Walter Benjamin

In 1912 Benjamin began his university studies in Freiburg, where he encountered some of Wilhelmine Germany’s most distinguished faculty. He attended history lectures by Friedrich Meinecke and took courses in philosophy with Heinrich Rickert. Generally bored by academia, however, he likened his experience with the professoriate to “a mooing cow to which students were compelled to listen”; in his later essay “The Life of Students,” he asserted, “scholarship, far from leading inexorably to a profession, may in fact preclude it.”

Benjamin would maintain a deep skepticism toward academia throughout his life. Though he managed to earn his doctorate (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism), summa cum laude, in 1919, he complained to Scholem that he had to “hack through” his courses, and the two friends, both based in Switzerland at the time, joked incessantly about establishing their own parody institution, the University of Muri.

In the mid-1920s Benjamin confided to Scholem that the theoretical introduction to his postdoctoral thesis, on the origin of German tragic drama (his halfhearted attempt to launch an academic career), was an act of “unmitigated chutzpah.” Benjamin never warmed up to the idea of being attached to a single institution, academic or otherwise, and scholarly specialization was generally anathema to an intellect as omnivorous as his.

That is the amusing part of the article, but there are new books out on Walter Benjamin – of whom I am a fan – and these are the larger points.


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