Walter Benjamin

His life and work.

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In 1927, after he had moved to Paris, Benjamin wrote a very short article entitled "Arcades" with his friend Franz Hessel which was to become the project that Benjamin pursued until his death. What was eventually published as The Arcades Project was inspired by the architectural structure of the Parisian "arcades," pedestrian passages through buildings that were lined with small businesses. Over a period of 13 years, he compiled sundry lists and observations about the streets, department stores, panoramas, exhibitions, light fixtures, fashions and the particular social milieu of prostitutes, gamblers and shoppers who frequented the arcades.

In 1934, when the Institute for Social Thought (the Frankfurt School) began paying Benjamin for his research and writing, he started to address political and economic aspects of the arcades, focusing on issues of urban renewal, technological innovation, and economic injustice that he witnessed. Published in English only in 1999, The Arcades Project was a 925-page compendium of his loosely organized musings.

Of all of his other works, his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was the most influential. Published in the Institute of Social Research's journal of critical theory, it addressed how the practice of copying art images changes both the value of the image and its reception by the viewer. Benjamin's writing was also critical of the Third Reich's use of reproduced images to promote obedience to the fascist regime.

Untimely End

Because of his anti-fascist advocacy, the Gestapo requested Benjamin's expatriation from Paris in February 1939. When France declared war on Germany, all Germans living in France were interned in camps. Benjamin was sent to the village of Nevers in Burgundy, but was released due to interventions by his friends. He continued to work, but in June 1940 he was forced to flee Paris and left his manuscript of The Arcades Project in the care of then-librarian Georges Bataille at the French National Library.

Just before Benjamin left Paris, Scholem urged him to come to Palestine, but Benjamin believed that he would only be secure in the United States. He then attempted to travel through neutral Spain by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. On the night of September 26, 1940, he was falsely alarmed when he was stopped by General Franco's border guards and must have assumed he was going to be captured again. He was later found dead (probably from suicide) in his hotel room, unaware that he was not under suspicion and could have escaped to freedom.

Continued Influence

As the Frankfurt School theorists established their intellectual presence in the US after the war, Benjamin's writings continued to have a profound influence on social thought and cultural criticism.

His tragically short life also became the subject of Jay Parini's novel Benjamin's Crossing. Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough wrote the opera "Shadowtime" based on Benjamin's life, and Susan Sontag used his character as inspiration for her story, "Under the Sign of Saturn". His lengthy and highly erudite correspondence with Scholem was published in The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940.

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Jessica Kraft

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