WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part Two

Working for German publications, Walter Benjamin earned enough money to spend some months in Paris where, in 1927, he began his famous and unfinished Arcades Project.  As one would imagine, he and his wife Dora divorced and in 1930 Benjamin published his Habilitation and a new essay, dedicated to his lover, Asja Lacis, One Way Street, in 1928.  This essay is a montage about Paris after Baudelaire.  Here Benjamin showed his knowledge of Russian films, which excelled in the use of modern editing techniques and we see the beginnings of his intuition that film was created a disembodied eye and a new way of perceiving.  The short snippets of his impressions of Paris are laced with cryptic observations such as, “All disgust is originally disgust at touching” and “Warmth is ebbing from things.”

Benjamin’s heightened sense of the overlooked, the passed by, the trace made him open to the ideas of Surrealism. In an essay of the same year entitled Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, he wrote,

The Surrealists’ Paris, too, is a “little universe”. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. It is the region from which the lyric poetry of Surrealism reports. And this must be noted if only to counter the obligatory misunderstanding of l’art pour l’art. For art’s sake was scarcely ever to be taken literally; it was almost always a flag under which sailed a cargo that could not be declared because it still lacked a name. This is the moment to embark on a work that would illuminate as has no other the crisis of the arts that we are witnessing: a history of esoteric poetry. Nor is it by any means fortuitous that no such work yet exists. For written as it demands to be written—that is, not as a collection to which particular “specialists” all contribute “what is most worth knowing” from their fields, but as the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry— written in such a way it would be one of those scholarly confessions that can be counted in every century. The last page would have to show an X-ray picture of Surrealism.

 During the 1920s, Benjamin considered on two different occasions the possibility of emigrating to Palestine but rejected the idea. One can only imagine “what if” he had gone to this safe place. He would have lived, yes, but what would he have written about, cut off from the cities that nourished him, Berlin and Paris?  Benjamin remained in Europe and traveled back and forth between Berlin and Paris and made the transition from mysticism to materialism.  As would be indicated by the variegated influences upon the writer, Benjamin was never an orthodox Marxist and shied away from the use of the dialectic.  By the end of the decade, he was adrift as an home de lettres, a polite phrase for a literary career marked by written fragments and short reviews.  It could be said that he did not find his true voice until he completed his decade of apprenticeship and entered into the 1930s.

The beginning of the decade of the Thirties was the end of the old and the beginning of the new for Walter Benjamin.  Benjamin’s mature materialist work during the early 1930s was greatly impacted by Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist ideas of intervention with bourgeois complacency.  His friends in the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, were not happy with the impact of the “crude Marxism” of Brecht on Benjamin’s thinking.  Benjamin wrote favorably of Brecht (who was not impressed with Benjamin) and elucidated the producer’s ideas in What is Epic Theater? (two versions) 1939. In addition, published after his death were Brecht’s “Threepenny Novel” and Conversations with Brecht.  Written in Paris in 1934 (but never published in his lifetime), The Author as Producer is perhaps his most Brechtian expression of the role and function of the writer in modern times.

Benjamin was dedicated to writing an engaged form of cultural criticism that responded to the every shifting environment of Berlin and then Paris and was, therefore, more attuned to modern times than professors in the ivory tower.  He was sensitive to the moods of his times and could veer easily among them, writing of smoking Hashish in Marsailles, 1932 and of The Destructive Character, 1931.  The latter work is precinct: “The character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away.  His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.”  Benjamin’s earlier writing, Critique of Violence, was related to his interests in Kant’s moral imperatives—morality had to be universal and logical and disinterested.  He wrote in 1921 of legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence but a decade later, Benjamin notes the youthful unthinking destructiveness alive in his nation, a destructiveness that is all instinct and completely without moral foundation.

Benjamin was now acutely watchful of the political direction in Germany.  He was aware that the rise of the Nazis would mean trouble for all intellectuals, especially Jews.  Benjamin wasted no time in leaving Germany after Hitler came into power and went to his second home, Paris.  Paris was very different city from Berlin; Berlin was one of the centers of modernity in mass media and mass culture, from film to advertising to radio, while Paris was a place more connected to the past—at least in terms of how Benjamin would later write of it.   Although Paris, in its own way, was also modern, Benjamin seemed to have been sensitive to the history that haunted the City of Light, its streets, its structures, its arcades.  Benjamin assumed the mantel of the poet Baudelaire and became a flâneur, roaming the city’s past.  But it was here in this city that the writer was able to combine the rise of mass media and the resulting development of a new consciousness in Berlin with his sensitivity to the ghosts of Paris.

While in Paris, Benjamin wrote A Short History of Photography where his habitual way of thinking in terms of mysticism reemerges and he developed the famous concept of “aura,” which would reappear five years later in the 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction.  The “Artwork” essay is, like the essay on photography, almost epistemological, forays into the nature of photography and mass media in modern life.  Aura is used in two very different fashions.  For the “Artwork” article, aura is about the loss of “art” as it was once understood as a cult object, and in the “Photography” history, aura is about haunting.  The ghost of Paris that inspired the idea of aura was the photographer Eugène Atget who had recently died.  Like Baudelaire and like Benjamin, Atget had wandered the streets in Paris, capturing its unexpected corners and details with his big viewfinder camera.  With Atget Paris seemed eternal and unchanging and uninhabited except for that which has passed and left its traces.

