biografía        bibliografía


15 July Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin is born in Berlin.
Walter and his younger brother, Georg, and younger sister, were born to a wealthy business family of assimilated Jews in the Berlin of the German Empire (1871–1918). The patriarch, Emil Benjamin, was a banker in Paris who relocated from France to Germany, where he worked as an antiques trader in Berlin; he later married Pauline Schönflies.

Walter was enrolled to the Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg; he completed his secondary school studies ten years later. Personally, Walter Benjamin was a boy of fragile health, so, in 1905, the family sent him to boarding school in the Thuringian countryside, for two years (first contacts to the youth movement); in 1907, returned to Berlin, his schooling resumed at the Kaiser Friedrich School.

He enrolled at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, but, at summer semester's end, returned to Berlin, then matriculated into the Humboldt University of Berlin, to continue studying philosophy. Elected president of the Freie Studentenschaft (Free Students Association), Benjamin wrote essays arguing for educational and general cultural change. When not re-elected as student association president, he returned to Freiburg University, and studied, with particular attention to the lectures of Heinrich Rickert; in that time he travelled to France and Italy.

As Germany and France fought each other in the First World War (1914–18), the intellectual Walter Benjamin began faithfully translating the works of the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67).

Walter moved to Munich, and continued his schooling at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem; the latter became a friend. In that year, Benjamin wrote about the 18th-century Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843).
Breaks with the ideas of Gustav Wyneken, Werner Kraft, Felix Noeggerath.

He transferred to the University of Bern; there, he met Ernst Bloch, and Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890–1964), whom he later married, and they had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918–72).

Benjamin earned his doctoral degree cum laude with the dissertation essay Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, supervised by Richard Herbertz in Bern – first meeting with Ernst Bloch ). Later, unable to support himself and family, the Benjamins returned to Berlin, and resided with his parents.

He published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (The Critique of Violence); initiates journal Angelus Novus.

When the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) was founded, and later became home to the Frankfurt School, he published Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens. In that time he became acquainted with Theodor Adorno and befriended Georg Lukács, whose The Theory of the Novel (1920) much influenced him. Meanwhile, the inflation in the Weimar Republic, consequent to the First World War, made it difficult for the businessman Emil Benjamin to continue supporting his intellectual son's family, Walter, Dora, and Stefan.
At year's end of 1923, his best friend, Gershom Scholem, emigrated to Palestine, a country ruled under the British Mandate of Palestine; despite repeated invitations, he failed to persuade Walter Benjamin (and family) to leave the Continent for the Middle East.

Hugo von Hoffmansthal, in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge magazine, published Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (Goethe’s Elective Affinities), by Walter Benjamin, about Goethe’s third novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809). Later that year, Benjamin and Ernst Bloch resided in the Italian island of Capri; Benjamin wrote Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), as an habilitation dissertation meant to qualify him as a university instructor in Germany. He also read, at Bloch’s suggestion, History and Class Consciousness (1923), by Georg Lukács. In the event, he also met the Latvian Bolshevik and actress Asja Lācis, then residing in Moscow; she became his lover and was a lasting intellectual influence upon him.

The Goethe University Frankfurt, at Franfurt am main, rejected The Origin of German Tragic Drama as Benjamin’s qualification for the habilitation teaching credential; he was not to be an academic instructor.
Working with Franz Hessel (1880–1941), he translated the first volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), by Marcel Proust.

He began writing for the German newspapers Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt Times) and Die Literarische Welt (The Literary World), that paid enough for him to reside in Paris for some months.
In December (the year his father, Emil Benjamin, died), Walter Benjamin went to Moscow to meet Asja Lācis, and found her ill, in a sanatorium.

He began Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), his incompleted magnum opus, a study of 19th-century Parisian life. The same year, he saw Gershom Scholem in Berlin, for the last time, and considered emigrating from Continental Europe (Germany) to Palestine.

Walter and Dora separated, then divorced two years later, in 1930; he published Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), and a revision of his habilitation dissertation Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama).

In Berlin, Asja Lācis, then assistant to Bertolt Brecht, socially presented the intellectuals to each other. In that time, he also briefly embarked upon an academic career, as an instructor at the University of Heidelberg.

During the turmoil preceding Adolf Hitler’s assumption of the office of Chancellor of Germany, Walter Benjamin left Germany for the Spanish island of Ibiza, there residing some months; he then moved to Nice, where he considered killing himself.
Perceiving the socio-political and cultural significance of the Reichstag fire (27 February 1933) as the de facto Nazi assumption of full power in Germany, then manifest with the subsequent persecution of the Jews, he moved to Paris, but, before doing so, he sought shelter in Svendborg, at Bertold Brecht's house, and at Sanremo, where his ex-wife Dora lived.
As he ran out of money, Benjamin collaborated with Max Horkheimer, and received funds from the Institute for Social Research, then relocated from Germany to the US, at Columbia University, in New York City, New York.
In Paris, he met other German artists and intellectuals refuged there from Germany; he befriended Hannah Arendt, novelist Hermann Hesse, and composer Kurt Weill.

