Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (New York Review Books Classics)
Gershom Gerhard Scholem
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Gershom Scholem is celebrated as the twentieth century's most profound student of the Jewish mystical tradition; Walter Benjamin, as a master thinker whose extraordinary essays mix the revolutionary, the revelatory, and the esoteric. Scholem was a precocious teenager when he met Benjamin, who became his close friend and intellectual mentor. His account of that relationship—which was to remain crucial for both men—is both a celebration of his friend's spellbinding genius and a lament for the personal and intellectual self-destructiveness that culminated in Benjamin's suicide in 1940.
At once prickly and heartbroken, argumentative and loving, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship is an absorbing memoir with the complication of character and motive of a novel. As Scholem revisits the passionate engagements over Marxism and Kabbala, Europe and Palestine that he shared with Benjamin, it is as if he sought to summon up his lost friend's spirit again, to have the last word in the argument that might have saved his life.
read to me in those days, as well as in his essay on the mimetic faculty. That I never heard him make an atheistic statement was surely no cause for surprise to me, especially after a number of letters from the thirties, but it did surprise me that he still could speak quite unmetaphorically of “God’s words,” in distinction to human words, as the foundation of all linguistic theory. The distinction between the word and the name, which twenty years earlier (in 1916) he had made the basis of his
was overwhelmed by what he called das Ausdruckslose, their quality of expressionlessness. In the twenties he was apt to offer philosophical reflections as he brought forth a toy for his son. Once he brought along from Moscow a silver dagger over which he launched forth with reflections on terror that were only half ironic. In his room in Paris hung a tattoo artist’s large pattern sheet that he had acquired in Copenhagen. He was particularly proud of this item and regarded it on the same plane as
Schreber, who at the height of his paranoia believed for a time that the world had been destroyed by “rays” hostile to him, gave this as an answer when it was pointed out to him that the doctors, patients, and employees of the insane asylum obviously existed. In Herbertz’s seminar we read Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Benjamin was the uncontested favorite and, as he used to put it, earned “seminar laurels, laurea communis minor [laurels of the small state].” Herbertz, who used to talk in the tone of a
study Hebrew secretly and surprise Walter on his birthday. She claimed that Walter was already making Hebrew jokes and had characterized the most influential man of the Falkenberg colony, its founder Adolph Otto, as melekh hagoyim [king of the non-Jews]. They remained there for at least three months, during which time Dora’s parents came to Berlin in order to act as conciliators. At that time Benjamin made the personal acquaintance of Agnon. For Walter’s birthday Dora had in the spring acquired
personally, but all I knew of Jula Cohn at that time was what Benjamin had told me about the magic she radiated. The following letter from Benjamin, dated May 26, 1921, refers to these events and some others, including a renewed encounter between Ernst Bloch and myself in Munich (the last until 1968): Dear Gerhard, I sincerely and most cordially hope that your inability to work and your depression have by now abated and are not dependent on a clarification of the occurrences among us. For