Jul 28, 2008

Walter Benjamin's Last letter to Horkheimer

New Left Review

New Left Review 51, May-June 2008

Benjamin’s last, unpublished report on the literary situation in France. Critical reflections on the fiction, philosophy, memoirs and art criticism of the time—and on Paris, Surrealism and the logic of Hitlerism—moving constantly from the realm of letters to a world at war.



Completed in Paris six months before his death, Walter Benjamin’s final report to Max Horkheimer on the literary situation in France is published here for the first time in English. It was the third ‘literature letter’ that Benjamin had drafted for the Institute for Social Research in New York; the earlier two (3 November 1937, 24 January 1939) can be found in the Gesammelte Briefe. Almost twice as long as these, the Survey of 23 March 1940—Hitler’s troops would take Holland six weeks later—was composed during the same months as ‘On the Concept of History’. Benjamin’s personal situation was precarious: his health had not recovered from his internment as an enemy alien in Autumn 1939; back in his tiny Paris apartment, he worked in bed because of the cold.

Benjamin’s ‘apologies’ to Horkheimer for the difference between this text and his last may refer to the political and intellectual vistas of war-torn Europe it provides, which open out far beyond the pages under review. It contains perhaps his most direct reflections—via Spengler—on the Hitlerite mentality. If the tone recalls the ‘almost Chinese’ courtesy that Adorno remarked in Benjamin’s correspondence, his sensitivity to the Institute’s reactions was well grounded. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproductibility’ and his great essay on Fuchs had been published in its journal shorn of their Marxian passages; Benjamin had only learnt while in the internment camp that his ‘Baudelaire’ would finally appear, after the virtual rejection of its first version by Adorno the year before. To comply with Horkheimer’s request for a further report, he set aside a planned comparison of Rousseau’s Confessions with Gide’s Journals (‘a historical account of sincerity’), and his Baudelaire: ‘closest to my heart, it would be most damaged if I had to stop after starting it again’.

It is not clear why the Institute never sought to publish the 1940 Survey. It was not included in Scholem and Adorno’s 1966 collection of Benjamin’s Correspondence, nor in the five-volume Selected Writings published in English by Harvard University Press. It first appeared—in its original French—only in 2000, in Volume VI of the Gesammelte Briefe. Yet the text stands as a striking valedictory statement on the themes central to Benjamin’s mature work: Paris, now ‘fragile’ under the threat of war, its clochards signalling the vaster tribe of Europe’s dispossesed; the twilight of Surrealism; and the vocation of cultural theory as material social critique.

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Translated by David Fernbach. Reprinted from Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, vi, pp. 403–21, with permission of Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.