Eiland, Howard & Michael W Jennings
- Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2014.
Hardcover, octavo; quarter bound gray boards with black spine and silver gilt spine tiling, gray endpapers; 755pp., monochrome illustrations; notes; bibliography and index. Very minor wear only; fine in white illustrated dustwrapper. "Why is Benjamin important? Why should we read him? Eiland and Jennings, two Harvard scholars who have translated many of his works into English (not least The Arcades Project), argue compellingly that as a critic he not only reshaped our understanding of many important writers, but he recognised the potentials and hazards of technological media that revolutionised culture during his lifetime. Others find in him a literary deconstructionist avant la lettre, a social theorist who envisioned a wholesale renovation of the human sensorium through the reform of modern media, a fire-breathing communist, a messianic Jewish mystic. Eiland and Jennings are content that readers find their own Benjamins in his work and in their book. Until now, they argue, he has been an enigma as a man if not a thinker, but here he appears in a series of guises: faithless husband, unreliable father, compulsive gambler, frequenter of prostitutes, draft dodger (he and Gershom Scholem stayed up all night drinking black coffee to simulate weak hearts and thereby fail an army medical), serial participant in love triangles (he was erotically and perversely drawn, the authors convincingly suggest, to triangles from which he couldn't get what he wanted). They chronicle his experiences with mescaline and hashish. They wonder what was in the famous black attache case that mysteriously disappeared after his suicide in 1940 - did it contain a manuscript that would, had it been found, have rocked the world? Eiland and Jennings are doubtful. All this would make for a superbly racy narrative, but Eiland and Jennings don't roll that way. Theirs is an impressive work of exegesis, but their book struggles under the weight of the detail they present. They write his life as a historical continuum - eschewing the montage techniques, the fracturing of chronology, and the gambles with form and style to which their subject was programmatically committed and temperamentally prone. 'From first to last,' the authors write of this Dostoevskian gambler, 'Benjamin took chances in the subjects he addressed and on the form and style of this writing.' They don't... For all its outstanding scholarship, and for all that their biography is as a result indispensable, there is a risk that Benjamin drifts away from these pages like the fragrance of baked apple on a winter's morning. Or, indeed, as Benjamin himself slipped away from us prematurely in 1940, his suicide representing, as Scholem put it, with pardonable exaggeration, 'the death of the European mind'." - Stuart Jeffries
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