L'Œuvre d'Art à l'Époque de sa Reproductibilité Technique (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) was first published, in French, by Max Horkheimer in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung journal of the Institute for Social Research.

Benjamin worked on Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire), met Georges Bataille (to whom he later entrusted the Arcades Project manuscript), and joined the College of Sociology.

He paid a last visit to Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Denmark. Meanwhile, the Nazi Régime stripped German Jews of their German citizenship; now a stateless man, the French government arrested and for three months incarcerated Walter Benjamin in a prison camp near Nevers, in central Burgundy.

Returning to Paris in January, he wrote Über den Begriff der Geschichte (Theses on the Philosophy of History). As the Wehrmacht defeated the French defence, on 13 June, Benjamin and his sister fled Paris to the town of Lourdes, just a day before the Germans entered Paris (14 June 1940), with orders to arrest him at his flat.
In August, he obtained a travel visa to the US, that Max Horkheimer had negotiated for him. In eluding the Gestapo, Benjamin planned to travel to the US from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach by traversing Gen. Franco’s fascist Spain, then ostensibly a neutral country.
The historical record indicates he safely crossed the French-Spanish border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia. Yet, the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined.
Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of 25 September 1940, yet the official Portbou register records 26 September 1940 as the official date of death.


Los archivos del escritor alemán, que acaban de editarse en inglés, son un inventario de todo lo que le interesaba: citas, anagramas, dibujos. El conjunto es un compendio de signos secretos que el mundo le ofrecía para que los descifrara...

La tecno-arcadia del Capitán Nemo y la Enciclopedia de Diderot y D' Alembert se parecen. Ambas son microcosmos en los cuales el código alfabético, la taxonomía o la nomenclatura permiten reemplazar el caos de la historia con un simulacro de orden. Toda colección, podría decirse, está hecha de especímenes embalsamados, reliquias que han sido puestas a salvo del continente referencial de la enunciación y la recepción, en un interior terco y voluptuoso. De ahí su coherencia, tan secreta como férrea. No existen las listas arbitrarias, ni siquiera las de Borges. Cualquier lista es una forma ordenada del arte o del juego, una lealtad exclusiva a los tiempos privados del sujeto.

Benjamin lo supo bien. De hecho, no hizo otra cosa en su vida que organizar fragmentos, cada vez más consciente del placer de enumerar y contabilizar los trofeos de su lucidez. Sus archivos (que acaba de editar la editorial Verso, de Londres-New York, bajo el título Walter Benjamin´s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs ) constituyen, en este sentido, un verdadero vademécum, un meticuloso inventario de cuanto le interesaba. Hay allí de todo: dibujos, diagramas, listas bibliográficas, índices de viajes sentimentales, constelaciones de citas, anagramas, juegos de palabras, incluso un muestrario de los hallazgos lingüísticos de su hijo Stefan, todo registrado con esa letra minúscula, de maniático o iluminado, que lo caracterizaba, siempre alerta a lo más incidental (lo más interesante).

De hecho, es así como Benjamin organiza sus referencias: apegado a las micrografías del deseo y a los alumbramientos de lo inesperado. Y después aplica la técnica del montaje y pasa revista a la moda, la publicidad, la arquitectura, la prostitución o la fotografía, es decir, a los datos del mundo, con su pobreza abyecta y su lujo insolente, sus fracasos y sus testamentos. Nada se le escapa, nada se le escurre de esa escena que lo fascina en la misma medida en que lo aterra. El resultado es un compendio de secretas afinidades. En uno de sus papelitos, por ejemplo, se lee: "Revolución y festival; distancia e imágenes; sueño soviético; intento de dar a todo un sentido; notas para una traducción de Proust; narrativa y curación; estilos del recuerdo; La boîte à joujoux de Debussy". En otro: "Haussmann y sus demoliciones; excursus sobre arte y tecnología; Marx y Engels sobre Fourier; París como panorama; Grandville, precursor de la gráfica publicitaria; cuerpo y figuras de cera; el Palacio de Cristal de 1851; estaciones de tren, afiches, iglesias: puntos en común". Imposible no pensar en un magazín de novedades. O más exactamente, en uno de esos pasajes parisinos que tanto le gustaban, donde los escaparates, realzados por la flamante iluminación a gas, semejaban las ménageries de los grandes circos, con sus jaulas vistosas y sus animales cautivos que teñían el entorno de un aire fabuloso.

Para decirlo quizá con más claridad: en el paisaje mental benjaminiano, las obsesiones son siempre imanes. No importa qué forma tomen. Un sueño de Kafka, una gruta, un museo de juguetes, el anaquel de algún bouquiniste o la incesante indagación detectivesca de la ciudad moderna, todo se transforma para él en una invitación a pasearse por esos bulevares imaginarios donde el deseo se yergue sin objeto y el sentimiento general de abandono, a la manera de lo que ocurre en Noche transfigurada del alma de Schönberg, abre la imaginación como un bisturí.

