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Illuminations: Essays and Reflections Paperback – January 13, 1969
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The literary-philosophical works of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) rank among the most quietly influential of the post-war era, though only since his death has Benjamin achieved the fame and critical currency outside his native Germany accorded him by a select few during his lifetime. Now he is widely held to have possessed one of the most acute and original minds of the Central European culture decimated by the Nazis. Illuminations contains his two most celebrated essays, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' and 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', as well as others on the art of translation, Kafka, storytelling, Baudelaire, Brecht's epic theatre, Proust and an anatomy of his own obsession, book collecting. The essay is Benjamin's domain; those collected in this now legendary volume offer the best possible access to his singular and significant achievement. In a stimulating introduction, Hannah Arendt reveals how Benjamin's life and work are a prism to his times, and identifies him as possessing the rare ability to think poetically. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Text: English, German (translation)
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Top Customer Reviews
But the best reason to read Benjamin is his prose. There are images in his essays on Proust and Kafka that are as superb as anything in Proust and Kafka. That is saying a lot, but it is true. As a philosopher, I value his example which proves that one can write meaningfully on philosophical topics, and yet write well. This collection of his essays, ILLUMINATIONS, is preferable to the second collection to appear in English, REFLECTIONS, though that one is also worth the time and effort.
For example, a passage from his essay on Kafka:
'The definition of it which Kafka has given applies to the sons more than to anyone else: "Original sin, the old injustice committed by man, consists in the complaint that he has been the victim of an injustice, the victim of original sin." But who is accused of this inherited sin - the sin of having produced an heir - if not the father by the son? Accordingly the son would be the sinner. But one must not conclude from Kafka's definition that the accusation is sinful because it is false. Nowhere does Kafka say that it is made wrongfully. A never-ending process is at work here, and no cause can appear in a worse light than the one for which the father enlists the aid of these officials and court offices . . . '
This is not opacity for the sake of being opaque; he is trying to get at something incredibly complex, something that (unlike most literary criticism) actually helps you appreciate Kafka and understand him a little better. Benjamin doesn't peel away layers of an onion to arrive at a single shining insight; he presents a simple idea, expands on it a little, and lets you put on the layers of complexity yourself. Read these essays carefully, and it will be obvious why entire schools of thought have sprung up around single paragraphs, why people have devoted their lives to figuring out the ramifications of a single sentence . . .
Benjamin accomplishes something rare: in writing about art, he succeeds in telling us something about life in modern times. And his insights never seem forced; they flow naturally from what he is discussing. For example, his essay on Leskov, "This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation that is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places - the activies that are intimately associated with boredom - are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the comminity of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeated stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained."
A simple little paragraph on storytelling, but soon you start thinking about how the art of writing has changed since Benjamin's time, and what effect television and the movies have had on the way we live, on "boredom" and mental relaxation . . . anyway, I'm probably starting to get pretentious which Benjamin, thankfully, never does.
Above all this entire collection is filled with something increasingly rare nowadays, a genuine love of books. Forget all the Marxist stuff in other reviews, all Benjamin is really doing, finally, is talking about some books that he likes. That he succeeds in doing much more is a testament to his brilliance.
Otherwise, for most purposes, this is the best collection of Benjamin's essays available for an introduction to his thought. This volume collects some of the best of his essays that are otherwise spread throughout the selected writings published by the Harvard U.P.