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Jennings and published by Harvard, is only the latest addition to a seemingly unending stream. Eiland and Jennings cite such cultural signposts as the radical student movement of the 1960s and the attendant revival of Marxist thought.But 60s radicals were hardly great readers, and Benjamin’s writings are, to say the least, maddeningly opaque and often altogether inaccessible.
By necessity, their book is based mainly on Benjamin’s essays and correspondence.
Admirably comprehensive as it is, however, there are also some strange omissions.
In Italy, I encountered a number of his former associates in the radical youth journal Der Anfang.
In Jerusalem there lived the librarian and poet Werner Kraft, an early friend but later a critic, and above all Gershom Scholem, who had been Benjamin’s closest friend both in Berlin and later on and who would become, with Adorno, the figure most responsible for launching his posthumous reputation.
The German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, dead by his own hand on the French-Spanish border in 1940, remains a man of mystery.
Anything but prominent in his lifetime, he has emerged in recent decades to unvarnished acclaim as the greatest thinker of the 20th century in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology, aesthetics, literary theory and criticism, and a half-dozen more. Among the ranks of mid-century Central European intellectuals, the reputation of Benjamin’s contemporaries and colleagues (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno) continues to shrink; his continues to rise and rise.
The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.
To some, the problem is simply that most of Benjamin’s major work remained unfinished.
A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs.
Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general.