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Category: Non-fiction

Lorenz Jäger

Walter Benjamin. Das Leben eines Unvollendeten
[Walter Benjamin: An Unfinished Life]


The Aura of the Intellectual
Lorenz Jäger’s biography of Walter Benjamin presents the messianism and materialism of a radical thinker whose aim was to combine the political, aesthetic and theological

In September 1940, Walter Benjamin fled through the Pyrenees to the Catalan town of Portbou. He had an entry visa for the United States but did not have exit papers for France. Arriving in Portbou, they threatened to send him back. This would have meant falling into the hands of the Nazis, who had marched into Paris in June and were hunting down Jews, Benjamin included. In this seemingly hopeless situation the 48-year-old philosopher, cultural critic and translator took his life with an overdose of morphine pills in a hotel room of this border town.

The huge impact of his work would unfold only after his death, entire generations of students being socialized with The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the flâneur of his Arcades Project, his One-Way Street and the "angel of history" in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. He was – and is – venerated as an unorthodox thinker associated with the Frankfurt School and critical theory, a luminary interested in deconstructing the "aura."

This new biography of Walter Benjamin, written by publicist and long-time editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Lorenz Jäger, emphasizes the intellectual development of a philosopher whose unfinished work – the book’s subtitle is "An Unfinished Life" – is equally marked by messianic and materialist approaches. The cultural critic’s range of topics was immense: from graphology to Dadaism and Surrealism, from Baroque tragedies and their obsession with death to the silent language of things and the obscure consumer world of Paris shopping arcades. "From the very outset his metaphysics had the potential, indeed a strong tendency to suddenly shift into a peculiar materialism of ‘things’ – and his messianism was strangely linked to an inner-worldly, secular promise of happiness," writes Jäger about the cultural critic who had hoped for something radically new. In 1913–4 Benjamin wrote "The Metaphysics of Youth," and in 1917, as a twenty-five-year-old, a strikingly self-confident "Program of the Coming Philosophy."

But Jäger begins by describing Benjamin’s origins, his birth in 1892 into a Berlin merchant family. Jäger briefly sketches the upper-class assimilated environment of his childhood and his reformist adolescence, before going into more detail about the friendships of his university years. In 1915 he met the math student and future historian of religion and Kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem, who emigrated to Palestine in 1923. Jäger uses this friendship to illustrate how Benjamin grappled with his Jewishness.

"The cultural environment that Benjamin lived in from 1915 to 1925 was marked by the imminent expectation of tremendous world-historical events and changes. Zionism was about to put an end to almost two thousand years of exile for the Jewish people." Unlike Scholem, who became a Zionist early on and radically broke with the assimilation of his parents’ home, "Jewishness played but a minor role" in Benjamin’s life, as he wrote in a letter to Ludwig Strauss. He had little use for "Emigration Zionism" or "National Jewishness."

Jäger emphasizes the personal relationships that repeatedly had a formative intellectual influence on Benjamin. In Switzerland, where he lived with his wife Dora from 1917 to 1919 and worked on his dissertation, he was deeply impressed by the philosopher Ernst Bloch. In 1924 he met Asja Lācis on the island of Capri, "a Bolshevist Latvian woman from Riga" who acted like a "communist electrical shock" on him. In the late 1920s he came into contact with Brecht and intensified his engagement with Marxism. Later, in the mid-1930s, he sought his "salvation in demagification." He focused on the commodity, and "in a chilly, almost compulsive way his findings are projected onto the motif of capitalism," Jäger concludes regretfully. The flâneur and creator of scintillating concepts increasingly concentrated on a "ruthlessly fixed idea."

The biography, however, is less focused on the chronological stages in Benjamin’s life than on "metaphysical upheavals"; his family setting plays less of a role than the intellectual worlds he moves in. It is fascinating how Jäger describes the cultural critic’s shifts between thing and commodity, and highly original the way he substantiates his "physiognomic" take on the philosopher using impressions from contemporaries – from Adorno to photographer Gisèle Freund and chiromancer Charlotte Wolff – without our having to agree with this physiognomic reading. Unlike previous biographers, Jäger mainly concentrates on the Benjamin intensely interested in the fringes of knowledge, in the merging of political, aesthetic and theological thought. In doing so he approaches his subject in a highly illuminating fashion without ever adopting a hagiographic tone.

Translated by David Burnett

Book cover Walter Benjamin: An Unfinished Life

By Jutta Person

Jutta Person, born 1971 in South Baden, studied German, Italian and Philosophy in Cologne and Italy, and gained a doctorate with a dissertation on the history of physiognomy in the 19th century. A journalist and cultural commentator, she is based in Berlin and writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Philosophie Magazin. From 2004 to 2007 she was an editor at Literaturen; since 2011 she has been in charge of the books section at Philosophie Magazin.

(Updated: 2020)