Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin to a prosperous family and studied philosophy, receiving his doctorate in Bern, Switzerland, in 1919, though his Habilitationsschrift (thesis written as part of the qualification process,

or Habilitation, to teach in a university), The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was rejected by the University of Frankfurt because of its unconventional use of quotation as a compositional method. It was published in 1928 and was the only book-length study he published in his lifetime. Because of his failure to earn his Habilitation, Benjamin was unable to find academic employment and so became a freelance critic and translator. Despite his rejection from the University of Frankfurt, he became associated with the theorists of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. He was especially close to Theodor Adorno, who disagreed with some of his ideas but formed a lasting intellectual bond with him. He was also close to the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who shared his skepticism about orthodox Marxism. He practiced forms of cultural and historical materialism, strongly influenced by his “messianic” vision of history as simultaneously materialist and transcendent of the present moment, the now which is the point of an infinite extension in time. The mystical elements of Benjamin's thought went against the grain of the CULTURAL MATERIALISM of most Frankfurt school theorists.

After Hitler and the National Socialists took power in 1933, Benjamin fled to Paris, where he found a congenial environment for his idiosyncratic method of cultural analysis. His reflections on the Parisian “arcades,” indoor markets that extended for blocks and that contained a multitude of separate businesses, were meant to constitute his magnum opus, but were not published in his lifetime. Adorno, who corresponded with Benjamin from 1928 until his death, was fascinated with this project, but he was also frustrated with his friend's optimism, his recourse to mysticism, and his tendency toward a naive form of positivism. In another of his posthumously published works, Charles Baudelaire: Lyric Poet of High Capitalism (1969), Benjamin elaborated on the important concept of the flaneur, that Modernist figure par excellence, at home in the city, moving among an endless array of spectacles and commodities. The fl aneur gives form and substance to his own experience despite the crowd that flows continuously around him.

Events ultimately caught up with Benjamin. As the Nazis closed in on Paris in 1939, he fled to the Spanish frontier, hoping to make it to the US. Weakened because of heart trouble and in despair that he could not obtain a visa to enter Spain, Benjamin committed suicide. With the devoted attention of Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and others, Benjamin's arcades project and his numerous essays were finally published.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 1999.

---- . Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

---- . Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms and Autobiographical Writing. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.