- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Walter Benjamin on Art, History, Writing, and More


Happy birthday, Walter Benjamin! Here are some quotes from the author’s texts:


“The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”


“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”


“Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books that they could buy but do not like.”


“Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language, and this understanding, in the manner of a true method, everywhere raises new questions.”


“The enslavement of language in prattle is joined by the enslavement of things in folly almost as its inevitable consequence.”


“Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.”


“History breaks down in images not into stories.”


“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”


“The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello.”


“Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.”


“In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge exists only in lightning flashes. The text is the thunder rolling long afterwards.”


“Because he never raises his eyes to the great and the meaningful, the philistine has taken experience as his gospel. It has become for him a message about life’s commonness. But he has never grasped that there exists something other than experience, that there are values—inexperienceable—that we serve.”


“Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.”


“Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography.…For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.”


“Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.”


“There is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation.”


“Scholarship, far from leading inexorably to a profession, may in fact preclude it. For it does not permit you to abandon it.”


“The critic does not pass judgment on the work; rather, art itself passes judgment, either by taking up the work in the medium of criticism or by rejecting it and thereby appraising it as beneath all criticism.”


“In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a particular public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his attentiveness. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.”


“If the original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?”


“All purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis, have their end not in life but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance.”


“A religion may be discerned in capitalism—that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.”


“Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult….An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt.”


“Where the presence of truth should be possible, it can be possible solely under the condition of the recognition of myth—that is, the recognition of its crushing indifference to truth.”


“Treatises may be didactic in tone, but essentially they lack the conclusiveness of an instruction that could be asserted, like doctrine, by virtue of its own authority….Tirelessly, the process of thinking makes new beginnings, returning in a roundabout way to its original object. This continual pausing for breath is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation. For by pursuing different levels of meaning in its examination of one single object, it receives both the incentive to begin again and the justification for its irregular rhythm.”


“Criticism and prophecy must be the two categories that meet in the salvation of the past.”


“For me, it was like this: pronounced antipathy to conversing about matters of practical life, the future, dates, politics. You are fixated on the intellectual sphere as a man possessed may be fixated on the sexual: under its spell, sucked into it.”


“A curious paradox: people have only the narrowest private interest in mind when they act, yet they are at the same time more than ever determined in their behavior by the instincts of the mass….The diversity of individual goals is immaterial in face of the identity of the determining forces.”


“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”


“Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of the past.”


“The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”


“The good tidings that the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.”


“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past that unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era, the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it…Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”


“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”


“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”


“In what time does man live? The thinkers have always known that he does not live in any time at all. The immortality of thoughts and deeds banishes him to a timeless realm at whose heart an inscrutable death lies in wait….Devoured by the countless demands of the moment, time slipped away from him; the medium in which the pure melody of his youth would swell was destroyed. The fulfilled tranquility in which his late maturity would ripen was stolen from him. It was purloined by everyday reality, which, with its events, chance occurrences, and obligations, disrupted the myriad opportunities of youthful time, immortal time….From day to day, second to second, the self preserves itself, clinging to that instrument: time, the instrument that it was supposed to play.”


“The true sign of decadence is not the collusion of the university and the state (something that is by no means incompatible with honest barbarity), but the theory and guarantee of academic freedom, when in reality people assume with brutal simplicity that the aim of study is to steer its disciples to a socially conceived individuality.

Everyone who achieves strives for totality, and the value of his achievement lies in that totality—that is, in the fact that the whole, undivided nature of a human being should be expressed in his achievement. But when determined by our society, as we see it today, achievement does not express a totality; it is completely fragmented and derivative. It is not uncommon for the community to be the site where a joint and covert struggle is waged against higher ambitions and more personal goals….The socially relevant achievement of the average person serves in the vast majority of cases to repress the original and nonderivative, inner aspirations of the human being.”


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