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers,” and this is no less true of the legacies of intellectual figures than of kings and presidents.
A. Gershom Scholem
The relationship between Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin spans from 1913, when Benjamin was 21 and Scholem was 16, to Benjamin’s death. Scholem first encountered Benjamin delivering a “tortuous” speech to his fellow students at an event jointly sponsored by the Zionist student group, to which Scholem belonged, and an organization for school reform, the Youth Forum [Sprechsaal der Jugend], the faction of the Youth Movement [Jugendbewegung] that Benjamin informally led. The two groups, which happened to be predominantly Jewish, met to discuss the meaning of Jewishness, a type of discussion that should immediately signal the degree to which these students from upper middle class and petit bourgeois Jewish families had been assimilated into German culture, if not into German society. For the group represented by Benjamin, Jewishness had “little or no practical significance.”
Scholem had been a Zionist for four years by the time he and Benjamin ran into each other in the library a few days after a lecture by Kurt Hiller in which Hiller rejected the importance of history and claimed, according to Scholem, that one simply was born and lived with the present generation. The war had been in progress for over a year, and they quickly came to a mutual understanding. They were unequivocally opposed to it, and there was nothing further to say. Nothing was permitted to be said publicly, in any case. Scholem had been expelled from school in 1915 for a letter to the editor of the Jüdische Rundschau, which he cosigned, expressing opposition to the war.
Their relationship was solidified by their mutual support in the effort to avoid being drafted into the army. After obtaining a temporary medical leave by faking a nervous disorder, Benjamin went to study in Munich. A year later, when he was again called for service, he had himself hypnotized to produce symptoms of sciatica, and was eventually deemed unfit for service, at which point he moved to Switzerland. Scholem was drafted in June, 1917, and by the end of August was able to obtain a temporary discharge through a letter from a physician that testified to his “mental condition.” It was only at this point, after three years of friendship, that Benjamin, with his “Mandarin courtesy,” proposed that they be on a first name basis.
Scholem joined Benjamin the following year in Bern, where, along with intense conversations, he became a witness to the less-than-saintlike aspects of Benjamin’s private life, in particular the domestic “scenes” between Benjamin and his wife Dora:
At eight o’clock he went into Dora’s room, and after a short time a terrible row started¾I have no idea what it was all about, as is unfortunately often the case...At first I stayed in my seat in the next room; then I was ashamed to be witnessing this and went downstairs, for usually things blow over quickly and Walter joins me. Today nothing of the sort happened. For three-quarters of an hour I sat in the dining room; of course I didn’t want to eat alone while they were quarreling upstairs. When Walter didn’t respond to the maid’s repeated knocking, I left without any supper.
But the aspect of Benjamin’s personal life with which Scholem disagreed most violently during their long conversations, his exploitation of his parents for money, which led him to conclude that “Benjamin’s life did not have that enormous measure of purity that distinguished his thought,” would come back to haunt Scholem years later when he introduced Benjamin to Judah Leon Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Scholem had moved to Palestine in 1923 to devote himself to research on Jewish mysticism, and obtained a leave to study Kabalistic manuscripts in England and France in 1927. He rejoined Benjamin in Paris, where Benjamin was hoping to establish a reputation outside Germany and passing time in the dives of the Parisian avant-garde like the Dôme, La Coupole, and the Café des Deux Magots. Magnes happened to be in Paris, and Scholem arranged a meeting after Benjamin expressed an interest in the School of Humanities that was being founded in Jerusalem. For the occasion, Benjamin improvised a discussion in which he claimed that his future work would be directed toward theological and philosophical interpretation of Hebrew texts, and placed himself firmly within the context of a concern for Jewishness and Judaism. The following year, Magnes, persuaded that he had found a scholar that could become the jewel of the nascent school, advanced Benjamin a large stipend to support his preliminary studies in Hebrew language and literature. The next two years of Benjamin’s correspondence with Scholem is filled with Benjamin’s promises to come to Jerusalem, and excuses for putting off the trip. Benjamin, whose marriage had been merely formal since 1923, was undergoing a divorce that would severely impact his financial situation; in the meantime, he had made the acquaintance of Bertolt Brecht. In January, 1930, Scholem was shocked to receive a letter from Benjamin announcing his intention of becoming the “foremost critic of German literature.” Scholem reminded Benjamin in vain of the “ticklish situation” that he had been put in by Benjamin’s use of the money granted to him for “a specific purpose,” which he had used to support entirely different projects. Finally, Benjamin had to admit that as far as his relation to Judaism was concerned, his only real connection to it was through their friendship and through, as he put it, the “forces that you have aroused in me.”
Nonetheless, during Benjamin’s years of exile, Scholem continued to work on Benjamin’s behalf. The most significant, in 1938, concerned their common interest in Kafka. The occasion Scholem chose to propose Benjamin’s book on Kafka to Salmon Schocken, his Jewish publishing connection, was the appearance of Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, which used the category of “saintliness” to evaluate Kafka’s life. Benjamin had summed up his impression of the book when he wrote to Scholem: “Intimacy with the saintly has its own special appellation in the history of religion: pietism.” Schocken remained unconvinced, believing that Benjamin was “a bogeyman of [Scholem’s] own invention.”
Although their correspondence remained constant until Benjamin’s death, for Scholem, the failure of Benjamin to fulfill his promise of coming to Jerusalem was a disappointment that would only be fully redeemed by Benjamin’s final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which, in Scholem’s words, “place[d] historical materialism under the protection of theology.”
B. Theodor Adorno
Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno first became acquainted in Frankfurt in 1923 through Siegfried Kracauer, a contributing editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung since 1921. Kracauer had taken the young Wiesengrund under his wing, tutoring him on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on Saturday afternoons. Benjamin was in Frankfurt intermittently after 1922 arranging to do his habilitation, his last-ditch effort to obtain a professorship at a German university after losing out to Karl Mannheim in competition for a seat in Heidelberg. Adorno was still a student reading philosophy, music, psychology and sociology, but he had also begun publishing music criticism in journals.
In 1924 Adorno finished his doctoral dissertation on Husserl with Hans Cornelius, the same professor to whom, the following year, Benjamin’s habilitation thesis was referred by the professor of German, Franz Shultz, when Shultz found it incomprehensible, and with whom Max Horkeimer was working as an assistant. Benjamin was allowed to withdraw his thesis on German Baroque drama to avoid the embarrassment of rejection, and afterwards gave up his academic ambitions for a career as a literary critic. Adorno’s thesis was submitted to Cornelius in 1927, and like Benjamin, he was forced to withdraw it after Cornelius, supported by Horkeimer (who disliked it for its insufficient Marxism), refused to accept it. For the next few years, Adorno pursued a career as a music critic.
The relationship between Adorno and Benjamin was solidified in 1929 in Konigsberg, when Benjamin read Adorno, Horkeimer, and Greta Karplus (whom Adorno later married) his proposal for a philosophical history of the 19th century, which would retrospectively be referred to as an intellectual watershed for everyone involved. In 1929, Paul Tillich took over Cornelius’ chair of philosophy, and Adorno, by then greatly under Benjamin’s influence, was able to gain acceptance of his habilitation on “The Construction of the Aesthetic in Kierkegaard” in 1931. In one of the first seminars offered by Adorno, the class spent the semester reading Benjamin’s “failed” habilitation. After 1933, when Adorno and Benjamin were forced into exile, their relationship became increasingly close, as Adorno provided Benjamin with his only real financial support through the Institute for Social Research, headed by Horkeimer.
C. Bertolt Brecht
Unlike his relationships with Scholem and Adorno, Benjamin’s acquaintance with Brecht began at a time when both had already achieved a degree of renown. The friendship came about through Asja Lacis, a Latvian communist theater director, who Benjamin fell in love with during a vacation in Italy. Lacis had worked with Sergei Eisenstein, Vladimir Mayakovski, and Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia, and had directed a performance in Berlin for an audience of five thousand when she met Brecht in Munich in late 1923. Brecht was still establishing his reputation there working on a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and scheming against a rival production in Berlin. At that time he had little contact with the Russian avant-garde theater, whose principles he later skillfully appropriated. He immediately took up a relationship with Lacis and made her assistant director of Edward II, though she was living with Bernhard Reich and Brecht already had several other mistresses, a wife, and children by two different women.
Benjamin met Lacis the following year during his stay on the island of Capri, off the shore of Naples. He wrote his first published travel narrative with her on the city of Naples, and began taking an interest in Marxism. Although Lacis was distant when he visited her in Riga in 1925, when Benajmin learned of her nervous breakdown in Moscow the following year, he traveled there to help her, writing numerous articles on theater, culture, and social conditions, as well as a diary that was published posthumously in book form, during his two month stay. From December 1928 to January 1929 he and Lacis lived together in Berlin, during which time Benjamin became acquainted with Brecht, who had achieved his first real financial and critical success that year with The Threepenny Opera, though he had long claimed to be the one true hope of the German stage.
Uncharacteristically for Benjamin, who usually required acknowledgement of his intellectual superiority in close personal relationships, he fell under the sway of Brecht’s charm to such an extent that he was accused of slavishness and masochism by Siegfried Kracauer. Soon after meeting Brecht, he began anxiously sending manuscripts of Brecht’s theory of drama to Scholem for his impressions, along with his own writings and other newly published editions that they intended to comment upon.
Benjamin’s relationship with Brecht was one of the few in which he allowed another’s opinions to disturb his confidence in his own critical sensibilities. It was Scholem and Adorno who had been in the habit of taking notes of conversations with Benjamin; Benjamin performed this service for Brecht. His notes from a visit to Brecht’s home in Svendborg in 1934 are punctuated with Brecht’s criticisms, many of them apparently offered in a facetious spirit, such as the charge that Benjamin’s essay on Kafka advanced “Jewish fascism” because it obscured rather than clarified its subject. The charge of obscurantism had often been leveled at Benjamin, particularly after the publication of his “incomprehensible” failed habilitation thesis, of which one critic who refused to review it wrote:
What Benjamin...does in his new book is, it seems to me, the most dangerous thing one can do in intellectual history: he does not present his subject, does not even wish to do so, but instead seeks to grasp the supposedly ideational content of his subject, eliminating the historical hinc et nunc...probably only a very small number of readers will have sufficient patience and time to assimilate this altogether personal scholasticism, obscure to the point of incomprehensibility.
Never before had Benjamin, firmly convinced of the importance of his work, taken this type of criticism seriously. He wrote of his Kafka essay, in response to Brecht’s criticism: “That it contained a good deal of rubbish and detritus, much real obscurantism, I fully realized.”
Benjamin nonetheless resisted Brecht influence. When the journal they planned together, and for which Benjamin had gained the support of his publisher, began turning in the direction of agit-prop, he removed his name from its editorial board. After their exile, he visited Brecht in Denmark and had the most important part of his library sent there when his apartment in Berlin was confiscated, but he avoided several offers of refuge from Brecht in order to remain independent from him.
