History is full of important personalities to remember for their contributions to the pursuit of knowledge, whether in scientific, philosophical, literary or other fields. In this article, we will talk about one of these figures, in particular, belonging to the twentieth century: the German philosopher, literary critic and translator Walter Benjamin.
In this short biography of Walter Benjamin we will review his life, And some of his most notable contributions throughout his career.
A biography of Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin, full name Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin, he was a philosopher and literary critic, as well as translator and essayist, of German origin. He was born July 15, 1892 in Berlin, Germany, and died September 26, 1940 in Portbou, Spain, at the age of 48.
Benjamin’s thought, associated with the Frankfurt school, is nourished by different disciplines and orientations, such as German idealism, romanticism, historical materialism and Jewish mysticism. His contributions have mainly focused on two currents: Western Marxism and aesthetic theory..
Thus, Benjamin was a restless philosopher, strongly influenced by Marxism, who nurtured different philosophies and currents to develop his own thought. In addition, he was a great traveler, as he was in different countries to learn and train.
Origins and childhood
Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892, into a wealthy family of Ashkenazi origin (this term refers to Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe). His family was engaged in business and by that time was fully integrated into Germany.
His father was Emil Benjamin, a Parisian banker who had settled in Germany; in Berlin he worked as an antique dealer. His mother was Pauline Schönflies, who told him stories at night (as Benjamin remembers, who was inspired by it to develop one of his theories).
Thus, Benjamin reflects on them, focusing on the relationship they establish between tradition and the present day. Later, in 1905, Benjamin entered a boarding school in a rural area, more precisely in Thuringia (Germany). Two years later, in 1907, Benjamin returned to the Berlin school.
Studies, life and career
At the age of twenty, Walter Benjamin began his studies in philosophy at the University of Friborg (Germany), although he soon moved to the University of Berlin to continue.
It was at the University of Berlin that he learned about Zionism, a Jewish nationalist political movement and ideology. From here, Benjamin develops a “cultural Zionism”, based on the value of the culture of Jewish mysticism. On the other hand, Benjamin, perhaps influenced by his origin, defends Judaism as an essential element of European culture, and especially values its spirituality.
In addition, Walter Benjamin is also interested in educational issues, and in his college years he joined a group called “Union of Free Students”, where he was elected president. Thus, he develops writings for this group that mention the need for reform, both educational and cultural.
As for his private life, Walter Benjamin married Dora Pollack in 1917. They had a son, Stefan Raphel (1918-1972). At this time, Benjamin was looking for a theme for his thesis, which ended up focusing on the philosophy of Kant and Plato.
We saw at the beginning of the article how the thought of Walter Benjamin was, to a large extent, associated with the Frankfurt school. Thus, Benjamin was a collaborator of this school, although he was never directly “associated” with it.
For its part, the Frankfurt School in Germany was formed by a group of researchers and academics who a number of theories and theoretical orientations, such as those of Freud, Marx and Hegel.
Walter Benjamin adopted a Marxist philosophy in his career. Marxist philosophy has sought to study the nature and foundations of Marxism, a theoretical model explaining reality, formed by the thought of Karl Marx, a German philosopher and revolutionary of Jewish origin. Let us remember that Marx’s contributions had repercussions in fields as diverse as economics, law, history and sociology.
Literature: translations and literary criticism
Walter Benjamin, as we have seen, was also a translator and literary critic. From his translations stand out those of two important personalities: Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire. On the other hand, one of Walter Benjamin’s best-known works is The Translator’s Task (this is an essay), which deals precisely with that literary activity in which he participated: translation.
As for his literary criticism, he puts forward the criticism of works such as the novel Les Affinités Electives, by Goethe, and certain works by Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire … He has also translated the book. German Les Fleurs du Mal, and parts of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time.
Death in Spain
In 1940, in the historical context of the Nazi occupation of France, Walter Benjamin leaves for the United States, crossing Spain. But the Spanish police intercepted him, as well as a group of refugees of which he is also a part, for not having the documents (visa) required at that time.
As a result, Benjamin, in a hotel in the border town of the Pyrenees, ingests a lethal dose of morphine, and commits suicide in Portbou (province of Girona). He was 48 years old and died on September 26, 1940.
- Capella, JR (1990). “Notes on the death of Walter Benjamin”. Although so much (43): 101.
- Cano Gaviria, R. (2009). Passenger Walter Benjamin. Montblanc, Spain: Edicions Igitur.
- Steiner, U. (2012). Walter Benjamin: Introduction to his work and his thought. UCP.