Reunir los papeles de Benjamin, por eso mismo, podría parecer tautológico. No lo es. Por el contrario, sirve para enfatizar, una vez más, su método de trabajo inimitable, para entender su proyecto intelectual como lo que fue: un archivo del pensamiento, de las percepciones, la historia y el arte del siglo que le tocó vivir. Fiel a las cosas que, en su materialidad, constituyen siempre una protesta contra lo convencional, Benjamin priorizó, no el valor utilitario del objeto, sino la escena donde éste encuentra su destino. Me refiero a esos detalles de los que se pueden ver surgir, de prestarse la debida atención, acentos de desacato, movimientos anárquicos, algo que, por un instante al menos, sustituya un mundo petrificado por una enciclopedia mágica.

Hay un episodio en el Wilhem Meister de Goethe, titulado "La nueva Melusina", que Benjamin menciona en una carta dirigida a Jula Radt-Cohn el 9 de junio de 1926. En el relato, una joven misteriosa aparece en un albergue alemán llevando consigo una caja/ataúd que la supera en tamaño. Siguen las peripecias de un viajero que, seducido por la belleza de la joven, asume el cuidado de la caja, mientras ésta aparece y desaparece de la trama, sin razón aparente. La caja, descubrimos al final, contiene un reino maravilloso (del que proviene la doncella) que se ha encogido en una miniatura. Como la caja/ataúd de Goethe que preserva, bajo una forma microscópica, algo precioso, así también la escritura de Benjamin, diminuta y frágil, sugiere al lector la existencia de un mundo oculto tras las figuras del mundo.

Vale la pena insistir. Quizá el rasgo más nítido de toda colección sea éste: en ella, lo que se busca es un encierro, una protección, un "ensoñadero": uno de esos lugares que -como el museo, la biblioteca, el gabinete o el poema- permiten albergar descubrimientos, rarezas, piezas únicas, es decir, presuntas huellas de una experiencia auténtica. He aquí un escenario proclive a la acumulación y la privacidad, simultáneamente adicto a lo infinitamente minúsculo y a lo infinitamente inasible, con que el yo cuantifica su deseo, lo ordena, manipula y carga de sentido. Digamos que ese espacio -por grande o cívico que sea- le sirve, como un Arca de Noé personalizada, para desplegar los enigmas del cuerpo y la memoria, es decir, un mundo anterior, siempre ligado a la infancia y los juegos. No sólo eso. También le muestra, con claridad feroz, que su tarea es ciclópea y su afán, por fortuna, inalcanzable. ¿Qué sería una colección completa sino una colección muerta? Al querer esto y lo otro y lo de más allá, acicateado por el fantasma de la pérdida y la interrupción, el coleccionista entiende pronto que eso que le falta, como en la escritura, relanza el deseo. No hay placer más intenso que aquél que se sustrae.

"Los grandes poetas ejercen su ars combinatoria en un mundo que vendrá después de ellos". La frase figura en uno de los libros más orgullosamente arbitrarios de Benjamin: Dirección única. También allí, en medio de una sorprendente galería de niños (Niño leyendo. Niño que llega tarde, Niño goloso, Niño montado en el tiovivo, Niño escondido, Niño desordenado), se lee: "Cada piedra que encuentra, cada flor arrancada y cada mariposa capturada son ya, para él, el inicio de una colección. No bien ha entrado en la vida y ya es un cazador: atrapa a los espíritus cuyo rastro husmea en las cosas". El objetivo no es, como se ve, encontrar algo nuevo, sino renovar lo viejo haciéndolo propio, perderse por horas en la selva del sueño, donde los papeles de estaño son tesoros de plata; los cubos de madera, ataúdes; los cactus, árboles totémicos y las monedas, escudos. La felicidad, para el niño, proviene de un tête-à-tête con las cosas que el azar le trae y que él guarda en cajones que son fortines, arsenales, zoológicos. No de otro modo el poeta urbano y flâneur , encarnado para siempre en Baudelaire, ejercerá su propio placer esquivo cuando proyecte sobre el mundo su mirada alegórica, es decir, transporte sus propios objets trouvés al desorden pautado de la poesía.

Se trata de algo muy simple y muy complejo: al abocarse a aquello que irremediablemente se les escapa, los poetas, como los niños, se embarcan en su propio viaje à la recherche du temps perdu , volviéndose arqueólogos lúcidos, testigos del vínculo preciso entre nostalgia y resistencia, aventura y tolerancia. En cuanto a Benjamin, en cada uno de sus libros, intentó cruzar una frontera. Después, a lo mejor, como en Portbou, comprendió que no tenía adónde ir y prefirió quedarse en su propio coto de caza donde es posible seguir siendo aún hoy y ayer y mañana un huésped inestable y belicoso.


