A Critical Life and the Politics of Biography
To say that Walter Benjamin stands at the center of unusual scholarly fascination would be an understatement. Writings and publications on the idiosyncratic and sophisticated German-Jewish philosopher have exploded over the last three decades, to such an extent that it has become routine for scholars to scoff at a “Benjamin industry” (George Steiner) or a “Benjamin cult” (Susan Buck-Morss).1 As several observers have commented, this enthrallment is not merely in recognition of Benjamin’s many insights on diverse fields such as theater, urban life, and messianic politics. It also stems from his life story. His precarious career as a literary critic in interwar Germany, the unstable (and unhappy) love life, his travels across Europe (including the Soviet Union), exile from Nazism in Paris, and his tragic suicide in 1940 as he fled the advancing Wehrmacht, have been told and re-told in multiple scholarly biographies, comics books, historical novels, operas, and even a rock album.
The recent publication of Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland’s magisterial Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life thus raises an immediate question: why does the world need a new biography of Benjamin? Why did Jennings and Eiland, who decades ago orchestrated the publication of Benjamin’s writings in English and thus fostered the rise of Benjamin studies as a field in the English-speaking world, decide to re-tell a story so familiar, especially since their work does not rely on newly revealed sources? To be sure, the two have composed what is by far the most comprehensive and detailed Benjamin biography to date, studded with lucid interpretations of Benjamin’s major works (which, given Benjamin’s sometimes arcane and dense prose, is a deeply impressive achievement). But surely the authors did not seek simply to provide yet another version of a story that has been told countless times.
One of the things that distinguish Critical Life is its iconoclastic intervention in the prolonged debate regarding Benjamin’s politics. While Benjamin’s writing were always rife with political statements and terms—even when writing on Baroque novels or modernist poetry, Benjamin routinely commented on sovereignty, law, revolutions, and violence—he never fleshed out a systematic political theory. He famously flirted with conflicting partisan dogmas such as Zionism and Marxism, regularly proclaiming his intentions to learn Hebrew or join the class struggle only to abandon those endeavors shortly thereafter. This fuzziness has played a potent role in the later understanding of Benjamin’s life. For many years, those who knew him decried his elusive politics as an intellectual failure, insinuating that it led him toward personal disorientation and even to his tragic suicide. In contrast, later commentators have celebrated his oblique thinking as a manifestation of healthy skepticism, downplaying the importance of politics in his writings. Despite these differences, authors of both camps participated in a larger effort to distill broader political lessons from his life story. Through Benjamin’s life, they sought to highlight the consequences of committing—or refusing to commit—oneself to the “right” political project.
In A Critical Life, Jennings and Eiland take a decisive stand on this debate by stressing Benjamin’s deep pledge to violent politics, especially Communism. They repeatedly remind the reader that Benjamin’s passion for the revolutionary project fundamentally informed his writings about culture and art, even though it was not always systematically articulated. In doing so, Jennings and Eiland not only defy recent trends in Benjamin scholarship. They also—and this has gone much less noticed—build upon and even revive earlier tropes and interpretations that Benjamin’s friends constructed after his death. The following comments therefore briefly sketch the different political readings of Benjamin’s biography that evolved over the decades, and then locate their traces in Jennings and Eiland’s work. For with their new story, the two authors raise crucial questions not only about Benjamin’s own work and historical context, but also about its ability to inspire and guide contemporary critical thinking today, in a political universe very different from that of interwar Germany.
The first wave of biographical texts on Benjamin was composed by those who knew him personally, such as Zionist scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, Marxist critical philosopher Theodor Adorno, and Communist revolutionary Asja Lacis. While these figures held radically different ideological commitments, they all shared the belief that Benjamin’s life was a story of a faulty political choice, or a missed political opportunity. The brilliant critic’s demise, so the logic went, was not merely the product of the Nazi menace, which pushed Benjamin to exile and suicide. To some extent, it was also the bitter fruit of political amateurism. Instead of committing himself to the “right” political agenda, Benjamin wasted his time curiously considering deviant ideas, which left him confused and ultimately unprepared for the catastrophe of war. At the center of most of these narratives towered the Communist dramatist Bertolt Brecht, whose fierce commitment to proletarian struggle strongly influenced Benjamin. Encounters between the two, which began in the late 1920s and helped transform Benjamin from a mild critic of capitalism (not uncommon among middle class thinkers) to an adherent of violent class revolution, seemed to many the beginning of a calamitous development. Most importantly, these biographical texts often portrayed Benjamin as representing an entire social milieu, such as German Jewry or the German Left. His story was thus seemed to shed light on the broad catastrophes that plagued Europe in the 1930s and the 1940s.
