Walter Benjamin

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There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (July 15, 1892September 27, 1940) was a German Jewish literary critic and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem.

Quotes[edit]

I would like to metamorphose into a mouse-mountain.
Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.
This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
  • Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. … Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.
    • Unpacking my Library: A Talk About Book Collecting (1931)
  • Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.
    • Protocols to the Experiments on Hashish, Opium and Mescaline (1927-1934)
  • Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. … For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
    • A Berlin Chronicle (1932–, unfinished), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 2, pt. 2: 1931-1934, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 612
  • [M]echanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.
  • There is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation.
    • "The Task of the Translator," translated by Harry Zohn
  • The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.
    • The Destructive Character (Frankfurter Zeitung, 20th November 1931)
  • For me, it was like this: pronounced antipathy to conversing about matters of practical life, the future, dates, politics. You are fixated on the intellectual sphere as a man possessed may be fixated on the sexual: under its spell, sucked into it.
    • "Main features of my first impression of hashish," December 18, 1927, On Hashish (2006), p. 21
  • You follow the same paths of thought as before. Only, they appear strewn with roses.
    • "Main features of my first impression of hashish," December 18, 1927, On Hashish (2006), p. 22

Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[edit]

(1940; first published, in German, 1950, in English, 1955)
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet...
  • Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of the past.
    • II
  • There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
    • II
  • Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l'ordre du jour — and that day is Judgement Day.
    • III
  • The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.
    • V
  • The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.
    • V
  • To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was"...It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
    • VI
  • The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
    • VI
  • Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein.
    • There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
    • VII
  • The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time.
    • VII
  • The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
    • VIII
  • A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
    • IX
  • The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called "Once upon a time" in historicism's bordello.
    • XVI
  • Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.
    • XVII
  • The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.
    • XVII
  • The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.
    • XVIII
  • We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This did not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.
    • XVIII B

Arcades Project (1927-1940)[edit]

Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.
Ed. Roy Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard University: Harvard UP, 1999)
  • Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.
  • History breaks down in images not into stories.
  • In the fields with which we are concerned knowledge exists only in lightning flashes. The text is the thunder rolling long afterwards.

Quotes about Benjamin[edit]

  • Postmodernism, like Walter Benjamin's 'mechanical reproduction',seeks to dismantle the intimidating aura of high-modernist culture with a more demotic, user-friendly art, suspecting all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist. There is no better or worse, just different.
  • [Benjamin] must surely be among the 20th century's most overrated writers. Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Karl Kraus—Benjamin could render the juiciest of subjects arid.
    • Joseph Epstein (2011). "A Very Public Intellectual", The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011
  • [A]n enormous Anglo-American industry of post-structuralist and postmodernist interpretation has grown up around the translations we have, distorting Benjamin’s real concerns. Apart from specialists familiar with the German background to his work, English-speaking readers are probably no closer to understanding Benjamin’s writings than they were when Hannah Arendt first introduced him in America over twenty-five years ago.
    • Mark Lilla, "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin", The New York Review of Books, May 25, 1995

External links[edit]

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