Walter Benjamin


“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 26, 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.1

Illuminations is a collection of Benjamin’s essays—critical and otherwise—chosen and edited by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt, a scholar on institutionalized evil, tell us that collecting was “Benjamin’s central passion” and that he had a destructive affinity for the past.

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.2

From “Unpacking my Library”

Unpacking my own library in a room of my own. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Arendt tells us in her introduction (Benjamin was her brother-in-law and 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 such contextualization it can disintegrate.3

This applies to art as well as memory. 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.”

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

From “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

According to Benjamin, if art is exactly reproduced it becomes new. Likewise if it is moved from the place it was made – if the dialogue with space it has in situ is no more – it becomes new.

Contemplation of Barbara Hepworth's "Two Turning Forms" moved to London for exhibit, normally kept in Yorkshire. Made in the Artist's studio, St. Ives.
Contemplation of Barbara Hepworth’s “Two Turning Forms” moved to London for exhibition. Normally housed in Yorkshire. Made in the Artist’s studio, St. Ives. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Benjamin’s feelings of space, memory and artistic creation culminated in his master oeuvre: “a work consisting entirely of quotations,” which, according to Arendt, was Benjamin’s dream.4

For years, a lifetime in fact, Benjamin 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.5

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.

From “Unpacking my Library”

When the Nazis marched into Paris, Benjamin had already fled, but his apartment—and all his quotations and books—remained.

When these items—all physical, embodied things—were threatened, legend and lore would have us believe Benjamin took 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.

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.”

Walter Benjamin's card for Bibioteque nationale de France. Featured in Walter Benjamin's "Illuminations" in the Examined Life Library.
Walter Benjamin’s library card for the Biblioteque Nationale de France, 1940.

Compare Benjamin’s writings on artistic reproduction to Susan Sontag’s study the affect of photographs on human empathy. For a deeper look into how we bind ourselves to objects, look at my own compilations of meaning: Things We Cannot Abandon, Precious Things We Keep Nearby and Things Grown Piece by Piece. And Lynne Sharon Schwartz’ intimate map of the mind and soul of a life-long reader.

Benjamin believed art—and therefore humankind—must be anchored to time, space, culture, ritual, and, indeed, environment. What does this mean in our digital world? Do I exist here on this Site?

Do you?