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The Collector

THE ARCADES PROJECT By Walter Benjamin; The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press: 1,074 pp., $39.95

THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDENCE 1928-1940 By Walter Benjamin and T.W. Adorno; Harvard University Press: 384 pp., $39.95

May 14, 2000|RUSSELL JACOBY | Russell Jacoby is the author of "The Last Intellectuals" and "The End of Utopia," among other books. He teaches in the history department at UCLA

"In a situation without escape, I have no other choice. . . . It is in a tiny village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me, that my life must end." After penning this message, Walter Benjamin, often considered the greatest German critic of the 20th century, killed himself. The date was Sept. 26, 1940. When Paris fell to the Nazis, Benjamin had joined other leftist and Jewish refugees in France streaming south to Marseilles and Spain. With several acquaintances and a heavy briefcase of manuscripts, Benjamin hiked across the Pyrenees, but he lacked the requisite visas and at the small border town, Port Bou, the authorities refused him entry to Spain. Benjamin never had much luck. Fearing that he would soon be in the hands of the Gestapo, he ingested a fatal dose of morphine. He was 48.

At the time of his death, Benjamin was little known even among the German-speaking cognoscenti; in Anglo American culture he had no presence at all. Yet the unlucky Benjamin was blessed with brilliant and loyal friends like T.W. Adorno, the neo-Marxist culture critic, and Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism. They rescued his manuscripts, published his books and essays and wrote appreciations and memoirs. Over the decades, the trickle of Benjamin material has turned into a raging river. In English alone, scores of books and thousands of articles have been written about him. At a conference in Amsterdam several years ago, 100 scholars gave presentations on Benjamin to an overflowing audience.

Benjamin surfaces everywhere. Last year, the Texan writer Larry McMurtry used a Benjamin essay as a springboard for autobiographical reflections improbably titled "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen." At the local fast-food place, McMurtry "opened a book called 'Illuminations' " and read an essay by Benjamin that was first published in 1936. His reflections about the dwindling role of the storyteller provoked McMurtry to delve into his own career writing about "vanishing breeds" of cattlemen and cowboys.

Hannah Arendt wrote the introduction to "Illuminations," the 1968 collection of Benjamin essays that McMurtry stumbled upon, in which she had mulled over Benjamin's reputation, comparing it to Kafka's. Both men received the acclaim in death they lacked in life. The comparisons go further. As Arendt commented, both defy easy categorization. It would be as misleading to recommend Kafka as a short-story writer as it would be to call Benjamin an essayist. Neither consoles nor entertains. Neither is to be read in the morning sun with coffee and croissants. They are writers of the dusk and the rubble.

Yet Benjamin's fame is even more mysterious than Kafka's, as well as more circumscribed. While the educated citizen might know, or pretend to know, Kafka, Walter Benjamin's name would probably elicit no response. The inexhaustible attention bestowed on Benjamin remains confined to professors and graduate students--an ironic fate because his own teachers rejected his postdoctoral thesis as incomprehensible. With an academic career closed off, Benjamin eked out a life as a freelance critic and translator; he once satirized the academic fashion of writing "fat books." Principle I: "The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan." Or Principle IV, examples should be given for all general concepts: "If, for example, machines are mentioned, all different kinds of machines should be enumerated." Today, fat books on Benjamin pile up in university libraries.

Apart from Arendt, it is Adorno and Scholem who fashioned Benjamin's posthumous reputation. Both had been friends of the young Benjamin. Each represented a polar side of Benjamin, and each jealously monitored the other's influence. Scholem feared that Benjamin might become too Marxist, and Adorno feared he might become too theological. In fact, Benjamin was drawn to both Marxism and Judaism, materialism and spirituality, conventional politics and messianic utopianism. He called for revolutionary aesthetics and studied Hebrew with the intention of moving to Palestine. Benjamin's thought refuses to relinquish either the street or the temple. In a statement typically limpid and ambiguous, he wrote, "My thinking is related to theology as a blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it. Were one to go by the blotter, however, nothing of what is written would remain."


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