Over the last few days I’ve been reading through the new paperback edition of Walter Benjamin’s complete correspondence. I’ve managed about 120 pages of the 650. I’ve always liked Benjamin’s writings. These letter’s cover his adult life, from 1910 to 1940. The first letter was written on his 18th birthday. He was a prolific letter writer. Apparently the collection only contains about half of the 600 letters in the archive. I’ve reached 1918 so far, although I have previously read the correspondence between Adorno and Benjamin in a separate book. I note in Adorno’s introduction to this collection that he suggests that the post-WWI letters have aged better. But the early letters still tell a revealing story about a young scholar trying to establish himself.
The letters I’ve covered so far have indications of some later themes that structures his published works, but this is before these ideas were honed and developed into more complete ideas. For example, there is talk embedded in the letters of what later became conceptualised as ‘aura’. These emerge in his descriptions of nature and his environmental conditions. The link here being to the passage on sitting under a tree in his essay on the work of art and technical reproducibility. There is mention of modernity’s destructive forces, a theme that also appears at the end of that same essay. And there are also some descriptions that might be thought of as accounts of the sensory experiences of space. These are not dissimilar to the short excerpts that populate the arcades project and the various short pieces on European cities.
Elsewhere in the letters we find some indication of the stories that have become the established touch-points for his well-known biography. His mobility is obvious, his love of books and literature, his drive to engage in genuine literary criticism and his vast philosophical routes and personal network. But what I found most striking so far, during my reading of the first 8 years of letters, are the moments of uncertainty and his eagerness to shape his profile and standing. He is sometimes hesitant to send essays to colleagues until they are fully worked through. And then, as well, he seems to be a little worried about their reception. He also seems to have a highly critical eye for his own work that goes well beyond bashfulness or modesty. In this sense the letters reveal a different side to Benjamin. They append a more human dimension to his work. It also presents a dimension to the writing that goes beyond the more popular work and instead indicates the detail of Benjamin’s biographical pathway. it was this pathway that latter translated into the eclectic nature of his writings.