The most familiar variation of this story was produced by Scholem, who met Benjamin in Berlin, shared a voluntary exile with him in Switzerland during World War I (both refused to enlist in the German military), and was his closest friend during the immediate postwar years. Scholem believed that he and Benjamin had undertaken a heroic struggle to shed the secular and bourgeois culture of their upbringing in favor of Zionist anarchism. He found it particularly meaningful that Benjamin occasionally mentioned Jewish myths and thinkers in his writings, and claimed to great interest in the history of Jewish messianic politics. Scholem had no doubt that Benjamin would have found deep fulfillment and liberation had he joined Scholem in migrating to Palestine, where he arrived in 1923 to partake in the founding of the Hebrew University. As he put it in his 1975 Walter Benjamin: A Story of a Friendship, “I believed that Jerusalem would offer a fruitful solution to the intellectual dilemma that Benjamin had to surmount,” namely, whether Jewish life could flourish in an increasingly unstable Europe.2
Scholem, who was convinced that only Jewish mysticism could provide a spiritual alternative to Europe’s allegedly stale middle class culture, was thus continuously dismayed by his friend’s habit of discarding Jewish matters and terminating his Hebrew classes. It seemed as though some outside force was always interfering with Benjamin’s quest to learn more about Judaism and Zionism. Scholem ultimately came to believe that it was the friendship with Brecht and his crude Marxist materialism that had ruined Benjamin’s path to emancipation. Benjamin proved unable to overcome Communism’s allure and his writings acquired increasingly “heavier Marxist accents,” which led him to spiritual and intellectual disorientation. Scholem later recalled meeting Benjamin during a visit to Europe, finding him “a person… whose harmonious view of the world was shattered and in disrepair.”3 In Scholem’s eyes, Benjamin reflected the failure of Germany’s Jewry to recognize the futility of assimilation in Europe. Rather than joining Scholem’s own Zionism to forge a separate Jewish existence, Benjamin and many of his Jewish compatriots remained captivated by the siren song of European culture until it was far too late.
A similarly tragic narrative, albeit emerging from a different ideological angle, can be found in the works of Adorno (such as his famous 1970 A Portrait of Walter Benjamin). During their years of dialog in the 1930s—the two often exchanged their writing and Adorno helped publish some of Benjamin’s work in the journal he edited—the critical theorist hoped to recruit the older Benjamin to his own Marxist school of critical theory. Benjamin’s creative efforts to uncover capitalism’s permeation of everyday life, children’s games, and art exemplified what Adorno believed should be the future of Western Marxist critique, in contrast to the rigid Bolshevik fixation with property relations and industrial production. Like Scholem, however, Adorno was disheartened by Benjamin’s friendship with Brecht and his growing interest in Communism, which he later described as a tragic and corrupting influence. Especially lamentable was Benjamin’s insistence on the emancipatory potential of the working class and especially of popular culture, which Adorno believed diluted the power of serious anti-capitalist critique (and required a heavy dose of wishful thinking). While scholars mostly remember Adorno for his animosity toward capitalism, his Benjamin narrative reflects his disdain for Stalinism and his dismay that so many left-leaning thinkers could align themselves with crude Communism in the 1930s. Benjamin’s disorientation was therefore emblematic of the broader degeneration of the Left’s quest for true liberation. Despite their profoundly different visions, then, these early and highly influential biographical texts understood Benjamin’s life as a story of political derailment, in which Communism disrupted a promising intellectual flowering. Benjamin’s life represented the failure of many Europeans to recognize the era’s real political needs, and this failure had very tragic consequences.
If these texts framed Benjamin’s life around political disappointment, from the 1970s onward a new wave of biographical texts introduced a radically different outlook. Rather than condemning Benjamin’s inconsistent politics, authors now began to celebrate his changing political visions as a sign of spiritual liberation and independence. It would not be a stretch to attribute this change to the broader shift in political and cultural norms that reshaped the Western Left at the time. As a growing focus on sexual and cultural norms eclipsed the traditional struggle for economic redistribution, many scholars identified with philosopher Michel de Certeau’s assertions that the “real” challenge to power lay in individual self-fashioning and everyday activities. It became commonplace to believe that state oppression and capitalist logic were best negated neither through party politics nor utopian visions, but by the exercise of fierce individualism.4 In this intellectual environment, Benjamin’s lack of interest in rigid political dogmas and his fascination with pop culture and mass-produced artifacts proved enormously alluring. For many, Benjamin’s life was not a story of political confusion but an impressive model for idiosyncratic liberation.