— Salonkritik


Walter Benjamin nació en Berlín en 1892 y se suicidó el 26 de septiembre de 1940, en Portbou, lugar entonces anónimo entre Francia y España, imantado ahora por su desaparición. La ardua travesía por la montaña, emprendida para escapar del nazismo, resultó demasiado exigente dada la dolencia cardíaca que lo aquejaba, agravada por el peso del maletín con sus manuscritos que se empeñó en llevar consigo. "El contenido de este maletín es más importante que yo", se le atribuye haber dicho, parte ya de la leyenda que lo convirtió en la imagen misma de un escritor más allá de los géneros literarios, totalmente volcado hacia la escritura. Su plan era ir a Portugal a través de España para partir a Estados Unidos con una visa que le había conseguido su gran amigo Horkheimer. Apenas una semana antes otros refugiados, entre quienes se contaban Alma Mahler Werfel, Franz Werfel y Lion y Marta Feutchwanger, habían logrado pasar a Portugal por Cerbère y tomar un barco hacia Estados Unidos, pero en el momento en que Benjamin decidió intentar la huida, los obstáculos se concatenaron. Pasar por Cerbère resultaba demasiado difícil y llegó a Portbou el día en que los franceses suspendieron el visado. Algunos allegados, como Arthur Koestler, testimoniaron que Benjamin se enorgullecía de llevar consigo suficientes pastillas para quitarse la vida.

No fue guiado por pesimismo como arribó a Portbou. Al contrario, creía que, a diferencia de lo que le había pasado en Europa, iba a prosperar en Estados Unidos. En Alemania, a pesar de la admiración que había suscitado en muchos de sus contemporáneos, no había convencido al comité que evaluó su candidatura para la habilitación, con la consiguiente imposibilidad de ganarse la vida allí como académico. Se dedicó al periodismo y a la traducción y se abocó denodadamente a construir redes de relaciones que le facilitaran una existencia intelectual. Una lectura de su abundante correspondencia evidencia la confianza con que defendía su obra y el desprecio que sentía hacia sus detractores, así como la tenacidad con que pedía cartas de recomendación. Sobrevive en el recuerdo el hombre que murió por no poder cruzar una frontera, un individuo con mala suerte que se suicidó por falta de paciencia, ya que la suspensión de los visados fue levantada al día siguiente y podría haberse salvado. En Portbou Benjamin no sólo alcanzó la frontera sino que se enfrentó a un límite.

En 1933, cuando los nazis llegaron al poder, Benjamin había abandonado Alemania ante la imposibilidad de ganarse la vida y después de una breve estadía en Ibiza, se había instalado en París, ciudad plena de significados para él, que operó de registro para la parte más importante de su obra. Subsistió gracias a un estipendio del Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforshung, propiciado por sus amigos Max Horkheimer y Theodor Adorno, nombres asociados posteriormente con la recuperación y difusión de su obra.

En 1939, con la declaración de la guerra, Benjamin fue internado por un tiempo en el campo de concentración de Nevers junto con austríacos, alemanes, checos, eslovacos y húngaros, considerados extranjeros enemigos. Las condiciones del campo de concentración eran muy duras pero, a pesar de todo, Benjamin intentó fundar una revista y dictó un seminario cuyos asistentes pagaban con tres cigarrillos. El crítico Hans Sahl, que compartió la suerte de Benjamin, recuerda la dedicación y seriedad con que, abstrayéndose de las condiciones reinantes, Benjamin condujo las reuniones del comité editorial para una publicación que nunca vería la luz.

Para Benjamin, identificado imaginariamente con Francia, esa experiencia debe de haber tenido un gran peso, aunque no fue lo suficientemente decisiva como para aceptar la visa de emergencia para Estados Unidos que le había tramitado Horkheimer cuando salió de Nevers. Regresó, en lugar de eso, a París para seguir con un proyecto sobre Baudelaire en la Biblioteca Nacional.

Un triángulo amoroso

Entre 1926 y 1927, Walter Benjamin había viajado a Moscú con el propósito de ver la ciudad, interiorizarse de la realidad social que allí existía y renovar su relación con Asja Lacis (1891-1978). El vínculo con esta actriz y directora de teatro letona ilumina la dinámica de los afectos de Benjamin y brinda una clave para entender su capacidad de compromiso. Asja fue su colaboradora en un texto sobre Nápoles y él le había adjudicado un papel importante en la evaluación de su escritura. Gershom Scholem prologa la edición del Diario de Moscú , publicado por primera vez en 1979, después de la muerte de Asja. Scholem, con quien Benjamin mantuvo una voluminosa correspondencia, critica su decisión de ir a Moscú: estudioso de la Cábala y del misticismo judío, hubiera querido que Benjamin aprendiera hebreo y fuera, como él, a Israel. En una carta a Scholem, Benjamin menciona que opta por ir a Moscú y posponer Israel. Le resulta más importante ver a una amiga y quiere escribir sobre la ciudad. Sólo después podrá considerar ir a Israel y aprender hebreo.

