Preface to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Illuminations’

Some choice quotes from Leon Wieseltier’s Preface to the 2007 Schocken edition reprint of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

“The strangeness you encounter upon reading Benjamin for the first time is almost a cognitive strangeness: he makes everything no longer familiar. His incompetence at ordinary living allowed him to see it more sharply… In his memoirs as in his essays, he seemed to require of every perception that it be a revolution. It was his premise that nothing is what it appears to be, and this made him into a scholar of appearances. He had an unappeasable appetite for the marginal and the idiosyncratic, because deviance looked to him like an epistemological advantage. Nothing that was not neglected could be true. All this led Benjamin into the underground of esoteric interpretation.” (viii)

“He textualized the universe. This was because he was essentially an exegete, a glossator.” (ix)

“He also wrote too much: he advised writers to ‘never stop writing because you have run out of ideas,’ and often he acted on his own advice. I confess that there are many pages in Benjamin that I do not understand, in which the discourse seems to be dictating itself, and no direction is clear. Like many esoterics, he abuses the privilege of obscurity.”

“There are certainly very few critics who can match his power of suggestiveness: his ideas and intuitions have a way of lingering productively, even when you quarrel with them… Philosophical thinking retained its old role, for Benjamin: it was his best defense against despair. There still is no better one.” (x)


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