New Book on Walter Benjamin
Here is the publisher’s blurb:
Seven decades after his death, German Jewish writer, philosopher, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) continues to fascinate and influence. Here Uwe Steiner offers a comprehensive and sophisticated introduction to the oeuvre of this intriguing theorist.
Acknowledged only by a small circle of intellectuals during his lifetime, Benjamin is now a major figure whose work is essential to an understanding of modernity. Steiner traces the development of Benjamin’s thought chronologically through his writings on philosophy, literature, history, politics, the media, art, photography, cinema, technology, and theology.. Steiner contends, can best be appreciated by placing Benjamin in his proper context as a member of the German philosophical tradition and a participant in contemporary intellectual debates.
In the last five years, more than 300 books and articles on Walter Benjamin have appeared in English alone
Uwe Steiner’s new book on Benjamin—which attempts to put Benjamin in his historical place—doesn’t really do him justice either.
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
A beautiful piece of writing that gets an extra kick from its pessimistic counter-intuitive punch line. Progress doesn’t progress in the slightest. It is a steady march through disaster. And there is nothing, it seems, we can do about it.
Benjamin claimed that his work was saturated with theology, even—or rather especially—when it appears to be at its most secular. In the piece that contains the Angel, the revolution fulfills a theological mandate by making “whole what has been smashed.” Benjamin imagines that it will enact tikkun olam in a very literal sense. Benjamin’s colleague, the philosopher Max Horkheimer, once accused him of believing all too squarely in the Last Judgment.
Benjamin’s thought was essentially religious. It clung to the twin promises of redemption and transcendence. The man worked from the clearly Jewish intuition that justice cannot be derived from the world as it is. Justice is precisely that small break from nature instituted by the Law. Our problem is not that nature is sinful. Our problem lies with the fact that on its own, nature just isn’t enough. It needs to be transcended, if only just a bit. As his friend T. W. Adorno was fond of reminding us, the Talmud says that the redeemed world will be like this one, but a little different. And that tiny shift means everything.
But what happens when we, as the children of modernity, have lost the Law? That is where Benjamin’s messianic politics slip in. Gershom Scholem, the magisterial historian of Kabbalah, always maintained that Benjamin was a Jewish thinker and not really a Marxist. For his part, Benjamin argued that he pursued a single goal—the radical transformation of the world, a utopian strike against suffering. His was not the tikkun olam of good deeds and incremental improvements, but of bold risks and decisive moves.
Sure, sure, there is a great deal of Romanticism in all this (as Steiner would be the first to point out) and a sentimentalizing anarchism that speaks of another era. Even so, Benjamin proposes a heresy we might want to consider: redemption without faith. He refuses to give up the rigors and promises of theology for a more amenable, even amiable ethical Judaism. He therefore cuts a different path for the post-religious. Just as Scholem, however unwittingly, presents us with a Kabbalah without halakhah, so Benjamin quite wittingly addresses a theology without God. An intractable contradiction? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is a historical conundrum that we have yet to overcome.