Scholem tenía poco respeto por Asja. La consideraba intelectualmente débil y no compartía su entusiasmo por la revolución rusa. Así como Scholem (que no era ni cabalista ni místico) no tenía duda alguna sobre su pertenencia cultural judía, Asja era una bolchevique de opiniones firmes, cuya militancia impresionó a Benjamin, que se había adentrado en el estudio del marxismo-leninismo y que menciona en su correspondencia la ansiedad con que aguardaba la oportunidad de leer los Cuadernos filosóficos de Lenin.

Asja tenía una hija, Daga, de un primer matrimonio, y en el momento en que Benjamin la visitó en Moscú, ya era pareja de quien sería su compañero, con algunas intermitencias, casi a lo largo de toda su vida: el dramaturgo y crítico teatral Bernhard Reich (1880-1972). Su vida estaba estructurada. En el Diario de Moscú , Benjamin presta poco interés a las opiniones de Asja y -como había hecho en Nevers- abstrae obstáculos y cree que el futuro con Asja sólo depende de su propia decisión. Asja estaba enferma e internada cuando Benjamin llegó a Moscú. Entre los amigos de él había algunos detractores de la relación que, como Gershom Scholem, sugirieron que el motivo de la internación era de índole psicológica, dando lugar a la idea de que Benjamin estaba sometido a los caprichos de una desequilibrada. Pero una lectura de las memorias de Asja en ruso, como señala Susan Ingram, revela un padecimiento de orden neurológico. Benjamin era consciente de eso e incluso facilitó la relación con un neurólogo para el tratamiento.

Benjamin estaba incómodo en Moscú. El frío, su exiguo cuarto y la dolencia de Reich, que lo acompañaba en muchos de sus recorridos pero que no podía salir con asiduidad, instituyeron una trabajosa dinámica. Asja se quejaba de que Benjamin descuidaba a Reich y lo exponía demasiado a los rigores del clima, pero Benjamin lo necesitaba a su lado para orientarse en una ciudad desconocida. A pesar del triángulo sentimental que formaron, no hay una manifestación de celos en el Diario... por parte de Benjamin, quien estaba frustrado, sin embargo, por los vaivenes de salud de Asja, a quien hubiera querido ver más a menudo. La preocupación de Asja por la salud de Reich debe de haber sido exagerada ya que él tuvo una larga vida y falleció en 1972.

El Moscú del Diario... se refracta en el cristal de severas condiciones físicas. Un ritmo de espera gobernaba los recorridos de Benjamin que quería, sobre todo, ver a Asja. Ella salía y entraba del sanatorio, a veces dormía allí, otras disponía de más tiempo. La incertidumbre gobernó sus encuentros durante toda la estadía de Benjamin, que buscaba estar a solas con ella, casi como un adolescente, pero apenas lo logró.
Cuando salían juntos, desarrollaban actividades superfluas, en momentos claramente atesorados por Benjamin, que trataba de prolongar cada instante para favorecer la intimidad. Acompaña a Asja, por ejemplo, a ver a una modista para que se probara un vestido que se estaba haciendo hacer a medida y describe el atuendo en todo detalle, porque la ropa es también parte de los atributos de Asja y la ciudad. El vestido y el cuerpo de Asja son detalles de Moscú, que se entremezclan con la visión de las calles, parte de su fulgor y carácter fragmentario. Asja, mujer de teatro, poseedora de una gran capacidad dramática de autopresentación, como se evidencia en las fotos que nos han quedado de su juventud, anhelaba un abrigo muy caro que le mostró a Benjamin y que él planeaba regalarle algún día. Solicitados por la sensibilidad comunista y una preocupación burguesa por su bienestar personal, Benjamin y Asja tejieron una relación que no llegaría a prosperar y que acaso tuvo más peso para él que para ella.

No es fácil ver qué es lo que atraía a Benjamin de Asja, porque la describe con la actitud de un observador desinteresado. Cuenta cómo se le hinchaba la cara, probablemente por los sedantes que le daban en el sanatorio, y cuando, ya menos medicada, tenía un semblante más atractivo, lo atribuye también a un cambio químico.

Asja quisiera ocuparse de Daga, su hija pero, con visos que recuerdan a la Maga de Rayuela , no parece tener la capacidad para hacerlo. Era caprichosa pero coherente en lo que respecta a la relación con su hija, ya que siempre manifiestaba un gran deseo de protegerla, aunque no veamos en el Diario... ningún indicio de abnegación, excepto el remiendo de los gastados zapatos de la niña para protegerla del frío. Asja hacía esto durante el mismo período en que iba de compras y a visitar la modista con Benjamin. A ninguno de los dos se les ocurría que podrían comprarle un par nuevo. Fascinado por el detalle de los pies en el frío y la textura de los zapatos, Benjamin retrata y documenta sin intervenir en la situación.