For all the apparent inequality of their relationship, Benjamin had a lot to gain from the association, as did Brecht. While Brecht received the approval of the most prominent German literary critic, Benjamin gained an authentic connection to a form of contemporary artistic production that he could wholeheartedly support. Indeed, he considered his affirmation of Brecht’s work to be central to the position he was assuming in relation to German literature. In return, Brecht procured Benjamin contracts for articles in German-language journals with which he was associated in the Soviet Union after it became impossible to publish in Germany.
D. Hannah Arendt
Arendt first crossed paths with Benjamin in Berlin. At that time, Arendt had only recently begun her career as a critic. After finishing her dissertation on the concept of love in the writings of St. Augustine in 1929, the following year she began publishing essays in the Frankfurter Zeitung, to which Benjamin had been a regular contributor before his exile, as well as in the Kölnische Zeitung and in Jewish and social scientific journals, in addition to an article on Rilke’s Duino Elegies in a journal in Zurich. Having studied with Heidegger and Karl Jaspers at Konigsberg, she resolved to give up philosophy in 1933 after the repression by National Socialism made her aware of the tenuousness of a philosophical life in Germany.
I had been primarily occupied by academic pursuits. Given that perspective, the year 1933 made a lasting impression on me...the general political realities transformed themselves into personal destiny as soon as you set foot out of the house...I lived in an intellectual milieu, but I also knew many people who did not, and I came to the conclusion that cooperation was, so to speak, the rule among intellectuals, but not among others. And I have never forgotten that. I left Germany guided by the resolution¾a very exaggerated one¾that ‘Never again!’ I will never have anything to do with ‘the history of ideas’ again.
Arendt’s long-standing mistrust for Theodor Adorno was rooted in her sense of betrayal by intellectualism, but it also had a more personal origin. In 1929 when her first husband, Günther Stern, at first encouraged by Adorno to write his habilitation on the philosophy of music, submitted an early draft to him in Frankfurt, it was deemed unsatisfactory by Adorno because of the absence of Marxist theory (as Adorno’s own habilitation had earlier been rejected by Horkeimer). In 1933, Adorno, born Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, began to use his Italian mother’s family name, which set off a controversy in the Frankfurt student newspaper. Arendt, among others, saw this as a sign of cooperation with the National Socialists.
In Paris, Arendt was actively involved in Zionist political groups that were organizing the resettlement of Jewish immigrants in Palestine. She also attended lectures at the Ècole des Hautes Ètudes by Alexandre Kojève, a scholar from Russia whose lectures on Hegel attempted to place Hegel’s philosophy firmly in the context of its historical moment. She formed a close friendship with Benjamin in Paris, and organized discussion groups that took place in Benjamin’s apartment at 10 rue Dombasle. It was only by the insistence of Benjamin and Heinrich Blücher, who later became Arendt’s second husband, that she was compelled to complete her habilitation on Rahel Varheigen in 1938. She passed through the Pyrenees one month after Benjamin’s death, arriving in New York in 1941.
III. THE HERO: A Short History of Benjamin’s Publications
“In the lifework: the era; in the era: the entire course of history” - Theses on the Philosophy of History, XVII
Benjamin’s life presents a picture of the practical difficulties confronting a man of letters who single-mindedly pursued his interests under the constant threat of economic ruin. The obstinacy with which he resisted conforming to the demands of institutions, intellectual and political groups, and individuals who supported him personally and financially, led to the kind of exemplary intellectual life that could be made to represent both the unique experiences of an epoch and an ineffable quality that transcends any particular time.
The major formal categories in which Benjamin’s work falls include plans for periodicals under his editorial supervision, translations, radio plays, literary criticism, book reviews, diaries, travel narratives, letters, avant-gardist fragments, traditional academic works, philosophical essays, aesthetic criticism, childhood reminiscences, and cultural histories, all of which he fought strenuously to publish. A resume of his publications gives an indication of the extent to which the mythical proportions of his posthumous reputation may have been foreshadowed by his lifework and his own evaluation of his successes and failures.
Benjamin’s first publications date from his college years. He was then an active participant in the movement for school reform, associated with the German Youth movement, and played an important role in planning the journal that evolved from the group, Der Anfang [The Beginning]. The seriousness with which he undertook this project at the age of twenty-one might have bordered on pretension if he had not proven himself through his consistently good judgment. Even before the first issue was dry, the journal became a source of contention; he championed the poems of a new friend, Fritz Heinle (Heinle committed suicide the following year), whose poems were rejected from the journal, and vehemently opposed the slogan adopted by the editors, claiming that it would “consign Der Anfang to the mass grave of ‘school reform.’” One of his first published essays, which appeared in an early issue of Der Anfang in 1913, was a defense of youth against the claims of experience, a theme that both prefigured his work on German Romanticism, and one which he would later develop at greater length in his autobiographical reflections on his childhood in Berlin. In the essay he tried to show how the idea of experience, associated with maturity and enlightenment, “destroy[s] and devalue[s] our years,” not only what we have up to now experienced, but also all future experience. He opposes experience to values, truth, and spirit, which we hold onto in spite of experiences that retrospectively make our youthful sense of outrage appear naive.
His professors were subjected to savage criticism in his letters from his college years; he describes a course on aesthetics as having been “chemically purified of ideas.” The dilettante character of his early university activities, in which he seems to imitate the broad range of Goethe’s speculative studies, already anticipated his later ambivalence toward academia. Dissatisfied with the university, he organized reading groups to discuss works that had been neglected by his professors and began to dash off essays, many of which, even then, neither corresponded to his academic work nor to the format of existing publications.
By 1914 he could already presume to speak of his “silence” in Der Anfang. In July he planned to repudiate the journal: “I want to make people ashamed of this publication and ask that it be allowed to disappear.” It did soon afterward. In March, 1915, he announced his break with his mentor in the school reform movement over his support of the war: “With these lines I am totally and unconditionally disassociating myself from you,” he wrote. At twenty-four, after consulting with Scholem, he rejected an offer to contribute to the journal Der Jude, edited by Martin Buber, with whom he had come into contact through his participation in the youth movement, due to the journal’s pro-war position.
He first began to work on translations of Baudelaire in 1917 in Munich, some of which were published in little magazines, but for the most part Benjamin spent the duration of the war attending lectures on philosophy at the universities in Munich and later Bern, where he had gone after obtaining a medical excuse to avoid being drafted. His studies culminated in his dissertation on “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” written in 1919, and printed in 1920 by Scholem’s father in a run of between one and two thousand copies, with the imprint of Verlag von A. Francke. An extremely hermetic but conventionally academic text on the aesthetic criticism of Fichte, Friedrich Schlegel and Goethe, the book received little attention and the majority of the print run was lost in a fire at the publisher.
In 1921, two of Benjamin’s seminal theoretical pieces were published: “Fate and Character” in Die Argonauten and “Critique of Violence,” in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, early attempts by Benjamin to relate contemporary terms of understanding to mythological concepts, a procedure that saw its first echoes in Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption (1930), and one that Adorno and Horkeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment would take up twenty years later.
Soon after he received his doctorate, a publisher offered Benjamin an opportunity to edit his own journal, which might have presented the possibility of unifying his diverse interests and influences into one project, but he never managed to produce a single number. The first issue of Angelus Novus, to be published in 1922, was delayed so long by his inability to find submissions that corresponded to the project of the journal that the publisher eventually backed out.
When his translations of Baudelaire appeared in book form in 1923, prefaced by the essay on “The Task of the Translator” (anthologized in Illuminations), they were issued in an extremely limited edition of 500 and received poor reviews, though some of them have since become standards in German collections of Baudelaire. Stefan Zweig, then an established figure in the German-speaking literary world, apparently used the opportunity to further secure his reputation as Baudelaire’s German translator by attacking Benjamin.
...the book had been snatched away from the reviewer who had originally been chosen and sent to Zweig, who had published the third-worst German Baudelaire translation fifteen years ago. The review is obviously petty...The person ultimately responsible is the well-meaning, crude, big-mouthed Siegfried called Kracauer.
As a result, Siegfried Kracauer, who had promised him a supportive review in the Frankfurter Zeitung (a Jewish-owned newspaper that was a major source of cultural power in Weimar Germany), became a committed defender of Benjamin. Kracauer, who had written for FZ since 1921 and became a full editor of the feuilleton section in 1924, would later provide Benjamin with one of his most reliable places of publication from 1927 until he was fired in 1933.
Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, printed in 1924 in the Austrian journal, Neue Deutsche Beiträge, edited by Hugo von Hoffmanthal, positioned him as a leading authority on Goethe, but since it was written as an attack on the reigning school of literary criticism in Germany, led by the poet Stefan George, it is supposed to have had disastrous consequences for his academic career. The followers of George, who were leading the celebration of Goethe as the cultural representative of the Weimar Republic, were becoming the dominant force in German universities, and according to one legend, purposefully undermined Benjamin’s bid for a professorship in Frankfurt because of the essay. This may have simply been a convenient explanation that Benjamin perpetuated, however, since he was mostly seeking a professorship to satisfy his parents, who continued to support him financially though their considerable investments were quickly diminishing in value as a result of astronomical inflation, threatening to cut off his resources. According to Scholem, “no one could have accused [the professors] of ill will toward Benjamin.”
In any case, by the time he submitted his Habilitation thesis in Frankfurt, Benjamin’s career as a man of letters was already well under way; in addition to the Baudelaire edition, the theoretical essays, and the study of Elective Affinities, he had published a review of an anthology of children’s stories in Illustrierte Zietung that year, and his belletristic essay “Naples” was forthcoming in the Frankfurter Zeitung. An academic career must have seemed a relatively gloomy existence compared to that of the independent man of letters. His ambivalence is confirmed in his correspondence with Gershom Scholem, who had immigrated to Palestine a few years earlier:
You wrote that you were following my situation with the greatest concern and that you had the impression that my internal resistance to getting my habilitation would gain the upper hand now that things were getting easier for me in terms of external factors. Your diagnosis is correct.
During the course of his habilitation research he speaks of the “dreary weight on my shoulders, partly because of the mostly mechanical work of dictation, bibliography, and other technical things I had to do there” and describes the appointed reader of his thesis as “insignificant in the world of scholarship,” referring to his “pseudo-intellectual cultural pretensions,” and calling him “mediocre in every other respect.”
While he was awaiting the approval of his Habilitation thesis in 1925, Benjamin had already been put on the planning committee of a new literary journal to be put out by the publisher Ernst Rowohlt, Die Literarische Welt, to which he was to become a regular contributor of essays and book reviews until 1933. He published over one hundred pieces in the journal before it collapsed in the wake of National Socialism. Rowohlt later said of Benjamin: “Of all the people who have honoured my weekly journal Die Literarische Welt, with regular contributions, I have rated none so highly as Walter Benjamin.” The journal had a substantial circulation of between twenty and thirty thousand.
Benjamin’s translation of the second volume of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, published in 1927, received excellent reviews, but since the publisher went bankrupt before the other six volumes were completed, this was of little consequence either financially or for his reputation at the time. The two volumes of Proust that Benjamin managed to complete in collaboration with Franz Hessel before the project foundered are today considered authoritative; some say they are among the finest examples of the art of German translation. The essay on “The Image of Proust” (also in Illuminations), first published in Literarishe Welt in 1929, had its origin in this work.
