Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin
(15 July 1892 – 26 September 1940)
was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, historical materialism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and Western Marxism.
He is thought to have been associated with the Frankfurt School, but this is not true, unless in relation to the importance of his thinking on Theodore Adorno, and formative friendships with thinkers such as Bertolt Brecht and Gershom Scholem.
Benjamin’s major work as a literary critic included essays on Baudelaire, Goethe, Kafka, Kraus, Leskov, Proust, Walser, and translation theory. He also made major translations into German of the Tableaux Parisiens section of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and parts of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He wrote on Popular culture, Drama, Theatre, Fim, Art and Language. Among Benjamin’s most prominent works are the essays “The Task of the Translator” (1923) and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).
Benjamin talks about Wahrheitsehalt (Truth Content – to work) ans Sachsehalt (thingly or object content – pertaining to life) as opposites. Truth content refers to what makes something a ‘True’ work of Art. It is both eternal as well as made up of fragments, ie. it Is a meta-composite truth.
There is no aesthetic refraction without something being refracted; no imagination without something imagined. This holds true particularly in the case of art’s immanent purposiveness. In its relation to empirical reality art sublimates the latter’s governing principle of sese conservare as the ideal of the self-identity of its works; as Schoenberg said, one paints a painting, not what it represents. Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the non-identical, which in reality is repressed by reality’s compulsion to identity. Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the work’s own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence. Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. Although the demarcation line between art and the empirical must not be effaced, and least of all by the glorification of the artist, artworks nevertheless have a life sui generis. This life is not just their external fate. Important artworks constantly divulge new layers; they age, grow cold, and die. It is a tautology to point out that as humanly manufactured artifacts they do not live as do people.
–Theodore Adorno on Truth content, Aesthetic Theory
Benjamin uses or refers to several symbols to explain this:
‘…the dwarf under the table, is time, who is always winning’.
The Angel of history:
Embodies Benjamin’s idea of catasrophe in continuum. Catastrophe is entropic in nature. ‘The Angel of history is standing with wings open, with its back to the future… the winds of future anre carrying it continously forward’.
Benjamin refers to Jeztziet ‘The Now moment’, or the standstill
Future in context of the Jews.
‘…every second is a narrow gate through which the messiah can enter’.
Walter Benjamin corresponded much with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht, and was occasionally funded by the Frankfurt School under the direction of Adorno and Horkheimer, even from their New York City residence. The competing influences—Brecht’s Marxism, Adorno’s critical theory, Scholem’s Jewish mysticism—were central to his work, although their philosophic differences remained unresolved. The intellectual range of Benjamin’s writings flows dynamically among those three intellectual traditions, deriving a critique via juxtaposition; the exemplary synthesis is Theses on the Philosophy of History.
In the “Concept of History” Benjamin also turned to Jewish mysticism for a model of praxis in dark times, inspired by the kabbalistic precept that the work of the holy man is an activity known as tikkun. According to the kabbalah, God’s attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contaminated by the presence of evil and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together. Benjamin fused tikkun with the Surrealist notion that liberation would come through releasing repressed collective material, to produce his celebrated account of the revolutionary historiographer, who sought to grab hold of elided memories as they sparked to view at moments of present danger.
– Margaret Cohen, Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin
The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928, is a critical study of German baroque drama, as well as the political and cultural climate of Germany during the Counter-Reformation (1545–1648). Benjamin presented the work to the University of Frankfurt in 1925 as the (post-doctoral) dissertation meant to earn him the qualification to become a university instructor in Germany.
Professor Schultz found The Origin of German Tragic Drama inappropriate for his Department of German Language and Literature, and passed it to the Department of Aesthetics (philosophy of art), the readers of which likewise dismissed Benjamin’s work. The faculty, among them Max Horkheimer, recommended that Benjamin withdraw The Origin of German Tragic Drama s as a Habilitation dissertation to avoid formal rejection and public embarrassment. He heeded the advice, and three years later, in 1928, he published The Origin of German Tragic Drama as a book.
He presented his stylistic concerns in The Task of the Translator, wherein he posits that a literary translation, by definition, produces deformations and misunderstandings of the original text. Moreover, in the deformed text, otherwise hidden aspects of the original, source-language text emerge, while previously obvious aspects become unreadable. Such translational mortification of the source text is productive; when placed in a specific constellation of works and ideas, newly revealed affinities, between historical objects, appear and are productive of philosophical truth.
He states that Everything has a language except nature; if nature could speak, it would immediately begin its lament.
Walter Benjamin’s writings identify him as a modernist for whom the philosophic merges with the literary: logical philosophic reasoning cannot account for all experience, especially not for self-representation via art.