“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 piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood—it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself. ”
This collections of Walter Benjamin writings begins with a long introduction by Hannah Arendt, who served as an editor for the collection. Arendt points out some of the ways that Benjamin saw himself as a writer in position to the idea of writer in the early 20th century, not quite as an outsider, and not really a rebel, but as someone who is somewhere between the artist (who writes for pleasure or to create pleasure) and the scholar (who writes for information and knowledge). This dangling position meant that that he was a bit of an outsider however he might have liked it. She also discusses how this position helped him select his subjects, and how this selection offered him up some influence over the course of the literary world in his short career. His readings of both Brecht and Kafka were both early in the process of establishing those writers as eminent in German literature. She also discusses the circumstances of his death by suicide, in exile from Germany and in Vichy France. He had been granted asylum in the US, but first had to secure an exit visa from France, which limited his options. He found out that Spain, his first attempt to leave, was not accepting exiles, and so when he turned back toward Italy, he was faced with a similar issue. One the day he died, he positioned exactly on the one day where his position was most fraught, and the immediate next day he could have left the country, but he didn’t ever know.
This collection contains some of his most famous works, and because this is a reread for me for the first time since grad school, my plan was to enjoy them, rather than think too much about them. If they generated thoughts, well I might just read them again. “Packing My Library” and the “Role of the Translator” I think will speak to anyone who reads a lot, and so might the later essays on Kafka, Baudelaire, and Proust. This collection also includes the essays “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”