Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin 15 July 1892 – 26 September 1940) was a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism. He was associated with the Frankfurt School, and also maintained formative friendships with thinkers such as playwright Bertolt Brecht and Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem. He was also related by law to German political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt through her first marriage to Benjamin's cousin, Günther Anders.
Theses on the Philosophy of History is often cited as Benjamin's last complete work, having been completed, according to Adorno, in the spring of 1940. The Institute for Social Research, which had relocated to New York, published Theses in Benjamin's memory in 1942. Margaret Cohen writes in the Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin:
In the "Concept of History" Benjamin also turned to Jewish mysticism for a model of praxis in dark times, inspired by the kabbalistic precept that the work of the holy man is an activity known as tikkun. According to the kabbalah, God's attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contaminated by the presence of evil and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together. Benjamin fused tikkun with the Surrealist notion that liberation would come through releasing repressed collective material, to produce his celebrated account of the revolutionary historiographer, who sought to grab hold of elided memories as they sparked to view at moments of present danger.
In the essay, Benjamin's famed ninth thesis struggles to reconcile the Idea of Progress in the present with the apparent chaos of the past:
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 which 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 from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The 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.
The final paragraph about the Jewish quest for the Messiah provides a harrowing final point to Benjamin's work, with its themes of culture, destruction, Jewish heritage and the fight between humanity and nihilism. He brings up the interdiction, in some varieties of Judaism, to try to determine the year when the Messiah would come into the world, and points out that this did not make Jews indifferent to the future "for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."
The historical record indicates that he safely crossed the French–Spanish border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia. The Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined. They tried to cross the border on 25 September 1940, but were told by the Spanish police that they would be deported back to France the next day, which would have destroyed Benjamin's plans to travel to the United States. Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets that night, while staying in the Hotel de Francia; the official Portbou register records 26 September 1940 as the official date of death. Benjamin's colleague Arthur Koestler, also fleeing Europe, attempted suicide by taking some of the morphine tablets, but he survived. Benjamin's brother Georg was killed at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in 1942. Despite his suicide, Benjamin was buried in the consecrated section of a Roman Catholic cemetery.
WHY I WRITE WHAT I WRITE
Most of all, I write to please myself. Also, I write because as Walter Benjamin wrote in his schema of history, “The Angel of History Flies Backwards.” The problem with American education is that it does not teach an appreciation of history and how it affects and effects the present. Everything to the average American happens in the now and has no antecedent giving the impression of American innocence and victim-hood. This is what Donald Trump's “Make America Great Again” relies on.
I have been told that I rely too much on National Public Radio (NPR), interviews from On Point Radio, Here & Now, and Iowa Public Radio (IPR) for my illustrations. But first I must state, “I am not Alex Jones and do not want to foster conspiracies.” I rely on NPR/IPR for human input because it supplies voices to its stories and programming that are quotable and text that can be easily embedded. oursalon.com is a digital visual medium. The radio provides interviewees and reporters speaking for themselves because as it states at Luke 6:45 “Out of the heart's abundance the mouth speaks,” and one can/may slander oneself or others with impunity. But the history of the utterance cannot be fact-check for validity. Even so the tone and timbre of the voice always betrays ignorance or a lack thereof, as can be observed from President's Trump's public utterances. And how his election as “leader of the free world” has distorted democracies and elections worldwide.
My writings are meant to educate myself first and then my reader/viewer. I put my second-tier college education to the test remembering my Marxist literary theory and put it to the use. I triangulate pulling history and culture together to understand the present. This lets me continue to keep James Baldwin's admonition in Notes of a Native Son:
“If ever, indeed, the violence which fills Harlem's churches, pool halls, and bars erupts outward in a more directed fashion, Harlem and its citizens are likely to vanish in an apocalyptic flood. That this is not likely to happen is due to a great many reasons, most hidden and powerful among them the Negro's real relation to the white American.
This relation prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that.
One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one's own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really which has driven so many people mad, both white and black.
One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that the amputation was not necessary—or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one's symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist.
Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man/woman who hated and this [is] an immutable law.
One [will] have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seem to be in opposition. The first idea [is] acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men/women as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this [does] not mean that one could/should be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength.
This fight begins, however, in the heart free of hatred and despair.”
My strength is in my visual historicity (most via YouTube) to an increasingly illiterate society; listen to friend and foe alike (via NPR/IPR)—triangulate; give my opinion, which is always way-out-there; thus gleaning through Baldwin, 1Corinthians 13:1-3: If I speak [or write] in the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love, I have become a sounding piece of brass or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophesying [that all writers hope for] and am acquainted with all the sacred secrets and all knowledge and if I have all the faith so as to transplant mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my belongings to feed others, and if I hand over my body that I may boast, but do not have love, I am not profited at all.”
Thereby unless I have history to back up my point in order to publish, I have sorely missed the mark. My love for the human race to paraphrase Santayana: Not to relive my history because of my own ignorance of it, and to know bull shit when I hear and see it. And to warn the public that their future relies in its past.
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Eleven people were killed in an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The gunman is in custody. We look at the shooting and rising anti-Semitism around the world.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (@ShribmanPG)
Howard Fineman, NBC News analyst and a journalism lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Former global editor at the Huffington Post. He grew up in Pittsburgh and was a member of the Tree of Life synagogue. (@howardfineman)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Dispatch from Squirrel Hill: Dread in a peaceful place" — "We knew it could happen here — any here, anywhere — when we learned that nine people were killed three years ago in the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. We knew it could happen here – any here, anywhere — when we learned that six were killed in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City last year.
"Now we know it can happen here, as anywhere, because it has.
"Here, this weekend, is Squirrel Hill, home of a dozen synagogues and for more than a century and a half not only the spiritual center of Pittsburgh Judaism but also a vital landmark in the history of Jews in America, along with New York’s Lower East Side and Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue, one of the vital centers of Jewish identity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution."
New York Times: "Opinion: Shaking My Faith in America" — "I grew up in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. My parents taught Sunday school there. I learned to read Hebrew (sort of) there. I was a bar mitzvah there. My mother sewed a fancy velvet jumper for my little sister to wear there.
"On Saturday morning — the Jewish sabbath — Jews at prayer were slaughtered at Tree of Life because and only because of who they were. It was possibly the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in this country’s history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
"My response is grief, of course, and the immediate realization that this horror is part of a larger pattern of mayhem and hatred in America and around the world. Churches, minority communities, gay nightclubs, politicians and journalists are threatened. We live in an age of assault rifles, pipe bombs and bone saws.
"But I also have to admit — and am grieved to admit — that the mass murder at Tree of Life has shaken my perhaps naïve faith in this country, one that I began developing as a boy growing up in Pittsburgh."
Washington Post: "The victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre are martyrs" — "Eleven people woke up Saturday morning and got dressed, drank their coffee or chatted with their spouses or read another chapter of that novel, and then made the decision to spend Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath, our holy day of rest and community and connection and service to the divine — in synagogue.
"Some were there to celebrate a brit milah — to welcome a new baby boy into the community. Perhaps some of them went primarily to be with friends, or to pour out their hearts in prayer. Maybe some were there for a combination of reasons. But they were all together in a sacred space, in holy time, when a gunman opened fire.
"President Trump referred to the killing of those 11 people as 'evil,' and he is correct. But it is not an evil devoid of context. We cannot understand this massacre when we try to treat it as an isolated incident. Like most tragedies, it has a lot of contexts."
CNN: "Hate crime charges filed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left..." — "Federal prosecutors have filed hate crime charges against a Pennsylvania man they say stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 people.
"Robert Bowers, 46, of suburban Baldwin, surrendered to authorities after Saturday morning's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. He made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting and targeted Jews on social media, according to a federal law enforcement official.
"Bowers faces 29 charges in a rampage that left the historic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and the rest of the nation stunned. The attack is believed to be the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history, the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement." http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/10/29/pittsburgh-synagogue-shootin...
This program aired on October 29, 2018.