Life and work
Benjamin was known during his life as an essayist, translator and literary critic. Since the appearance of his Schriften in 1955, 15 years after his death, Benjamin's work has been the subject of numerous books and essays. As a sociological and cultural critic Benjamin combined ideas of Jewish mysticism with historical materialism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to Marxist philosophy and aesthetic theory. As a literary scholar, he translated texts written by Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire, and Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" is one of the best-known texts about the theory of translation.
The Passagenwerk or "Arcades Project", Benjamin's lifelong project, was to be an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, especially concerned with the roofed outdoor "arcades" which created the city's distinctive street life and culture of flânerie. The project, which many scholars believe might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, was never completed; it has been posthumously edited and published in many languages in its unfinished form.
Benjamin corresponded extensively with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht and occasionally received funding from the Frankfurt School under Adorno's and Horkheimer's direction. The competing influences of Brecht's Marxism (and secondarily Adorno's critical theory) and the Jewish mysticism of his friend Gerschom Scholem were central to Benjamin's work, though he never completely resolved their differences. The essay "On the Concept of History" (often referred to as the "Theses on the Philosophy of History"), among Benjamin's last works, is the closest approach to such a synthesis, and along with the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" (more commonly printed in English under the title "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"), is the most often read of his texts.
The most interesting, and probably most terrifyingly complex, of Benjamin's works is surely the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, translated as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (trans. John Osborne, published by Verso). In this book, Benjamin mounts a vast study of power relations in contemporary Germany through analysis of the power relations in monarchies during the Reformation.
There are two main strands to this project: first, a robust distinction between the forms of tragedy and Trauerspiel, and second, a lengthy discussion of the inferior relation of allegory to symbolism. On the first line of thought, tragedy and Trauerspiel differ in their conception of time: the tragedy is eschatological insofar as its plot leads to a defined end-point, where characters and stories reach a fatalistic resolution; whereas the Trauerspiel takes place only in space, time stretches out forever towards the promised but undisclosed Last Judgement, so characters are therefore paralysed from all action and can only wait - thus there is no resolution and no sense of time passing. This element derives from Benjamin's interest in Jewish Mysticism, which represents a substrand in the book, whereby the Jewish consciousness is arrested by the inability to speak the true name of the Divine and abandoned by a God they cannot have true knowledge of. On the second line of thought, the Trauerspiel proceeds through allegory since the stories are always representations of something outside themselves, but, says Benjamin, the allegory ultimately fails because it depends for meaning upon another object or idea - an object or idea that is not present or whose meaning is eternally deferred in the Trauerspiel.
Benjamin's view of the Trauerspiel is nicely summed up in the quotation "The baroque knows no eschatology and for that very reason it has no mechanism by which it gathers all earthly things in together and exalts them before consigning them to their end" (page 66). It is this view that links the Jewish Mystical element to the analysis of tragedy and the study of contemporary Germany.
In a changing political climate, Benjamin hoped that this book would relate to the German belief in political and historical progress by showing its absolute futility, just as in the Trauerspiel. Instead, the massive complexity and profound obscurity of the book meant that it fell on largely deaf ears. When submitted as a Habilitation thesis (a higher degree in the German academic system that, after a PhD, gives legal authority to teach in a university), Benjamin's supervisor claimed it was unreadable and refused to award the degree, thus Benjamin was never allowed to teach in a university again. Ironically, among the readers, who found the work impenetrable, was Max Horkheimer. Even more ironically, a few years later, Adorno taught a seminar using Benjamin's text, at the very same institution, the University of Frankfurt.
In the ninth thesis of the essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History" Benjamin, inspired by a Paul Klee painting called Angelus Novus in his possession, poetically describes the course of human history as a path of accumulating destruction which "the angel" views with horror but from which he cannot turn away. Benjamin focused on epistemology, theory of language, allegory, and the philosophy of history. Furthermore, he wrote essays on Baudelaire, Kafka, Proust and Brecht.
Benjamin allegedly committed suicide in Portbou at the Spanish-French border, attempting to escape from the Nazis. The circumstances and date of his death are unclear. He appeared to be ill when he arrived in Port Bou and his party would be denied passage across the border to freedom. While staying in the Hotel de Francia he took some morphine pills and he died on 27 or 28 september 1940. The fact that he was burried in the consecrated section of a catholic cemetery, would exclude a suicidal death. The other persons in his party safely reached Lisbon on 30 september.
A completed manuscript which Benjamin had carried in his suitcase, which some critics speculate was his "Arcades Project" in a final form, disappeared after his death and has not been recovered.
He was brother-in-law to Hilde Benjamin.
Many of Benjamin's writings have been translated into English.
- Illuminations. ISBN 0805202412.
- Reflections. ISBN 080520802X.
- Selected Writings in four volumes, from Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674945859 (vol. 1), ISBN 0674945867 (vol. 2), ISBN 0674008960 (vol. 3), ISBN 0674010760 (vol. 4).
- The Arcades Project. ISBN 0674008022.