11.5.11

Walter Benjamin, Early Writings 1910-1917

A new collection sheds light on the thinker's early development
Walter Benjamin
In a recent review for The Tablet, Adam Kirsch takes a look at Walter Benjamin's Early Writings 1910-1917, translated by Howard Eiland. Kirsch explores how the life of this young intellectual was shaped by Jewish identity, and Jewish twentieth century history:
In April 1911, the 18-year-old Walter Benjamin took a hiking trip with a friend in the Thuringian Forest. His diary of the trip is one of the first items included in Early Writings 1910-1917, the latest volume to appear in Harvard University Press’ Benjamin edition—an exemplary scholarly project that has now been ongoing for 25 years. Nothing especially noteworthy seems to have happened on the trip, and the diary, which is just a few pages long, contains fairly cursory accounts of the natural splendors Benjamin saw (“The sunset was marvelous after the rain … the woods were irradiated with red, and individual branches and tree trunks along the path were glowing”).

The most interesting thing about the diary is its Jewish subtext. Benjamin notes that it’s Passover, and that the pension he’s staying in is owned by a Jewish man who “kept saying, ‘So, what do we make for Yontev?’ ” Benjamin parses the word in a way that suggests it is new to him: “One does not say ‘Good day’ but ‘Good Yontev.’ ”

Similarly, the proprietor subscribes to the Israelitisches Familienblatt (“Jewish Family Journal”), and Benjamin notes that the magazine contains advertisements for “dishes for the Seder.” It takes his traveling companion to explain to him what these Seder plates are: “The latter are used for the Passover feast and have different compartments for different foods. So says Steinfeld.” Later Benjamin complains, “with coffee there was matzoh, and that’s how it will be; for … we are in Pesach week.” But while the pension seems to keep kosher for Passover, there is no actual Seder, which seems to both relieve Benjamin and disappoint him: “Thank God they didn’t do Seder. It might well have been very interesting and might even have moved me, but it would have seemed to me like theater, nothing holy.”

Much can be gleaned about Benjamin’s Jewishness, and that of his whole class, from this short diary. He is evidently completely unobservant—more, ignorant of the basic details of Jewish practice—and he feels a nervous disinclination to be “claimed” in any way by Judaism; a 20th-century man, he could find “nothing holy” in organized religion. Yet at the same time, it is impossible not to notice that Benjamin is surrounded by Jewishness like a fish by water. His traveling companion is Jewish; the house he’s staying in is Jewish. As his friend Gershom Scholem, a product of a similar background, would note, it was quite normal for assimilated German Jews never to enter a Gentile home or invite a Gentile to theirs. Jewish identity was much more durable than Jewish belief. [Read more]

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