Walter Benjamin’s Influences
Check out the books, authors, and Big Ideas that influenced this critic.
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Before I explain my issues with Kant, let me explain something. I place value on all sorts of experiences as sources of knowledge, and I don't like the way dreams, mystical visions, and even drug-induced reveries are off the proverbial table in terms of acceptable ways of understanding the world.
See, scientific modernity came along and just decided to brush these experiences aside as meaningless. I say "no way" to this uptight and confined way of thinking. Sometimes the pursuit of facts just ruins everything! I give due credit to Kant's theoretical philosophy, but here's my beef: He made philosophy so tense, so constricted, so… well, scientific. Call me an idealist (because I was in my early work), but I just have a more expansive view of philosophy.
My 1918 essay "On the Program of the Coming Philosophy" takes on some of these ideas. My basic premise is that Kant—as great a philosopher as he was—thought too highly of Enlightenment thinking. It can't all be about empirical understandings of the world. No, we have to make room for some mystical routes to knowledge, too.
The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire was my muse and my model. He was the quintessential modern man, cruising the streets of Paris, just taking in all the views. His poetry reflects his deep consideration of everything from rag pickers to prostitutes, and I really appreciate the way he picked up the small fragments of urban life and saw the lyrical beauty in them.
Although I did take a long hard look at The Flowers of Evil—writing about him as a poet/man of the streets/flâneur—this guy influenced me all over the place. He wasn't one of those snooty bourgeois poets who only wanted to write about the pretty and precious things in life. Instead, he showed me a more open-minded way of seeing the great kaleidoscopic metropolis that is Paris. Like Baudelaire, I see the city as a source of inspiration and alienation. Cruising the boulevards, you can be both with the people and separate from them, experiencing the joys of city life and the shocks of modernity.
My main take-away from Baudelaire: Modern society doesn't look kindly on the figure of the poet and, in fact, wants to deprive him of his crucial role as a commentator on culture. It's my firm belief that The Flowers of Evil—published in 1857—was poetry's last successful attempt at getting a message across about the decay and despair of European spiritual faith. Thanks, Chuck.
Angelus Novus by Paul Klee
If you haven't noticed, I kind of have an obsession with art. I had this painting hanging on my wall for years, and even though making a big deal about it sort of violates my whole "don't worship art" thing, it has been a muse to my thoughts on history. Here's what I wrote about it in "Theses on the Philosophy of History":
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 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 a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The 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.
So let me break this down. Klee's painting stimulates my thoughts on history, historical materialism, and historicism. As a historical materialist, I see history as a sequence of moments in time that do not progress in a linear fashion. I also don't reflect upon a period as though it's all summed up by one event—like the French Revolution or the Battle of Waterloo or something. If you look at history through big events, you lose focus on the human aspects. See, history tends to offer tricky narratives in which the victor always gets to give his version of events and promote that version as truth.
We can never escape from the past, but with this past-y residue, we have to accept the ruins and the chaos. The Angelus Novus represents the need to honor the past as part of the present—it's not just about looking at the past as an event that's over and done with. To the Angelus Novus, history is one unending story, not a gathering of events. To him—and to me—revolution is possible.
Elective Affinities by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
I've had a long-standing beef with some of Goethe's ideas about the ideals of art. Don't get me wrong: I have deep admiration for this fellow German thinker. But I do have a few bones to pick. See, Goethe has a way of putting art on a pedestal—metaphorically, of course—and you may know I have a little trouble with the whole worshipping/aura/precious art piece thing. It's just so bourgeois and superior. I see Goethe's attitude as overly romantic and idealizing.
According to yours truly, an art piece does not hold its truth and meaning deep inside like it's the be-all, end-all. But at the same time, art isn't a mere representation of its maker, either. It drives me nuts when people interpret artwork solely in the context of the artist's life. There is so much more to it than that. The only truth we can find in art is through our philological and mythic experience with it. Bring on the subjectivity!
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
First things first: I translated this book. Okay, that might not seem like such a huge deal, but it is. Translating isn't just about finding one word to match another. Duh. A translator has a heavy responsibility and a big role to play in how the book is received by readers in that new language. Sometimes the translator really botches the book; other times, the translator can reveal some of the mysteries deep within the original-language version.
But I digress…
Proust's mystical fantastic (as in fantasy) side was super appealing to me. As I explain in my work On the Image of Proust, Proust holds "the dream world" in higher esteem than "the wakeful state"—just like me! He isn't overly concerned with facts and historical realities; instead, he's taken by consciousness and the imagination. If you read his famous description of the madeleine, you'll see that he evokes the memory "of things past" much more than the experience of just gobbling down a yummy cookie.
This guy is about the perception of life—one person's ideas of existence. I'm down with that.