Angelus Novus is a watercolour painted by Paul Klee in 1920 which Walter Benjamin bought the same year and adopted as an emblem of his work. In Talmudic tradition a new angel is a creature created to sing a new song. In the Christian tradition, the Thomist strand of mediaeval scholasticism holds that each species of angel consists of a single individual.
If the intellectual stature of a mind is measured by the doors it has opened, Walter Benjamin is extraordinary: one of the great thinkers of modernity. Benjamin’s work has opened up new fields in literary studies, aesthetics and the theory of art, in sociology and social studies, in philosophy and history. His concepts and insights have illuminated much of our contemporary mental landscape: exile and memory, art and image, criticism, language, the city and urban life… The plaque in the cemetery at Portbou reads: German philosopher. Two of his great friends, the sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno and the mathematician and philosopher Gershom Scholem, would have agreed. Hannah Arendt thought differently; for her, Benjamin was a creative writer — ein Dichter. Essayist, literary critic, member of the Frankfurt School, unorthodox Marxist and translator of Balzac, Proust and Baudelaire: though he enjoyed no academic or public recognition in his lifetime, Walter Benjamin was prescient about the fate of the twentieth century as very few others were. He was a thinker on the borders, in every sense, as much in the issues he addressed and the intellectual approach he proposed as in his relationship with writing and language.
A writers’ writer, Benjamin’s work embodies a personal form of discourse, fragmentary, unfinished and deliberately unsystematic. He was able to move at will between many different styles (poetic, academic, aphoristic…), even inventing new genres with his postcards communicating condensed observations and the monumental archive of index cards with quotes and images he compiled for The Arcades Project. As he himself said of Proust and the multiplicity of his styles: All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one: they are, in other words, special cases. Benjamin wrote every sentence as if it were the first. Or the last.
As a professional writer, Benjamin barely scraped a living. He was not awarded the academic qualification that would have allowed him to teach at the university, and he saw only five of his numerous texts published. Supported first by his father and then by his wife, he wrote many pieces of literary criticism for the press (especially the Frankfurter Zeitung and the magazine published by Rowohlt until 1933 or so) and radio scripts (85 broadcasts between 1929 and 1933) and envisaged a future as a journalist, translator and literary critic that was never to materialize. He never became actively involved in politics, though he at one time considered joining the German Communist Party and visited the Soviet Union at the end of 1926. During Benjamin’s years in Paris Adorno arranged for a grant from the Institut für Sozialforschung in exile which greatly eased his situation, and would no doubt have found a job for him had he made it to the United States. However, his relationship with critical Marxism was not an easy one: he was excessively heterodoxy even for unorthodox Marxists.
These days it is hard to open a magazine of ideas without finding at least one reference to this thinker of modernity who received so little recognition in his lifetime. In fact, he was largely forgotten until the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, his readership has grown year on year. This thinker on the borders who, among other names, signed himself Angelus Novus; this writers’ writer with an extraordinary ability to take language and thought to the limits: in his intellectual acuity he reread the history of European culture in new terms and clearly foretold the shape of the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin was one of the most lucid minds of modernity.