When the professors in Frankfurt received his Habilitation with total incomprehension in 1925, there never seems to have been any doubt for Benjamin whether the book might not be worthly of publication. The unquestioned high opinion he had of his work is indicated in his comments prior to its publication, which had been delayed: “Rowohlt has so ruthlessly violated the idealistic aspects of our contract that, at the moment, I cannot decide whether to award him the imprimatur to the book on the baroque.” In 1928 The Origin of German Tragic Drama (also referred to as the Trauerspiel book) was nonetheless published with Rowohlt, along with One-Way Street, an avant-gardist assemblage of critical fragments, anecdotes and dream images reflecting on modern culture and the role of the critic. Both books received extremely positive reviews in some of the most prestigious journals in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer wrote a lengthy review in the Frankfurter Zeitung that provided the first indication of the importance that would later be attributed to Benjamin:
The kind of thinking that Benjamin today embodies, one-sidedly and in however extreme fashion, has fallen into oblivion since the advent of idealism. He consciously restores such thinking within our philosophy’s sphere of influence...in combination with the capacity that enables him to taste essentialities....In Benjamin, philosophy regains the determinateness of its content; the philosopher is placed in the “elevated position midway between researcher and artist.” Even if he does not reside within the “realm of the living,” he retrieves from the storehouses of lived life the meanings that were deposited there and that are now awaiting a recipient.
Not surprisingly, given the affinities between Kracauer’s work and that of Benjamin, Kracauer even managed to grasp the originality of his revisionist theory of history, already in evidence in this early work, that interpreters later credited as among his most important contributions to 20th century thought.
His proper material is what has been: for Benjamin, knowledge arises out of ruins. Thus, there is no attempt here to redeem the living world; instead the mediator redeems fragments of the past. 
The Origins of German Tragic Drama and One-Way Street were even reviewed in France, where Benjamin had become affiliated with the Surrealists. (In 1927, he had written to Hoffmanthal: “My work at the moment is mainly devoted to consolidating my position in Paris.”) This overwhelmingly positive reception did not stop him from complaining, however, that he had been ignored in both the Deutsche Literaturzeitung and at the Warburg Institute in Hamburg. In a letter to Scholem in 1928 in which he enclosed his most recent publications, Benjamin already speaks of Scholem’s “role as protector of my career,” and gives an account of the circumstances of his reception by the art historian Erwin Panofsky:
You will be interested to hear that Hofmannsthal, who knew I was interested in establishing a connection to the Warburg circle, sent the issue of the Beiträge containing the preview of the Trauerspiel book to Panofsky with a letter, perhaps prematurely. This kind of act, meant to be of some use to me, has¾on ne peut plus [it is impossible to take it anymore]¾échoué (gone awry, and how!). He sent me Panofsky’s cool, resentment-laden response to his parcel. Can you make head or tail of all this?
The back stocks of both books were sold at a loss in 1931-32 when his publisher was reorganizing his finances. Theodor Adorno taught The Origins of German Tragic Drama for two semesters in Frankfurt in 1932-33 as an adjunct professor, but he excluded its name from his course description.
Starting in 1927, Benjamin began broadcasting on the radio, but not until 1929 did he work regularly in this medium. His connections to radio broadcasting were through Ernst Schoen, a lifelong friend who Benjamin first met in the Youth Movement and who became program director of Radio Frankfurt in 1929, and Hans Flesch, another acquaintance from the Youth Movement, who took charge of the radio station in Berlin in the same year. Between 1929 and 1932, Benjamin performed over 80 radio broadcasts on stations in Berlin and Frankfurt, including radio plays and literary talks. “Unpacking My Library: A Talk on Book Collecting” (the opening essay in Illuminations) was originally written for a radio broadcast in the spring of 1931, and was reprinted in Literarishe Welt later that year. Though he did not seem to take his radio work very seriously in comparison to his other intellectual pursuits, it provided him with resources for travel and additional living expenses, as well as first-hand experience with the latest medium of mass communication.
In 1931, a publication which he and Bertolt Brecht were planning, to be entitled Krisis und Kritik, met a fate similar to his first editorial effort, ostensibly because of ideological dissension on the editorial board. The journal ambitiously attempted to include the most diverse factions in German intellectual life in one forum, but Benjamin ultimately backed out over disagreements with Brecht regarding contributions to the first issue.
In April 1932, Benjamin began another stint of traveling in southern Europe with some extra funds he had obtained on the occasion of the anniversary of Goethe’s death, another belated positive consequences of his controversial essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities. He rented out his apartment in Berlin, and lived for three months on two marks a day on the island of Ibiza. During his stay in Italy he received some funds from William Speyer in return for helping him on his play Der grosse Advokat (The Great Advocate), and wrote his autobiographical “Berlin Chronicle,” a reflection on his youth in Berlin. It was also during this period, for the entire year leading up to his fortieth birthday, that Benjamin left the most thorough record of his thoughts of suicide. In a letter to Scholem from July, 1932, Benjamin evaluates his work up to that point:
The literary forms of expression that my thought has forged for itself over the last decade have been utterly conditioned by the preventive measures and antidotes with which I had to counter the disintegration constantly threatening my thought as a result of such [financial?] contingencies. And though many¾or a sizable number¾of my works have been small-scale victories, they are off-set by large-scale defeats. I do not want to speak of the projects that had to remain unfinished, or even untouched, but rather to name here the four books that mark off the real site of ruin or catastrophe, whose furthest boundary I am still unable to survey when I let my eyes wander over the next years of my life. They include the Pariser Pasagen, the Gesammelte Essays zur Literature, the Briefe, and a truly exceptional book about hashish.
Of these projects only the Briefe, a collection of German letters published in book form in 1936 under the title German Men (the letters originally appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung between 1931 and 1932), was able to be fully realized in the following years.
Benjamin was still abroad when the National Socialists unseated the left-center democratic coalition in the German parliament in October 1932. By this time he had become a well-established literary critic in Germany, even if the constraints imposed upon him by the need to support himself through magazine work prevented him from undertaking the larger projects he had envisioned. In November 1932, Benjamin returned to Berlin where he witnessed the beginning of the persecution of the opponents of National Socialism. A few of his friends, including Ernst Schoen (the program director of Radio Frankfurt) had already been forced into camps by the end of February; most of the others fled. Kracauer was fired from the Frankfurter Zeitung. Brecht moved to Denmark. The Frankfurt Institute decamped to Switzerland. The Literarische Welt closed down. In short, the entire literary and intellectual world on which Benjamin relied and in which his reputation had been established was systematically disassembled in the space of a few months. In the middle of March, Benjamin definitively left Germany.
For the first few years of his exile he shuttled between Spain, Paris, and Skovbostrand (Brecht’s house in Denmark) before settling eventually in Paris. He continued publishing articles in Germany until 1935 under several pseudonyms (Detlef Holz, K. A. Stempflinger, C. Conrad), even managing to find work at the Frankfurter Zeitung after Kracauer was pushed out, which provided him with some meager living resources. The difficult circumstances of his exile in no way modified Benjamin’s stubborn sense of the value of his work: when in spring of 1935 Klaus Mann offered him 150 francs for a twelve page review of Brecht’s Three-Penny Novel, Benjamin insisted on a minimum of 250, and his manuscript was returned to him.
Benjamin’s most explicitly political statement during his exile was presented as a lecture to the Institute for the Study of Fascism in 1934, entitled “The Author as Producer.” In this lecture, implicitly directed against dogmatic aspects of Soviet criticism as well as against traditional bourgeois literary history, Benjamin attempted to argue for a kind of aesthetic criticism that would both preserve the qualitative value of autonomous artistic techniques and at the same time provide a legitimate method of evaluating its relation to politics. A cultural product is valuable if it transforms techniques such that the conditions of production are themselves affected. In his Passagenwerk he was attempting to realize such a transformation within the disciplines of history and philosophy.
In the same year, Benjamin began publishing reviews and articles in the Zietschrift fur Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research) through Adorno’s intervention on his behalf. Beginning in the summer of 1935, he received a stipend of 500 francs from the Institute for Social Research, about one-half of his minimum monthly subsistence. (Despite an attempted seizure of their property, the Institute had succeeded in relocating from Frankfurt to Geneva with its funds in tact in 1933, and moved to New York in 1934.) His income was supplemented by support from his ex-wife (he was married in 1917 and divorced in 1930), Adorno, and friends and relatives of Adorno. Otherwise Benjamin’s publishing opportunities had almost completely dried up.
It was not long before tensions surfaced in his relationship with Adorno, who was placed in the position of his supervisor by the Institute. The earliest indications of conflict appear in the letters of 1935 concerning “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century,” an outline for his projected study on the fetish character of commodities through the architecture and material culture of Paris, whose working title had previously been Pariser Passagen (also referred to as the Passagen-Werk, or in the English literature as the Arcades project, or the Paris Arcades). The study, in the works for over a decade¾ever since he had read Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant¾without Benjamin having produced anything but notes, finally began to materialize in the spring of 1935, when the Institute asked him for a summary of the project. He already anticipated problems before he had received a response:
Prospects for really arousing the interest of the institute in Geneva for this book are minimal. It [the book] allows no concessions to be made to any side, and if I know anything about the book at all, then it is that no school will rush to claim it as its own.
In the letter to Adorno that accompanied the synopsis, Benjamin defended himself against Adorno’s expressed fear that Brecht would be allowed to influence his work. He explains how his encounter with Adorno had earlier impacted the trajectory of his research, previously characterized by “carefree, archaic philosophizing, which was engrossed in nature”: after his discussions with Adorno, he says, his thought took on a more definitively historical character that banished the “rhapsodic naïveté” of its early formulations. The encounter with Brecht, however, brought with it “the high point of all aporias relating to the project.”
Adorno received the synopsis for the long-anticipated Arcades project with high expectations, but the vigorous criticism contained in his written response, which introduces the basic themes of their disputes in the following years, was not entirely sensitive to Benjamin’s intentions, though at this preliminary stage it still had a relatively constructive character. His nine pages of criticism were prefaced with the caveat that he rated the project “extremely high” and appended it with an apology for the “carping nature” of the letter, signing off “in true friendship.”
The point of departure for his criticism concerned the “undialectical” nature of the motto “Chaque époque rêve la suivante” in the middle of the section on Charles Fourier, the 19th century utopian social philosopher. The question of dialectics would continually recur in their correspondence over the following years, Adorno constantly emphasizing the inadequacy of Benjamin’s critique of ideology. Adorno believed that ideology could only be rendered transparent through critique and thereby transcended once and for all; Benjamin had presented ideology as if it were an ambivalent part of the culture of every age, whose disclosure, through minute descriptions of the historical material itself, would produce a kind of understanding in which ideology would be identifiable in the ever-changing mutations of culture. By identifying the suppressed content of the historical material, the sacredness of the fetish would be rendered secular, its ideological character would be disclosed, and its revolutionary potential liberated. The ideological content, like the material in which it manifested itself, could as easily be regarded as an object of resistance as a tool of repression. Every door, even the ruined passageways of another time covered over by a century’s barbarity, might be gates through which the messiah would come.
