Walter Benjamin was born in 1892 in Berlin to an upper middle class family of assimilated Jews. He attended private boarding schools and universities in Berlin and Munich, where he studied philosophy and literary criticism. At the University of Bern he completed his doctoral dissertation on the German Romantics. He later submitted his Habilitationsschrift to teach at Goethe University in Frankfurt. His application was rejected, in part because of growing anti-Semitism, and in part because the examining committee was baffled by Benjamin’s highly original study of German baroque drama. He published his study in book form in 1928 as Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of German Tragic Drama). That same year he also published Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), a collection of aphorisms and philosophical fragments. These works were the only books he published in his lifetime.
Benjamin knew he wasn’t suited temperamentally to an academic career, and he never applied to another teaching position. Instead, he became a freelance critic and journalist. He wrote important studies of Baudelaire and Kafka, and was Proust’s first German translator. At one point or another during his career he worked with some of the most important intellectual figures of the interwar era, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács, Ernest Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse, and Kurt Weill.
During the early 1920s Benjamin embarked on a series of essays on major European cities. He wrote impressionistic studies of Naples and Marseilles (sometimes under the influence of hashish), as well as an autobiographical study of Berlin. In 1926 he began preparatory research on next project, a walk through the covered shopping arcades on the Right Bank of Paris, near the opera house. Soon the research took on a life of its own, eventually occupying Benjamin for the rest of his life. The Passagenwerk (or Arcades Project), as it became known, consists of over 10,000 notes, most of them direct quotations copied out of source material in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. His working thesis was the Paris arcades were the origins of modern consumer culture. A single architectural form, he believed, could be read like a book.
He never completed his study of the Paris arcades, although some of his most famous works grew out of it. “Paris: The Capital of the Nineteenth Century” was an attempt to give final form to the project. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” was another attempt to summarize the project, this time through the figure of Baudelaire. Benjamin’s most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” grew out of his research on early cinematic technologies in the arcades. His work was funded, in part, by the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School.
His work on the Arcades Project was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. He entrusted Georges Bataille with the Arcades Project notes, then fled the city. Horkheimer and Adorno had arranged for his safe passage from Lisbon to New York City. Benjamin made it to the Spanish border town of Portbou, where his party was detained by Spanish authorities. Fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, Benjamin committed suicide that night. The next morning his party was allowed to proceed into Spain.
About me: I completed a PhD in English and Film Studies at Temple University. My dissertation was on the Arcades Project and Modernism. I taught film and literature at Temple and Villanova before jumping on the dot com bandwagon in 1999. I’m currently the director of the project management office for financial services company in downtown Chicago. I founded this blog in 2006 as a way to reconnect with my academic interests, but without all the grading. The name One-Way Street is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s book in which he mapped out a whole new field of exploration outside the narrow confines of academic disciplines.
The generic city entry has also appeared in expanded form in Static8.
“The Data City,” my essay on the effects of geo-positioning applications on city planning, appeared in MAS Context.