Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

Howard Eiland
Michael W. Jennings
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 765
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  • Book Info
    Walter Benjamin
    Book Description:

    Walter Benjamin was perhaps the twentieth century's most elusive intellectual. His writings defy categorization, and his improvised existence has proven irresistible to mythologizers. In a major new biography, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings present a comprehensive portrait of the man and his times, as well as extensive commentary on his work.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72620-8
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    The German Jewish critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) is now generally regarded as one of the most important witnesses to European modernity. Despite the relative brevity of his writing career—his life was cut short on the Spanish border in flight before the Nazis—he left behind a body of work astonishing in its depth and diversity. In the years following what he called his “apprenticeship in German literature,” during which he produced enduring studies of Romantic criticism, of Goethe, and of the BaroqueTrauerspielor play of mourning, Benjamin established himself in the 1920s as a discerning...

  4. CHAPTER ONE A Berlin Childhood: 1892–1912
    (pp. 12-31)

    Berlin, the city of his birth, was never far from Walter Benjamin’s mind—even in the long exile that extended from Hitler’s seizure of power in March 1933 to Benjamin’s death on the Spanish border in flight from the German armies in September 1940. Walter Benedix Schoenflies Benjamin was born July 15, 1892, in a city that had become the capital of a unified German nation only in 1871; but those twenty years had seen explosive growth in population and industry, as well as the development of a modern infrastructure to support them. Berlin’s population numbered 800,000 in 1871; shortly...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Metaphysics of Youth: Berlin and Freiburg, 1912–1914
    (pp. 32-74)

    If most accounts of the years 1912–1914 suggest that the coming of World War I cast a deepening shadow over all of Europe, Walter Benjamin’s first university years in Freiburg and Berlin were dominated by rather different concerns. In these years, he began to focus his studies on what we might call a “philosophy of culture.” Far more important than those studies themselves, though, was Benjamin’s development during his university years of a broad and stinging critique of academic life. At first, that critique took the form of a series of brilliant but highly esoteric—and largely unpublished—essays....

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Concept of Criticism: Berlin, Munich, and Bern, 1915–1919
    (pp. 75-116)

    For Benjamin, the coming of the war precipitated a conclusive break not only with the activities of the youth movement (his Dostoevsky essay of 1917 would still invoke thespiritof youth) but with Gustav Wyneken himself, who in November 1914 had given a speech in Munich, “Youth and War,” in which he called on young people to join in the defense of the fatherland. Benjamin had been distancing himself from his former mentor at least since the previous spring, when he voiced strong criticisms of the theory of “objective spirit” inSchule und Jugendkultur(C, 68).¹ His response to...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Elective Affinities: Berlin and Heidelberg, 1920–1922
    (pp. 117-176)

    In the years following his return from Switzerland, Benjamin struggled, internally and externally, to find some way to secure an income that could support his young family and allow him the freedom to continue with his writing, which he increasingly defined as a form of criticism modeled on the critical practices of the early German Romantics. His thoughts were burdened by his situation: at the age of twenty-eight, he had neither immediate prospects nor a viable long-term path toward a career. From his base in Berlin, he worked resolutely, if intermittently, over the following four years to build relationships with...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Academic Nomad: Frankfurt, Berlin, and Capri, 1923–1925
    (pp. 177-234)

    By the beginning of 1923, Benjamin’s sole hope for an academic career rested in Frankfurt, where he began the new year. In the early 1920s, Frankfurt’s university was still widely regarded as new and experimental. The universities at which Benjamin had previously studied were without exception established institutions, and in some cases quite venerable. The university in Heidelberg had been founded in 1386; Freiburg in 1457; Munich in 1472 (in Ingolstadt, a small city in Bavaria; the Bavarian monarch moved the university to Munich in 1810). Even the university in Berlin, established by Wilhelm von Humboldt on the basis of...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Weimar Intellectual: Berlin and Moscow, 1925–1928
    (pp. 235-313)

