German-Jewish Philosopher, Cultural Critic and Essayist, Walter Benjamin is Born
On This Day, 1892, German Philosopher Walter Benjamin, is Born.
On this day in 1892, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin. Before taking his own life while trying to escape the expanding grip of the Nazis on Europe, he would write some of the seminal texts of 20th century European thought. Benjamin was born into an affluent Jewish family with relations that included prominent intellectuals such as William Stern and Gunther Anders. Benjamin’s own post-secondary school education was earned at various universities, including Freiburg, Berlin and Bern. But Benjamin’s education also came through the influence of the many prominent intellectuals and artists he came to know during his career.
He became friendly with the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, studied under Ernst Bloc and got to know the Marxist literary philosopher Georg Lukacs. His circle, in Paris and Berlin, included Max Horkheimer, Herman Hesse, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps his closest and most enduring friendship was with Gershom Sholem, the German scholar of Jewish mysticism, whom Benjamin met in 1915. On several occasions, Sholem, who emigrated to Palestine in 1923, urged Benjamin to follow him there. However, Benjamin remained in Europe, shuttling between France and Germany, visiting Moscow and then, eventually, trying to flee via Spain, to the United States.
Benjamin’s work is distinguished by the depth and originality he brought to a wide array of subjects. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he fashioned one of the most influential pieces of art criticism. In this essay, he describes the implications for art, and the aura he claims surrounds an original piece, brought about by mass production—namely photography and film—that are the most profound aesthetic innovations of the 20th century. According to Benjamin, mechanical reproduction draws our attention to the power of an original, while also creating a new realm of cultural production, as exemplified by cinema, in which there is no original. Two decades after his death, Benjamin’s essay would have a profound influence on scholars of visual culture.
But Benjamin’s intellectual interests also included literary criticism, in particular the work of Charles Baudelaire, urban life and culture, and the philosophy of history. His unfinished study of Parisian life in the 19th century, what came to be known as The Arcades Project, is a monument to the study of cities, its rhythms and spaces. His short essay on Baudelaire and the flaneur, the prototypical walker of the city, is a foundational text for writers who have explored the meaning and pleasures of urban life. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Written in early 1940 as the shadow of Hitler’s terror was spreading over Europe, the claim now appears to aptly summarize the last couple centuries of genocide, war and colonialism.
In June of 1940, Benjamin left Paris just before the German’s arrival. They held a warrant for his arrest. In September, he crossed the border from France into Spain but believing he would not be permitted to travel to Portugal and that Spain would round up and return all refuges back to Nazi occupied France, Benjamin committed suicide. As it turned out, those with whom he had been travelling were permitted safe passage to Portugal. Benjamin was 48 years old when he died, another casualty of fascism in Europe during the 20th century.
The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-02445-1
The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-00802-2