Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: the remarkably prescient work of an intellectual truth-seeker

In our Guide to the Classics series, experts explain key works of literature.

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish intellectual born in Berlin in 1892 to wealthy parents. He died by his own hand in September 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. Following his death, his writing was nearly forgotten until the publication in German in 1955 of an anthology of his work.

Illuminations, which draws together many of Benjamin’s most significant pieces, was published in English in 1968. It includes the enduring The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), as well as writings on translation, book collecting, and some of the authors he most admired: Kafka, Baudelaire and Proust. Illuminations also has a weighty introduction by political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

The cover of Illuminations


Benjamin grew up in Berlin and spent his teenage years at a rural boarding school. During his adolescence he was a voracious reader. At university, he completed his doctoral dissertation on German Romanticism. However, he failed to obtain the formal qualification at the University of Frankfurt that would have enabled him to become an academic. Arendt’s sense is that Benjamin’s eccentric genius jarred with the mediocrity of the university system.

Benjamin struggled to make a living, earning some money by writing essays and reviews for various publications. In his words,

there are places where I can earn a minimal amount, and places where I can subsist on a minimal amount, but nowhere in the world where these two conditions coincide.

Like many Jewish intellectuals, Benjamin left Hitler’s Germany: in 1933 he moved to Paris. Then, in 1940, with the Wehrmacht closing in, he fled the city. He had a visa to the US, but met with trouble as he was making his way to neutral Portugal.

Unable to obtain a visa to exit France, Benjamin crossed illegally into Spain. There he was detained by the authorities. Rather than return to France he overdosed on morphine.

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My younger self’s kind of thinker

Returning to Benjamin’s work to write this article, I found myself remembering, with some sadness, my own intellectual proclivities and ambitions in my 20s – before I encountered the reality of university life. Benjamin was my younger self’s kind of thinker. He sought to understand the nature of modernity. He drew on Marxism but was not contained by it. He ranged across literature, art, popular culture, language and even Jewish mysticism. He was often a lover of his subject matter – especially the literature. And just as significantly, he was a philosopher in the sense of being someone who seeks truth.

My sense is that there is less room for Benjamin’s way in today’s intellectual world. The impulse to try to understand the totality of modernity runs a distant second to a shallow activism that begins by assuming it knows how everything works.

To love literature – the classics – is increasingly associated with a regressive right, because the classics are tainted by Western imperialism and other inexpiable sins. To speak of truth is still on the nose given the ascendancy of postmodern relativism and identity politics. And to range freely across ideas is a sign of someone who will likely ask too many questions.

Walter Benjamin in 1928.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Benjamin was an unfettered intellectual who held the tension between the old and the new – between tradition and renewal. Today, many one-dimensional, intellectual clones, who are, ironically, influenced by Benjamin’s ideas, uncritically sweep aside the old.

But then there was not all that much room for Benjamin’s way in his own time, either. Even though he associated with and was highly regarded by many significant figures of his day, including playwright Bertolt Brecht and philosophers Ernst Bloch, Theodore Adorno and Arendt, Benjamin only achieved posthumous fame.

Arendt’s introduction to Illuminations begins with a lengthy discussion of this. Drawing on the writings of Cicero, she says, “how different everything would have been ‘if they had been victorious in life who have won victory in death’.”

The writings in Illuminations were produced between 1923 and 1940. Some were published in journals and other places, but some were only published posthumously. I will focus here on three of the most significant pieces.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)

Benjamin’s seminal essay provides a Marxist analysis of the changing nature and function of art. A quick Marxism 101: For Marxists, the way a society produces things – the “economic base” – determines the political and cultural “superstructure”; that is, the nature of production determines how we live our lives.

In earlier times, Benjamin argues, when different economic systems dominated, art had “cult” value. This art was inseparable from ritual and was intended only for the initiated. He gives the example of a statue that was only accessible to a priest. But many other examples come to mind, such as the art buried alongside the pharaohs.

As objects shifted from having use value to exchange value (the point of capitalism is to make money by selling things), art objects shifted from having cult value to “exhibition” value. Benjamin’s example here is that paintings, (objects of exhibition and exchange), superseded mosaics and frescoes.

