Gelley über A New Benjamin Edition

A New Benjamin Edition

  • Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 1, 1913-1926. Hg. von Michael W. Jennings und Marcus Bullock. Cambridge (Massachusetts), London: Harvard University Press (US) 1996. 520 S. Paperback. USD 47,50.
    ISBN: 0-674-94585-9.
  • Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 2, 1927-1934. Hg. von Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge (Massachusetts), London: Harvard University Press (US) 1999. 880 S. Hardcover. USD 47,50.
    ISBN: 0-674-94586-7.
  • Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 3, 1935-1938. Hg. von Michael W. Jennings und Howard Eiland. Cambridge (Massachusetts), London: Harvard University Press (US) 2002. 480 S. Hardcover. USD 39,95.
    ISBN: 0-674-00896-0.
  • Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 4, 1938-1940. Hg. von Michael W. Jennings und Howard Eiland. Cambridge (Massachusetts), London: Harvard University Press (US) 2003. 496 S. Hardcover. USD 39,95.
    ISBN: 0-674-01076-0.

A New Basis for the Reception


The publication of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings is a major event. Harvard University Press is to be commended for assembling a group of editors and translators, led by Michael W. Jennings, drawn from the leading scholars and critics on Benjamin’s work. English language readers have too long been dependent on a limited selection of writings, largely those found in two collections, Illuminations (1968) and Reflections (1978). What is more, Illuminations was burdened by many infelicities in the translation. Although other writings have appeared over the years, in journals and as separate volumes, English language readers have not had an extensive collection of Benjamin writings available in spite of the enormous impact that his thought has had in multiple disciplines. Selected Writings provides succinct explanatory notes and, as a bonus, a concise chronology of Benjamin’s life and career. This account, accompanying the chronology of each of the volumes, constitutes what may be the best short »life« of Benjamin now available.


This edition will undoubtedly have a strong impact on the reception of Benjamin for decades to come. One might regret that it comes at a moment when Benjamin’s renown may have crested. But it could well be that the Selected Writings will stimulate a second (or, possibly, a third or fourth) wave in what Benjamin termed the »Fortleben der Werke«. With this edition – supplemented by writings published elsewhere (e.g., The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. John Osborne, London: NLB, 1977; Moscow Diary, ed. Gary Smith, tr. Richard Sieburth, Cambridge, Ma., and London: Harvard U.P., 1986; and The Arcades Project, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Ma., and London: Harvard U.P., 1999) – English language readers can finally gain access to the extraordinary range and variety of Benjamin’s writings. (But The Origin of German Tragic Drama – Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels – could well use a revised or new translation.)


Chronological Order


What is most notable about the Selected Writings is the chronological order of presentation, markedly different from the practice of the German Gesammelte Schriften. Even for those familiar with Benjamin’s writings, it is illuminating in surveying the order of Selected Writings to be reminded to what degree the phases of Benjamin’s intellectual career overlap. There is no neat dividing line between the »aesthetic« writings of the 1920’s and the political turn at the end of that decade. At the same time, a glance at the contents of each volume immediately discloses thresholds of Benjamin’s life in relation to the concurrent political history.


Still, this form of presentation has its own problems. Many of Benjamin’s most significant writings were never, or only partly, published during his lifetime, and of these a considerable portion constitute drafts, notes, or variants never intended for publication. What is more, Benjamin laid out some of his most interesting reflections in personal letters, perhaps, as Detlev Schöttker has argued, as a way of assuring the preservation of his work in circumstances where means of publication would not be available and even the survival of personal papers, uncertain. Benjamin’s fears, of course, proved to be all-too-justified, and it is astonishing that so much of his work has in fact survived.


In view of this, the practice of the Gesammelte Schriften to include in the editorial commentary a wealth of supplementary materials drawn from letters (many not yet published in integral form when that edition appeared), manuscripts, and variant versions is laudable. Clearly, the editors of the Selected Writings were intent on avoiding the kind of »Apparat« found in the Gesammelte Schriften. At the same time they wanted to include a selection from the notes and fragments that Benjamin made throughout his career, but especially in the period 1916–1919 (mostly brought together in vol. 6 of Gesammelte Schriften, Fragmente vermischten Inhalts, Autobiographische Schriften). Thus a number of short texts – not exactly »fragments« in the sense of German Romanticism but closer to working notes – are included in vol. 1, with titles supplied by the editors, and printed in the same format and type as the integral writings. It is certainly good to have these texts included, though the selection is still quite small relative to what the Gesammelte Schriften provides.