The difference between Benjamin and Adorno is particularly salient in Adorno’s characterization of Benjamin’s essay on Baudelaire as a “wide-eyed presentation of the bare facts.” The treatment of historical materials remained an on-going source of contention between them, since Adorno felt that the details demanded interpretation, otherwise they would remain reified. In any case, Adorno prevailed upon Max Horkeimer, the director of the Institute, to give full support to Benjamin’s research on the Paris Arcades, for which he received 1000 francs per month, enough for a monastic life in Paris at the time.
With a few exceptions, the essays produced in the following years for the Institute’s journal consisted of fragments of chapters intended for the Passagen-Werk or theoretical offshoots of the project, including his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production,” which he described as a programmatic attempt to “anchor the history of the nineteenth-century art in the recognition of their situation as experienced by us in the present.” With this essay he claimed the distinction of having been “the first to have discovered some fundamental principles of materialistic art theory.” The Institute refused to print it however, until he had revised it several times, and when they finally printed it in a French translation by Pierre Klossowski in 1936, they did so only after having considerably moderated its radical implications. In the essay’s dramatic final paragraph the word “fascism” was replaced by “the totalitarian doctrine” and “communism” with “the constructive forces of mankind.” The most contentious aspects of Benjamin’s relationship with Adorno and the Institute for Social Research begin at this point.
In 1935, the Institute had proposed for him to write an essay on Edward Fuchs, but he had requested that he be allowed to put it aside in favor of his Arcades research: “No god can save me now from the study of Fuchs,” he had written then. They eventually deferred the request, but in 1937 they once again asked him undertake the essay. Upon its completion he wrote melodramatically:
Now dress me in your mind’s eye in a herald’s armor and imagine me at the bow of a four-master cutting through the Mediterranean surf as swiftly as an arrow, because that is the only fitting way to convey the grand news to you: the “Fuchs” is done. The finished text does not entirely have the character of penitence, as my laboring on it quite rightly seemed to you.
The essay was well-received by the Institute, although it was considered too radical in its original form. Although Benjamin was well aware that Horkeimer systematically avoided printing direct references to Marx or Communism in the journal out of fear of political repercussions in the U.S., the “Work of Art,” Fuchs, and later the Baudelaire essay in their original versions all began with discussions of Marx. In the first two cases, the entire first section was excised for this reason, and the latter was rejected outright. Benjamin’s insecurities about the idea of emigrating to the U.S., proposed to him as early as 1935, have often been attributed in the types of editorial changes forced upon him by the Institute, though ultimately his decision to remain in France can be mostly accounted for by the perceived necessities of his research.
Financial tensions soon resurfaced. Inflation was cutting into his already attenuated living conditions, and Benjamin appealed to the Institute for an increase in his stipend. It was during this increasingly tenuous period that Benjamin wrote his frequently-quoted letter to Scholem on Kafka, an extract of which appeared in Illuminations. It was originally written as a query for a book on Kafka that Scholem was to relay to Schocken Books, and which was rejected. This rejection also reaffirmed Benjamin’s skepticism regarding a possible exile in Palestine, where Scholem had for years tried to convince him to emigrate. Many Benjamin scholars have noted the autobiographical character of these observations on Kafka, written in exile at a time when his possibilities for publication were steadily reduced to the point where only Adorno, not only Benjamin’s junior but also his former disciple, was able to assist him.
To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his own failure.
But the quote also brings to mind how Benjamin tended, beginning much earlier, to emphasize the inadequacy of his reception.
It is worth noting that in 1938, around the same time when Adorno issued his most acrimonious criticism of Benjamin’s work, their correspondence took on a familiar tone, Benjamin addressing his letters to “Teddie” and Adorno, in return, to “Walter.” The controversy between Adorno and Benjamin centers around the letters concerning Benjamin’s “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” one of the center-pieces of the Arcades project, submitted for publication in the Institute’s journal. The severe revisions that Adorno imposed on this essay, accompanied by accusations such as that Benjamin’s work was “insufficiently dialectical” and “lacking in mediation,” are believed to have seriously impeded the progress of Benjamin’s research. On the other hand, Benjamin almost appears to have been intentionally provoking the Institute. The first twenty pages of the essay were peppered with quotes from Marx. Moreover, Benjamin had set himself a luxurious pace; he had spent over five years engaged in almost constant research and had only produced what amounted to a file of quotes, with the exception of the few articles written for ZFS. The result of the imposed revision was “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” published in 1939. Most distressing to Benjamin, however, was the news he received from Horkeimer on February 24 informing him of the possibility that “the day may come in the not too distant future when we will have to inform you that, with the best will in the world, we are not in a position to renew your research contract.” Seven months later, the beginning of the war rendered Horkeimer’s warning moot.
After the declaration of war in September, Benjamin, along with all Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians between the ages of 17 and 50 living in France, had to report to a checkpoint where, after 10 days of sleeping among the masses and eating nothing but fois gras in a sports stadium, he was sent off to a French concentration camp. During his two month stay in an internment camp outside Nevers before advocates in the French Pen Club were able to obtain his release, Benjamin, improbably, made plans for a weekly journal to be devoted to the circumstances of the camp; the project was never realized, though he did manage to collect some manuscripts. When he returned to Paris in the midst of war, he had his reader’s card for the Bibliotheque Nationale renewed and continued on with his research on the 19th century. That winter he wrote his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In May of 1940, as Hitler’s army was approaching Paris, Benjamin was among the millions who fled south. He passed through Lourdes, then in August to Marseilles, where he was granted an emergency visa to the U.S. with the help of Horkeimer. On September 25 he began his flight from France.
IV. TRAGEDY: Benjamin’s Death
I do not know where I came from when I was born into this life which leads to death¾or should I say, this death which leads to life?
The circumstances that are recounted below relate to biographical and textual evidence discovered after Benjamin’s death that have served to guarantee the lasting interest of a body of work that could very easily have fallen off the intellectual map. In myth, the actions of the hero unite so forcefully with the meaning of the story that language, morality, religion, and law appear to arise naturally from them. The story and the characters’ actions become the object of commentary, instruction, and even worship. In relating Benjamin’s biography to myth, the object is not to dispute the factual content of his life history as it has been reported, nor the value of his work as such, but to call attention to the willful construction of his legacy. The Benjamin myth has a dramatic as well as a theological aspect: the pathos that accompanies the experience of extreme loss produces the need for catharsis, or redemption. The fetish character of the reception of his work arises from its ability to allow the pathos of the historical situation of its author to be transformed into a narrative with generalized significance that can produce widespread identification. The life and work¾in particular its final moments¾serves as a monad, or an individual entity by means of which broader structures are supposed to be revealed .
A. Lost Manuscript
Even his ruin
is only another
excuse to continue
a final birth.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
Of the many persistent mysteries associated with Walter Benjamin’s death, the most intractable concerns a manuscript he was carrying in a black briefcase as he fled the south of France through the Pyrenees on September 25, 1940. After stopping in the town of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the anti-fascist mayor provided his traveling party with an itinerary to Portbou, Spain, he was to continue on to Lisbon en route to New York. Lisa Fittko, who led Benjamin’s group, recalls that he was carrying a large black briefcase, despite a heart condition that caused him to have to stop every ten minutes in order to catch his breath. According to her account it was supposed to have contained his last manuscript. “The manuscript must be saved at all costs,” she reports him saying, “It is more important than my own person.”
On September 26, Benjamin’s party arrived in Portbou. They had instructions to immediately register their papers at the customs office. A recent administrative decree by Franco’s regime had prohibited those without French exit visas from traveling through Spain, and Benjamin was put under house arrest in his hotel room. He was to be expelled to France the following morning. In the event of his detention, Benjamin had carried with him a bottle of morphine tablets “just in case,” which he took that night in his hotel room where he was held under guard. Hotel records indicate that he made four phone calls that night, but it is unknown whether he reached anyone. It is also unclear whether the doctor who attended him misdiagnosed his cause of death as being from natural causes out of incompetence or because he was sympathetic to the group, who might have been further detained if his suicide were discovered.
Before he died the following morning he handed one of his traveling companions a postcard addressed to Adorno, which was destroyed out of fear of an investigation. In this note, as recounted to Adorno by the companion on her arrival in New York, he was supposed to have stated: “Dans une situation sans issue, je n’ai d’autre choix que d’en finir. C’est dans un petit village dans les Pyrénées où personne ne me connaît que ma vie va s’achever.” [I have no choice but to put an end to a situation in which there is no way out. My life will come to an end in a little village in the Pyrenees where noone knows me.] In an official report filed by the local administration of justice on Oct. 4, “a number of letters and newspapers” are listed among his belongings, but no mention is made of their content. These belongings, along with the official documents, were then handed over by the Portbou community court to the Figueras district court. In a letter to Max Horkeimer from the Figueras district court on Oct. 30, one month after Benjamin’s death, “diverse letters, magazines, and a few other papers whose content is not known” are reported among his effects, but by the time researchers managed to uncover a paper trail in Portbou in 1991, the courthouse had moved and the files had been destroyed.
B. Burial and Monument: Portbou, Spain
The news of Benjamin’s death quickly spread among the expatriated German intelligentsia, but in the town where he died his name remained unknown. Through an administrative error that was probably encouraged by his traveling companions in order to protect them from deportation, Walter Benjamin was buried as a Catholic in the Portbou cemetery under the name Benjamin Walter, and with the money remaining on his person, the court purchased a burial plot for five years. No one arrived to claim his remains in 1945, and his body was then transferred to an unmarked grave in the secular part of the cemetery.
Hundreds of exiles followed Benjamin’s path through the mountains of the Pyrenees before the war ended, led by what became known as the Emergency Rescue Committee. After the war his underground fame steadily grew; in Spain, Franco prohibited any mention of him, and there, as in Germany and elsewhere in the West, he came to be regarded as a martyr of the era of fascist dictatorships. After the war, the groundskeeper of the cemetery erected a fictitious gravesite to assure himself of tips from the visitors who requested to see Benjamin’s grave. In 1993 a monument was erected in his honor in the cemetery in Portbou overlooking the sea, commemorating those who had passed through the town during the war. Fifty years after his death, many townspeople claimed to remember him and would affectionately recount the story of his death to visitors.
C. Last Known Work: New York
“There is no document of culture that is not also a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”
- Walter Benjamin
Benjamin entrusted the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” to Hannah Arendt in Marseilles prior to his flight from France. He asked her to deliver the manuscript to Theodor Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in New York. Written on an orange newspaper wrapper in a minuscule script that reminded his friends of his fascination with small things, it is described with the reverence appropriate to a sacred text of ancient origin. The theses concentrate his work into a few ideas which retrospectively appear to unify his writings. A “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” can only be made possible by treating historical events with the same sense of emergency as the present. Benjamin’s posthumous reception has been greatly enhanced by the theses; his life and the survival of his work became defined by the possibility that at each moment he could easily have been lost to history, and his writings henceforth take on a mythological character.
