Walter Benjamin was one of the most original cultural critics of the twentieth century. "Illuminations "includes his views on Kafka, with whom he felt a close personal affinity; his studies on Baudelaire and Proust; and his essays on Leskov and on Brecht's Epic Theater. Also included are his penetrating study "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," an enlightening discussion of translation as a literary mode, and Benjamin's theses on the philosophy of history.
Hannah Arendt selected the essays for this volume and introduces them with a classic essay about Benjamin's life in dark times. Also included is a new preface by Leon Wieseltier that explores Benjamin's continued relevance for our times.
Walter Benjamin is the least known of the German school of neo-Marxist critics, but he is these days more often than not considered by the knowledgeable reader as being superior to Adorno, Marcuse, and Lukacs. The anti-fascist Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 at the age of forty-eight when he was stopped at the Franco-Spanish border en route to America. Thus his whole oeuvre is the work of a relatively young man. Produced in the Twenties and Thirties, Benjamin's critical essays are remarkable less as an outgrowth, however striking, of Marxist thought (Benjamin is actually more Hegelian than Marxian), than as a forerunner of the new structuralist way of looking at or "drilling" through literary texts. As Hannah Arendt states in her brilliant introduction, Benjamin chose "not to investigate the utilitarian or communicative functions of linguistic creations, but to understand then in their crystallized and thus ultimately fragmentary form as intentionless and noncommunicative utterances of a 'world essence'." Benjamin, she says, had "the gift of thinking poetically." Benjamin, alas, is also German, and while a good deal of his style delightfully employs the short reflective annotation or aphorism, he can, when his dialectical heritage goes to his head, sound like Heidegger or Holderlin. Nevertheless, though heavy weather here and there, what Benjamin has to say about Kafka, Leskov, Baudelaire, Proust, and others, is extraordinarily adventurous, original, and alive. This first English sampling of his work is a publishing event of major importance. (Kirkus Reviews)