Selected Letters


Another kind of sampling in Selected Writings are letters where Benjamin discusses central issues of his thought and writing. Since the editors’ notes in this edition – minimal and purely factual – could not be used for this purpose, a small number of Benjamin’s letters were inserted alongside the works discussed in them. Certainly, the letters selected (to Florens Christian Rang, to Gershom Scholem, and to Theodor W. Adorno) are illuminating (though I find the inclusion of a long letter by Adorno in the main text inappropriate), but one might ask, why these and not any of some dozens others?


Benjamin’s correspondence is characterized both by an intense analytic focus on ideas and a nuanced attentiveness to the addressee. He is one of the great letter writers among major thinkers. What is sorely needed is a well-annotated selection based on the recently published six-volume Gesammelte Briefe (ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, Frankfurt / M.: Suhrkamp, 1995–2000). This would supplant The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin (tr. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson, Chicago and London: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), which is based on the incomplete and not always reliable Briefe of 1966, edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno.


»The foremost Critic of German Literature«


In vols. 1 and 2 of Selected Writings (covering 1913–1934) English language readers will find for the first time two major works of Benjamin’s earlier years, The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (tr. David Lachterman, Howard Eiland, and Ian Balfour) and Goethe’s Elective Affinities (tr. Stanley Corngold), both in excellent translations. Edmund Jephcott’s rendering of One-Way Street does justice to its mordant wit. Further, in providing a selection of Benjamin’s feuilleton essays and reviews, these volumes finally allow the English-language reader to grasp the relevance of Benjamin’s boast to Gershom Scholem, »The goal that I have set myself has not yet been fully realized, but finally I am getting close. It’s to be considered the foremost critic of German literature.« (letter of Jan. 20, 1930) The irony, of course, is that in the following few years Benjamin would find German publications closed to him, thus effectively aborting the kind of career as a public literary critic that he had envisaged in 1930.


His most active period as a reviewer and feuilleton writer began in 1925 after the rejection of his »Habilitation« dissertation by the Frankfurt University and continued until his self-exile from Germany in 1933. While the selection from this side of Benjamin’s production in Selected Writings is limited, especially on the German side, it is good to have for the first time in English the reviews or essays on Robert Walser, Julien Green, Siegfried Kracauer, Alfred Döblin, among others. Especially noteworthy in this group are essays that deal with fundamental aspects of Benjamin’s conception of literature, such as Against a Masterpiece, (v. 2) a discussion of Max Kommerell’s type of mythifying biography typical of the George circle, and Theological Criticism, (v. 2) an appreciation of the editor and critic Willy Haas, whom Benjamin characterizes in light of his own »theological« bent.


The »Afterlife« of Texts


The last two volumes, 3 and 4 (1935–1940), include some texts already available in English, e.g. Eduard Fuchs, The Storyteller, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (two versions), The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, and On the Concept of History. Also there are two major works not before translated into English and that were especially close to Benjamin’s heart – German Men and Women: A Sequence of Letters and Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Each in its own way may be taken as an attempt to memorialize an earlier, and now irretrievably lost, phase of German bourgeois culture. Howard Eiland has provided a fluent, nuanced translation of Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Benjamin’s most personal literary work, in many ways akin to Baudelairian prose poems. At the same time, as Benjamin put it in his 1938 foreword, he ascribed to this work an exemplary historical significance, namely, to capture »the images in which the experience of the big city is precipitated in a child of the middle class.« The edition generously provides what Benjamin in 1938 envisaged as the final version, as well as additional materials from an earlier 1934 version. Of course, no integral publication of these sketches appeared in Benjamin’s lifetime. The edition also includes a few well-chosen contemporary photographs of sites mentioned.


Selected Writings succeeds on many counts. The translations – many prepared for this edition, others revised from earlier versions – are reliable and often elegant. The original hard-cover volumes are in the process of being issued as paperbacks (vol. 1 already available, vol. 2 due in spring, 2005, the others to follow). The selection of texts greatly expands what was previously available. All the major works not published elsewhere are included and minor writings have been judiciously chosen. The editorial matter is discrete and informative. (Still, given the complexity of Benjamin’s conceptual vocabulary, one might have wished for something like a bilingual index or lexicon of key terms.) The chronological order of presentation is illuminating. The editors clearly aimed at an edition that would be useful to scholars in a variety of disciplines and at the same time attract a wider readership, prepared to engage with this notoriously difficult and searching thinker. In this they are faithful to Benjamin’s conception, in The Task of the Translator, of the life-span of literary texts in terms of their »fame« (»Ruhm«) and their »eternal afterlife (»ewiges Fortleben«) in succeeding generations.«