German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a writer, a philosopher, a critic, a spiritual sceptic, and, most of all, a collector. Benjamin collected ideas, concepts, books, and small items of personal cosmic worth.
When these items—all physical, embodied things—were threatened, legend and lore would have us believe Benjamin took his own life. Illuminations is a collection of Benjamin’s essays—critical and otherwise—chosen and edited by philosopher Hannah Arendt.
From “Unpacking my Library”:
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness.
Arendt tells us in her introduction (Benjamin was her brother-in-law as well as a colleague) that in Benjamin’s life and work, everything was collected and gathered, and, more importantly, everything mattered. Everything mattered so much that Benjamin was never able to define or limit himself clearly:
His erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised text and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian. He was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations.
Finding meaning inversely proportional to a thing’s size must have made for excruciatingly intense living. Importance through time becomes memory. Memory was central to Benjamin’s writing; he believed through memory we pull consciousness. But memory depends on space, place, and time. Without that, it changes completely.
This applies to art, in particular. In Benjamin’s seminal essay about the reproduction and intrinsic meaning of art, he writes “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Let’s return to this “work consisting entirely of quotations,” which, according to Arendt, was Benjamin’s dream.1
He collected boxes and files of quotes, each annotated and indexed, which he kept, along with his books, in his Paris apartment. What a sight!
I believe there is something in all of us that collects and makes particular things special through caring. Books especially bestow an uplift. More than having read them, it is the act of owning them. They are there, yet untouched, unsullied, a promised accomplishment, a road towards a dream, a full realization of our human potential.2
A collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
When the Nazis marched into Paris, Benjamin had already fled, but his apartment—and all his quotations and books—remained.
Some say it is the thought of these possessions passing into enemy hands that made him take his own life. Others say he was crossing the border into Spain, and due to administrative error and grave health he was unable to find safety. Whatever the cause, Benjamin overdosed on morphine tablets and died aged 48.
Benjamin did not write his last moments, so we don’t know why he took his life. Perhaps he felt captured already. Or at the unbearable thought of the burning of his papers and books and the final extinguishing of his ultimate dream, he simply “disappeared inside.”
There is a passage in Elie Wiesel’s Night, the horrifying story of his incarceration in Auschwitz, that might illuminate Benjamin’s mentality. Wiesel wrote of the moment hope failed: “Our beloved objects we carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon and with them, finally, our illusions.”
Compare Benjamin’s writings on artistic reproduction to Susan Sontag’s study of the effects of photographs on human empathy in Regarding the Pain of Others. For a deeper look into how we bind ourselves to objects, look at my own compilations of meaning: Things We Cannot Abandon and Precious Things We Keep Nearby.
It’s a question of personhood. Where do we begin, and where to we end? What are your limits, what is you versus your representation? Benjamin believed art—and therefore humankind—must be anchored to time, space, culture, ritual, and, indeed, the space around it. What does this mean in our digital world? Do I exist here? Do you?