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Walter Benjamin: A Biography

“The definitive biography.”—Observer

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is now generally recognized as one of the most original and influential thinkers of this century. In Britain and the United States in particular, he has acquired a status unlike that of any other German philosopher, as successive generations of readers find their own paths through the endlessly fruitful ambiguities of his work. The conflicts and conjunctions between Benjamin’s Marxism and his messianic Judaism, between his fascination for surrealism and his explorations of the Cabbala, between the philosopher of language and the ever-observant flâneur on the streets of Berlin or Paris—all these have inspired a wealth of interpretations and critical studies.

Widely acclaimed in Germany, Momme Brodersen’s Walter Benjamin is the most comprehensive and illuminating biography of Benjamin ever published. Not only does Brodersen provide a fuller and more coherent account of Benjamin’s nomadic career than has any previous scholar, he also demonstrates the fallacy of the popular, romanticized notion of his life as the sorrowful progression of a melancholic personality. The only real tragedy, he argues, was Benjamin’s suicide at Portbou on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940. Using previously unavailable material, Brodersen pays particular attention to Benjamin’s childhood in Berlin, to his conflicts with his bourgeois, Jewish family, his activities in the German Youth Movement, and the formative, irreconcilable influences of idealism, socialism and Zionism. He gives an exceptionally vivid picture of Benjamin’s life during the Weimar Republic, of his success as a literary critic and his work as a translator and radio journalist, as well as of his friendships and love affairs. Finally, he follows Benjamin’s harrowing journey through exile, internment and flight, and for the first time unravels the mysteries surrounding his death. At the same time, Brodersen provides a fresh and lucid presentation of Benjamin’s written work, and of the extraordinary range of his ideas and enthusiasms.

Thoroughly revised and expanded for this edition, and accompanied by more than a hundred photographs, this biography is an essential study of the man who himself remains an indispensable guide to the ruins and enchantments of the twentieth century.

Reviews

  • “A fitting Bible for the booming Benjamin cult.”
  • “The definitive biography ... The crisp style and wealth of original letters and journals helpfully illuminate the life and work of this particularly difficult thinker.”
  • “Momme Brodersen’s biography supersedes all preceding efforts. It is highly intelligent in its uses of the historical-intellectual background. It draws revealingly on Benjamin’s own writings, letters and journals, keeping a certain critical distance from one of the spellbinding literary-philosophic presences of this century. This book merits close attention.”
  • “Brodersen has done impressive research and excavates a great deal of fascinating material. His book is indispensable for unravelling Benjamin’s life and work.”
  • “Perhaps the book’s finest virtue is that it arouses a desire to know more about Benjamin and above all to read him.”

Blog

  • Resisting Left Melancholia

    Published in 2000, Without Guarantees — edited by Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie — brings together more than 30 essays inspired by, or written in honor of, the great cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died three years ago this week. "It is appropriate," the editors write in their preface: 

    given the spirit of Stuart's own commitments that this volume has a second, subsidiary purpose. Cultural studies have been subjected to much abuse lately and the fragile institutional initiatives with which those words are entangled are now under great and growing pressure. In these circumstances it seemed right to try to make this public gift a modest interventionist act in its own right. Here then are some implicit and explicit reflections on what cultural studies can be and what it might become. 


    Below, we present one of the essays collected in the volume: Wendy Brown's now classic reflection on Hall and the condition that Walter Benjamin termed "left melancholia." First published in
    boundary 2 in 1999, Brown's essay spurred a debate that has continued through the present day. 

     

    via Stuart Hall Foundation

    “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. ... only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”1 Walter Benjamin

    It has become commonplace to lament the current beleaguered and disoriented condition of the Left. Stuart Hall is among the few who have tried to diagnose the sources and dynamics of this condition. From the earliest days of the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan-Gingrich Right in Europe and North America, Hall insisted that the “crisis of the Left” in the late twentieth century was due neither to internal divisions in the activist or academic Left nor to the clever rhetoric or funding schemes of the Right. Rather, he charged, this ascendency was consequent to the Left's own failure to apprehend the character of the age, and to develop a political critique and a moral-political vision appropriate to this character.

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  • Frankfurt School Bookshelf

    In 1923, a group of young radical German thinkers and intellectuals came together, determined to explain the workings of the modern world. Their lives, like their ideas, profoundly, sometimes tragically, reflected and shaped the shattering events of the twentieth century. 

    Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is a brilliant new group biography by Stuart Jeffries, looking at the enduring importance and influence of the Frankfurt School.

    To celebrate publication we bring you a Frankfurt School Bookshelf with 40% off Grand Hotel Abyss, alongside Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, & more. Ends on Friday September 23rd, and includes free worldwide shipping (and bundled ebooks where available).

    We'll also be posting pieces & excerpts from works by Frankfurt School thinkers throughout the week, including a Frankfurt School Timeline by Stuart Jeffries. See everything here


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  • Walter Benjamin: Conversations with Brecht

    To celebrate Verso's new paperback edition of Erdmut Wizisla's Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, we present this selection of Walter Benjamin's diary entries on Bertolt Brecht, translated by Anya Bostock, which appeared in Aesthetics and Politics.


    Benjamin and Brecht. Svendborg, Denmark, 1934.

    1934

    4 July
    . Yesterday, a long conversation in Brecht’s sickroom about my essay "The Author as Producer." Brecht thought the theory I develop in the essay — that the attainment of technical progress in literature eventually changes the function of art forms (hence also of the intellectual means of production) and is therefore a criterion for judging the revolutionary function of literary works — applies to artists of only one type, the writers of the upper bourgeoisie, among whom he counts himself.

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