Essayist and art theoretician Susan Sontag was among the first to set the tone for this new reading of Benjamin’s life. In her widely-read 1978 essay The Last Intellectual, which sought to introduce the still largely obscure thinker to an English-speaking readership, she highlighted Benjamin’s interest in everyday life and consumption patterns as the core of his intellectual endeavor. Yet for Sontag, Benjamin’s refusal to commit himself politically served as the paramount lesson. His erratic flirtations with Zionism and Marxism represented not confusion, but a conscious defiance of all orthodoxy. In her admiring words, “Benjamin defended himself against the philistine defamation of political commitment. Instead, he celebrated intellectual prostitution and the life of letters.” Sontag found nothing admirable about consistency, and believed that Benjamin’s talk of Jewish or proletarian politics was a prank he played on his friends. To her, it was exactly this inconsistency that made him nothing less than “the hero of modern culture.” Such sentiments were soon duplicated in a growing body of work, which increasingly elevated Benjamin to the role of a legendary genius. What had earlier been a cause for lament now appeared to inspire hagiographic worship.
This growing esteem soon inspired a new vision of Benjamin’s life. The earlier narratives of intellectual crisis and failure rapidly gave way to stories of triumph, in which Benjamin’s unpredictability was only a veneer for an admirable spiritual core. Perhaps the most representative of these is Bernd Witte’s 1985 intellectual biography Walter Benjamin (which was translated into multiple languages). Witte, a highly influential German scholar, claimed that Benjamin was not as inconsistent in his political agenda as his friends had believed. Rather, throughout his life he was guided by an interest in the weak and underprivileged sections of European society, and found in them a potential source of new cultural energy. In this version, each period in Benjamin’s life was defined by an interest in one particular group: first in youth, then in the working class, and finally in the Jewish people. In each, Benjamin invested the same hopes, namely that they would provide a new language and ideas for a more equal, freer, and richer European culture. Witte maintained that there was no political “failure” to speak of in Benjamin’s life. His biography was one of organic evolution, in which Benjamin’s thought continued to evolve and mature right until the very end of his life. With such readings, Benjamin’s life in many ways ceased to be controversial. Rather than tragedy, many now saw it as a tale of intellectual liberation.
It is in many ways precisely this later but deeply ingrained narrative that Jennings and Eiland seek to demolish with A Critical Life. The Benjamin that emerges from their detailed study is anything but an inspirational and easily relatable thinker. Instead, the Benjamin of A Critical Life is very much a figure rooted in the past, in Weimar Germany’s radical Left, whose ideas are far removed from our own, largely post-Marxist intellectual universe. Jennings and Eiland forcefully highlight how much Benjamin owed to the Communist journalists and artists with whom he regularly interacted. They show how Benjamin was committed to the overthrow of the state and the violent annihilation of capitalism, and thus brimmed with destructive political energy (it is telling that the chapter on Benjamin’s writings in Weimar is entitled “the destructive character”). To be sure, the two authors do survey his early (and short-lived) interest in youth movements and then in Jewish culture, and acknowledge that, despite repeated promises, he balked at joining the Communist party (322). They also explicitly concede that his invocation of ideas and terms from multiple political worlds make it impossible to distil a fully coherent political ideology from his writings. But the two authors unwaveringly situate Communism as by far the most dominant political force in Benjamin’s thinking. By doing so, they seek to strip his biography of contemporary meanings and instead to reframe him as an interwar thinker.
This renewed emphasis on politics manifests itself in several ways in A Critical Life. For one, the authors refreshingly refuse to interpret Benjamin’s fascination with pop culture as a creative path to transcend rigid politics, a la Sontag and many others. Instead, they repeatedly remind the reader that the German-Jewish philosopher found songs, shops, advertisements, and clothes interesting only in so far as they provided insights into the workings of capitalism and suggested new avenues by which to bring about the proletarian revolution. To be sure, Jennings and Eiland do not subscribe to Adorno’s famous disdain for popular culture, and do not share his firm belief that jazz and Hollywood movies mostly served to normalize capitalism’s oppressive practices. As other readers have noted, when the authors discuss the tensions between the two thinkers over the merits of studying mass-produced culture, they set out Adorno’s position in a visibly cool tone and with thinly veiled reservation.5 Yet A Critical Life takes care to shatter the image of Benjamin as a thinker who traded allegedly stale Communism for the exuberance of everyday life. It shows how his interest in the latter was always laced with a commitment to radical revolution.
