The Strange Life and Death of Walter Benjamin

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Last week in my “Theoretical Foundations of Global Studies” class I discussed Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School. Of course, this meant discussing Walter Benjamin, an eclectic yet influential theorist. Benjamin was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Germany in 1882. He was horrified by World War One, and left the country to study in Switzerland, where he received his doctorate from the University of Bern in 1919. He had difficulty finding an academic job after he returned to Germany, but he continued to write in a wide range of fields, including art, translation, poetry, history and literature.  He also considered himself to be a psychonaut, and carried out extensive experimentation with hashish and morphine. Given his background as a failed academic, he might have appeared unlikely to become an influential figure, but his critical ideals in the humanities, and skeptical vision of modernity, led him to become important not only in literary criticism but also Critical Theory.

Sadly, all aspects of his life were shaped by the rise of Hitler, who came to power in Germany in 1933. Benjamin’s brother was arrested, and later died in a concentration camp. Benjamin then moved to Paris, where he became fascinated by they city’s covered streets in the nineteenth century, as a way to think about modernity and society. He never completed his Arcades Project. His friends warned him to leave Paris, but he waited too long. Some people have observed that Benjamin, although a great intellect, in practical matters proved to be something of a bungler. Years before his friend had emigrated to Palestine, and sought to persuade Benjamin to follow him. But Benjamin did not flee Paris until the Germans were about to enter the city in June 1940.

Benjamin went south with a group of friends, with whom he tried to cross the border at Portbou, Spain. His plan was to travel from Lisbon to New York, where his colleagues in the Frankfurt School were awaiting him. According to some sources, he might have been able to cross the border without difficulty the day before. But the rules had changed. Instead, he was picked up by the police, who told him that he would be sent back to France the next day, where doubtless the Gestapo would be waiting. A very ill man, he then committed suicide with morphine on September 25, 1940. This may have shocked the police, because they then permitted his compatriots to travel onwards. As others have noted, Benjamin’s death may have saved the lives of others. Ironically, he was then buried in a Catholic cemetery under the name Benjamin Walter. His death led to speculation that he might have been murdered, perhaps by Stalin’s agents. A recent documentary has explored the issues around his death. For the intriguing trailer of “Who Killed Walter Benjamin,” click here. There were rumors that Benjamin was carrying a manuscript in his briefcase when he died, but if this was true, it was never recovered.

Benjamin was little known until 1969, when Hannah Arendt published a collection of his works called Illuminations. His critiques of modernity, capitalism and the culture industry attracted a wide following in academia, which was somewhat surprising for an author deeply influenced by Jewish mysticism. Perhaps Benjamin’s thought was attractive because of his pessimistic vision of modernity. Benjamin depicted modernity as a disaster, an approach that turned a traditional historicist perspective, in which modern Europe was the final stage of development to which other nations should aspire, on its head. During the 1960s -the Era of Vietnam and student protest- there were grave doubts about modernity, which meant that his book appeared in a context in which it was likely to be read. Benjamin, a failed academic, who had lived his life with countless rejections and fears, had become an influential theoretician. For more on Benjamin’s life, see this brief video “Walter Benjamin and his Times.”

Prof. Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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