The Chronicle Review

Walter Benjamin’s Afterlife

Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute

Walter Benjamin
March 17, 2014

"Fame comes in many sorts and sizes, from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name." When Hannah Arendt wrote this sentence 46 years ago in the pages of The New Yorker, she was reflecting on the newfound halo of attention atop one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known, Walter Benjamin.

In Benjamin’s case, fame had proved an odd and unpredictable phenomenon—the writer had, by Arendt’s reckoning, been all but forgotten in the years leading up to his death, spent largely in France in flight from the Nazi war machine. And following his suicide in 1940 at age 48, in Portbou, Spain, his name had been kept alive by a small number of friends and colleagues, the kind of trickle of a readership that hardly suggested he would one day be counted among the most significant and far-ranging critics, essayists, and thinkers of the past 100 years—and one whose reach may still not be completely fathomed. As impressive as the Walter Benjamin comeback tale looked to Arendt in 1968, it pales in comparison to the renown attached to his name today.

We get several glimpses of Arendt in the new Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, just published by Harvard University Press, an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity, written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Most poignantly, Eiland and Jennings—two veterans of Benjamin studies—recount Benjamin’s beginning to take English lessons with Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (and working their way through Bacon’s "Antitheta" as an English-language primer) in preparation for what seemed their likeliest safe haven, the United States. Of course, Arendt and Blücher would establish themselves in a new land; Benjamin would never probe the experience of being what he called the "last European" in a new world. (The day after he committed suicide, after being threatened with deportation back to France by Spanish customs officials, Benjamin’s traveling companions were permitted to continue their journey.)

Yet the story of his afterlife runs through the United States—and more specifically through Cambridge, Mass., and the offices of Harvard University Press. While it was the Institute for Social Research—relocated to New York from Germany (via Geneva) before its eventual repatriation to Frankfurt after World War II—that was responsible for the stipend that kept Benjamin alive in exile in Paris after Hitler’s ascent to power, his posthumous story can’t be recounted without consideration of Harvard’s positively European approach to bringing to print the critic’s writing, and sustaining it over time. Any writer should be so lucky to have such a long commitment—and it’s one that younger readers, who may find it impossible to recall how obscure Benjamin’s reputation was not so long ago, may not appreciate in its scope.

"Paul de Man used to talk to me about him, for hours and hours," says Harvard University Press’s executive editor, Lindsay Waters, whom Eiland and Jennings laud in the acknowledgments of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life as the "godfather of this book." "It was clear how much de Man’s reading of the Trauerspiel"— Benjamin’s Habilitation, whose inability to find an academic sponsor (the equivalent of being rejected by a dissertation committee) denied him the financial safety of a university home—"had liberated him as a thinker." As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the 15th-century poet Luigi Pulci, Waters overlapped with de Man during the latter’s term as a visiting professor, and the theorist sparked Waters’s interest not just in Benjamin but in a broad range of untranslated European cultural criticism and literary theory.

De Man would cast a long shadow over the 88-volume Theory and History of Literature series that Waters inaugurated in 1981 as an editor at the University of Minnesota Press, one of the staggering achievements of university publishing in the 1980s and 90s. But curiously, for all the series’s influence in shaping and reflecting the leviathan of "theory" on American campuses, Benjamin is a conspicuous absence among the wealth of titles. "He was like a planet that you can’t see all of at any time," Waters says today. "In his lifetime, even his friends couldn’t see him."

Waters, who moved to Harvard in 1984, has made up for lost time. He has done as much as possible to ensure that every inch of Planet Benjamin, craters and all, is visible. With Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, he hopes as well to capture the path of his orbit. The book is a victory lap for the press, which since publishing the first volume of Benjamin’s collected writings, in 1996, has turned out more than 3,000 pages of the author’s work, in addition to packaging essays in thematic volumes (like a 2008 collection on media, which included Benjamin’s vastly cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," or, as it’s more frequently translated, in the version written later, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility").

