Because he was Jewish and a Marxist in Nazi Germany, history was against the great literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). His writings were left scattered in ephemeral publications, went unpublished or were simply left unfinished when, in 1940, the critic committed suicide because he believed that the Gestapo was about to seize him. In Germany, his works have been compiled and scrupulously edited, and now, at last, American readers too have access to his final, great unfinished work in an edition that is both well translated and helpfully annotated by the editor of the German edition, Rolf Tiedemann. In 1927, Benjamin began taking notes for a book that would critique the cultural, public, artistic and commercial life of Paris, a city Benjamin thought of as the ""capital of the nineteenth century."" The arcades of the title are the city's glass-covered shopping malls dating from that era. This edition is comprised of the fastidious notes he made for this never-completed study. Essentially, Benjamin was planning to write a prehistory of the 20th century. The lively arcades--colorful scenes of public mixing, modern shopping and quotidian activities of all sorts--figure as a focusing device. His ambition was to integrate a picture including advertising, architecture, department store shopping, fashion, prostitution, city planning, literature, bourgeois luxuries, slums, public transit, photography and much more. His perspective is largely Marxist, but not in any conventional or dogmatic sense. Benjamin's chief virtue is an uncanny originality of vision and insight that transcends the constraints of ideology. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 12/13/1999 Release date: 12/01/1999 Genre: Nonfiction
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