Jerk Reaction - Walter Benjamin

It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.

This quality of compelling elusiveness seems to have existed in Walter Benjamin the person as much as it did in Benjamin the writer. Benjamin’s lifelong friend, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, once wrote the following in his diary:
Basically, [Benjamin is] entirely invisible … He does not communicate himself; he demands that each person see him, although he hides himself. His method is completely unique … it is really the method of revelation … Surely no one since Lao-Tzu has lived this way … There is something in Walter that is boundless, surpassing all order, something that, by expending all its force, aims to order his work. This is in fact the completely anonymous quality [das völlig Namenlos] legitimizing Walter’s work.
There is a mystery in every great writer. What is it that made the writer, a mere human being like the rest of us, into a cipher for something greater? As Scholem wrote, “There is something in Walter that is boundless.” Can we track that boundlessness down? Did it appear in his actual life, in the relationships and experiences that shaped him? Can we touch it, can we wrap our arms around it, this boundless quality, surpassing all order, this completely anonymous quality that legitimized his work?

The desire to answer this question is what will drive the people who love the writings of Walter Benjamin to read the new biography published by Harvard University Press, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. The biography was written by two men, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. They were the men for the job, both having been involved in editing the definitive four-volume English-language edition of Benjamin’s Selected Essays from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Howard Eiland was also the co-translator of Benjamin’s lifelong unfinished poetic-fragmentary history of the birth of Modernity, The Arcades Project. These men know something of Walter Benjamin. They know his thinking. There is no point in writing about the life of Walter Benjamin unless you have labored to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin. And there is no way to understand the thinking of Walter Benjamin unless you’ve immersed yourself in his work over long years. Which brings us back to Gershom Scholem’s quote. Can Jennings and Eiland bring Benjamin out of hiding? Can they track down the boundlessness?

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