Benjamin’s Last Will: A Response to Samantha Rose Hill’s “Walter Benjamin’s Last Work”




SAMANTHA ROSE HILL’S recent essay reminds us of the tragic circumstances that surrounded Walter Benjamin’s last days and eventual suicide. However, Hill’s portrayal of Benjamin’s relationship with Theodor Adorno at times uncritically reproduces Hannah Arendt’s biased account. The latter has become a persistent myth in American academia ever since Arendt’s 1968 introduction to Illuminations.

Yet, there is little evidence that supports Arendt’s central claim that Benjamin’s relationship with Adorno was primarily instrumental and marked by fear and resentment. Specifically, Benjamin’s wish to have Adorno administer his intellectual legacy never quite fit with Arendt’s characterization. Hill responds to this contradiction by casting doubt on the veracity of Henny Gurland’s claims about Benjamin’s last will. This is a serious accusation to which I would like to offer the following remarks:

(1) To my knowledge, no one in Benjamin’s circle — neither his sister Dora, nor his friend Gershom Scholem, nor, contrary to Hill’s claim, Hannah Arendt — ever mentioned a suspicion of this kind. In fact, Arendt had, in a letter to Scholem, emphasized the legality of Adorno’s stewardship and speculated that Benjamin must have trusted Adorno more than the latter had, in Arendt’s opinion, deserved. [1]

(2) Hill refers to Gurland, Benjamin’s travel companion who transmitted his last will, as “Erich Fromm’s wife.” This creates the impression that Gurland was intimately involved with one of the most prominent members of the Institute by the time she traveled with Benjamin. This sort of connection would, presumably, lend plausibility to the charge that Gurland had lied about Benjamin’s will in favor of the Institute. However, Gurland and Fromm only met in 1941 (a year after Benjamin’s death) and married in 1944. [2]

(3) Gurland was not the only person who claimed that Benjamin had wanted Adorno to administer his literary estate. Georges Bataille relays that Benjamin had instructed him to get his manuscripts — his most valuable possession — to the Institute before he left Paris. [3]

Finally, it is worth noting that Arendt’s general portrayal of Benjamin’s relationship with Adorno has never been corroborated by other witnesses (some, such as Scholem, have contradicted her characterization publicly). Moreover, her speculations about the Institute’s sinister motives can be proven wrong on the basis of the documentation that has become publicly available since Max Horkheimer’s death. For instance, a look at the Horkheimer-Adorno correspondence makes clear that the Institute had not, contrary to Arendt’s worries, attempted to “suppress” Benjamin’s Theses [4] — and that Arendt’s alleged skepticism regarding Adorno’s claim that he had “acquired the Arcades Project from Bataille” was unnecessary. [5]

The published correspondence between Benjamin and Adorno reveals a lively, years-long engagement between two people who shared an intellectual mission. Benjamin’s last will might have stupefied Hannah Arendt, but in light of the available evidence there is little reason to let it stupefy us.

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Clara Picker is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Yale University. Her research and teaching interests include Enlightenment political thought, philosophy of history, Liberal political thought, and the history of Marxism. She is the author, most recently, of “Arendt and the Frankfurt School,” with Seyla Benhabib, in The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (2018).

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[1] Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943, in: Schöttker, Detlev and Erdmut Wizisla, eds, Arendt und Benjamin: Texte, Briefe, Dokumente (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), 158–159.

[2] Friedman, Lawrence J., The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Last Prophet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 135.

[3] Georges Bataille to Pierre Missac, October 1945, in: Tiedemann, Rolf, ed., Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, V.I (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), 1068.

[4] Theodor Adorno to Max Horkheimer, June 12, 1941, in: Gödde, Christoph and Lonitz, Henri, eds., Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer: Briefwechsel 1927–1969, Band II: 1938–1944 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004), 144.

[5] Adorno to Horkheimer, May 9, 1949, in: Tiedemann, Rolf, ed., Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, V.I, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), 1072.

 

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