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Benjamin, Walter

Category: Philosopher

Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) was a German literary critic, philosopher, social critic, translator, radio broadcaster and essayist. He was the son of a wealthy business family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews.

Among his major works as a literary critic are essays on Goethe's novel Elective Affinities; the work of Franz Kafka and Karl Kraus; translation theory; the stories of Nikolai Leskov; the work of Marcel Proust and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. 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.

Benjamin's career appears to have been deeply influenced by the people he met, admired and became friends with, and this came to guide his eventual philosophy, which we shall see shortly.

His support of Marxism in the 1930s was partly due to the influence of Bertolt Brecht. He was influenced by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen. In 1917, he became friends with Ernst Bloch. Benjamin was a friend and admirer of Leo Strauss. He knew Theodor Adorno and befriended Georg Lukács. He worked with Franz Hessel (1880–1941). He met Rainer Maria Rilke and in his time as an exile in Paris he met and befriended Hannah Arendt, novelist Hermann Hesse, and composer Kurt Weill.

 

So much of Benjamin's work was a sort of synthesis of the ideas he derived from others. What was he trying to achieve?

Benjamin was deeply interested in Jewish mysticism. In 1915, he met Gershom Scholem, who profoundly influenced his thinking. Scholem was a founder of the academic study of the Kabbalah and of Jewish mysticism. Benjamin later wrote "My life experience led me to this insight: the Jews represent an elite in the ranks of the spiritually active...For Judaism is to me in no sense an end in itself, but the most distinguished bearer and representative of the spiritual."

Margaret Cohen
Benjamin turned to Jewish mysticism ..... 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.

 

Thus what Benjamin was actually trying to do his entire life was to try to bring humanity back together again under the canopy of spirituality – in the form of Jewish mysticism. He also appears to have had a good understanding of the need for spiritual experience to help with this:

"for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."

In other words, perceptions are both the means by which we understand time, but also the means by which we escape from it – see the cone/spirit output for an explanation. Benjamin believed that liberation would come through 'releasing repressed collective material', getting rid of your demons, and in this he advocated the use of cannabis!

Few people appear to be aware that Walter Benjamin produced a collection of writings, posthumously published on cannabis. It is called 'On Hasheesh' and was intended to be a 'truly exceptional book' , as Benjamin describes it in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem.

 

It describes a series of 'protocols of drug experiments,' written by himself and his co-participants between 1927 and 1934, together with short prose pieces that he published during his lifetime.  "On Hashish" provides a peculiarly intimate portrait of Benjamin, the observation I have chosen is startlingly honest in the circumstances, if indeed it is he who has taken the hasheesh.

He was clearly influenced by the literary drug users, from Baudelaire to Hermann Hesse and looked to hashish and other drugs for an initiation into what he called 'profane illumination'. The English-language edition of "On Hashish" features a selection of supplementary materials - drawn from Benjamin's essays, letters and sketches - relating to hashish use, as well as a reminiscence by his friend Jean Selz, which concerns a night of opium smoking in Ibiza.

But what is truly ironic and tragic is that Benjamin's door was ultimately not opened through cannabis, it was opened by tragedy.

Dora
Asja Lacis

In 1917, Benjamin met Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890–1964), whom he later married, and they had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918–1972). Later however, Benjamin met the Latvian Bolshevik and actress Asja Lacis, who became his lover. In December 1926 - the year his father, Emil Benjamin, died – he went to Moscow to meet Asja Lacis, and found her ill, in a sanatorium. In 1927, he began Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), his incompleted magnum opus, a study of 19th-century Parisian life and regarded as his major work. The same year, he saw Gershom Scholem in Berlin, his great friend, for the last time. In 1928, he and Dora separated and then divorced two years later.

This turmoil in his life was not to end there. The year 1932, was one of chaos preceding Adolf Hitler’s assumption of the office of Chancellor of Germany. The Reichstag fire (27 February 1933) followed by the increasing persecution of the Jews created terror in the hearts of all the Jewish community. Benjamin left Germany first for Ibiza then Nice, where he even considered killing himself.

 

As he ran out of money, Benjamin received funds from the Institute for Social Research, and went permanently into exile in Paris. There in 1937 Benjamin met Georges Bataille to whom he later entrusted the Arcades Project manuscript.

By 1938, the Nazi Régime had stripped German Jews of their German citizenship; now a stateless man, Benjamin was arrested by the French government and incarcerated for three months in a prison camp near Nevers, in central Burgundy.

Returning to Paris in January 1940, he wrote Über den Begriff der Geschichte (Theses on the Philosophy of History) again considered one of his most influential works. As the Wehrmacht defeated the French defence, on 13 June, Benjamin and his sister fled to Lourdes, a day before the Germans entered Paris (14 June 1940), with orders to arrest him at his flat.

In August, he obtained a travel visa to the US that Max Horkheimer had negotiated for him. In eluding the Gestapo, Benjamin planned to travel to the US from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach via fascist Spain, then ostensibly a neutral country.

 

The historical record indicates that he safely crossed the French-Spanish border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia. The Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined.

Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of 25 September 1940.

Benjamin's friend Arthur Koestler, also fleeing Europe, attempted suicide by taking some of the morphine tablets, but he survived. Benjamin's brother Georg was killed at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in 1942. 

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