Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life


Walter Benjamin is one of the twentieth century's most important intellectuals, and also one of its most elusive. His writings--mosaics incorporating philosophy, literary criticism, Marxist analysis, and a syncretistic theology--defy simple categorization. And his mobile, often improvised existence has proven irresistible to mythologizers. His writing career moved from the brilliant esotericism of his early writings through his emergence as a central voice in Weimar culture and on to the exile years, with its ...

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Walter Benjamin

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Walter Benjamin is one of the twentieth century's most important intellectuals, and also one of its most elusive. His writings--mosaics incorporating philosophy, literary criticism, Marxist analysis, and a syncretistic theology--defy simple categorization. And his mobile, often improvised existence has proven irresistible to mythologizers. His writing career moved from the brilliant esotericism of his early writings through his emergence as a central voice in Weimar culture and on to the exile years, with its pioneering studies of modern media and the rise of urban commodity capitalism in Paris. That career was played out amid some of the most catastrophic decades of modern European history: the horror of the First World War, the turbulence of the Weimar Republic, and the lengthening shadow of fascism. Now, a major new biography from two of the world's foremost Benjamin scholars reaches beyond the mosaic and the mythical to present this intriguing figure in full.

Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings make available for the first time a rich store of information which augments and corrects the record of an extraordinary life. They offer a comprehensive portrait of Benjamin and his times as well as extensive commentaries on his major works, including "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," the essays on Baudelaire, and the great study of the German Trauerspiel. Sure to become the standard reference biography of this seminal thinker, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life will prove a source of inexhaustible interest for Benjamin scholars and novices alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 11/11/2013
In this ambitious biography, Benjamin scholars (and editors) Eiland and Jennings chart the protean, prolific—albeit short—life of the German-Jewish critic and philosopher with masterly aplomb. As a literary critic, a dodger of both World Wars, flâneur, and eventual victim of Hitler’s reign, Benjamin (1892–1940) lived with a funny gait, “an impenetrable façade” of courtesy, and severe depression; fearing capture and deportation to Germany, he committed suicide in a Spanish hotel. Born to an affluent Berlin family, Benjamin advocated for the radical youth culture movement and education reform in Germany before he pursued a tenured professor of philosophy post in academia, which he never achieved. With intense wanderlust, Benjamin turned to an itinerant existence as he penned thousands of essays, reviews, and books. Shaping avant-garde realism and arguably inventing pop culture, he wrote that he hoped to be “the foremost critic of German literature.” Leaving Germany for good in 1933, Benjamin spent his last dark decade in exile, where most of his writings contributed to his never completed masterpiece The Arcades Project—“his cultural history of the emergence of urban commodity capitalism in mid-nineteenth-century France.” The authors, in impressive and accessible fashion, reveal Benjamin as an eyewitness to Europe’s changing modernity. 36 halftones. (Jan.)
Literary Review - John Gray
Presented here in what looks like a definitive version, Benjamin’s life emerges as a tragedy of incompleteness.
Times Higher Education - Joanna Hodge
[Eiland and Jennings] have produced this massive and gripping account of Benjamin’s life and troubles, testimonial both to their own efforts in bringing his elusive writings into view, and to the circumstances in which Benjamin arrived at such scope, depth and brilliance…This is Benjamin warts and all, but in place of an impressionistic biographical sketch of a life, marked by false starts and a final mischance, what emerges is an astonishing panorama of a life and of theorizing, of research and of publishing, on the crest of that wave of disaster that was the destruction of European Jewry and of German intellectual life.
Sydney Morning Herald - Gregory Day
Through this fair-minded and meticulously detailed biography we can, perhaps for the first time in the extensive literature on Benjamin, see clearly the way that the arc of his life and work, culminating in the overdose of morphine taken in the Hotel de Francia in Port Bou, is an expression of, and also an epic meditation on, the political and aesthetic conditions that provided the context of his coming into maturity as both a thinker and a man.
Bookforum - Eric Banks
[Benjamin was] one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known…[This is] an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity.
New Republic - Peter E. Gordon
In their superb new biography, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings have given us a portrait of this elusive but paradigmatic thinker that deserves to be ranked among the few truly indispensable intellectual biographies of the modern era. I am tempted to call it a masterpiece. Nearly seven hundred pages in length, this is not only a study of Benjamin’s life, it is also a guide to the bewildering mix of themes and preoccupations that populated this most prolific and unfamiliar of minds…To write the biography of an intellectual is difficult business, since so much of what passes for an event is taking place only in the mind or on the page--but those are the events that really matter. Eiland and Jennings move with deliberation through Benjamin’s major works, expounding and explaining with uncommon lucidity even when the text in question is one of notorious difficulty. The result is not a mere chronicle of a life but also a reliable map into Benjamin’s intellectual labyrinth.
Wall Street Journal - Modris Eksteins
The most comprehensive biography we are ever likely to have of Benjamin…Both authors have spent close to a lifetime on the subject. The devotion and care evident in their account are clearly based on sympathy and admiration. Their exposition of Benjamin’s thought is exemplary, their sleuthing about his personal life breathtaking. Definitive is an archaic and much abused term that Benjamin would have abhorred; suffice it to say that it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to tell us more about this German­-Jewish thinker or present that knowledge with greater stylistic aplomb.