D. Unwritten Masterwork: Paris, France
The “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” so titled by Adorno, was a fragment of a larger project with which Benjamin had occupied himself since 1927, and almost exclusively from the beginning of his exile in 1933. During the course of his intensive research on the Passagen-Werk, known to English speakers as the Arcades Project, Benjamin assembled thousands of pages of notes made up almost entirely of quotations from historical sources. These notes were entrusted to Georges Bataille, who hid them during the German Occupation in the Bibliotheque Nationale, where Benjamin had conducted the greater part of his research. For unknown reasons only a portion of these papers were delivered to Theodor Adorno by Pierre Missac (an assistant to Bataille who wrote the first essays on Benjamin in France) after the war; five other envelopes were discovered by Giorgio Agamben in 1982 among Bataille’s posthumous papers. Even if his notoriously abominable hand-writing had not prevented these notes from being assembled into any sensible order, the nature of the notes themselves, scribbled quotes written on whatever scraps of paper were at hand and organized in an alphabetically organized and color-coded file whose colors corresponded to idiosyncratic categories such as “The Interior, Trace,” “Prostitution, Gambling,” and “Idleness,” would have presented practically insurmountable difficulties to those editors traditionally eager to reassemble the incomplete works left by well-known writers. As Benjamin’s posthumous fame grew, references to the monumental unwritten study, first in commentaries by former associates and later in his letters and other writings, established a unique place for it at the center of his thought, long before any clear idea of how to reconstruct the work could be ascertained. In the Passagen-Werk, Benjamin had seemingly managed to create a work that could be referred to and quoted without having, in fact, been written. It is a book whose content can only be inductively imagined through the allusions to it in his correspondence, recollections from remembered conversations with friends, and by reference to essays that were supposed to belong to the project, all of which were uniquely mediated by the contextual understanding of interlocutors, historical circumstances, the demands of editors, and Benjamin’s own struggle for survival throughout the period of its conception. Though it has been produced in book form, as an object of commentary the Passagen-Werk can only be regarded as a function of the social relations from which it can be supposed to have been created; those who have attempted to discuss it at any length have been confronted with the problem of reconstructing, from the historical position of the late 20th century, a historical reconstruction of the 19th century itself conceived from the perspective of the early 20th century. 
V. MARTYRDOM: Benjamin’s Posthumous Publications
The words of the dead
are modified in the guts of the living.
- W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
Arendt delivered copies of Benjamin’s last manuscripts to Theodor Adorno with some reluctance a few days after she arrived in New York in 1941. She mistrusted Adorno, believing that he had tried to ingratiate himself with the Nazis in the early 30s, and due to his treatment of Benjamin’s work after 1936, which she knew about second-hand from their friendship in Paris. At any rate, Arendt complied with Benjamin’s wishes, but she kept copies of the manuscripts for herself. When she discovered that Adorno had lost one of the Benjamin manuscripts, this only confirmed her suspicion that the Institute would suppress his work, and she was incensed by Adorno’s failure to immediately publish his papers. Although in 1942 the Institute distributed a small number of mimeographed copies of a volume devoted to Benjamin, In Memory of Walter Benjamin, it was not until 1955, nearly ten years after his return to Germany, that Adorno managed to publish a relatively comprehensive edition of his work. In 1968, after years of rejected proposals for a collection of Benjamin’s writing, Arendt came out with the first English edition. In 1966, Scholem and Adorno completed their collection of Benjamin’s letters, which was not published until 1978 in Germany. In 1975, Scholem published his Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, the major source of biographical information of Benjamin, particularly during his youth.
If his posthumous advocates, composed of the same people who sustained him financially and spiritually during different periods of his life, succeeded in presenting Benjamin to their respective publics, the differences in their manner of presentation, as well as their different publics, provide us with the beginning of an understanding of his posthumous legend. It is a matter not only of petty jealousies, but also of substantive philosophical and political disagreements, as well as disciplinary boundaries, which throughout Benjamin seemed either to poorly understand, to oppose out of principle, or simply to ignore insofar as they had little to do with his own intellectual project. But more compelling than the differences are the similarities; they all acted as faithful redeemers of their unappreciated friend.
A. Scholem: The Story of A Friendship (and other stories)
In 1941, Gershom Scholem published his first major book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, with the following dedication:
TO THE MEMORY OF
The friend of a lifetime whose genius united the insight
of the Metaphysician, the interpretive power of the Critic
and the erudition of the Scholar
DIED AT PORT BOU (SPAIN)
ON HIS WAY INTO FREEDOM
Apart from the preservation of Benjamin’s manuscripts, Scholem was responsible for two major efforts on his behalf: with Adorno, a two volume edition of his correspondence, completed and copyrighted by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1966, but not published until 1978; and a memoir of his friendship with Benjamin, published by Suhrkamp in 1975. Both efforts would pave the way for Benjamin’s biography to be written.
Like Haussman’s avenues built to accommodate the demands of the modern metropolis, the editors’ presentation of Benjamin’s letters had to eliminate material unsuitable to their purpose, the image of Benjamin’s importance to posterity. Thus, Scholem notes in the foreword to the correspondence: “Omissions...concern purely technical and financial matters, his relationships with his parents, and personal comments about people still living that we did not think we had the authority to make public. We did leave in objective criticism of individuals, even when it was of an ironic nature; beyond that discretion seemed to be in order.” Omissions of this kind are to be expected of any editor of a volume of letters; they by no means were so extensive as to disguise the careerist aspects of Benjamin’s literary activities. Alongside the “natural charm and the splendor of his power of expression,” Benjamin’s letters and Scholem’s memoir inevitably revealed some of the more banal aspects of his legacy. Thus, as Scholem indicates in his memoir, quoting from a letter regarding Hoffmanthal’s play Der Turm, he was not above granting positive reviews to works of his benefactors: “I have not read the thing yet. My private judgment is already set, and so is my journalistic judgment, which is the opposite.” But, for all Scholem’s willingness to recognize Benjamin’s faults, he remained convinced long after his death that Benjamin’s genius justified whatever was necessary for his work to be remembered.
Benjamin was a much too impressive and significant phenomenon to almost all who knew him more intimately for them not to have preserved all or some of his letters to them.
The mythicization of Benjamin took one of its most extreme forms in Scholem’s essay, “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” presented in 1972 on the occasion of what would have been Benjamin’s 80th birthday. Written partly as a reaction to the appropriation of Benjamin’s work by the Frankfurt Institute, which by the time had become firmly entrenched in contemporary leftist political movements, Scholem noted that young Marxists had begun to “quote Benjamin like Holy Writ.” In his attempt to liberate the mystical and theological aspects of Benjamin’s work, inassimilable within the orthodoxy of the Frankfurt School’s critique of commodification, Scholem turned to hermeneutic and biographical expedients. Appropriately for the occasion, Scholem chose a text from August, 1933, just after Benjamin’s permanent exile, in which Benjamin, in the guise of autobiography, reflects upon the “secret name” given to him by his parents at birth in the event that it were necessary for him to conceal his Jewish identity. The name would only be revealed to the child after his attainment of maturity:
Since, however, [the attainment of maturity] can occur more than once in life, and perhaps, too, not every secret name remains always the same and untransfigured, its transfiguration might reveal itself the occasion of a new maturity.
He goes on to relate this secret name to a mystical belief in the kabbalic tradition:
in every instant God creates an immense number of new angels, all of whom only have the purpose, before they dissolve into naught, of singing His praise before His throne for a moment.
The name that Benjamin had invented for himself within this fiction was Agesilaus Santander, an anagram for The Angel Satan (Der Angelus Satanas), in Scholem’s interpretation. The myriad of meanings that Scholem discovers in this short prose piece all amount to one thing, Benjamin’s ability to make his life into a mythic allegory. If he had ended it at that moment, prior to the experience of Holocaust, however, it would have been nearly impossible to view his life as anything but the contrived sufferings of Goethe’s young Werther, whose sentimental poems are rediscovered by a fictional editor after his suicide. Instead of the sad spectacle of the revolt of bourgeois consciousness impotently turned inward, Benjamin’s life would become the symbol of the destruction of the individual by the very productive forces originally unleashed by its advent. Scholem’s real appreciation of Benjamin leaves off at this moment, in 1933, when it was still possible to imagine the word genius being applied without embarrassment or sarcasm.
B. Adorno’s Schriften
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.”
-T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951.
Adorno’s two volume collection, Schriften, which he published after reestablishing himself in Germany after the war, was the first German edition of Benjamin’s collected essays. It appeared five years after Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood in 1900), probably Benjamin’s most accessible work, a commercial failure published through Adorno’s initiative that made it difficult for further editions of his writings to be issued.
The publication of Benjamin’s work would have been impossible if it had not been buttressed by the reputation that Adorno had established for himself after 1940, which was in no small way indebted to Benjamin, as he never failed to acknowledge. The 1955 edition was prefaced with an essay by Adorno in which evidence of their former intellectual disagreements is completely subdued. The uncritical character of Adorno’s introduction, which concealed important differences between the two writers’ positions, particularly with regard to the ideological content of culture, successfully launched Benjamin into the intellectual world of post-war Germany.
Adorno’s introduction begins with a diversion that pretended to present Benjamin in the light of his persecution by National Socialism and the subsequent displacement of his work, without giving legitimacy to the categories that would normally lead to Benjamin appearing as a literary martyr.
Here the intention is not to assemble the “life’s work” of a philosopher or scholar, neither is it to make amends to one who died a victim of National Socialist persecution and whose name has been repressed from Germany’s public consciousness since 1933.
Adorno questions the category of the “life’s work,” defined as “the culmination of an undisrupted life, fulfilled according to its own measure,” on the basis that the unity it presumes does not apply to Benjamin and possibly no longer applies to contemporary works at all. Nonetheless, he says, the attempt to “protect him from the threat of oblivion” is justified by the fact that “the historical catastrophes of his time denied Benjamin’s work any consummate wholeness and condemned to the fragmentary not only the major project of his later years...but also his entire philosophy.” The effect of the initial negation is therefore to all the more securely lend credibility to the effort to “make accessible once again what has been lost for decades.” This is followed by another equivocal moment, however:
Yet such an attempt at spiritual reparation would be marked by a helplessness that no one would have sensed more deeply than Benjamin himself, who had heroically fought off any childish faith in the ahistorical immutability and permanence of works of the spirit.
Finally, having struggled over the implications of the project of reconstruction he has undertaken, seemingly without being satisfied with the justifications he has so far been able to muster, Adorno turns to a form of argumentation that will be more familiar to his readers. The stakes are now raised to the level of a confrontation with the “overwhelming powers of the status quo”; Benjamin’s thought is made to represent an oppositional force in relation to “an order to which consciousness instinctually blinds itself so as not to be sickened by the world as it is and its purposes.” This polemical turn is accompanied by none of the earlier ambivalence.
Elsewhere in the introduction, Adorno speaks of Benjamin’s method as a kind of ascetic “self-relinquishment.” On the one hand this referred to Benjamin’s method of intentionally alienating himself from his own theoretical intuitions so that his confrontation with the historical material could achieve its proper distance; on the other, it implied that Benjamin’s integrity was above question:
He preferred to incorporate thought that was foreign and dangerous to him as a sort of inoculation rather than entrust himself to some look-alike in which he, incorruptible, discerned complicity with the extant and official even when one behaved as if day were just breaking and one were starting anew.
