Saturday, 19 March 2016

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1


Dense and obscure, a review of Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 1996

This volume contains selected writings by thinker and cultural critic Walter Benjamin for the period spanning the years 1913-1926. Many of the entries consist in short fragments, interspersed by more lengthy pieces such as The Concept of Criticism and Goethe's Elective Affinities


Before I continue, I must confess having a soft spot for WB. I first read him, in French translation, at the tail end of my 12 year mandatory stint in the French schooling system which never encouraged and in fact discouraged independent and critical thought - rather the aim of those twelve years seems to have been to annihilate all traces of imagination and creativity and ensure life-long submission to authority.


So it was with much fascination and glee that I read some of WB's earliest essays which opened up a whole world of passionate intellectual enquiry into the nature of reality, all for its own sake. Nor did his output have anything to do with monetary or employment concerns, and indeed, taken too far, such concerns would have stifled WB's creative spirit and condemned him to obscurity, even post mortem


These things being said, I cannot now, as a mature reader of thirty years, recommend this volume. While I still find WB's intellectual energy and penetrating analyses inspiring on principle, in practice WB's writing does not come off well in English translation, for his essays are at times impenetrable, always dense, and all too often obscure in their argument. 


There are lighter and darker patches of density in this volume but I found my efforts at trying to penetrate the more arduous chunks of theoretical text slimly rewarded, for the contents when grasped are not all that revolutionary or illuminating.


Yes, WB offers new insights on certain terrains, such as fate, children's books, and translation, but I do not find the thinking - when understood - all that convincing or enlightened. WB lacks background knowledge of key areas such as the true content of Natural Law principles, the role of the occult in shaping history and the workings of conspiratorial power. To be sure, he was writing in earlier times but then some texts age better than others.


WB is often said to be a good writer, and this may be true in the German original, but in English his texts are chunky, lacking fluidity and clarity. Despite my best intentions of reading the book cover to cover I gave up three quarters of the way through just because of the slog and the small pay-off for investing time and effort in getting to understand the heck WB is pointing out. 


While the world would undoubtedly be a poorer place without Walter Benjamin's literary and critical output, ultimately what inspires me the most about the character is his example - as an always curious and diligent non conformist thinker - rather than the actual contents of his musings. 


Taking all these factors into consideration, the good and the bad, my score for this book is three stars.