"In all language and linguistic creations, there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated; depending on the context in which it appears, it is something that symbolizes or something symbolized ... that which seeks to represent, to produce itself in the evolving of languages, is that very nucleus of pure language." fr. "Task of the Translator" (ca. 1932), in Illuminations, 80.
Frankfurt School philosopher, critic, translator, bibliophile & critical theory founder (b. 1892, d. 1940)
Born 15 July 1892 in Berlin, son of a successful German-Jewish antique dealer. He soon became an exceptional scholar, deeply influenced by the Kabbala tradition of textual interpretation and hermeneutics. During World War I, he was still studying in neutral Switzerland and gained his Ph.D. from the University of Bern in 1919. Every contemporary account of Benjamin, however, seems to have him working within a different tradition: Marxist, hermeneutic, Kabbalic ... the truth seems more prosaic. Benjamin was, before all else, a collector: of books, art, sources, names, sayings, snippets, anachronisms and quotations. Little wonder he seems many things to many people now. Unknown and somewhat introverted, he seemed even to court intellectual disfavour in his lifetime. Certainly few of his essays were considered comprehensible at the time; the first draft of his thesis had been rejected by his peers as nonsensical. Rather, it seems it was through his friends esteem, like Adorno and Brecht, that the impact of his theories began to resonate with a wider crowd.
He wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) : 'In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it...only that historian will have the gift of fanning some sparks of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And the enemy has not ceased to be victorious' (p. 44).
Benjamin was a heavy proponent of the political progress which could be made by careful study, translation and critique of European philisophical & historial traditions, despite being somewhat of a cultural elitist himself. In 1917, Benjamin married Dora Sophie Pollak and emigrated to Bern, Switzerland, but returned to Germany in 1920. He felt deeply tied to the German tradition of poetry and philosophy, which made his exile later even more difficult. He scraped out his living as a free-lance author and translator while living in Berlin, where he also took part as a test subject in "progressive" German psychopharmacological research (ex. hashish, opium and mescaline).1 After these tests, his theoretical writings became much more dramatic and evocative ("One-Way Street", for example).
The opposition of these conflicting strains of thought led to a personal crisis. Along with Brecht, he became infatuated with Marxist ideology for several years, that was until he traveled to Moscow in the winter of 1926, only to have found the practical application of Communism ugly, bland and ultimately confining. After this period, he moved to Paris where he met Hannah Arendt and essentially moved into la Bibliotheque Nationale, working constantly on The Arcades Project (also refered to as his "Passagen-Werk") while making friends Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski and Bertolt Brecht. Despite the company, Benjamin remained skeptical of Marxist dialectic, never really trusting any overarching intellectual superstructure. He took a much more holistic approach to culture analysis, almost montage, and thus presaged much of what was to emerge, years later in Paris, as deconstruction, poststructuralism and 'cultural critique'.
"The novel is significant ... not because it presents someone else's fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death we read about..." fr. "The Storyteller" in Illuminations, 101.
In 1939, all German emigres in France were placed in internment camps and Benjamin ended up (after proving little use as a laborer) giving classes in philosophy in exchange for cigarettes. By this time, much of his treasured personal library had been either confiscated or destroyed. The writer's organization P.E.N. eventually protested sucessfully for his release, but unable to obtain the necessary visas to leave France, Benjamin fled to the unoccupied south as France fell to the Nazis. A visa was arranged by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, provided he get to Lisbon, but by this time borders were closing all over Europe.
"Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." fr. "Theses on the Philosophy of History"
Benjamin attempted to walk across the Pyrenees into Spain and was almost detained by Spanish police at Port Bou before he could flee. He was carrying critical sections of the Arcades manuscript and rather be captured by the Gestapo, Benjamin took a lethal dose of morphine on 27 September 1940. The next morning the rest of the group of refugees that Benjamin was traveling with were allowed to pass through into Spain.
1 NB: Many notes while undergoing the 'tests' are, not suprisingly, online: http://www.wbenjamin.org/translations.html. In addistion, some important fragments from his essays "One Way Street", "Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction", along with excerpts of the Arcades Project are available at http://www.wbenjamin.org/links1.html.
1. Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project: illustrated. 1,073 pp. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press/Harvard. 1999.)
2. --- . Selected writings (Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap, 1996)
3. --- . Illuminations. intro. by Hannah Arendt (London : Fontana, 1992)