Harvard has also brought into print Benjamin’s remarkable surrealist-inspired title A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, and his journal of drug experimentation, On Hashish, both translated by Eiland. The press had earlier published Benjamin’s correspondence with Adorno, who, as the writer’s literary executor, was responsible for the first collection of Benjamin’s writing to be published 15 years after his death—a two-volume edition of some of the writer’s better-known essays, works that reintroduced him to the world but scanted the fullness of his range and ambition. (Along with the collection of Benjamin’s lifelong correspondence with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, published by Schocken in 1989, these epistolary volumes offered the best glimpse of Benjamin’s day-to-day existence before Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, which also draws heavily on the writer’s letters to colleagues and acquaintances.)

Most magnificently, Harvard published more than a decade ago, and to great acclaim, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the archaeology of 19th-century Paris that defies categorization and which Benjamin labored over at the Bibliothèque Nationale for the final decade of his life before fleeing Paris. He entrusted the unfinished, perhaps impossible to finish, work to Georges Bataille to hide in the library’s archives. If it is a pleasant mirage that all of Benjamin could one day be published, Harvard, and Waters, seem determined to continue in pursuit.

Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life marks a sense of impossible completeness—and a full circle—in another way. Waters was not alone in being unable to fathom just what was available in Benjamin’s depths when de Man introduced him to the writer. Most Germans too were limited in what they knew of him. Arendt’s 1968 introduction is remarkable at providing a hint of his riches while mentioning in only a fleeting manner his "arcades project" by name. (Its publication in German would have to await the two volumes that appeared in 1982.)

Benjamin had first been collected in English in the volume that Arendt introduced, Illuminations, published in 1968 by Harcourt, Brace & World, which contained Harry Zohn’s translations of 10 Benjamin essays, including the one that would become by far his most famous, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." For years, with Illuminations difficult to find, students could be seen with photocopied versions of Benjamin’s essay on the fate of art in the wake of the invention of photography and film (it was a good indication that someone was to be avoided at all costs if he or she proudly noted the irony of this, just as it was good sport to hear who would pronounce the "j" in Benjamin as if it were an English name).

The complicated publishing history of Benjamin’s writings in many ways was tied up with the reception and popularity of "Work of Art." As the first of Benjamin’s essays to find a large English audience—it began to be a mainstay of film studies in the early 1970s as part of the interest in Brechtian aesthetics launched in part by the important British film journal Screen—it seemed to circumscribe interest around Benjamin almost exclusively in terms of Marxist aesthetics, and particularly the thinker’s place between the cool analytic Marxism of the Frankfurt School and the more firebrand variant of Brecht, whose friendship with Benjamin is thoroughly examined in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. (In Germany, Adorno, as the executor of Benjamin’s estate, had come under fire, particularly among the New Left, for unduly controlling the legacy of the author and resisting the interests of radical students in his work.)

For a writer who could hardly be pigeonholed, the essay’s dissemination seemed to have had precisely that effect. As it happens, the first volume published under Harvard’s imprimatur was an extension of sorts of Benjamin-the-Marxist-thinker. Moscow Diary, a record of Benjamin’s impressions of the Soviet city during a two-month visit in pursuit of his love of five years, the children’s theater director Asja Lacis, joined the scattered publications issued from New Left Books, the forerunner of Verso, in London—a fascinating set of essays and books, but ones that failed to give the full scope of Benjamin’s interests and writings.

When Waters came to Harvard from Minnesota, the larger Benjamin publishing project was beginning to be more defined. The seven-volume publication in German of the collected writings, begun in 1972 and completed in 1989, superseded the two-volume selection edited by Adorno, and Waters began to lay the groundwork for what he knew would be his legacy at the press. "I had a tremendous amount of support," Waters says. The then-director of the press, Arthur Rosenthal, was "keenly interested," although it was clear that it would cost a lot of money. Yet if Harvard seemed a less than likely home for someone with Benjamin’s left-wing reputation, it had ironically benefited from Adorno’s earlier reticence to place his writings in English with an explicitly politically oriented publisher. Still, Waters had to turn to support from faculty members—he counts the art historian T.J. Clark, then a professor at Harvard, as being of tremendous help—some of whom may be surprising. Above all, he credits the sociologist Daniel Bell, who was a member of the Board of Syndics at the press, which oversees the publication of titles at Harvard.