Al comienzo del Diario... , Benjamin dice que no quiere hacer la teoría de Moscú y que para eso es mejor no saber ruso. Su narración adquiere la elocuencia visual de una película muda. Cuando analiza los movimientos de Asja y el efecto que tienen sobre él los roces, el amago de un beso, la calidad de una mirada, abre un vacío entre ambos. Allí también, pero en otro nivel, falta una lengua común. La relación no fluye en el nivel físico, los contactos entre los cuerpos son casi robóticos o imperceptibles. Benjamin no piensa en darle un par de zapatos nuevos a Daga porque, en lugar de internarse en las vidas que describe, las ronda dejándolas abiertas y desconocidas.

La falta de manejo del ruso para Benjamin -flâneur en Moscú- es lo opuesto de lo que buscaba en París. En Moscú quiere permanecer extranjero, entenderlo sin involucrarse.

Así tiene la libertad de combinar elementos dispares, como las fiestas navideñas y una percepción de las nuevas prácticas habitacionales bajo el comunismo, cuando nota que en los edificios habitados a pleno, las luces que inusitadamente iluminan cada una de las numerosas habitaciones por la noche los asemejan a gigantescas decoraciones para las fiestas. Moscú -como Asja- le parece:

[una] fortaleza; el duro clima, que, por muy sano que me resulte, me afecta también mucho, el desconocimiento de la lengua, la presencia de Reich y la forma tan limitada de vida de Asja son otros tantos bastiones, y...


— Letranías

WALTER BENJAMIN: Some Biographical Fragments

'Life and Work'
That which is known or surmised about Benjamin's life and about the development of his thinking has already played a very conspicuous role in heated debates among his interpreters. Even basic documentation is far from complete. Some material has been lost, some of it is inaccessible, and the wealth of material now made readily available is the subject of continuing controversy. The many facts, documents, memoirs, letters, drafts available are so minutely examined, and each new statement, or discovery, so eagerly awaited because the picture we have is so strange, so complex and so riddled with tension. Benjamin's habits of secrecy and indirectness, together with the personal and political incompatibilities which surrounded him, and the profoundly original and experimental nature of his intellectual project have combined to keep almost every aspect of his life open to debate. There are few writers in whom the entanglements of 'life' and 'work' are so obvious, so important, and yet so elusive. There have been few thinkers in this century who have tackled so many of the most profound issues in such a searching, and suggestive way. Understanding his work involves understanding the life which he devoted to it; it is a collective labour which is still in process.

'The prose of the world'
Benjamin's writings bear obvious, as well as concealed, signs of the times and the circumstances in which he worked. A good deal of his writing was of an occasional nature - reviews, journal articles, talks, proposals - as Benjamin struggled to support himself and his writing following the failure of his attempt to win academic respectability. Benjamin proved himself adept at expressing concerns which were his own in a manner which suited the occasion and, to a degree, the audience. This was allied with his preference for exploring his own ideas through the analysis of the works of others. Benjamin's preference for shorter prose forms - aphorisms, letters, reviews, fragments, essays - best suited to his own literary-philosophical style had as its complement the intimation of a larger whole, a context never achieved. Today the most immediate context for Benjamin's beautifully-crafted fragmentary writings is that of his own life, and fate. But we should be wary of pre-judging (ironically because we are committed to the perspective of hindsight) the possibilities as they presented themselves to Benjamin. A radical incompleteness was both an article of faith for Benjamin and a guiding principle of the open and experimental way in which he conducted his thinking. It obscures, because it so exactly complements, the effects of 'unfavourable' circumstances - 'Dark Times': exile, poverty, isolation, personal misunderstandings and animosities, war - on the overall shape of his work.

'Der Anfang'
Although he eschewed explicitly prophetic tones, Benjamin anticipated radical, new beginnings. From the time of his youth and his involvement with the most radical and most idealistically intellectual wing of the Youth Movement (that wing associated with the journal Der Anfang 'The Beginning' and influenced by the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken), Benjamin spoke and wrote in the name of something unimaginable, something radically different to 'that which is'. It was this thought which formed the almost entirely abstract and ideal horizon against which was fought his hand-to-hand combat with the particular (personal and global) circumstances of the present.

From his early attack on 'experience', the older generation, tradition and the realities of the work-a-day world to his very last reflections in which he attempted to explain how 'experience' had been so degraded, and even the tradition of revolt and opposition could succumb to conformism, Benjamin kept alive the idea of necessary discontinuity in history, the desirability of a radical break with the past, and a relation to something as yet hardly glimpsed in the labyrinths of history. Benjamin saw himself not as a worker contributing to that which might be just beginning but a herald preparing his readers for something unheard of, something radically new. At almost every level, from the most trivially personal to the most portentously historic, the circumstances in which he lived and worked presented themselves to Benjamin, the writer, as increasingly ominous obstacles to both his work and to the kind of new beginnings they secretly enshrined.

