TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Motif of Redemption in Walter Benjamin's Early Writings

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Tomash Dabrowski looks at Richard Wolin’s “An Aesthetic of Redemption: Benjamin’s Path to Trauerspielfrom Telos 43 (Spring 1980).

Despite renewed interest in Walter Benjamin, his work still remains enigmatic seventy years after his death, and the obscurity of his thought is compounded by the efforts of friends and associates wishing to reclaim his work to their respective traditions. Those who knew him during his lifetime—and especially those instrumental to the belated dissemination of his work—sometimes repudiate his theological motifs, others his particular variant of Marxism (or questioning whether he could be called a Marxist at all). But there seems to be a consensus as to their incongruity. Adorno for instance once chastised Benjamin’s work as “undialectical,” and Gershom Scholem found his theology to be plagued by ill-conceived communist alliances (which is to say nothing about his dispute with Hannah Arendt about which school of thought Benjamin’s contribution legitimately lies).[1] Leszek Kołakowski’s reading, in his eminent Main Currents of Marxism, is emblematic of the mischief caused by measuring Benjamin’s work against the weight of tradition. Kołakowski finds that Benjamin “seems to have tried to graft historical materialism on his own theory of culture, which had nothing to do with Marxism and which he had worked out beforehand.”[2]

Even with the still incomplete reception of Benjamin’s oeuvre, the jealous proprietorship over a given school of thought seems irreconcilable with a thinker whose work deals with, at its heart, the problem of tradition. Richard Wolin’s reading, in contrast, concerns itself precisely with the burden of intellectual ancestry on the young Benjamin. In order to situate Benjamin inside his own modest stake in the history of critical theory, one must be cognizant of how the oft-cited puppet of historical materialism enlists the service of theology. In Benjamin, this takes the form of the consistent preoccupation with the idea of redemption. Indeed, the early Benjamin developed the weight of theological influence in his early work to give some consistency to the titular “aesthetics of redemption” that persists throughout his scattered commitments.

Wolin maintains that the motif of redemption remains within the bounds of theology proper in Benjamin’s work, at least until the final version of the The Origin of German Tragic Drama. (In his subsequent book of the same name as this article, Wolin argues that this consistency is found throughout Benjamin’s entire corpus.) Largely he takes the essays concurrent with the supremely important work begun in 1916 as elaborating upon, or demonstrative of, the method developed in the cryptic “Epistemo-Critical Prologue.” Disparate works of the same period thereby acquire some consistency in outlining the redemptive aspects of—as Wolin enumerates—experience, language, allegory, and so on.

Acknowledging his debt to Jürgen Habermas’s commentary on Benjamin, Wolin concurs that Benjamin’s early work privileged criticism that “relates conservatively rather than critically to its object.” Habermas, commenting on Benjamin’s departure from methods of cultural history, had argued that: “It is not from the historicist standpoint of accumulated culture goods that Benjamin views the documents of culture, which are at the same time those of barbarism, but rather from a critical standpoint of the disintegration of culture.”[3] This is to say that the conservative relation to an object of criticism is above all concerned with preserving the experience of negativity obscured by false cultural continuities. As Wolin puts it:

[T]hrough the “mortification” of the work of art as an autonomous, independent entity accomplished by the philosophical insight of the critic, the “dead,” historical, “material content” of the work of art is mediated to the point where its truth content bursts forth and its link to the realm of redeemed life is thereby revealed. (62)

Although Habermas and Wolin disagree as to whether there is a consistent intellectual project that can encompass Benjamin’s divergent concerns, Wolin contends that Habermas’s above-quoted insight is able to accommodate some consistency between “different Benjamins” insofar as they can be respectively traced to the preoccupation with Kabbalic hermeneutics. Wolin goes on to enumerate the tenets of Kabbalic exegesis of sacred texts and demonstrates parallel themes between the mystical and the “secular” preoccupations of Benjamin’s literary criticism, where Wolin takes Benjamin’s early messianic idea of language as illustrative of the theological foundations of the earlier essays. The unifying theme is dislocating (or “redeeming,” in Benjamin’s vernacular) an intentionless, supra-historical truth from the detritus of finite and contingent historical circumstance.

According to Wolin, Benjamin’s writings not explicitly concerned with messianic motifs thereby elaborate a more robust vision of redemption; by “emphasizing the incorrigible depravity of the human condition,” Baudelaire, Kafka, and Gryphius “refute the false semblance of reconciliation in fallen, historical life, and thereby appeal all the more imperatively to the need for transcendence” (79). The aesthetic element of redemption anticipates the attempt to consummate the Trauerspiel phase of Benjamin’s work with the mature cataclysmic visions of rubble in the field of vision of the Angel of History. The later horror in the face of the rise of National Socialism and the failure of the democratic left prompted Benjamin to return to and elaborate upon his position of the messianic. His untimely death, however, leaves the redemption of history a challenge to his intellectual heirs.


1. Letter of Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin dated August 2–4, 1935, in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin: The Complete Correspondence, 1928–40 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001); letter of Gershom Scholem to Walter Benjamin dated April 19, 1934, in The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1992). p. 107.

2. Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution, vol. 3, The Breakdown, trans. P. S. Falla (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), p. 348.

3. Jürgen Habermas, “Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism: The Contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin,” New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 30–59; here, p. 32.

Read the full version of Richard Wolin’s “An Aesthetic of Redemption: Benjamin’s Path to Trauerspiel at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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