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Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  10,520 ratings  ·  249 reviews
Studies on contemporary art and culture by one of the most original, critical and analytical minds of this century. Illuminations includes Benjamin's views on Kafka, with whom he felt the closest personal affinity, his studies on Baudelaire and Proust (both of whom he translated), his essays on Leskov and on Brecht's Epic Theater.

Also included are his penetrating study on
Paperback, 288 pages
Published January 13th 1969 by Schocken
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Apr 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
A wide-ranging collection of critical and aesthetic essays exploring everything from the process of literary translation across space and time to the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin’s style, at once sensitive and incisive, is entrancing, though much of the criticism gathered here, including pieces on Kafka, Baudelaire, and Proust, feels archaic, ahead of its time but dated and shallow today.
May 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: theory, crit
For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.

There are hardly enough superlatives for this amazing collection of essays concerning Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka, messianism and the aesthetic tension between the cultic and the exhibitional. I had read Unpacking My Library a half dozen times previously and it still forces me to catch my breath. The thoughts on Kafka explore the mystical as well as the shock of the modern. The shock of the urban and industrial is a
May 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
The introductory essay by Hannah Arendt—who also did duty as editor of this wonderful collection—serves up her usual insight (and reliably delivered via her rather dense language) in categorizing Benjamin as a poetic mind who approached cultural and literary criticism in a unique manner, one that left a lasting influence upon those who followed in his wake. Benjamin's opening sally, a short piece on the eccentric inner workings of the book collector, resonated in a warmly satisfying way, describ ...more
Jul 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
These are meandering thoughts on the book (especially on Benjamin's Mechanical Reproduction essay). If you have any thoughts, insights, critique on my view I appreciate any comments. The topic of art is something I'm endlessly fascinated by and always love discussing!

I loved the preface by Hannah Arendt, gives insight into mindset and analytical style of Benjamin. Offers perceptive bio framing his life against historical issues and cultural landscape (including situation of Jewish bourgeoisie i
Ian "Marvin" Graye

I still talk about "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" 30 years after I first read it.

I don't remember it as a purely political tract, even though that is how it is all dressed up.

I think Benjamin displayed some degree of sentimentality and attachment to the original work of art. Its uniqueness, its cult value, its authenticity, its ability to "illuminate".

Ironically, the way that we relate to mechanically reproduced books now replicates this sentimentality, eve
May 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Benjamin's writings on Proust, Kafka, Baudelaire and Leskov are really brilliant and engrossing. I was especially taken with his history of the storyteller in relation to Leskov's stories, how the verbal communication that was the initial component of storytelling dissipated after the fragmenting of human experience that came along with the realities of the industrial revolution and the barbarism of World War I, as if history itself killed mankind's ability to actually feel and process experienc ...more
Josh Friedlander
I'd lie if I said that I understood more than - charitably - fifty percent of these essays. Besides for the mountains of literary references and the oblique angles from which Benjamin approaches his subjects, his languid, flâneur-like writing makes it difficult to follow his train of thought. Still, the beauty of such writing, and the tendency toward hyperbole so characteristic of the Frankfurt School, have no doubt played a great role in Benjamin's reputation as a critic.

These essays, selected
Jul 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
These essays are chiefly memorable for:

1) The one about the dwarf that lives under the chessboard.
2) The one about how he has too many books but they are all his children.
3) The one where Kafka has a headache, but everyone keeps asking him for favors.
4) The one where Proust eats a cookie.
5) The one in which they lose the aura.
6) The one where the gang all wear translations as baggy coats.
7) The one where Baudelaire gets lost in a crowd.
8) The one with the Hannah Arendt encomium to Walter Benjami
May 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Reading Benjamin makes me realize how 98% of the conversations I have are a waste of time. His depth reaches far and his reading spreads vast.
Reading literary and aesthetic criticism with barely any context is a habit I've picked up in these strange times; with Illuminations, this exercise has been fairly rewarding and quite frustrating in equal measure.

I picked up this book for the famous essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but I quite enjoyed reading Benjamin's reflections on book collecting; on Proust eating a cookie and stumbling upon lost time; on Brechtian theatre; on the history of storytelling told through L
Leonard Houx
Dec 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
me: i started trying to do a heidegger thing. just finished the 'basic writings' book. but am not feeling totally enthused.
William: ugh
why heidegger?
me: i dunno. because he is so central? influential?
it is just a little boring. a little, like: what's the point?
William: seriously
i have to finish up my heidegger-hoelderlin chapter and i'm so bored with heidegger
so stodgy and airless
me: totally
William: in contrast, if you read walter benjamin, from walter you can get interested in a myriad of diff
Jul 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
The destruction of Jewish Vienna came along with many attendant tragedies, but perhaps none was as poignant as the suicide of Walter Benjamin after he’d been driven into exile by the Nazi war machine. One thing I learned from this collection of essays introduced by Hannah Arendt is that his fame was largely posthumous. In his time, Benjamin was far less known than he is today. In my mind that makes him even more remarkable. Even in translation his writing is captivating. Through the circuitous r ...more
Claire Cray
Nov 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Five years ago I discovered Walter Benjamin. I had never been much for theory before, and my initial encounter with his writing was sort of like one of those old 3D puzzle pictures: first, a dense field of mesmerizing psychedelic prose, and then POW! MEANING!