For Benjamin, in its earliest ritualistic incarnations, art was not even recognised as art but as magic. With greater emphasis on exchange value, the artistic came to be seen as a thing in itself. However, as capitalism further advances, the “artistic function” becomes “incidental”. It’s so true. I was talking with a film lawyer at a party recently. She described directors as “content providers” whose decisions are subservient to the producers’ will. (This is why Tarantino remains one of the few genuine film-making artists: he retains final cut rights.)

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Benjamin also observed that “the increasing extension of the press” had allowed ever more readers to become writers:

today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not in principle find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing.

This is remarkably prescient for 1935! This trajectory has only been amplified by social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. We are all now consumer-producers. And who would even refer to the material we produce on social media as art – even though it is sometimes artistic? The artistic function is incidental to the likes. Exchange value trumps use value.

Benjamin introduces the concept of the “aura”. When art is a fresco or even a painting, there is only one of it. And this unique work has an aura, which includes the process of creation and the work’s journeys in the world. But once we learned the techniques of reproducing art for mass exhibition and exchange, the aura was diminished or even lost.

This is a part of the process of alienation that occurs under capitalism, and is comparable to the worker no longer being a craftsman – having autonomy – but rather, a cog in the machine. For Benjamin, the stage actor has an aura. But with the screen actor, the aura has shrivelled.

The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality”, the phoney spell of a commodity.

Katherine Hepburn looks down at three male actors in a black and white photo.

Left to right: John Howard, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart star in the 1940 movie, The Philadelphia Story,

For Benjamin, with reproducibility, everything becomes equal. It is interesting that here “equality” is not exactly good. It reminds me of a state of high entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics in which there are may possible states, but everything has a sort of chaotic sameness about it.

It is strange that even though the reels and shorts on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are democratic (anyone can make them), stunningly diverse and at times artistic, scrolling through them drains us of our life-essence – it is intensely alienating. This is because they have no aura.

Theses on the philosophy of history (1940)

In this poetic and aphoristic essay, Benjamin makes the kind of arguments about history that were taken up with vigour by the likes of Foucault, and are now indicative of how many think about history – for better and worse. In short: history is often the tool of the powerful.

Benjamin objects to doing history by “telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.” And he argues that both major and minor events are relevant to the telling of history: “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history”. More poignantly he says,

[…] every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

As Benjamin’s argument develops, it becomes clear that for him, emancipation from fascism will in part proceed from a retelling of history – from brushing history “against the grain”. The point is that the fascists told a version of history that presented themselves as the vector of progress. But a more thorough telling of history, that included the experiences of the oppressed, such as Jewish people, would reveal the fallacious nature of fascist history.

This again has great resonances with our current political battles. Today the epithet “fascist” is thrown around all too easily. And while there is much to be improved in our liberal democracies, we would do well to remember, when criticising, or even denouncing them, that Benjamin’s arguments were developed in relation to genuine, genocidal fascism.

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Benjamin, to his immense credit, knew that all things can be corrupted (even Marxism) – it is this awareness that is so often lacking in today’s polarised political discussions.

He writes,

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

I fear that today too many play at battling fascism, believing elements of our flawed, liberal democracies to be equivalent to older fascist regimes. But it is this bourgeois conformism – this pseudo-progressivism – that threatens the very traditions and institutions that have helped preserve us against Fascism, whether this be the Western canon, a strong regard for history, free speech, or the rule of law.

The Task of the Translator (1923)

We often use language to provide prosaic information, such as the time a bus leaves. However, in art, language becomes the bearer of meanings that are more vivid but also more elusive. Shakespeare, in Sonnet 18, renders “You will live on in my words”, as “Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade / When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.”

But then there is translation. How would someone translate Shakespeare’s lofty rendering? Benjamin, in this essay, considers such questions.

He writes,

But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information […] – the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic,’ something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?

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In pondering such issues, Benjamin feels his way towards a Platonic “language of truth” – i.e. the meaning that a work ultimately embodies beyond the words. Benjamin writes,

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.

These sentiments help us probe the mystery of why art itself even exists – why art has such an effect on us. The art that stands the test of time, and that is honoured by being translated, is, arguably, the bearer of something eternal that lies both within and beyond language.

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