    Benjamin’s failure to find an academic home for theTrauerspielbook in spring and summer 1925 closed the long chapter of his life in which he had sought to carve out a place for himself in the German university system. He was now faced with a double dilemma: determining a new career path and finding a way to support himself and his family. The family had been supported, precariously, by Dora’s work and the provision of free housing by his parents. Dora now lost the second job that had done much to keep them afloat—and this came on the...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN The Destructive Character: Berlin, Paris, and Ibiza, 1929–1932
    (pp. 314-390)

    In the course of 1929, Benjamin’s erotic entanglements plunged him back into the kind of turmoil he had experienced in 1921, when his marriage first foundered. At some point in the summer of 1928 Benjamin had gotten news of Asja Lacis’s upcoming transfer to the Soviet embassy in Berlin, where she was to work as a trade representative for Soviet films. She had arrived in November, in the company of Bernhard Reich—who, however, was there for only a short visit while Bertolt Brecht was finishingThe Threepenny Opera. (Lacis and Reich had been working with Brecht since 1923, and...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Exile: Paris and Ibiza, 1933–1934
    (pp. 391-482)

    In a resume prepared in June 1940 while applying for an exit visa from France, Benjamin wrote: “For me the inter-war years fall naturally into two periods, before and after 1933.”¹ On January 28, 1933, Kurt von Schleicher, who had served as the German chancellor for less than two months, announced his resignation, effectively leaving the appointment of the new Reichskanzler to the president, Paul von Hindenburg, and not to the parliament itself. The semblance of parliamentary democracy had in fact been absent from German politics since at least 1930, when Reichskanzler Heinrich von Brüning, in a desperate attempt to...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Parisian Arcades: Paris, San Remo, and Skovsbostrand, 1935–1937
    (pp. 483-575)

    The first two years of exile had brought unrelieved chaos into Benjamin’s life—and into that of virtually every German exile. In 1935, 1936, and 1937, however, a certain tenuous stability would emerge. During these years Benjamin enjoyed gradual increases in his stipend from the Institute of Social Research, and he felt confident of receiving a steady stream of commissions from theZeitschrift für Sozialforschungthat could be supplemented by other, more occasional journalistic work; meanwhile, his position in the Parisian intellectual scene had marginally improved. This is not to say that exile became easier, or his long-term outlook any...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Baudelaire and the Streets of Paris: Paris, San Remo, and Skovsbostrand, 1938–1939
    (pp. 576-646)

    The first days of January 1938 found Benjamin in San Remo, enjoying the company of his friends Theodor and Gretel Adorno. The days were filled with intensive discussion of their work and its guiding principles. Adorno read to Benjamin from the draft of his bookVersuch über Wagner(In Search of Wagner), several chapters of which would appear under the title “Fragmente über Wagner” in theZeitschriftin 1939. All three friends noted the importance for the Wagner project of one conversation that took place on a café terrace in the little town of Ospedaletti, a few kilometers to the...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Angel of History: Paris, Nevers, Marseilles, and Port Bou, 1939–1940
    (pp. 647-676)

    After completing “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin scarcely had a chance to catch his breath. The Hitler-Stalin pact was signed on August 23, 1939, and on September 1 the German army invaded Poland. Benjamin lost no time in leaving Paris: in early September he fled to Chauconin, near the town of Meaux, east of Paris, where he stayed with the wife of the translator Maurice Betz. Helen Hessel was also staying as a guest, and had obtained an invitation for her friend. His greatest fear was conscription, to which he was subject until the age of fifty-two. Given the...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 677-680)

    When Walter Benjamin took his own life on the Spanish border in 1940, his name had long since begun to fade from European memory—which is only to say that he shared in the general oblivion imposed by the Nazi regime on freethinking German intellect. During the war years his reputation was kept alive—if only as a guttering flame—by a small circle of friends and admirers. There were meaningful gestures such as the dedication to Benjamin in Adorno’s and Horkheimer’sPhilosophische Fragmentein 1944 (the first version of the book that would appear three years later in Amsterdam...

  16. Abbreviations
    (pp. 681-681)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 682-718)
  18. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 719-733)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 734-734)
  20. Index
    (pp. 735-755)