Though Adorno had earlier attacked Benjamin’s method, in the introduction Adorno give a more positive spin to what he earlier described as a mere presentation of actualities, though the earlier dispute is evident in the rhetoric: “Benjamin’s philosophy...dares the reader to consume and reduce it to a succession of desultory aperçus, governed by the happenstance of mood and light.” Adorno now defends this aspect of Benjamin by claiming for his work a “unity of philosophical consciousness” which centers itself by “relinquishing itself to the manifold” rather than grounding itself in fundamental concepts.
Adorno never gives an account of the transformation of his attitude toward Benjamin’s work, though he clearly struggled throughout his career to reconcile his own intuitions with those of Benjamin. At what point did he change his mind regarding the shortfalls of Benjamin’s dialectical materialism? Was it in spite of his earlier objections that he later valorized Benjamin, or had he over time reevaluated his earlier position? What was the value of resurrecting the figure of Benjamin, particularly in such a way that his own objections remained suppressed? Did he suppress his disagreement because of the necessities of resurrection itself? In any case, Adorno’s efforts were successful; Benjamin’s reputation had been established in Germany.
In 1967, Adorno published Prisms, the first of his German books to appear in English. He had just published Negative Dialectics in Germany, in which he attempted to systematically articulate the abstract concepts that formed the metaphysical basis for his critical practice. In Prisms, Adorno presents a series of “individual studies” that would “concretize that type of knowledge toward which he is inclined.” The essay on Walter Benjamin, coming more than ten years after he succeeded in creating a context for Benjamin’s reception in Germany, is able to treat his subject with a kind of freedom impossible before the public had become familiar with Benjamin’s work. It could also have been the occasion for a critical summation of the journey traveled by Benjamin’s work since he first introduced it to the public, as the first sentence of the essay at first seems to suggest:
The name of the philosopher who took his life while fleeing Hitler’s executioners has, in the more than twenty years since then, acquired a certain nimbus, despite the esoteric character of his early writings and the fragmentary nature of his later ones.
Instead, “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin” is marked by the aplomb of a commentator speaking of a subject others can only have glimpsed through his still imperfectly preserved remains. In this, as in the introduction to Benjamin’s letters, Adorno goes ever further in separating Benjamin from a kind of individual subjectivity that can be regarded as the reservoir of genius, ascribing to him attributes that can only be described as angelic:
The impression he left was not of someone who created truth or who attained it through conceptual power; rather, in citing it, he seemed to have transformed himself into a supreme instrument of knowledge on which the latter had left its mark.
Thus, in contrast to his treatment of other subjects in Prisms, Adorno’s portrait utterly fails to caution reader about the critical problems to be encountered in Benjamin’s work, or to evaluate the misunderstandings to which the partial publication of his work has so far given rise. Instead, it announces how much further Benjamin has yet to go before a critical summation would be possible. This free-ranging essay, which surveys the entirety of Benjamin’s oeuvre through its immanent categories, adds force to the tensions that he introduced in 1955; the problem was that his oeuvre still remained to be published in its entirety. Adorno throws Benjamin’s readers the promise of a rope on which to hang themselves, the Arcades project:
Thousands of pages of this project have been preserved, studies of individual subjects which were hidden during the occupation of Paris. The whole, however, can hardly be reconstructed.
In the following decades, Benjamin’s complete works were edited under the direction of students of Adorno, culminating in the publication of the notes for the Arcades Project in 1981. Though the enormous feat they accomplished in assembling his work should not be underestimated, the lens of critical theory, while providing an overture to his work, turned out to be an impediment to exploring Benjamin’s thought on its own terms¾a right, in any case, it had not yet had the opportunity to earn.
C. Arendt’s Illuminations
“Un livre connu de vous, de moi et de quelques-uns de nos amis, n’a-t-il pas tous les droits à être appelé fameux?”
-Baudelaire, from the dedication to Paris Spleen
Arendt’s first essays after her arrival in New York, published in Jewish journals, spoke of the difficulties of immigrants in adjusting to economic and cultural life in a country where all their old references had lost significance.
We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved¾and most of us had to be saved several times¾we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forget quicker than anybody ever could imagine.
The necessities of survival meant that certain things from the old world were bound to look, in retrospect, like childish reveries. “But sometimes,” Arendt writes, “I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved.” Her efforts on behalf of Walter Benjamin were undoubtedly a product of the devotion to these memories.
When she began working as the senior editor for Schocken Books in 1946, one of her first proposals was a collection devoted to Benjamin, but she was unable to convince the publisher, who had earlier rejected Scholem’s efforts on behalf of Benjamin’s proposed book on Kafka. It was not until 1968 that she succeeding in publishing the first collection of his work in English with Harcourt Brace. (A paperback was issued by Schocken the following year.) Her essay on Benjamin, originally published in the New Yorker in 1967, caused a sensational interest in him in certain circles.
When she was beginning her introduction she wrote to Karl Jaspers: “My first task is to write a detailed introduction to an English edition of Walter Benjamin. I’ll have to do a detailed job because he is completely unknown here.” Nonetheless, Arendt permitted herself to open the essay with a discussion of Benjamin’s fame¾which required some poetic license¾because of the reception of his work in Germany. Her essay begins with a slight of hand: “Fama, that much-coveted goddess, has many faces, and fame comes in many shapes and sizes.” Immediately disposing of the need for more substantial proofs supporting the claim to fame of a writer completely unknown to her audience through reference to the “succès d’estime” of Benjamin first collection of Germany, she proceeds to a discussion of the phenomenon of posthumous fame:
Posthumous fame is too odd a thing to be blamed upon the blindness of the world or the corruption of a literary milieu. Nor can it be said that it is the bitter reward of those who were ahead of their time¾as though history were a race track on which some contenders run so swiftly that they simply disappear from the spectator’s range of vision. On the contrary, posthumous fame is usually preceded by the highest recognition among one’s peers.
The effect is twofold: on the one hand, Arendt presents herself as demythologizing Benjamin’s posthumous rise to fame by showing how it was grounded in the reputation established during his lifetime. Benjamin did not simply appear out of thin air, but had long been considered important among the elite of the German intelligentsia.
We cannot know if there is such a thing as altogether unappreciated genius, or whether it is the daydream of those who are not geniuses; but we can be reasonably sure that posthumous fame will not be their lot.
On the other hand, since Benjamin was unknown to her audience, whatever debunking intentions to which she pretended were overpowered by the sense of the “immutable” value of his work¾to use the word that Adorno questions¾as opposed to the economic and historical circumstances in which they were originally presented (or failed to be presented) to the public.
Posthumous fame. . .is less arbitrary and often more solid than the other sorts, since it is only seldom bestowed on mere merchandise. The one who stood most to profit is dead and hence it is not for sale.
Thus posthumous fame conferred a special value on Benjamin’s work; it attested to its intellectual autonomy. In some odd way, the talk of the “death of the author” that had become fashionable among the Parisian avant-garde philosophers in the late 60s is given concrete form in Benjamin; the author had to die a more than symbolic death in order for his work to reappear as a privileged cultural event.
But not all posthumously discovered works become famous; the work itself must be able to support the special value conferred by posthumous fame. In the service of these claims, Arendt introduces the category of the “incomparable,” a word Benjamin used to characterize the sublimity of such objects as old photographs and those rare works of literature that he regarded as treasures. It happened to be the same word used by Hugo von Hoffmanthal to describe Benjamin’s breakthrough essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Arendt deployed the most elegant rhetoric to make the point:
To describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations; he was the first German to translate Proust ...and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he was no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was no poet or philosopher.
But again, Arendt immediately introduces a problematic in relation to the incomparable character of his work, which allows her to completely elude any demand for proof:
The trouble with everything Benjamin wrote was that it always turned out to be sui generis. Posthumous fame seems, then, to be the lot of the unclassifiable ones, that is, those whose work neither fits the existing order nor introduces a new genre that lends itself to future classification.
Others, like Siegfried Kracauer and Ernst Bloch, for instance, had written in a similar style and often on the same subjects as Benjamin, but no mention is made of either of them. In fact, Benjamin intentionally positioned his work to be received as unique. His break with his one-time friend Bloch was clearly due to Benjamin’s fear that Bloch was stealing his ideas.
I will have informed you that I wrote the first synoptic outline for [the Passagen-Werk] a few weeks ago. I also had my studies photocopied for safekeeping. Conversely, I am not letting my literary colleagues, even my friends, know anything about the project: nothing of a more detailed nature. It is at a stage in which it would be particularly vulnerable to all conceivable trials and tribulations, not least of all to theft. You will understand that Bloch’s “hieroglyphs of the nineteenth century” have made me somewhat skittish.
Nonetheless he affiliated himself with Brecht, who, even then, was notorious for his willful plagiarism. In fact, Benjamin quotes Brecht in more than one place claiming that “there is no criticism of my literary activities¾‘plagiarist,’ ‘troublemaker,’ or ‘saboteur’¾that I would not adopt for my unliterary, anonymous, yet systematic efforts and regard as a badge of honor.”
While it made little economic sense to drown Benjamin in a sea of other then-forgotten names, a comparison with Kafka, the privileged posthumous figure of our century, could be expected to yield huge payoffs. In both cases, the work was supposed to so radically depart from formal traditions that an entirely new conception of the intellectual work on the one hand, and the literary one on the other, would be necessary in order for their true value to be appreciated, something that could only happen after a new tradition had retrospectively claimed them as antecedents.
But, finally, the special character of the work is also not sufficient to legitimize its claim to posthumous fame. Countless works that have failed to conform to formal traditions have appeared and had no significance whatsoever for intellectual history; it was still necessary to provide an explanation of the reasons for it having been misplaced that would not have a denigrating implication with regard to its quality. Arendt unassumingly gives these circumstances the name of bad luck, a kind of description Benjamin might have favored insofar as it can be considered as a contemporary instantiation the classical theological idea of fate. (In fact, it is one of the explanations he gives for the bad review by Zweig in 1924.) His biography provides ample evidence of bad luck, and Arendt deploys the biographical lore to good effect, though she sometimes exaggerates. His biography appears as a series of events in which an intersection of historical circumstances and chronic bungling frustrate every opportunity for undisputed success. But rather than coming off as a comic or pathetic figure, his monumentally rendered failures become another characteristic sign of his absolutely unique character. Her description of his final day, in particular, is neatly organized to produce this effect:
One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseilles would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.
D. Brecht: Or, So Much for the Angels (Addendum)
“You see, my business is trying to arouse human pity. There are a few things that’ll move people to pity, a few, but the trouble is, when they’ve been used several times, they no longer work.”
- Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
In July, 1941 Brecht arrived in the U.S., where he worked in Hollywood without much success. His diaries attest to his difficulty in accepting the cultural life of the Americans, particularly in Los Angeles: “almost nowhere has my life ever been harder than here in this mausoleum of easy going.” He looks out on the irrigated greenery of the San Fernando valley and reflects that “the butchery 15,000 kilometers away, which is deciding our fate right across europe at its broadest point, is only an echo in the hubbub of the art market here.” The diary, filled with complaints about America and grim observations about the war, is one of the few places where Brecht set down his thoughts on Benjamin, though he is supposed to have said that Benjamin’s death was the first real loss German literature had suffered because of Hitler. In August he reports the following news with characteristic dryness:
walter benjamin has poisoned himself in some little spanish border town. the guardia civil had stopped the little group he belonged to. when the others went to tell him the next morning that they were being allowed to carry on, they found him dead. I read the last article he sent to the institute for social research...the little treatise is clear and presents complex issues simply (despite its metaphors and its judaisms) and it is frightening to think how few people there are who are prepared even to misunderstand such a piece.
His comments are interesting not only for providing insight into the manner in which the news of Benjamin’s death circulated among the German exiles, but also for the epigrammatic manner, completely lacking in nostalgia, with which he, in his private notes to himself, anticipates the reception of Benjamin’s final work. And as if to punctuate the previous entry, the next paragraph comments on those in a position to misunderstand Benjamin:
and now to the survivors! at a garden party at rolf nürnburg’s I met the twin clowns horkeimer and pollock, two tuis from the frankfurt sociological institute....they keep about a dozen intellectuals’ heads above water with their money, and these in turn have to contribute all their work to the journal without any guarantee that it will ever be printed.
But Brecht indicates his deep prejudice toward the Institute and his quickness to make vulgar Marxist assumptions when he claims in the same entry that Horkeimer was a millionaire, which was simply not true. The Institute lived off a grant, which it had managed to preserve through a Swiss bank account after the Nazis began liquidating Jewish assets. As it happened, the Institute funded itself on the principle rather than the interest of the grant, and when the money began to run out, Horkeimer decided that the grant could be interpreted in such a way that he could become the sole beneficiary.
VI. EMPATHY, VIOLENCE, LAW, MYTH
“Act according to that maxim by which the angels have something to do.”
-T. W. Adorno, interpreting Benjamin’s commentary on Kafka’s Amerika
During the corruption of his youth, one of the cultural institutions that Augustine fell into with the greatest feeling was the theater. The theater nourished his unhappiness; through the stage, his sense of self-pity could find expression through the medium of others’ performed suffering.
The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet when he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympathy with others, we call it pity.
Augustine’s conclusion was simple: sorrow was a source of pleasure; one enjoyed others’ suffering and encouraged it through empathy. Later, he limited the expression of pity to those who thoroughly enjoyed pleasure in their “sins.” The confession of one’s suffering, whether practiced in a cynical manner or out of the felt need for assistance, was a means of eliciting sympathy and thus involving others in one’s sorrow. And reciprocation in the case of such confessions meant only one thing to Augustine: to adopt the other’s vice.
Benjamin very rarely confessed his private sufferings to others, even when it was evident from his physical circumstances. Scholem, Adorno, and Arendt, as well as Lisa Fittko, who wrote about his difficult journey through the Pyrenees, all attested to Benjamin’s patient endurance of his circumstances. His patience, in his own words, was his greatest strength:
For in taking advantage of the circumstance that I came into the world under the sign of Saturn¾the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of hesitation and delay¾he [Benjamin’s angel] sent his feminine form, after the masculine reproduced in the picture, by way of the longest, most fatal detour....He did not, perhaps, know that thereby he brought to the fore the strength of him whom he accosted. For nothing can overcome my patience. Its wings resemble those of the angel in that very few pushes are enough for them to preserve themselves immovably in the face of her whom my patience is resolved to wait.
Those who were allowed proximity to him felt privileged to receive his rare confessions, and did everything in their power to assist him. Thus Benjamin patiently sifted through books in the Bibliotheque Nationale and extracted quotations, as those who cared for him attempted to lure him under their wings: his ex-wife in London; Scholem in Jerusalem; Adorno in New York; Brecht in Denmark. His decision to stay in Europe, by which he consciously put himself in the way of danger, despite the many opportunities he had to leave, contradicts the spirit of pathos that pervades the discussion of his fate.
According to John Fuegi, his most recent biographer, Brecht built his career on the exploitation of others, promising to marry his various mistresses in exchange for their manuscripts and credit for their work. Fuegi writes: “Brecht is very much a part of this century of the charismatic, irrational yet effective Pied Piper powers that could, in the case of both Hitler and Stalin, lure tens of millions of supposedly intelligent being to embrace their butchers.” The title genius as applied to Brecht did not simply mean that he was effusive in the expression of creativity. In fact, very little of Brecht’s work had anything to do with expressivity, with the possible exception of his obscene poems.
Brecht occupied a central role in Benjamin’s position on European culture for the very reason that his work had almost nothing to do with the expression of an individual subjectivity. Rather, Brecht’s mode of production, if it had been carried through, should have undermined the entire system of attribution and valorization practiced in Western society. As Benjamin says, Brecht was careful in the application of his literary gifts. What mattered was not his “genius” as expressed in the representation of characters’ subjectivity, but the reactions he was able to elicit from people by his techniques.
Brecht’s theory of the stage, which Benjamin never managed to gain any appreciation for from Scholem and Adorno, involved withholding those aspects of narrative that would enable the audience to experience empathy. As Benjamin wrote:
Brecht’s drama eliminated the Aristotelian catharsis, the purging of the emotions through empathy with the stirrying fate of the hero....To put it succinctly: instead of identifying with the characters, the audience should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which they function.
But in complete contrast to this, Brecht’s audiences rarely experienced his productions in a distanced, reflective manner. Well before his financial success with Threepenny Opera, Brecht had already achieved a more significant victory: he was able to outrage audiences. In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht finally incorporated his theory into the narrative itself; the exploitation of empathy was turned into an allegory, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it. They could cheer it because it was no longer a parody of themselves. In retrospect, Brecht’s theatrical success in the last days of Weimar pitifully reflects the brutality to come.
It was not a matter of the innovation of a professional in the theater that made Brecht important to Benjamin; his anti-clerical attitude toward theater was meant to be revolutionary in precisely the sense that “the author as producer” was supposed to transform the very apparatus of culture. This was carried through to his personal relations: Brecht pretended to dissolve the normal subjective boundaries of individual identity. As Brecht affirmed, the opinions he expressed in a group of people at any given time had as little to do with his own views as did a character on stage. In the context of the society in which he functioned, however, Brecht’s theory simply allowed him to justify appropriating others’ work without giving them credit. Benjamin at least recognized that, among his associates, dependence on Brecht would be the most dangerous of Faustian bargains.
It turned out that the challenge that Brecht’s mode of production might have directed toward dominant critical practice, like the literary method adopted by Benjamin, was easily absorbed into the existing system of attribution and valorization. His name became a part of the pantheon of culture, and the women who worked in his “workshop” were forgotten.
In 1966, Arendt and Scholem squared off over the question of whether it was legitimate to tell the story of Eichmann’s trial in a manner that conceived of the possibility of identification. Scholem accused Arendt of maliciousness and lack of love for her people for her willingness to even entertain Eichmann’s perspective. As Scholem expressed it, the extent of the suffering experienced by the Jews during World War II seemed to exclude the possibility of empathy for Eichmann, who presented himself at the trial as a mere functionary within the National Socialist regime.
In response, Arendt’s rejected the notion that she should give priority to the fact of her Jewishness in her political judgment. “‘Love of the Jews,’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect….Generally speaking,” she adds, “the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable....We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.” In the end, her explanation is quite succinct: regarding her own position, she claims the right to intellectual independence. Regarding Eichmann’s eventual fate, she says:
Mercy was out of the question, not on juridical grounds¾pardon is anyhow not a prerogative of the juridical system¾but because mercy is applicable to the person rather than to the deed; the act of mercy does not forgive murder but pardons the murderer insofar as he, as a person, may be more than anything he ever did. This was not true of Eichmann. And to spare his life without pardoning him was impossible on juridical grounds.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt unmasked the myth-making character of violence. Eichmann’s conviction that he was merely following orders in delivering Jews to their deaths testified to his belief in the myth of the Fascist state. The death sentence handed down to him by an Israeli court, the first of its kind, expressed Israel’s legitimacy in instituting laws where no other authority challenged its right. The justification of its action, arising simultaneously with the action itself, constituted a founding myth of the state. Thus, violence created its own justification.
In 1928, Benjamin published an odd piece in the Frankfurter Zietung, entitled “The Path to Success, in Thirteen Theses.” In it he outlines several principles by which success can be attained. The first thesis emphasizes both the factual basis of success in the real merits of the work, and the contingent character of the achievement that constititutes success:
There is no great success without authentic achievements. But it would be a fallacy to imagine that these achievements are its foundation.
The true foundation of success is “a great challenge, a shrewd repartee, an advantageous transaction,” which are a result of the “increased self-confidence and working pleasure of the person who finds himself recognized.” This self-confidence is distinguished, however, from satisfaction with the rewards of accomplishment, which “paralyzes success.” One should never emphasize one’s success; this would undermine its foundations.
Furthermore, he says “only people who seem to be or really are guided in their behavior by straightforward, transparent motives will obtain success in the long run...Success only has to conform to an idea, or more accurately an image, whether of a hierarchy, militarism, plutocracy or any other...anyone who refuses to pay tribute to the masses’ collection of images must fail.” The seduction that leads to exegetical compulsions depends on the clarity of these images, which Benjamin calls “the supreme emotional need of any public.”
One center, one leader, one slogan. The more unambiguous an intellectual phenomenon, the greater its radius of action will be and the more the public will flock to it. People’s “interest” in an author grows; that is to say, they begin to seek his formula¾in other words, the most basic, unambiguous expression of his writing. From that moment on, his every new work becomes the raw material in which his readers strive to test that formula, and to refine and prove its worth. Strictly speaking, the public has an ear only for the message that the author would just have time and strength enough to utter on his deathbed with his last breath.
The kinds of impulses he identifies with literary gamesmanship are strikingly similar to the ones later connected to fascist aesthetics. The assent of the masses is obtained without disturbing property relations.
Benjamin goes on to historically contextualize the idea of posterity as a specifically modern phenomenon. Beginning in the 18th century, the independent writer, insecure in his new social conditions, appealed to posterity as a weapon against his own age:
All previous ages were unanimous in their conviction that their own contemporaries held the keys that would open the doors to future fame. And how much truer this is today, when every new generation finds itself with even less time or inclination to revise already established judgments, and as its need to defend itself against the sheer mass of what the past has bequeathed it is assuming ever more desperate forms.
In complete contrast to the posthumous dogma, fame during one’s life became obligatory as a means of preserving the value of works: “In an age when every wretched scrap of paper is distributed in hundreds and thousands of copies, fame is a cumulative condition. Quite simply: the less successful the writer, the less available his works.”
In “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma,” the last chapter of Amerika, posthumously cobbled together by Max Brod, Kafka depicts a travelling theater company in which everyone who applies for a position is accepted. The only problem is to find the proper position for the applicants, who naturally are required to have some experience in the part for which they will be cast. This implied the most depressing of all scenarios; a situation in which art simply replicated the structure of experience present in reality, and therefore could not serve as an escape. Kafka’s protagonist is reduced to pretending to be something he is not, in the hope that he will eventually be allowed to become what he wants to be. Unfortunately he has no papers to support his claims, and is not bold enough to follow through on his lie. As a consequence, he is assigned a role that has nothing to do with who he really is, or any role he has any desire or capacity to perform.