And then this refuge became a place of danger.  From 1935, the Frankfurt School in exile in New York had been financially supporting Benjamin, who was loath to leave Europe.  But time ran out and Hitler began the war longed for by the German people and the Wermacht rolled east.  At first, it was the French who, at the outbreak of the War, indiscriminately rounded up all Germans and Austrians on September 3, 1939, and Benjamin was swept up and placed in the Internment Camp at Nevers.  It seems clear that from that point on Benjamin lost his moorings and was emotionally shattered by this sudden turn to his fortunes.  Once again, he had lost his place

In a brief 1988 essay, Walter Benjamin in the Internment Camp, Hans Sahl wrote movingly of the frail and fragile philosopher suddenly thrown into the “notorious Stade Colombe.”  The two men waited on the stone steps and Benjamin, as Sahl reported, like a good Marxist tried to unmask the reality but his gift for seeing the whole through detail did not allow him to grasp “reality as a façade.” When they arrived in Nevers they became part of a remarkable temporary society described by Sahl.  “Orderly” Germans organized groups and remade working society, complete with Benjamin, watched over by a young disciple, teaching an “advanced class” to devotees. Finally, the French PEN club arranged for the release of Benjamin but now he had only six weeks left before the Germans invaded France.

With France under the heel of the Germans, all Jews in France, refugees or natives, were now targets of an extermination machine.  After being in Paris for only a few months, in the summer of 1940, the Nazis seized his prized library.  For Benjamin, the quintessential wandering Jew, his books were his home.  One of his loveliest essays is Unpacking My Library.  A Talk about Book Collecting, in 1931. He begins, “I am unpacking my library. Yes I am.” He describes himself as a “collector” and ends with

“…a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.  Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.  So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

At the time of the seizure there were probably over 2000 volumes in his possession. All of Benjamin’s books were gone.  For someone who was so deeply identified with his books, to be stripped of his library was the equivalent of his being stripped of his soul.  The swift seizure of libraries and, indeed, all personal property of the Jews, was the beginning of stripping Jews, first of their social place, their jobs, and then of their private possessions.  This process of isolation and dispossession and hopelessness, which overwhelmed the Jews would culminate in the Final Solution and the near extermination of a people.

The stolen possessions of Jews, most of whom perished long ago in concentration camps, continue to this day to surface as stolen property, masquerading as “works of art” in museums who are loathe to give up their possessions.  Entire libraries were appropriated and dispersed, never to be recovered.  For Walter Benjamin, a write and a thinker, the loss of his literary possessions was a crushing blow.  When the Gestapo emptied his Paris apartment of his books, they only took away a small part of his collection.  Half of the books had already been smuggled out of Paris, and most of the remaining collection was given to the Bibliotéque Nationale by Surrealist writer, Georges Bataille, to whom it was entrusted.

After Benjamin was interned in a French holding camp at Nevers, he was returned to the Nazis by the collaborationist Vichy government.  He managed to obtain an emergency visa and joined a party of refugees, taking an unguarded road over the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border.  Like many of the other refugees seeking asylum, Benjamin walked on foot from France to Spain…a latter day pilgrim.  This and other routes had been taken to freedom by well-known cultural dissidents, but on the day Benjamin arrived, the Spanish decided to close the border.  Although Spain was a fascist nation, Franco ensured that the country remain neutral during the Second World War.

Switzerland used its neutrality to become the banker to the fascists and to become the keepers of Jewish wealth, but Spain became a conduit to freedom for refugees, opening and closing the border capriciously.  Seasoned refugees knew to sit and wait.  Benjamin was sensitive and highly-strung and dislocated from his home, his work, and his library.  Unlike his colleagues and friends, he did not want to go to America and had no great will to survive.  He had carried with him fifteen tablets of morphine (enough to kill several people) and when turned away at Port-Bou, Spain took them all.  He refused to have his stomach pumped out and died in agony September 26, 1940.  Horrified at such a gruesome suicide, the Spanish government.

Benjamin had long been planning to kill himself.  His death was simply a question of when. In 1931, he stayed on the island of Ibiza for three months writing a chronicle on his relationship to Berlin or a journey through his childhood.  Benjamin’s book was a summation of his life, a preparation for death. It was here on this island that he began to plan his suicide.  Even though he lived a few more years, it was clear that his time as a writer in Berlin was coming to a close and that his writing had reached a kind of apogee.  In a touching letter to Gershom Scholem, an old and dear friend and colleague, he wrote of “the deep tiredness” he felt as he watched the slow seizure of power by the Nazis.  Opportunities for intellectuals were vanishing, as was the way of life that had sparked his writing.  Ironically, it was in the last years of his life, while he waited for death, that his most influential work was written on the nature of “auratic” art. It is possible that he could have survived yet another displacement to New York, but Benjamin was not as tough as his colleagues and, when Spain closed its gate, there seemed no compelling reason to resist his longing for death.

The Frankfurt School was horrified and depressed at the loss of their eccentric colleague.  After Benjamin’s death, it was Theodor Adorno who struggled to preserve his friend’s works and insisted on keeping his reputation alive.  Along with Hannah Arendt, another intellectual refugee in New York, he labored to collect and publish Benjamin’s writings. As early as 1942, publication of his works in German began.  English translation of his works was to take four decades.  Some important essays by Benjamin were published in Reflections and Illuminations, including Critique of Violence, 1921, The Arcades or Passagenbeit, The Author as Producer, 1934 and The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, and A Short History of Photography, What is Epic Theater?  1939, and Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939.  Of these essays, the “Artwork” essay is the most famous today and this writing will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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