Walter Benjamin


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German critic and essayist, was born to a Jewish family in Berlin, and educated in Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Bern. He failed to gain academic employment, his thesis on German baroque drama being rejected as incomprehensible by the University of Frankfurt, and worked as a literary journalist, translator, and radio scriptwriter. Adopting the principles of Marxism, he befriended Brecht, writing in defence of the playwright's methods. Upon Hitler's accession to power in 1933 he went into exile in Paris, where he undertook a study of Baudelaire and the urban experience. The invasion of France in 1940 led him to seek an escape route to the USA through neutral Spain, but when he was stopped at the Spanish border he took his own life. His essays on literature, criticism, modern culture and the philosophy of history show an unusual combination of Jewish mysticism, Modernism, and Marxism. Posthumously selected and republished, notably in Illuminationen (1961, ed. H. Arendt) and Versuche über Brecht (Understanding Brecht, 1966), they have been influential in the reshaping of Marxist literary criticism and more widely in cultural studies and philosophy. Portions of his unfinished Paris project have been translated as Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1973).

Subjects: Literature.

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