From first to last Benjamin demonstrated that it was necessary to think in theological categories (the redemptive rescue of the past, the messianic cessation of history) in order to achieve the kind of moral and ideal focus on the world which he strove to establish. There is no evidence that he retained any real religious faith. The 'weak messianic power' of which he spoke towards the end of his life was one vested in the historian guided by the principles of historical materialism and the masses at the moment of their revolutionary action. The active encouragement 'with which he accompanied Death in all its works', his appreciation of moments passing away, and of tendencies which were critical and destructive, does suggest a kind of 'faith' or confidence that every true content thus released, or liberated, would be re-used, re-absorbed, redeemed at some later point but not necessarily religious conviction. The rescue of the elements of the past was entirely the fragile and embattled work of the historian, that of breaking the continuum of history, citing the past, that of the revolutionary masses. Their explosive conjunction was, as Benjamin plainly saw, a remote but enthralling possibility.

In broad outline at least, the facts of Benjamin's life are now well-known, but the dispute over his biography, its developments, and its conflicts, is likely to continue. The dispute took shape originally as one between revolutionary Marxist, Critical Theorist and Jewish scholastic legatees. He has been claimed for the New Theology and for self-absorbed libertarianism of the permissive generation. His esoteric and elitist strains have been played against his analysis and commitment to the situation of the intellectual within a revolutionary movement. He has been invoked to support nostalgic elegies for a dying civilisation and the most ruthless and iconoclastic modernism. In its new guise the dispute over Benjamin's legacy has now shifted to one between neo-Marxist modernist and deconstructionist and post-modernist combatants. Benjamin's writings have played such an important role in the most serious discussions about progress, about history, about the 'spiritual condition of the age' precisely because, even if he avoided offering a programme, or a positive set of proposals, Benjamin showed more starkly than anyone else of his time what was at stake.

As the claim to any direct continuity with Benjamin's legacy becomes more tenuous, so the question of what Benjamin really said, what he really meant has been displaced by questions as to the variety of readings, no matter how tortured, to which he is susceptible. Benjamin's work was, even during his life-time, a battle-site. Today excavators vie with one another, some claiming a strictly archaeological interest, others mining for something which they can put to use. Benjamin himself made the principle of the interdependence of the philological and the political into a principle highly productive in his own life. Recognising the element of bad faith expressed in exclusively elevating either of these two interests is not the same as being able to effect their synthesis in imitation of the master. Hollow academic ivory-towerism and raucous political self-interest are twin dangers which lurk not far from the surface in any contemporary invocation of the unity of historical understanding and political concern in Benjamin's life. Understanding how the questions which govern Benjamin's life presented themselves to him is a process which should accompany the attempt to bring into focus the questions which hang over our own heads, and which we are often nervous of even naming.

Method is detour
The path of memory. Benjamin's secretiveness about his life and about his writing was due not only to professional caution, or to his exposed position 'between the fronts' of his closest friends and allies. The kinds of truth in which Benjamin was most interested were those which gave themselves up coyly, with the maximum indirectness. Benjamin was suspicious of method because the elusive truths he sought were wary of pre-established, pre-determined approaches. The truth Benjamin sought was as much the path trodden as it was the goal which beckoned. 'Method', Benjamin remarked cryptically, 'is detour'. The assemblage of montage, the tracing of tracks through the labyrinth, the interpolation into the infinitesimal are the procedures of a highly conscious memory, but one which knows that the wilful and deliberate efforts of memory can be destructive of that which they wish to resurrect. Benjamin recognised that a brutal grasp may also be part of what is involved in redemption, certainly in its revolutionary guise, but practised also myriad stratagems of indirectness.

Very early on in his career Benjamin developed the art of self-definition through the analysis of the writings of others: from his early (1916) attack on Socrates (using Nietzsche's words while aiming them obliquely at his erstwhile mentor, Gustav Wyneken), and his (1919) enshrinement of Dostoevsky's Idiot, Myshkin (in whom Scholem immediately recognised his friend Heinle, who had committed suicide in 1914), to the masterful essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities (1923), a novel in which Benjamin recognised, without making the connection explicit, a marital entanglement exactly paralleling his own. As Benjamin's historical and critical methods became more refined, so the canvas on which he sketched his self-portraits expanded and the subtlety with which he manipulated the distance between himself and his models increased. Benjamin developed his self-definition through an anti-subjective historical criticism, and through the harsh analysis of figures with whom his identification could not be incomplete (the melancholics of the Baroque, Baudelaire, Proust, etc.). As if to protect himself from assimilation he continued to maintain as a principle the primacy of the present over (the understanding of) the past.

