WALTER BENJAMIN: An Aesthetic of Redemption by Richard Wolin
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WALTER BENJAMIN: An Aesthetic of Redemption

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Walter Benjamin's dazzling if discontinuous contributions to the century's thought are no longer secrets kept only by the special few. Still, there is a persistent tendency to think of Benjamin as a sort of troubadour philosopher--someone less than permanently significant because his thinking divides into eclectic periods: the theological, the Marxist, the linguistic. In this tight, chronological (if frequently jargon-stuffed) book, Wolin attempts a reintegration. Granted, he argues, that Benjamin's thought--Kabbalistic; Brechtian; with its ""auras"" and ""ruins""--is heterodox, even Janus-faced. Nonetheless, there is a constant turn toward the redemptive, the Messianic. This vision of final-trump rightness, of a singe answer, backs everything Benjamin investigated. It allowed him to diverge from pre- and post-Marxist Lukacs and not mistake ""formed totality"" (works of the artist) for ""created totality"" (works of God). It led Benjamin to value allegory over symbol--allegory being transcendent instead of reflexive, in space more than in time. Even Benjamin's most questionable period--the Brechtian one--fits under the ""redemptive"" rubric: Benjamin became so enamored of modern techniques-as-such (surrealism, film montage, Brechtian interruption) that he believed the right tools would have to lead to the right message--bad Marxism, worse naivetÉ. But tradition remained Benjamin's constant touchstone, Wolin maintains convincingly--the past that puts us into place for the future, even if that past be one of decay and desuetude. Clearly encapsulated along the way are the great Benjamin works of different periods: the book on German tragic drama; the essays on Leskov and Baudelaire; ""The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction."" (There is disappointingly little, however, on perhaps Benjamin's most fascinating writing, the great Kafka essay.) Wolin acknowledges a major debt to Jurgen Habermas for the idea of ""redemptive criticism"" apropos of Benjamin; yet, even if not original, the analytical plenitude here is very welcome--and still more so the serious attempt at synthesizing Benjamin's conflicting aspects into a monumental intellect that's only now beginning to cast long, deep shadows.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1982
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press