I don't gush over philosophy often, I swear (okay, I don't swear swear, but like, 89% swear) -- but this is love. His haunting theories and beautiful metaphors have stayed on my mind ever since that sunny afternoon in Portland, Oregon when I
Elena Sala
ILLUMINATIONS is the first part of a collection of essays and musings written by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin is well known for his philosophical analysis of literature and culture. He had a way of looking at things which made them no longer familiar: he thought nothing is as it appears to be, for this reason he became a scholar of appearances.

Benjamin greatly influenced Sebald's writing. Sebald quotes Benjamin's thesis about the angel of history in his book ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF D
Oct 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Walter Benjamin just had that vision to see what was underneth his subject matter. Wonderful writer who can look at each layer of whatever subject matter he's writing about. Cultural critic before there were cultural critics. Now this is a man you would like to sit down and have a glass of wine with him. Alas not here with us anymore, so the second best thing is to have a glass of wine and read this book. ...more
Aug 04, 2007 rated it liked it
The essays collected here are all good to excellent. However, Harry Zohn's translations are appalling! The piece on translation is garbled into nonsense, basically, and the less said about the rendering into English of the artwork essay the better. Best to stick to the edition put out by Harvard University Press fairly recently. ...more
Alex Sarll
I’d encountered Benjamin more through the way The Arcades Project always tends to crop up as one of the foundational texts of psychogeography, but you don’t go in on a thousand-page unfinished (and probably always unfinishable) volume as your first encounter with a writer, do you*? So when I saw this in the library, I thought I’d give it a go. First surprise: about a third of the book is taken up with the introduction, which would normally be taking the piss, but this one is by Hannah Arendt, wh ...more
Sep 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book made me feel alternately confused and like a genius, and I feel like that’ll be true no matter how much I revisit it. There’s a remarkable moral and philosophical coherence to Benjamin that I find so compelling, which is Marxism. So dumb that so many of his contemporaries denounced this facet of his thought, which, to me, is its center
James Henderson
This book is a valuable collection of essays and reflections by the German literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The collection is enhanced by the excellent introduction provided by Hannah Arendt. Of the ten essays in the collection by far the most famous is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In this essay Benjamin discusses the impact of mechanical reproduction through photography and film on the nature of works of art, even so far as to shape the design of new works ...more
Wendy Trevino
Aug 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm re-reading this book because that's what you do with a book like this. And especially with essays like "The Storyteller," "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," "The Work of Art in the Age...," and "Theses on the Philosophy of History." ...more
Jun 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The writings of an interesting literary critic, a sincere and somewhat unorthodox marxist and a leftist mystic whose life will likely be remembered and redeemed on the Judgement Day. Most essays in it are very interesting, although in a few of them Benjamin's argument can get a bit contrived. ...more
Dec 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"Our history is an aggregate of last moments..." (Gravity's Rainbow).

These almost legendary essays speak for themselves, so it is pointless to review them. I'm rapidly developing a sort of fetishistic relationship towards Benjamin, and I think I found out why last night as I read through this almost in one sitting; unlike the other Frankfurt-nerds, Benjamin is the last European man of letters in his time. He rarely scorns like Adorno, or riffs all that much on theoretical Marxism like Marcuse, h

August 2006

Of Benjamin, Dwarfs and Angels

The depth of Benjamin's pessimism has, I think, been underestimated.

"The story is told of an automation constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchba
Nicky Neko
I thought this book was very illuminating
Tom Wolfe
Jul 14, 2016 rated it it was ok
Some of these essays are very good, some rely too much on unfounded generalizations. In my opinion, "Translator" and "Bookshelf" were the worst and "Kafka" was the best. Benjamin shines in finding clever images to convey his points, but the concomitant expository passages can be tedious. The best image comes from his essay on Proust, where he compares Proust's bed (upon which he wrote In Search of Lost Time) to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. On an unrelated note, sometimes it felt like what ...more
I've read a significant chuck of this before, in classes and on my own, and quite a few of these essays are total classics. Benjamin's intelligence is quite unusual, and he can work around ideas in ways that normal folks (and for that matter, normal intellectuals) would just approach head on. Instead of writing about Proust's novels or Baudelaire's poems, he dances with them. It's a style I've only seen in Susan Sontag, and it's a style that she largely inherited from him. ...more
key moment of frankfurt marxism. well known for "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" as well as the "theses on the philosophy of history." less famous contributions are great, too.

there is of course a mysticism here that is somewhat dangerous, potentially arriere garde. must cogitate further.
Guy Cranswick
Sep 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
A must read for anyone interested in art and ideas and the confluence of the two.
Nov 17, 2009 marked it as to-read
Shelves: ideas
I read some of this for a Lit course but need to go back and read the entire thing.
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Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was a German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and Jewish mysticism as presented by Gershom Scholem.

As a sociological and cultural critic, Benjamin combined ideas drawn from historical materiali

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