Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

David Ferris reviews Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. 768 pp. Hardcover $39.95.

Reviewed by David Ferris

Biographies need time to take the measure of their subjects. Walter Benjamin has received several biographical treatments which mark not only his importance as critic and thinker but also reflect an evolution in the task of biographical writing as it addresses those crucial figures of twentieth century thought and criticism whose work and influence eclipses and distances itself so strongly from the daily vicissitudes of a life. Added to this task, the biographer of Benjamin is faced with a difficult task since so much of the details of his life evaporated as the social and political upheavals of his time took their toll on the preservation of historical records, of personal memories. So much of the living traces of a generation were dispersed and lost amidst the displacements and exiles placed upon those like Benjamin whose thought, career, and even simple existence were radically estranged from any hope of stability. Faced with these challenges Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings have rightly sought and successfully produced the thread that gives a biography of Benjamin the kind of weight and significance his influence deserves. In doing so, their work tackles one of the most pressing issues bequeathed to us as we now take stock of those critics and philosophers of the twentieth century whose work formed the watersheds that define current critical and cultural analysis.

Both Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings are exceptional choices for this, the first full-blown biographical account of Benjamin in English. Their close and exhaustive knowledge of Benjamin’s writings, their role in fostering a greatly expanded view of Benjamin’s work in English places them at an intersection and a moment that their work as editors and interpreters of Benjamin has produced, a moment which demands a fuller and more comprehensive account of Benjamin’s enigmatic, esoteric, eclectic (in the best sense) and evolving thought. The only biography of comparable weight to date has been the 2009 French “essai biographique” by Bruno Tackels. Yet, the focus of the Tackels volume, its preference for the texts rather than the life, does not approach the level of what can be done. Here, the Eiland and Jennings volume excels. Ever aware of the constant cultural, critical and political refraction that Benjamin practiced on life and experience, they have chosen to follow that line of refraction as the one constant and consistent thread that does justice to the biographical task. Moreover their curiosity in searching out an expanded wealth of details now available about Benjamin, both personal and intellectual, historical and anecdotal, has produced an account that enlivens the already well-known turning points in Benjamin’s development. While there are no exceptional events, actions, or liaisons what will radically alter our understanding of Benjamin and his career, there is a careful and exacting synthesis at work in this biography that quietly, steadily, and persuasively achieves its purspose.

Taking the background of European modernity as their stage, Eiland and Jennings position Benjamin as a figure whose capture within pressing forces of historical and social change demanded a complex recasting which they map in Benjamin’s evolution from his engagement with school and educational reform, through his quest to become the foremost German literary critic, through his expansion of these two areas into a multi-faceted account of culture as an expression of the present in which the significance of the past can alone appear. This movement becomes the consistent focus of a Benjamin whose work became a defense against a history that continually threatened to overpower him. In this regard, Eiland and Jennings observe, Benjamin displayed the tendency to “place himself in positions whose tensions and paradoxy bordered on the aporetic” and, as a result “his whole being seemed to obey a dialectical rhythm dictating a perpetual gamble.” (p. 6) It is both reassuring and welcoming to see here an account of Benjamin that is not afraid to insist on an “inner systematic.” (p. 6) This is one of the outstanding achievements of this work, its unflinching focus on a consistent critical awareness as the effect of a life lived amongst the fragmented and fragmenting edges of modernity both as an idea and in the very real facts of existing and surviving in a constant negotiation with an experience of modernity that simultaneously could threaten the existence of life and demand searching intellectual and critical reflection.

This biography far surpasses not just any preceding biographical history of Benjamin but in its searching out of what remains consistent in Benjamin it has found the thread that allows a narrative of life and work to unfold in a way that does not subordinate one to the other. Accordingly, Eiland and Jennings’s A Critical Life is a thorough gestation of Benjamin’s critical achievement that makes this achievement communicate with a life, in its everyday unfolding as well as the larger stage of history on which it took place, in such a way that Benjamin who famously avoided communicating himself in both his writing and in his human interactions, has been given an unmatched measure of historical and intellectual communication. This achievement will remain not only a standard and resource-full account of Benjamin but in its comprehensiveness as well as its acute accounts of Benjamin’s thought across the whole range of that thinking, it will continue to provide the foundation for the fuller understanding of his place and contribution to the critical, cultural, political and historical present we have inherited from the twentieth century.