Certain of those who travel with the theater are cast as angels, for reasons that remain obscure. In any case, their role seems to be merely promotional; they create a diversion in order to attract applicants. Benjamin, for whom angels exercised a peculiar fascination, had a special affinity for the allegory, which he wrote about for the tenth anniversary of Kafka’s death in 1934. On the one hand, its radical subjectification of experience seemed to suggest that reality could be constituted in an infinitely heterogeneous manner: that reality might be a private fantasy made up of whatever objects one condescended to recognize as real, so long as one had the presence of mind or the force of character to act according to the belief in one’s right. But if, as Goethe said, great men create their own laws, they depend on social relations with others for their enforcement. And only the one who is able to convince others of that right has the possibility of, one day, ending up on the right side of history. The force of will required to establish a reputation is the clearest expression of the barbaric aspect of culture. Afterward, the angels begin to do their work, and one’s private laws are slowly transformed into myths.
Adorno, Theodor. “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin.” Prisms. Neville Spearman, Ltd., London: 1967.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Verso: London, 1974.
Alter, Robert. “On Walter Benjamin.” Commentary. Sep., 1969.
Arendt, Hannah. Ed. Ron H. Feldman. The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. Grove Press, Inc., New York: 1978.
Arendt, Hannah. Ed. Jerome Kohn. Essays in Understanding: 1930-1954. Harcourt Brace & Co., New York: 1994.
Benjamin, Walter. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York: 1968.
Benjamin, Walter. Ed. Peter Demetz. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York: 1978.
Benjamin, Walter. Ed. Susan Sontag. One Way Street and Other Writing. New Left Books, London: 1979.
Benjamin, Walter. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 1: 1913-1926. Belknap/ Harvard U P, Cambridge: 1996.
Benjamin, Walter. Ed. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 2: 1927-1933. Belknap/ Harvard U P, Cambridge: 1999.
Benjamin, Walter. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. The Arcades Project. Belknap/ Harvard U P, Cambridge: 1999.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Threepenny Opera. Grove Press, New York: 1964.
Brecht, Bertolt. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. Journals: 1934-1955. Routledge, London: 1993.
Brecht, Bertolt. Ed. John Willett. Brecht on Theater. Hill and Wang, New York: 1964.
Broderson, Momme. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Verso, New York: 1996.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. MIT Press, Cambridge: 1989.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. The Free Press, New York: 1977.
Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of the Surrealist Revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1993.
Fuegi, John. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of Modern Drama. Grove Press, New York: 1994.
Gilman, Richard. “Successful Failure.” The New Republic. Dec. 14, 1968.
Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research (1923-1950). Little, Brown & Co., Boston: 1973.
Kermode, Frank. “The Incomparable Benjamin,” The New York Review of Books.
Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Ed. Thomas Y. Levin. Harvard UP, Cambridge: 1995.
Laqueur, Walter. Weimar: A Cultural History (1918-1933). G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York: 1974.
Missac, Pierre. Walter Benjamin’s Passages. MIT Press, Cambridge: 1995.
Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York: 1970.
Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1981.
Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Schocken Books, Jerusalem: 1941.
Scholem, Gershom and Theodor Adorno, ed. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin: 1910-1940. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1994.
Smith, Gary, ed.. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Reflections and Essays. MIT Press, Cambridge: 1988.
Stade, George. “Walter Benjamin: A Special Case.” The Nation. Dec. 30, 1968.
Steinberg, Michael P., ed. Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History. Cornell U P, Ithaca: 1996.
Unseld, Siegfried. For Walter Benjamin. AsKI, Bonn: 1993.
Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Significance. MIT Press, Cambridge: 1994.
Wismann, Heinz, ed. Walter Benjamin et Paris. Les Editions du Cerf, Alençon, 1986.
Witte, Bernd. Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography. Wayne State U P, Detroit: 1991.
Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. Columbia University Press, New York 1982.
Young-Breuhl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. Yale U P, New Haven: 1982.
 Walter Benjamin. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations 1968, 255.
 Scholem 1981, 23.
 Illuminations 1968, 254.
 “May-June 1931.” In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 2 (1927-1934). Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Belknap/ Harvard U P: Cambridge, 1999. (469-471)
 Ibid, 501.
 Walter Benjamin, Reflections. ed. Peter Demetz. Harcourt Brace, New York: 1979. (303)
 Scholem 1981, 180.
 “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” in On Walter Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith, MIT, Cambridge: 1988. (52)
 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations 1968, 218.
 Ibid, 242.
 Momme Broderson excuses Benjamin by claiming that he was trying to protect his family back in Germany, in particular his politically active brother, a communist who eventually died in a concentration camp. Momme Broderson. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Verso, New York: 1996.
 Frank Kermode, “The Incomparable Benjamin,” The New York Review of Books.
 lluminations, 263.
 Scholem 1981, 3.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ibid, 76.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 161.
 Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, ed. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1994. (560).
 Scholem 1981, 217.
 Ibid, 222.
 Broderson 1996, 133.
 Wiggershaus 1994, 69.
 Wiggershaus 1994, 91.
 John Fuegi. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of Modern Drama. Grove Press, New York: 1994. (125)
 Ibid, 142.
 Scholem states that he broke off his relationship with a childhood friend, Herbert Blumenthal, because the latter refused to recognize Benjamin’s authority. (Scholem 1981, 41.)
 Reflections, 208.
 Scholem 1981, 148.
 Reflections, 208.
 Young-Breuhl 1982, 74.
 Young-Breuhl 1982, 108.
 Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, ed. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1994. (25: Letter to Franz Sachs; June 4, 1913).
 Correspondence, 30. (Letter to Herbert Belmore, June 7, 1913)
 Ibid, 73. ( To Herbert Belmore, July 17, 1914)
 Ibid, 75. (To Gustav Wyneken, March 9, 1915)
 Ibid, 79. (Letter to Buber, July 1916)
 Ibid, 245. (Letter to Scholem, July 7, 1924)
 Scholem 1981, 129.
 Correspondence, 260-63. (Letter to Scholem, Feb. 19, 1925)
 Ibid, 263-65. (Letter to Scholem of April 6, 1925).
 Broderson 1996, 160.
 Correspondence, 313-16. (Letter of June 5, 1927)
 Siegfried Kracauer. “On the Writings of Walter Benjamin.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Ed. Thomas Y. Levin. Harvard UP, Cambridge: 1995. Originally published as “Zu den Schriften Walter Benjamins,” Frankfurter Zeitung 72, no. 524 (July 15, 1928).
 Ibid, 264.
 Correspondence, 313-16. (Letter to Hugo von Hofmannsthal, June 5, 1927)
 Ibid, 321. (Letter of Jan. 30, 1928)
 Scholem 1981, 182.
 Correspondence, 395-97. (July 26, 1932)
 A reference from the first chapter of Marx’s Capital dear to Marxist literary and cultural critics of Benjamin’s generation, at least since the publication of Lucács History and Class Consciousness in 1922. The section appears in The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed., Robert Tucker. Norton, New York: 1978 (319-329), and is discussed by Lukács in the chapter on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” History and Class Consciousness. MIT, Cambridge: 1971.
 (To Scholem, May 20, 1935.)
 (To Adorno, May 31, 1935)
 (August 2, 1935)
 (To Scholem, Oct. 24, 1935)
 (To Werner Kraft, Oct. 28, 1935)
 Martin Jay. The Dialectical Imagination. Little, Brown & Co., Boston: 1973. (205)
 (Aug. 9, 1935)
 (Apr. 4, 1937)
 Wiggershaus. (210), and Jay (205)
 Walter Benjamin. One Way Street and Other Writings. NLB, London: 1979. (41)
 (June 12, 1938)
 Rolf Wiggershaus. The Frankfurt School. MIT, Cambridge: 1994. (262)
 Lisa Fittko was later pressed into the service of the Emergency Rescue Committee after the story of Benjamin’s death spread. The Emergency Rescue Committee (it was only called that in retrospect), funded by Jewish intellectuals in New York, saved hundreds of refugees by leading them on the path that Benjamin took through the Pyrenees. He was preceded by Alma Mahler and Heinrich Mann, among others, one of whom made the route much more difficult by revealing the way he had escaped upon his arrival in New York, which was then patrolled.
 Siegfried Unseld, ed. For Walter Benjamin. Arbeitskreis selbständiger Kultur-Institute, Bonn: 1993. (205)
 The likely consequences of his expulsion remain uncertain; some who were caught on the border ended up in concentration camps, others simply waited near the border for the next opportunity to flee.
 Arthur Koestler, who crossed paths with Benjamin in Marseilles, claims that he had been carrying 50 morphine tablets, of which he gave Koestler half “just in case,” but some of his accounts are contradictory. (Unseld, 270)
 For details see For Walter Benjamin. Ed. Siegfried Unseld.
 Unseld, 254.
 Scholem, 226.
 “Les manuscrit parisiens de Walter Benjamin et le Passagen-Werk,” Michel Espagne & Michael Werner. In Walter Benjamin et Paris, ed. Heinz Wismann. Les Editions de Cerf, Paris: 1986.
 The notes for the Passagen-Werk were assembled in German in the Gesemelte Schriften, the complete works of Benjamin edited by Rolf Tiedemann, which were the basis of Buck-Morss’s excellent reconstruction in Dialectics of Seeing..
 Memoir, 126.
 Correspondence, xi.
 “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” in On Walter Benjamin. Ed. Gary Smith. 52.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 57.
 Gary Smith, ed. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. MIT Press, Cambridge: 1988. (2)
 Theodor Adorno, “Introduction to Benjamin’s Schriften.” In On Walter Benjamin. Gary Smith, ed. (3)
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 7.
 Prisms, 229.
 Ibid, 229.
 Ibid, 239.
 “We Refugees” (1943) in Essays in Understanding.56
 Ibid, 57.
 (Letter from H. Arendt to Karl Jaspers, Jan. 16, 1967)
 Illuminations, 2.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 3.
 (Letter to Alfred Cohn, July 18, 1935): 493.
 vol. 2, 366; see also: 374.
 Illuminations. 18
 Brecht diaries, 157.
 ibid, 159.
 ibid, 159
 ibid, 160
 Saint Augustine. Confessions. Penguin, London: 1961. (56)
 “Agesilias Santander,” quoted in Scholem’s “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” in On Walter Benjamin. 58.
 Fuegi 128.
 Reflections, 150.
 See Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” for a fuller exploration of these terms.
 “The Path to Success, in Thirteen Theses,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 2. 144.
 Ibid, 144-45.
 Ibid, 145.
© 1999 M.A. Thesis, Liberal Studies
New School for Social Research
Advisors: James Miller
Professor of Political Science and Chair of Liberal Studies
Associate Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies
New School for Social Research
Advisors: James Miller
Professor of Political Science and Chair of Liberal Studies
Associate Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies