Walter Banjamin
Walter Banjamin. Photo by Ayala Tal
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If 2012 is the year our world comes to an end, as doomsayers predict, that will provide additional employment for the angel of history, who observes the past and the wreckage of humanity as described by Walter Benjamin in his essay "On the Concept of History." But if the world and its inhabitants continue to exist, they will be able to observe, next July 15, the 120th anniversary of Benjamin's birth. His influence has only been growing in recent decades, and his writings are increasingly the inspiration for discussion and reconsideration.

The growing corpus of works about Benjamin is about to be augmented with the publication, in January, of a comprehensive study, "Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait," by Prof. Eli Friedlander (Harvard University Press ). Friedlander, head of the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University, discusses Benjamin's approaches to concepts such as history, mythology, language, beauty and truth. His aim is to tie together the threads of thought spun by the philosopher, who committed suicide in 1940.

"Many people," Friedlander says, "emphasize the enigmatic and enchanting aspect of Benjamin's writings. They present him, as Hannah Arendt did, as a kind of pearl fisherman retrieving precious treasures from the depths. But the amazement at that marvelous uniqueness is also a sure way to isolate him and avoid becoming seriously involved in his thought."

Friedlander's book revolves around the relationship between history and philosophy, which he elucidates through Benjamin's unfinished work "The Arcades Project." "Benjamin's thought is faithful to concrete historical content, so much so that it sometimes seems his writing lacks the recognizable form of philosophy," Friedlander observes. "Benjamin wrote philosophical history, or more accurately, wrote philosophy with historical materials whose ordering and arranging he worked on for years. The most salient expression of this commitment to concreteness is 'The Arcades Project,' which was intended to be a book consisting largely of quotations focusing on the arcades of Paris in the 19th century. After Benjamin's death, the material he had compiled remained divided into convolutes according to subjects such as 'modes of lighting,' 'iron construction' and 'the flaneur.' These are certainly not the typical subjects of philosophy."

Benjamin is often described as a neo-Marxist philosopher, like his colleagues in the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Does his attitude toward history differ from the Marxist approach?

"When Adorno and Horkheimer received from Benjamin a draft of the materials from the Baudelaire file in 'The Arcades Project' in continuous prose, they considered his adoption of the materialist position forced and artificial. Adorno even thought that Benjamin's insistence on writing constructed from those materials alone, and his conscious avoidance of an explicit formulation of a theory that would enable critical distance, courted the danger of being enchanted and spellbound by the problematic object he was presenting.

"Indeed," Friedlander continues, "Benjamin's writing is in no hurry to free itself from the semblance of 19th-century bourgeois life in Paris. Nor does it seek to judge the world in the conventional Marxist terms such as 'false consciousness' and 'alienation.' Instead, it immerses itself in the materials of the past and thickens them until they assume the configuration of an actual dream, the dream of the collective. That's why in Benjamin the critical, revolutionary moment is called 'awakening.' Awakening is made possible only via an interpretation of the dream, which for us is the past, and the expression of its truth for the present. Accordingly, awakening is also the redemption of the past, an indirect realization of the wishes of that dream that the past has become for us, by revolutionizing our present mode of existence."

Contrary to the prevailing view, which holds that Benjamin was more a cultural and literary critic than a philosopher, Friedlander's book seeks to place Benjamin within the Western philosophical tradition. "Suffice it to think of two central 20th-century thinkers, Wittgenstein and Heidegger," he says, "in order to understand that philosophy can appear in forms radically different from one another. Some will see this as a sign that there is no longer any point in insisting on the outmoded category of philosophy. I take a more modernist view, above all in that I perceive the renewed need to think what philosophy is as the constant question of philosophy. Therefore, in my view, to see Benjamin as a philosopher means understanding how he gives new names to the traditional notions of philosophy, and above all to its sovereign notion: truth."