July 15, 2009
In the rumpus room of midcentury intellectual culture, WALTER BENJAMIN (1892-1940) is everybody’s favorite overstuffed velveteen rabbit. Susan Sontag, for example, rationalized Benjamin’s many self-defeating habits: the glacial pace at which he worked, she wrote, is typical of “the melancholic’s labors of decipherment,” while his indecisiveness, even when it came to fleeing the Nazis, was a function of his principled position at aesthetic, political, and religious “crossroads.” Whatever! Though he was brilliant — at his inaugural Frankfurt lecture, in 1931, T.W. Adorno persuasively declared that his friend’s style of interpretation (in which one broods productively over montage-like “constellations” of reality-fragments, inventing and discovering meaning simultaneously) is the only non-proto-totalitarian mode of doing philosophy, sociology, or criticism — the hapless Benjamin was a burden to everyone who loved him. Worse, in the years before his apparent suicide, he was driven by Hitler’s successes away from the negative-dialectical crossroads and towards messianism and party-line Marxism. So let’s put the Velveteen Rabbi back in the toybox, shall we? Let’s not cuddle Benjamin; instead, let’s read him.
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).