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
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
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.
Writing to Scholem about the Exposé in May 1935, Benjamin described it in much the same terms as those he had used in 1928: ‘. . .now and then I give in to the temptation to see in the book’s internal construction analogies with the baroque book [Tragedy] which it might seem most unlike externally. And I may suggest this much to you: in this case as well the central point is the revelation of a traditional concept. Then it was the concept of tragedy, now it is the concept of the fetishistic character of commodities. Just as the baroque book mustered its own epistemology, the Arcades will too to at least the same extent, though I cannot tell whether it will be as an autonomous representation,
On this basis it is tempting to regard the Exposé, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century as representing the quintessence of Benjamin’s position in his later years, as opposed to the earlier draft of the Arcades Project. Clearly, in the absence of the completed Project, or even of complete drafts of its various parts, this is largely correct. Nowhere else is there such a complete picture of what the final work would have been like. The Exposé is for Benjamin a kind of miniature equivalent of what the Grundrisse was for Marx. But even here Benjamin has a dialectical warning for us. In a letter to Gretel Adorno he writes: ‘As in your letter you refer so emphatically to the draft “No. 1” of the Arcades, it should be stated that nothing in this draft “No. 1” has been given up, no word has been lost. And what you have before you [The Exposé] is, if I may say so, not draft “No. 2”, but another draft. These two drafts have a polar relation. They represent the work’s thesis and antithesis. I do not regard draft No. 2 as any kind of conclusion. Its necessity lies in the fact that the viewpoints available in No. 1 will not immediately allow of any patterning (Gestaltung)—except for an illicit, “poetic” one. Thus the long renounced sub-title to the first draft: A Dialectical Fairyland. Now I have both ends of the arch, but not yet the strength to