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 had 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.
Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in July 1832 into a prosperous Jewish family. As a student, he came under the influence of Messianic and cabbalistic ideas, and produced a brilliant, esoteric thesis on German baroque drama, which contrived to fail to win him academic tenure. Thereafter, he made a precarious living as a literary journalist, and, under the influence of Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs. Turned towards Marxism; in the late 1920s, he befriended, and championed, Bertolt Brecht. Driven from Germany in 1933 by the political triumph of the Nazis, he went to Paris, where he immersed himself in Surrealism and the study of Baudelaire. When the Wehrmacht rolled into Paris too, in 1940, he fled for the Spanish border, only to die by his own hand in a tragi-comic fashion at the age of forty-eight. His literary legacy is greater in stature than in size: he published only two full-scale books in his lifetime, one thesis The Origin of German tragic Drama, the other The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism. Three other books since made available are Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Moscow Diary and Understanding Brecht. Besides these, he was the author of two books of collected reflections, One-Way Street and A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, and numerous literary and critical essays and commentaries, the finest among them collected in the present volume.