In Reflections, editor Peter Demetz has taken eighteen essays by Walter Benjamin written over roughly a decade and has grouped them into four categories. Each category captures an essence of Benjamin's life that he found over-riding at that time. Benjamin's life was a whirlpool of essences that was startlingly far-reaching: the lessening of human values in post-war Europe, the ineffable quality of a work's "aura," the immediacy of memory as a means and mode of consciousness, the interlocking of barbarism and civilization in an eternal spatial and temporal bear hug, the role of Jewish Messianism, the paradoxical discrepancy between the size of a small object and its capacity to encompass the purity of a much larger essence, the greater importance of visual/tactile phenomena over their Platonic abstractions, the observant seemingly idle flâneur who strolls effortlessly amidst crowded Parisian streets, and his obsession with slowing down the pacing of a pulsating urban scene so as to capture its inner essence in the stasis of a pseudo-photograph.
These essays reveal a Benjamin who liked to travel all over Europe. In Section One, he strolls through Berlin in A Berlin Chronicle and assorted areas of interest throughout Germany in One-Way Street. Benjamin's sharp eye for detail reveals how past experiences manifest themselves in memories that are less temporal in nature but more associational in sweep. For him, the act of recalling past details is akin to Wordsworth's images recalled in tranquility though editor Demetz sees a Proustian unraveling of a onion memory at work too. His memory images are charged with a palpable sense of "thing-ness" that over-ride their concomitant abstraction. Further these memories are not simply recalled for their visceral connotation; rather they serve as tenuous links that connect an early version of a callow Benjamin to a more aware more mature version.
In the second section, Benjamin is the flâneur who begins to internalize an incipient Marxist bent as he travels about Europe. He visits Moscow, hoping to see firsthand evidence that Lenin's proletarian revolution had truly brought about the workers' paradise sought after by so many like Benjamin. He is disappointed in the grubbiness and poverty-stricken slums that were Moscow but still remains enchanted by the dream that Communism is the key, perhaps belated, to reaching the full economic potential of mankind. Marseilles in France is only slightly better and it is there that he begins experimenting with hashish. But it is Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century that allows him to play the Flâneur fully as he strolls the city, taking in the streets, the arcades, and the endless boulevards, applying his growing Marxist tenets to allow him to re-configure these sites mentally to fit into a Marxist superstructure. He would fail, of course, but his failure would decades later reach fruition with the next generation of academic Marxists who could see in Walter Benjamin an oracle that spoke many tongues, one of which was directed to the proletariat.
In the third section, Benjamin focuses on conversations with Bertold Brecht, a writer with whom he would share ideas that would tragically be cut short by Benjamin's untimely suicide in 1940. In The Author as Producer, Benjamin espouses ideas that clearly show a growing attachment to Marxist-Leninist dogma. An artist must do far more than produce a work of art; that art had to show what we would today term a politically correct purpose. This purpose had to include resolving the long standing conflict between the content of a work and its form. Traditional Marxist dogma required that the needed changes in social stratification that would elevate the lot of the proletariat could arise only if there were a concomitant change in the means of production. Marx urged and Benjamin concurred that the proletariat had to topple the existing capitalist dominant infrastructure and the part that dealt with art and literature further implied that the artist/writer had to draw a distinction between the attitude of a work and the function of that work. Benjamin indicted the former as being overly fixated on the bourgeoisie tendency to cater to the decadent pleasures of those who cared little for revolutionary change. He lauded those artists and writers who saw a revolutionary purpose to their works. Benjamin details the struggles of one such writer, Sergei Tretiakov, a journalist who decided that his position as one who reports news was insufficiently revolutionary. Tretiakov was relentless in transforming the author into a producer. An author, Tretiakov explained, merely wrote with no desire to radically transform society, but a producer sought to effect a change in others who would ripple-like effect changes in still others. Hence, the distinction between author and reader must necessarily blur with the latter eventually becoming the former. Benjamin further saw a needed change in the way drama was staged. Benjamin had had many conversations with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Benjamin urged that the audiences watching epics of the sort written by Brecht not be content with passively absorbing the unfolding of events on the stage. Instead, they had to become aware of their revolutionary status as active participants who viewed the stage craft as yet one more means to critique a decadent society.
The fourth section saw Benjamin confront issues that tended toward the brute world of harsh philosophy. In Critique of Violence, he ponders whether violence as a means can be used to justify a socially acceptable end. In On the Mimetic Faculty, he considers whether man's ability to create similarities has a worthwhile use.
What emerges from a reading of the essays in Reflections is a man who was denied the right to teach from a sanctioned university pulpit and had to content himself with hectoring a world that refused for years to listen but now thanks to books like this one, we can hear just what he was saying, even if Walter Benjamin himself was more than occasionally fuzzy on some points.