cover of book

Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940
by Walter Benjamin
edited by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith
translated by Edmund Jephcott
Harvard University Press, 1996
Cloth: 978-0-674-01076-5
Library of Congress Classification PT2603.E455A26 1996
Dewey Decimal Classification 838.91209


"Every line we succeed in publishing a victory wrested from the powers of darkness." So wrote Walter Benjamin in January 1940. Not long afterward, he himself would fall prey to those powers, a victim of suicide following a failed attempt to flee the Nazis. However insistently the idea of catastrophe hangs over Benjamin's writings in the final years of his life, the "victories wrested" in this period nonetheless constitute some of the most remarkable twentieth-century analyses of the emergence of modern society. The essays on Charles Baudelaire are the distillation of a lifetime of thinking about the nature of modernity. They record the crisis of meaning experienced by a civilization sliding into the abyss, even as they testify to Benjamin's own faith in the written word.

This volume ranges from studies of Baudelaire, Brecht, and the historian Carl Jochmann to appraisals of photography, film, and poetry. At their core is the question of how art can survive and thrive in a tumultuous time. Here we see Benjamin laying out an ethic for the critic and artist--a subdued but resilient heroism. At the same time, he was setting forth a sociohistorical account of how art adapts in an age of violence and repression.

Working at the height of his powers to the very end, Benjamin refined his theory of the mass media that culminated in the final version of his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility." Also included in this volume is his influential piece "On the Concept of History," completed just before his death. The book is remarkable for its inquiry into the nature of "the modern" (especially as revealed in Baudelaire), for its ideas about the transmogrification of art and the radical discontinuities of history, and for its examples of humane life and thought in the midst of barbarism. The entire collection is eloquent testimony to the indomitable spirit of humanity under siege.

Table of Contents:


The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire
The Study Begins with Some Reflections on the Influence of Les Fleurs du mal
Exchange with Theodor W. Adorno on "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire"
Review of Renéville's Expérience poétique
Review of Freund's Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle
Review of Francesco's Macht des Charlatans
A Chronicle of Germany's Unemployed
A Novel of German Jews


Review of Hönigswald's Philosophie und Sprache
Review of Sternberger's Panorama
Review of Béguin's Ame romantique et le rêve
Note on Brecht
Central Park
Exchange with Theodor W. Adorno on Part II of "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire"
Commentary on Poems by Brecht
The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Third Version
Germans of 1789
What Is the Epic Theater? (II)


On Some Motifs in Baudelaire
"The Regression of Poetry," by Carl Gustav Jochmann
Curriculum Vitae (VI): Dr. Walter Benjamin
On Scheerbart
On the Concept of History
Paralipomena to "On the Concept of History"
Letter to Theodor W. Adorno on Baudelaire, George, and Hofmannsthal

A Note on the Texts
List of Writings in Volumes 1-4

Reviews of this book:
Harvard's systematic presentation of the work of German cultural critic Benjamin has proved a revelation...This is another splendid volume.
--Publishers Weekly

Reviews of this book:
Readers new to Benjamin will find this a welcome introduction to a challenging but rewarding writer. Those already familiar with his work will be grateful to be reminded, once again, of the wisdom of his maxium, "all the decisive blows are struckleft-handed."
--Graham McCann, Financial Times

Reviews of this book:
The edition at hand...represents the first serious attempt to present his works with systematic chronology, judicious but inclusive selection, and sensitively accurate translation. The effect is nothing less than electric.
--Peter Brier, Macgrill's Literary Annual

Reviews of this book:
The latest volume of Havard's majestic annoted edition [is] exhilarating...You feel smarter just holding this book in your hand.
--Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

Reviews of this book:
Whenever [Benjamin] turned his incisive gaze...the clarity of morning's first light shines forth.
--Haim Chertok, Jerusalem Post

Reviews of this book:
A glance at the table of contents...shows us at once Benjamin's provocativeness and his infinite variety.
--Marshall Berman, The Nation

Reviews of this book:
There is nothing like Benjamin, and I can hardly imagine a more rewarding book being published this year.
--David Wheatley, Irish Times (Dublin)

Reviews of this book:
The final volume in this collection of the German philosopher's writing, this title covers the last three years of Benjamin's life and is masterfully translated, edited, and annotated. Presented here are Benjamin's grandest themes: the arcades of Paris, Baudelaire, the concept of remembrance, and materialist theology. Also included is the third version of Benjamin's most famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," which was unpublished in the author's lifetime. This essay alone makes the volume indispensable for any scholar of interwar literature, philosophy, or modern European thought. Together with the first three volumes in the set (1996-2002), this is one of the most remarkable editorial achievements in contemporary thought and politics.
--M. Uebel, Choice

Reviews of this book:
Walter Benjamin's Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-40 brings to a conclusion the magisterial series published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
--Ciaran Carson, The Guardian
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