Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926

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9780674013551: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
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Walter Benjamin was one of the most original and important critical voices of the twentieth century, but until now only a few of his writings have been available in English. Harvard University Press has now undertaken to publish a significant portion of his work in definitive translation, under the general editorship of Michael W. Jennings. This volume, the first of three, will at last give readers of English a true sense of the man and the many facets of his thought. (The magnum opus of Benjamin’s Paris years, The Arcades Project, has been published in a separate volume.)
Walter Benjamin emerged from the head-on collision of an idealistic youth movement and the First World War, which Benjamin and his close friends thought immoral. He walked away from the wreck scarred yet determined “to be considered as the principal critic of German literature.” But the scene, as he found it, was dominated by “talented fakes,” so―to use his words―“only a terrorist campaign would I suffice” to effect radical change. This book offers the record of the first phase of that campaign, culminating with “One Way Street,” one of the most significant products of the German avant-garde of the Twenties. Against conformism, homogeneity, and gentrification of all life into a new world order, Benjamin made the word his sword.
Volume I of the Selected Writings brings together essays long and short, academic treatises, reviews, fragments, and privately circulated pronouncements. Fully five-sixths of this material has never before been translated into English. The contents begin in 1913, when Benjamin, as an undergraduate in imperial Germany, was president of a radical youth group, and take us through 1926, when he had already begun, with his explorations of the world of mass culture, to emerge as a critical voice in Weimar Germany’s most influential journals.
The volume includes a number of his most important works, including “Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin,” “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” “The Task of the Translator,” and “One Way Street.” He is as compelling and insightful when musing on riddles or children’s books as he is when dealing with weightier issues such as the philosophy of language, symbolic logic, or epistemology. We meet Benjamin the youthful idealist, the sober moralist, the political theorist, the experimentalist, the translator, and, above all, the virtual king of criticism, with his magisterial exposition of the basic problems of aesthetics.
Benjamin’s sentences provoke us to return to them again and again, luring us as though with the promise of some final revelation that is always being postponed. He is by turns fierce and tender, melancholy and ebullient; he is at once classically rooted, even archaic, in his explorations of the human psyche and the world of things, and strikingly progressive in his attitude toward society and what he likes to call the organs of the collective (its architectures, fashions, signboards). Throughout, he displays a far-sighted urgency, judging the present on the basis of possible futures. And he is gifted with a keen sense of humor. Mysterious though he may sometimes be (his Latvian love, Asia Lacis, once described him as a visitor from another planet), Benjamin remains perhaps the most consistently surprising and challenging of critical writers.

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About the Author:

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was the author of many works of literary and cultural analysis.

Review:

For many readers, [Benjamin's]...scrupulous attention to detail, this sense that everything can be made to speak, explains [his] force as a writer. His hermeneutic skill is nowhere more evident than in his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, the most important previously untranslated article included here. He confronts the novel from several perspectives, using it to illuminate the institution of marriage, the morality of love, and the project of artistic creation. At the same time, the essay offers a powerful―and frankly mystical―image of criticism itself... Esoteric much of the work is, but its originality inspires. If cultural studies is headed back to basics, Benjamin's luminous musings are a rewarding place to start. (James Surowiecki Lingua Franca)

To encounter Benjamin's piece ['The Life of Students'] is like overhearing the opening notes of one of the most intellectually compelling friendships of our century. It is greatly to the credit of Harvard University Press to have made the text finally available to English-speaking readers. In general, the editors of this volume have made an exemplary choice of what to include, and when their projected multi-volume section is complete, it will constitute the most important compilation of Benjamin's writings outside the mammoth German Collected Works. (Michael André Bernstein New Republic)

[A] splendid new edition of Benjamin's own Selected Writings. (Times Higher Education Supplement)

[T]he publication of an ambitious new edition of Benjamin's selected writings [is] a genuinely exciting event. In place of a limited selection of Benjamin's more immediately accessible pieces, American readers now have the chance to wander the full range of his work, and to gain a real sense of the often contradictory but always provocative combination of philosophy, criticism, and cultural history that it offers. (James Surowiecki Boston Phoenix)

Benjamin has gradually emerged as a major presence in 20th-century letters. This reputation rests on his extraordinary and highly idiosyncratic gift for original and far-reaching insights. It was his ambition to become Germany's leading literary critic, a status that many no doubt would be inclined to award him posthumously... Benjamin is sometimes misunderstood, since only certain parts of his overall output have come into view here. The 65 pieces collected in this excellent first volume of the new Harvard Benjamin should help clarify the larger picture as well as deepen and enliven the discussion. (Steve Dowden Washington Times)

A glance at the Table of Contents of Selected Writings―he writes on language, time, colors, children's books, love, violence, messianism―shows us at once Benjamin's provocativeness and his infinite variety. The two longest pieces, both from the early twenties and neither translated till now, are his doctoral thesis, 'The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,' and his long essay on Goethe's late novel, Elective Affinities... [The latter] is an exemplary piece of lit crit, brilliantly analyzing the book's layers, motifs, symbols and subtexts...Benjamin's reverent feeling for tradition gives weight to his radical readings of tradition. Both essays could be an inspiration to people doing cultural studies today. (Marshall Berman The Nation)

[Walter Benjamin] is no less than a major enrichment and revision of the image of Walter Benjamin's criticism in the English-speaking world. (Tyrus Miller American Book Review)

Today, the presence of Walter Benjamin is invoked in aesthetics, in political philosophy, in the theory of literature and of film, in linguistics and theology... [T]his [is a] sumptuous first volume of [his] Selected Writings... [T]here is more to this feast of a book than demanding gravity. The look at 'Old Forgotten Children's Books' is an arch delight. The sketch of 'Naples' (1925) anticipates the vital part the Mediterranean was to play in Benjamin's search for inexpensive nirvanas. The brief entry on 'Love and Related Matters' of 1920 speculates on the coming sexual revolution... Throughout Walter Benjamin, the prodigality of suggestion haunts one. (George Steiner The Observer)

Selected Writings, Volume I increases our understanding of this most important of writers exponentially. There is nothing like Benjamin, and I can hardly imagine a more rewarding book being published this year. (David Wheatley The Irish Times)

The appeal of Benjamin's writing, according to Terry Eagleton, lies in the way it 'manages marvellously to combine...[Marxist] 'aesthetics' with the entrancing esotericism of the Kabbala.'... Benjamin is admired not in spite of but because of his arcane syntax, murky vocabulary, and buried meanings... You have to seek the truth in Benjamin's writings, if you have the patience, and not treat them as conveying knowledge. There is an awful lot of husk to burn in the process, but the theory of truth, if true, explains the obscurity. (Arthur C. Danto Artforum)

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