Benjamin's stance throughout his life and in almost everything he wrote was critical. His contestation of any form of continuity with tradition remained a constant element of his thinking. He exposed the very idea of tradition wherever and whenever he could not only as a burden upon the present but as an insult and a dead-weight carried by the dis-possessed, the anonymously labouring; by the people, in other words, excluded by the 'Great Traditions'. Benjamin's attempt to rescue from the past, and from the experience of the dis-possessed, truths worthy of servicing not only the discontinuities to which they had been subject but also the cataclysmic revolutionary upheavals of the future, has misled some of his most sympathetic readers into treating Benjamin's essays as 'nostalgic', causing them to overlook the destructive wrath to which Benjamin was prepared to submit that which was to be redeemed, in order that it might be liberated.

The 'magic' of language
It has been remarked that Benjamin stood very close to those things against which his most pointed critical remarks were directed, among them the auratic, contemplative and esoteric works of art enshrined by tradition. Benjamin's analysis of high art and the aestheticism of its spiritualistic devotees is so penetrating because Benjamin shared their intense and visionary concern for the secret side of language, differing from them markedly in the consistently radical moral and political sensitivity which he brought to bear on aesthetic matters.

The 'Great Tradition', Goethe, et al
Benjamin devoted relatively little time to writing about work already enshrined within the prevailing canon of literary taste. Even where he comes closest, in his early essay on a novel by Goethe, his study of the then somewhat neglected genre of the German Trauerspiel, or in his studies of the once despised but then immensely fashionable Fleurs du mal, Benjamin operates most effectively at some distance from the Great Traditions. The task of brushing (literary) history 'against the grain' was most effectively carried out by engaging the defenders of Tradition on their flanks, in those grey areas, least hotly defended, where explosive elements, elements which failed to conform to accepted orthodoxies put in an appearance. Benjamin's approaches to Goethe are a crucial example: his stress on Part II of Faust, his emphasis on the 'Romantic' view of nature and the natural sciences and his pursuit of moral ideas of fate and character in Goethe's strange novella, and the precise sociological and biographical account of Goethe's career in Benjamin's Encyclopaedia-article, were all designed to reassert aspects of the German national post which had all but been forgotten in the tradition fostered by Goethe's devotees.

The 'unheard-of'
Consistently Benjamin's major efforts were devoted to those works from the past, even the recent past, in which new, unheralded, even totally unheard-of elements or achievements had made their first appearance. In a surprisingly large proportion of cases, the figures, or works, or aspects to which Benjamin's attention was directed were those which gave Tradition something of a shock, and which initially represented something new, something strange, and even threatening, to those accustomed to what had gone before. Hölderlin, the Romantics, Baudelaire, Surrealism, Kafka, Brecht: although links and influences exist, these figures (or the others treated by Benjamin) do not add up to an alternative tradition. Their unity is derived from the tradition to which they were opposed or alienated from, and from the significance with which, in Benjamin's own writing, they are imbued.

Benjamin was a modernist, not in the sense that he gave the endorsement of criticism to actually existing modernist movements - he remained aloof from even those (Surrealism, Brecht) with whom he had most in common. All artistic impulses, and especially the most oppositional, the most radical, both past and present, were subject to the withering, mortifying force of criticism in order to liberate, for possible future purposes, that which had once been alive in them, and that which was most alive in them in the present.[...]


— The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate

BENJAMIN, WALTER (1892 - 1940)

German Marxist literary critic. Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy in Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Bern. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked thereafter as a literary critic and translator. His half-hearted pursuit of an academic career was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his brilliant but unconventional doctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals, but when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940 he fled south with the hope of escaping to the US via Spain. Informed by the chief of police at the Franco-Spanish border that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.

The posthumous publication of Benjamin’s prolific output won him a growing reputation in the later 20th century. The essays containing his philosophical reflections on literature are written in a dense and concentrated style that contains a strong poetic strain. He mixes social criticism and linguistic analysis with historical nostalgia while communicating an underlying sense of pathos and pessimism. The metaphysical quality of his early critical thought gave way to a Marxist inclination in the 1930s. Benjamin’s pronounced intellectual independence and originality are evident in the extended essay Goethe’s Elective Affinities and the essays collected in Illuminations.

The approach to art of the USSR under Stalin was typified, first, by the persecution of all those who expressed any independent thought, and, second, by the adoption of Socialist Realism - the view that art is dedicated to the "realistic" representation of - simplistic, optimistic - "proletarian values" and proletarian life. Subsequent Marxist thinking about art has been largely influenced by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács however. Both were exponents of Marxist humanism who saw the important contribution of Marxist theory to aesthetics in the analysis of the condition of labour and in the critique of the alienated and "reified" consciousness of man under capitalism. Benjamin’s collection of essays The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) attempts to describe the changed experience of art in the modern world and sees the rise of Fascism and mass society as the culmination of a process of debasement, whereby art ceases to be a means of instruction and becomes instead a mere gratification, a matter of taste alone. "Communism responds by politicising art" - that is, by making art into the instrument by which the false consciousness of the mass man is to be overthrown.