Study Guide

Walter Benjamin Quotes

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The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. [From On the Concept of History a.k.a. Theses on the Philosophy of History]

I composed these lines during grim times. The Nazis were controlling France through the Vichy government and were bearing down on me big time. I knew I had to get out of Dodge. I was a fellow eternally concerned with questions of history and how to think about history. My two pals Brecht and Scholem were pulling me between Marxism and Jewish mysticism—two opposite directions if there ever were some.

As a good Marxist, I should look at history only in terms of economics, revolution, and the class struggle. As Brecht has trained me, I'm obligated to do a lot hand wringing over the exploitation of labor, the clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the means of production, and what not. But I guess I'm just not a purist when it comes to Marxism, because I believe that "spiritual things" also matter. I have always been torn over whether to look at history from a materialist/Marxist perspective or through the lens of theology and mysticism. Why in tarnation do these two have to be so opposed?

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are; and for this reason the German Trauerspiel merits interpretation. In the spirit of allegory it is conceived from the outset as a ruin, a fragment. Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last. [From The Origin of German Tragic Drama]

With these melancholy lines, I wrap up my masterpiece on German drama. It would be no stretch to interpret my thoughts as kind of, um, cynical about history—what with the ruins and all. Truth is, I ultimately see history as a hot mess. You may have figured out from The Arcades Project that architectural metaphors are my "go to." The catastrophe and devastation of these once-beautiful buildings represent the wreckage of history.

To find beauty, we sometimes have to turn to allegory—it might be our only source of hope, redemption, and salvation. See, there I go with the messianic thought again! Anyway, seeing beautiful architecture in ruins is a harsh reminder of the passage of history, the passage of time, and human temporality (read: we won't be around for ever). Allegory is like a cozy blanket, a way of removing ourselves from the devastation of time.

I now suddenly understood how, to a painter, (hadn't it happened to Rembrandt and many others?), ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty—or better, as its treasure chest: a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features. [From "Hashish in Marseilles"]

Look, I'm anything but a drug fiend, but my fascination with sight and visual displays compelled me to try hashish as an experiment in how I would see the world through drug-addled eyes. Reluctant to leave my hotel (who knows what will happen when you're high on hashish in a rough-and-tumble port town like Marseilles?), I ventured out to gather images and impressions under the influence.

The hashish definitely put a spin on my flânerie—I saw things, well, differently. After some strolling about, I sat down at a tavern. In the lines above, I describe my fellow café-goers, whose faces looked rather odd. I began to understand how painters distort the human face in order to make it look more real. I stared at the faces around me and empathized with the great Dutch painter of faces. At that moment it struck me that beauty and ugliness can coexist. Who knew?

P.S. Just staring at people usually isn't my thing: who knows where eye contact can lead, and in a town like Marseilles, you can get your butt kicked for looking sideways.

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. [From "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"]

By the time I penned these words, I had really had it with the way art has been put on some pedestal and worshipped—as though it embodies "eternal value and mystery" (that's from the same essay). I just don't think this worshipping of objects is very healthy. Once this worshipping business was taken up by those dirty fascists, everything got out of whack.

Now that photography and film have come along and changed things, we have to redefine what a work of art can do, especially in terms of politics. We have a revolution to embark on—and here's where "mechanical reproduction" can do its part. Ask yourself this question: How can you idolize the genius of a piece of art when there are hundreds of versions of it floating around? Mechanical reproduction made art more democratic (anyone can buy a camera and take a photo, right?) and got rid of its quasi-religious aesthetic authority (a.k.a. "aura"). When everyone can have access to art, social conditions will inevitably be revolutionized. Power to the people!

These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need. [From The Arcades Project (Benjamin quoting a passage from the Illustrated Guide to Paris)]

Oh man, it was tough to pick just one quote from The Arcades Project. (Yeah, it's a little long.) But these lines vividly describe my take on an arcade, and I can't have you going around thinking it's a mecca for laser tag. If you go to Paris, you might actually still see some of these marvelous structures today (mostly in the second arrondisement).

Back in the day, people would stroll through these corridors, admiring the material goods on display and doing that whole "see and be seen" thing. Natural light came down through the glass ceilings, casting the displays and their marvelous commodities in a most flattering and alluring light (and, of course, sending subliminal messages: "Buy! Buy! Buy!) It was all about feeling a sense of comfort among all the fine luxury goods. Ah, cashmere.

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