I'm just past half-way through Roland Boer's chapter on Walter Benjamin, and I decided to pause and go back and read what little I have on Benjamin. My introduction came through mentions other writers had made, and then I read Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times, which includes a profile of Benjamin. There are two small collections of various essays, fragments (including his "Notes On The Philosophy Of History"). One is entitled Illuminations, and its was edited by Arendt and includes the essay that appears in Men. The other, Reflections was edited by Peter Demetz.
What came through my reading these volumes was, initially, curiosity. As Arendt rightly notes in her essay, for an age that needed to pigeonhole writers and thinkers, Benjamin defies even the most ardent attempts to do so. Comfortable with Marxist thought, he didn't join the Party. He wrote essays on Baudelaire and Kafka, yet he wasn't a literary critic. He utilized theological categories in his analysis, yet was not a theologian (indeed, as a mostly-assimilated Jewish German, his ease with Christian thought was probably an oddity that defied explanation). He was led to Kabbalah by his lifelong friend Gershom Scholem, yet was not a mystic.
His longest works are intricate works on the interchange among the history of ideas, culture, and social thought. While one might be tempted to call him a cultural critic, even that doesn't capture the range of his vision.
In many ways, Walter Benjamin was an example of a kind of writer with which we are only now getting acquainted. I think Benjamin would have found the internet a marvelous tool; the academy wasn't sure what to do with him, literary and academic journals consistently rejected his essays and articles. Writing on a blog, however, would have provided a forum for Benjamin to present his musings without having to assuage the egos of those with whom he was engaging.
Arendt's essay on Benjamin, upon reflection, is frustrating on a number of levels. A pedantic, pedestrian kind of thinker, she focuses far more on the frustrations of Benjamin's life, personal and professional, reading backward from his suicide on the Franco-Spanish border to see little but tragedy. She calls his Habilitationschrift on the Trauerespiele a work on German drama, when it is in fact far more specific, far more wide-ranging in its analysis. She describes The Arcades Project an unfinished work on 19th-century Paris. That's a bit like calling Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics an unfinished work of theology. The Arcades Project was, as described and unfolded by Boer, a look at the way late capitalism had rendered Paris, rather than the pinnacle of culture (as it was viewed at the time by many), a decadent, Philistine realm where the final ravages of commodification had rendered people incapable of grasping their own decline.
It is easy, I suppose, to get caught up in the frustrations and failures Benjamin experienced in his life, looking back from that terrible moment when he decided to end his life rather than face the possibility of being turned over to the Gestapo and returned to Germany. In ill-health, he probably would not have survived long the gentle ministrations the Germans visited upon Jewish intellectuals. All the same, his writings are a testimony to the power of a mind and intellect refusing to bow to convention (including the conventions of academic politics and expectations) that offer a view of our society and culture that continues to enrich our lives.