Friday, July 15, 2011

Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892)

I've always found it challenging to understand exactly what Walter Benjamin did to deserve his highly admired status. Here's a paragraph from Tablet Magazine that deals with this challenge:
“It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.”
Benjamin's friendships with other famous (but easier to understand) figures in pre-war Germany and his suicide while trying to flee from the Nazis create an aura for him -- as a result, he's he subject of an enormous number of recent books and studies. His relationship with Judaism fascinates many people, as it appears emblematic of the problem of secular Jews in the interwar era in Germany. Without any grounding in the religion, Jews seemed anyway to live in a social ghetto (before the establishment of the much more real ghettos etc). "As his friend Gershom Scholem, a product of a similar background, would note, it was quite normal for assimilated German Jews never to enter a Gentile home or invite a Gentile to theirs. Jewish identity was much more durable than Jewish belief."*

Hero? I guess so.

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