Walter Benjamin

His life and work.

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"If we are indeed two-sided, Jewish and German, all our energy has hitherto been directed towards affirming the German; the Jewish has perhaps only been an exotic, southern (worse yet, sentimental) aroma in our production and our lives. Nor will any individual, short of being an artist, develop this quality equally within himself. But the way will be found."

Benjamin always maintained some distance from his fellow Germans, and from the presumed German audience to which he addressed most of his writing. He, like so many intellectually prominent German Jews of the time, was stuck in the morass between anti-Semitism and modernity. This in-between space did not allow him to retreat into traditional Judaism, nor did it allow him to assimilate entirely into a hostile host society.

It should be noted that Benjamin had almost no formal Jewish education, and never participated in Jewish religious institutions. But his Jewishness was an abiding awareness of his cultural difference. His drive for what he called "redemption" through his writing clearly had Jewish messianic undertones.

Academics and Politics

Soon after completing his undergraduate education, Benjamin married Dora Pollack. However, the marriage did not last. Benjamin soon moved out of their shared apartment and turned his focus to his studies, completing a doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism" in 1920. But an academic career eluded him when several professors at the University of Frankfurt deemed his work incomprehensible and opaque. He was able to survive by writing freelance essays and articles for journals and newspapers, but had to endure near-poverty living conditions.

While traveling in Italy in 1924, Walter met and fell in love with the Latvian revolutionary Asja Lacis. It was in Italy that he started developing his interest in Marxist and communist thought, moving away from his youth movement anarchism and German idealism. While he didn't join the Communist Party, he and Lacis traveled to Moscow to live and study for several months.

In the 1930s, Benjamin developed his work on several topics. He wrote about language theory, contemporary authors, translation, modern liberalism, Goethe's novels, even children's books. His major essays question how modern technology and the modernizing state affects everyday life and cultural practice. He also frequently engaged left-wing theories of art and culture, becoming a staunch critic of fascism.

Even after Scholem moved to Jerusalem to teach at Hebrew University, Benjamin kept up their robust intellectual correspondence. The two were at odds about the importance of religious and spiritual belief and spent much time pitting rationality against spiritual faith. Benjamin always maintained that his interest in kabbalistic texts and the history of Judaism was purely academic and not religious.

The Arcades Project

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.