How best to describe Walter Benjamin? Philosopher? German-Jewish Intellectual? Marxist? Moralist? Critic (as argued by Daniel Bell when we began to publish Benjamin’s work)?
Benjamin was all of those things and more, of course. Much of his reputation is based on his writings of the ’20s and ’30s, when he produced works like his best-known essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” But where did that Benjamin come from? How did he develop? Who was he as a young man? Our latest Benjamin volume, Early Writings, 1910-1917, shows that, even at 18, Benjamin was already Benjamin.
A quick digression: this fall we’re publishing Becoming Dickens, a new bio of Dickens that looks just at the first half of his life, with a particular focus on the pivotal years of 1833-1838. That book lays bare all of the contingency of becoming, with Robert Douglas-Fairhurst showing that the man who became Dickens actually nearly didn’t. As origin stories go, Benjamin’s is strikingly different. The early writings in this new volume make especially clear the philosophical foundations on which Benjamin never stopped building—the concern with the role of the present in historical remembrance, the concern with truth in the work of art, and the anxiety over language’s mediation of life.
Benjamin was heavily involved with the German Youth Movement in the years before WWI, and much of the writing in this volume reflects that association. Howard Eiland, the editor and translator of this volume and others, including The Arcades Project, notes that these zealous youth- and education-focused writings clearly reflect what we know of the adult Benjamin:
In these polemical writings, exhorting the sons and daughters of the German middle class to “awaken,” we see the young Benjamin in his various roles as moralist, cultural critic, school reformer, and poet-philosopher. The pieces are concerned with matters ranging from the spiritually fruitful appropriation of history to the intellectual relevance of Romanticism in particular, from the theory of education to the idea of experience and the idea of love. The diversity of interest and profundity of thought characteristic of his better-known work from the Twenties and Thirties are already in evidence here.
Of the forty-five pieces in this volume, over thirty are presented here in English for the first time. Many are articles that were published by Benjamin in various outlets; others were never published in any language in his lifetime. The works fall into four principal subject areas: personal writing (poetry, fiction, diary); education and its reform; youth (with essays on love and eroticism); and literary subjects. These early writings lack some of the polish of his later work, and also absent are the sociological perspectives and montage techniques that Benjamin wouldn’t develop until his freelance writing days after his student years. But, as Adam Kirsch notes, through these seven years one can see Benjamin develop “from a precocious, pompous adolescent into a daring and profound thinker.”
We’ll just end here with a snippet of the 1916 essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”:
What does language communicate? It communicates the spiritual essence corresponding to it. It is fundamental to recognize that this spiritual essence communicates itself in language and not through it. Hence, there is no speaker of languages, if that means someone who communicates through these languages. Spiritual being communicates itself in, not through, a language: this is to say, it is not outwardly identical with linguistic being. Spiritual being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it is communicable. What is communicable in a spiritual entity is its linguistic being. Language, therefore, in each case communicates the linguistic being of things, but their spiritual being only insofar as this is directly included in their linguistic being, insofar as it is communicable.
As this short excerpt makes clear, one other notable Benjaminism was already well-developed in his youth: his –abilities.