Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) came from a Jewish bourgeois family. Born in Berlin, he spent his childhood there, studied philosophy in Freiburg, Munich and Bern, and after the First World War worked as a literary critic and essayist in Berlin and Frankfurt. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Benjamin fled to Paris, where, apart from holidays in Spain and Italy, he lived until 1940. He was caught by Spanish police attempting to flee across the Pyrenees after the fall of France, and took his own life on September 26th, 1940.

While studying in Munich in 1915 he first met Gerhard Scholem, who was to become a life-long friend and aroused in Benjamin an interest in Jewish mysticism that contributed to his later work. Scholem emigrated to Palestine during the ’20’s, and Benjamin planned to follow him, but financial difficulties and intellectual commitments always prevented him. Between 1923 and 1925 he was attached to the University of Frankfurt, where he wrote his book on German baroque tragedy, The Origins of German Tragedy. Other works in the early ’20’s included his graduation thesis at Bern in 1919: The Concept of Art criticism in German Romanticism and a long essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Another friend of the war years, Ernst Bloch, introduced Benjamin to Marxism, and this influence was deepened by meeting the Russian film director Asya Lacis on Capri in the summer of 1924. He followed up discussions with her about the Soviet Union by reading the Marxist classics and Lukács’ History and Class-consciousness. In the winter of 1926 to 1927 Benjamin made a trip to Moscow. These Marxist beginnings were carried forward by his meeting Brecht in the late ’20’s, and he became one of the latter’s first critical champions. In Frankfurt he also became a close friend of Theodor W. Adorno, his wife Gretel and Max Horkheimer. A book of aphorisms, One Way Street, was published along with the book on tragedy in 1928, establishing him intellectually, but not financially. His family had been ruined in the inflation. After 1933, in exile, his financial position worsened until, late in 1935, he was provided with a small income by Horkheimer’s Institut für Sozialforschung that had moved from Frankfurt to Geneva in 1933 and later moved on to Paris and New York. During this period he was closely involved with the complex developing relationships between avant-garde art and the Communist movement. This involvement gave rise to two crucial essays, The Author as a Producer (1934), on the artist’s relation to the proletariat, and The Work of Art in the Era of its Mechanical Reproduction (1935), on the avant-garde. But the major preoccupation of the last 10 years of his life, the work which tied him to Paris, was a study of 19th century France known as the ‘Arcades Project’, for which the text we print here is a crucial provisional draft. His other work was short articles for reviews and newspapers, some in series which have since been collected together as books, notably Childhood in Berlin around Nineteen-hundred and City Portraits.

Despite the fragmentary nature of much of his work, Benjamin occupies a crucial place in the development of German Marxism and German criticism, since he was the only theorist who linked the dominant current of Marxist philosophy and aesthetics, the neo-Hegelianism introduced by Bloch and Lukács and taken over by the philosophers and critics of the Frankfurt school, with the avant-garde currents in the arts in the inter-war period: with surrealism, with the Dada movement and its descendents—notably John Heartfield, whose photomontage technique Benjamin claimed ‘has made the cover of a book into a political instrument’—and with the epic theatre of Brecht and Tretyakov. The gap between revolutionary philosophy and revolutionary art has widened again since his death. The study of his work is significant to the extent that it will help to bring the two together again.

Benjamin’s fascination with Paris dates back to 1913, when, at his father’s instigation, he made his first visit to the city. For the rest of his life his travels gravitate around Paris, and after leaving Germany in 1933 he made it his home. In the early ’20’s he translated Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens and poems from Les Fleurs du Mal. In 1925 he embarked on a translation of Proust in collaboration with Franz Hessel; the latter introduced Benjamin to surrealism, and the first idea of the Arcades Project originated in discussions between them. Benjamin saw his own work in terms of ‘cycles’ in which the various parts represented the contradictory moments of a synthetic unity (the image of an arch between opposed pillars is also characteristic). In 1928, when a first draft of the Project was nearing completion, he wrote to Gerhard Scholem, ‘Once I have finished . . . the work with which I am at present, circumspectly, provisionally occupied—the highly remarkable and extremely precarious essay The Parisian Arcades: a Dialectical Fairyland—this will close for me a productive cycle—that of One Way Street—rather in the sense that the Tragedy book closed my germanistic cycle. In it the worldly themes of One Way Street will march past in an infernal intensification’ (30.1.28, Briefe I p. 455). At the time he thought this ‘the work of a few weeks’ (Ibid.). But it grew steadily in scope, and whenever he could spare the time from journalistic work he returned to it, for it ‘howls like a small beast in my nights if I have not taken it to drink at the most diverse sources during the day’ (Letter to Scholem, 24.5.28, Briefe I p. 472). As the project grew, Benjamin realized that ‘once I have grasped it, then an old, as it were rebellious, half apocalyptic province of my thoughts will have been subdued, colonized, set in order’ (Letter to Scholem, 23.4.28, Briefs I p. 470). Its purpose was ‘what you once touched on after reading One Way Street: to gain for an era the extreme concreteness that put in an appearance here and there in that book for a children’s game, a building or a position in life’ (Letter to Scholem, 15.3.29, Briefe II p. 491), to find out ‘how far it is possible to be “concrete” in historico-philosophical contexts’ (Letter to Scholem, 23.4.28, Briefe I p. 470). The problem: ‘to represent the happy unity of theoretical conception and mental armature’ (Letter to Hugo von Hofmannstal, 5.5.28, Briefe I p. 471). The first draft, The Parisian Arcades: a Dialectical Fairyland, was completed in the late ’20’s and seen by the Adornos. It has since been lost. In the next few years the scheme fell out of sight, as the preparations needed for it grew, and Benjamin’s financial straits demanded more commercial journalistic publication. But it still remained one of the four books he felt it would be catastrophic not to be able to finish (Letter to Scholem, 26.7.32, Briefe II p. 556). Then, in 1935, came the offer of a stipend from the Institut für Sozialforschung to complete this very work. He immediately sat down and produced a second draft or Exposé of the project, photocopies of which he sent to the Adornos, to Scholem and to Horkheimer. This text, entitled Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX. Jahrhunderts, is the text we publish here in translation. But the project continued to grow. In the next five years Benjamin concentrated on one of the six sections outlined in this Exposé, the fifth, on Baudelaire. This grew so much that it became itself a three-part book on Baudelaire, to be entitled Charles Baudelaire. A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Drafts for two of its three parts survive, one fairly fragmentarily as Centralpark, the other in an as yet unpublished article, The Paris of the Second Empire according to Baudelaire—which was modified for publication in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (January 1940) under the title Some Themes in Baudelaire.footnote1 The epistemological considerations that were an essential part of the Arcades Project, though not separately dealt with in the Exposé, have also survived as the Historico-philosophical Theses.

Benjamin’s work is today undergoing a major reappraisal in Germany,footnote2 and it is still difficult to assess the status of Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century in the sequence of Benjamin’s work as a whole. However, a few indications are possible.