"It may come as a surprise that Dan, with his reputation as a conservative critic, would have any interest in Walter Benjamin," Waters says. "But he was always interested in Jewish things." When Siegfried Unseld, the publisher who had brought out Benjamin’s collected works in German, and Waters discussed the project in the late 80s, it was clear that it was going to be both extensive and quite expensive.

In a memorial tribute to Bell, Waters quoted the sociologist’s take on why such a big project was necessary: "If he were a theorist, he’d have presented his ideas systematically, and we could publish a well-chosen selection of his work that would represent his thinking beautifully, but he’s a critic, not a theorist, which means his ideas are scattered across all the pages of his work, and the only way to publish his work adequately is to publish hundreds and hundreds of pages of it so readers can see how his ideas emerge as he gets caught up in analyzing hundreds of concrete situations."

One pleasant oddity of the original project is the story of how Eiland, who teaches literature at MIT, became Benjamin’s translator. Waters recalls, "Howard had submitted a manuscript about Heideg­ger" that Harvard ultimately declined to publish. "But the reports were incredible. I asked whether he might consider translating Benjamin—which if you think about it, is pretty outrageous, considering we had turned down this other book." It turned out to be a stroke of genius. "There were some bad translations already in circulation, and when bad translations get in circulation, it’s hard to get them out. With Benjamin, I worried at the beginning how much I could depend on the translator, but I sensed that Howard was the only person I could trust."

Waters has a wistfulness about the series he started at Minnesota and the beginnings of his Benjamin series. Translations have become increasingly tricky and expensive propositions for university presses, and despite the successes of Arcades and the collected Benjamins, they remain potential money losers. After the accolades piled on the press for the first volume of the collected writings, and with Arcades in the works, Waters figured that the public was ready for a massive dose of Benjamin. Volume 2 was almost 900 pages, covering Benjamin’s fecund output between 1927 and 1934, and it shocked Waters to see how poorly it did. "We vastly miscalculated. It seemed to completely put people off. I didn’t realize how much the doorstop effect of the book might" turn off buyers, even if the volume contained among Benjamin’s most important essays. (In subsequent paperback editions, Volume 2 has been repackaged in two parts.)

After the poor showing, Waters admits, "I didn’t know how well Arcades would sell." But the allure of Arcades proved that the interest in Benjamin was far from exhausted, and not only in academic contexts. Its fabled kaleidoscope of the cultural phantasmagoria of mid-19th-century Paris, with inspiration above all derived from the shop windows of the city’s new flâneur-friendly displays of consumer commodities, united the dreamscapes of surrealism, the rigorous materialism of Marx, and the range of a deep, mazelike immersion into the emergent forms of cultural consciousness. It’s no wonder that this unfinished project, long rumored to be a masterpiece of modernist thought, would capture the interest of artists and critics as his earlier essays had done. Waters singles out the surprising effect that a rhapsodic column by the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp in The New York Times, which compared Benjamin favorably with Proust, Joyce, and Musil and portrayed Arcades as a "towering literary event"—played in putting sales over the top.

Fourteen years after the publication of Arcades, Waters can take stock of the Walter Benjamin industry. Volumes on the writer show no sign of abating, but he points out that the biography he has just published fills a real void. "It’s shocking to me that there has never been a full biography in this country," and while citing Uwe Steiner’s "fine introduction" published in translation in 2010 by Chicago, he is not shy about boasting that a press that has become so identified with the works of Benjamin is home to what he bluntly calls the definitive biography.

Of course, it’s a publisher’s job to act as a publicist, but Waters has always put his work on a different, higher plane. "This is what God put me on earth to do, to bring Benjamin to America," he says, with a bit of mischief in his voice. And the divine mission is not done. Waters is quick to mention other books he still yearns to see in print: in particular, a volume of the radio speeches Benjamin wrote for children, work the author undertook in the late 1920s that, even if he liked to dismiss it as Brotarbeit, his bread-and-butter work, is a marvelous example of his interest in the mental world of children. A new translation of Benjamin’s correspondence is also on his wish list. But it’s hard to imagine that even these will fulfill Waters’s mission. After all, he says in passing, "Every sentence of Benjamin’s is worthwhile."

Eric Banks is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.