Even more provocatively, Jennings and Eiland emphasize the profound gaps between Benjamin’s and current-day critique of capitalism by emphasizing the streak of nihilism that undergirded his thought. Like many thinkers of his generation, Benjamin drew heavily from Friedrich Nietzsche, his hostility toward the European middle class, and his call to destroy all moral and ideological conviction. As a young man he fantasized about works of art and philosophy that would shatter all traditions and smash all norms, and his later enthusiasm for the proletariat stemmed at least in part from his belief that workers could bring about such destruction. Jennings and Eiland never explain if and how Benjamin addressed the glaring tensions between this kind of nihilism and Marxism. Nietzsche’s conception of emancipation, after all, was highly individualist and elitist, assuming that only selected few could muster the intellectual firepower to abandon social norms, while the Communists focused only on the masses and material conditions as the source of liberation. While A Critical Life at times exaggerates Benjamin’s nihilism, it uncovers the historical sources of Benjamin’s thought. Unlike most of today’s critics of capitalism, Benjamin was moved not by wealth inequality and gradual reform, but by visions of apocalyptic violence and radical transformations.
Equally stimulating, Jennings and Eiland challenge the scholarly fad of claiming that Benjamin transcended his Marxist milieu by interacting with leading thinkers of the German Right, especially philosopher Martin Heidegger, author Ernst Jünger, and the political theorist Carl Schmitt (all of whom ultimately supported the Nazi regime). In 1987, the scholar Jacob Taubes caused a minor intellectual sensation by publicizing a brief appreciative letter that Benjamin wrote to Schmitt in 1930, hyperbolically claiming that it was “a mine that can blow to pieces our conception of the intellectual history of the Weimar period.” Subsequently, major figures such as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sought to show (based mostly on isolated footnotes and a heavy dose of speculation) that Benjamin and Schmitt were engaged in deep dialogue, as they endeavored to expose hidden similarities between Left and Right. Jennings and Eiland implicitly but firmly reject this story. In A Critical Life, the letter to Schmitt is accorded only a brief and dry paragraph (184); Schmitt’s reference to Benjamin in his 1956 Hamlet or Hecuba, to which scholars routinely refer as a sign of fascination, is acidly mentioned as “perfunctory” (350); and Benjamin’s scathing reviews of Ernst Jünger’s work are addressed in detail (339). The authors instead dedicate long passages to Benjamin’s countless plans to co-edit journals with Marxist friends. In short, they present a Benjamin who was firmly rooted in the circles of the Left, and showed only marginal interest in ideas beyond this realm.
In this regard, in their mission to clarify Benjamin’s politics Jennings and Eiland ironically return to the very first biographical texts on him. For all their innovation, in their rejection of what they see as misguided readings of Benjamin and his life, they resurrect the friendship with Brecht, and Brecht’s commitment to Communism, as a central axis of their story. Like Scholem and Adorno, the two biographers see in Brecht’s friendship “the most important catalyst” in Benjamin’s turn to Communism (322). They carefully trace the increasingly close cooperation between the two, their unrealized plans to found a Marxist journal, and their time together in exile in Denmark after Hitler’s rise to power. Yet unlike the works of Benjamin’s frustrated friends, A Critical Life presents this encounter not as an intellectual disruption that pulled Benjamin away from his “rightful” path. Rather, it was the relationship that allowed him to articulate his visions of political violence, revolution, and redemption in the most coherent terminology he could muster.
Jennings and Eiland’s unique take on Benjamin’s thought and politics thus means that A Critical Life is bound to make a complex impact. On one level, the biography’s uncompromising focus on the political passion and violence in Benjamin’s thought is a breath of fresh air. It rescues his writings from their position as sacred and a-political relics, and instead highlights the challenging, unfamiliar, disturbing, and even outrageous visions that animated them. Equally important, Jennings and Eiland’s political narrative strips Benjamin’s life from the countless a-historical and symbolic meanings it has acquired over the decades, and instead focuses on Benjamin’s career in the concrete context of interwar Europe. This, too, invites one to revisit his works as living texts, filled with both insights and shortcomings and are therefore open to critical engagement.
At the same time, by situating Benjamin so deeply in the world of interwar Europe, A Critical Life also raises significant questions about Benjamin’s ability to provide ideas and terminologies that are helpful for thinking about the contemporary world. Forged in the crucible of Weimar Germany, in political, cultural, and economic conditions so radically different than today’s, can his ideas help explain the hidden norms that govern our own society? If his writings were so deeply imbued with nihilism and the now debunked dreams of proletarian revolution, can they provide a basis for productive and relevant social critique? That this biography raises such potent questions means that A Critical Life is much more than the extraordinary culmination of decades of scholarship. It may also mark the beginning of the decline of the decades-long collective obsession with this idiosyncratic thinker.
1Steiner is cited in Noah Isenberg, “Walter Benjamin in the Age of Information,” New German Critique 83 (2001): 119-151, here 119. The quote by Buck-Morss is from her The Dialectic of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), ix.
2Gerschom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), 137.
4Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). While Rodger’s focus on the United States, his arguments are valid for Western Europe, too.
Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. We has written on European thought, the Cold War, and international politics. His book, The Weimar Century: German Emigres and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War, was recently published by Princeton University Press.