Books & Ideas - Benjamin Balint
Impressive…[Eiland and Jennings] portray their subject as a kind of ragpicker in the neglected alleyways of a culture in transition--a specialist in the marginal and mundane, the fragmentary and forgotten…They succeed in offering not only the most comprehensive biography to date, but a tour de force introduction to an incomparably incandescent mind.
New Inquiry - Sami Khatib
Despite its numerous predecessors, this biography is the first of its kind to succeed in uniting most of the previously published biographical material in one book, including translations of documents which were until now only available in German. With the still-growing interest in Benjamin’s thought, one can expect this book to become the standard English-language biography on Benjamin. In A Critical Life, the contours of Benjamin’s day-to-day life become graspable for the first time. It is fascinating to read about his whereabouts and travels, the people and places that formed the stages for his life and thought…This biography is also an intellectual biography, which puts the reader herself in a position to navigate the labyrinth-like edifice of Benjamin’s thought. For this alone, this biography proves to be a landmark achievement in the history of Benjamin scholarship.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Colin Dickey
Serious and imposing, it seeks to gather up and bind the threads of Benjamin’s career, unite the unpublished and the half-finished essays and book projects, weaving together a comprehensive biography both of the man and his thought. A great strength of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is how it lays out Benjamin’s major works as part of an evolution of thought, providing not only invaluable context to each piece, but tracing each work’s central claims in a lucid and approachable manner. One need not be a PhD to approach this book, and it will intrigue anyone with a passing interest in the intellectual history of the 20th century. With key essays and books given substantive contextualization and explanation, Eiland and Jennings make Benjamin’s work accessible and networked into a larger set of themes and concerns…As omnipresent as [Benjamin’s] tragic fate is throughout the book, Eiland and Jennings also provide a host of surprising (and even delightful) details of Benjamin’s life, which round out the melancholic caricature of him in favor of a complex, conflicted individual.
Times Literary Supplement - Eric Bulson
I’ve been waiting for a book like this since first coming across Benjamin’s mesmerizing essays as a student. Like others who have fallen under his spell, I've had to make do with bits and pieces of biographical information over the years, not all of them reliable. Jennings and Eiland have spent almost two decades re-editing and retranslating all of Benjamin’s works and have also managed to create a map through the maze of his restless, exilic life.
New York Review of Books - Adam Kirsch
[This] is a careful synthesis of all the available sources for Benjamin’s life—letters, diaries, reminiscences of friends—with all of his major writings, to produce the comprehensive account that has been sorely lacking until now… Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life makes clear how intimately Benjamin’s biography was shaped by the history of Europe during his lifetime.
Gerhard Richter
Walter Benjamin himself often grappled with the vexed and constantly shifting relations between self and work, life (bios) and writing (graphein). Whatever faint yet abiding hyphen may connect the two, that same line also forever holds them apart. The new biography by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, two Benjamin scholars of the first rank, offers a sober, meticulous, and often moving image of Benjamin's brief life in the shadow of catastrophe. Brilliantly interweaving the conceptual threads of Benjamin's enigmatic work with his no less enigmatic existence, this impeccably informed and eminently readable account of Benjamin's life sets a new standard for his biographers and critics in any language. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is destined to stand the test of time.
Peter Fenves
Here, for the first time, is a thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin's life and the sources of his work. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is by far the best biography of Benjamin that has yet appeared. A remarkable scholarly achievement, it will prove of enduring value and will doubtless become the standard reference work for those who become intrigued by the complicated contours of Benjamin's life.
Library Journal
Eiland (Massachusetts Inst. of Technology) and Jennings (Princeton Univ.) present the reader with an interesting look at the life of German philosopher, critic, and essayist Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), best known for his reflections on and social criticism of Germany during the world wars. Much of Benjamin's work went unpublished during his lifetime, which was cut short fleeing from Nazis early in World War II. Although insightful, his work transcends classification, straddling poetry, philosophy, and social commentary during a time when dissemination of new ideas was stilted. The biographical information presented here is compelling and engaging. Eiland and Jennings successfully relate Benjamin's priorities and interests, while contrasting these personal facts with the world-changing events of the same era—events that at times, the authors make clear, seemed far away from Benjamin's life. As this is a biography, the authors discuss but do not offer substantive analysis of Benjamin's scholarly work. VERDICT This excellent resource for scholars interested in Benjamin or life during the turn of the century is recommended for academic libraries and all libraries with World War I and World War II collections.—William Simkulet, Andover, KS
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674051867
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/20/2014
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 156,353
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard Eiland teaches literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Michael W. Jennings is Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton University.

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