Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History

Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History

Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History

Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History


Constellation is the first extended exploration of the relationship between Walter Benjamin, the Weimar-era revolutionary cultural critic, and the radical philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The affinity between these non-contemporaneous thinkers serves as a limit case manifesting the precariousness and potentials of cultural transmission in a disillusioned present. In five chapters, Constellation presents the changing figure of Nietzsche as Benjamin encountered him: an inspiration to his student activism, an authority for his sceptical philology, a manifestation of his philosophical nihilism, a companion in his political exile, and ultimately a subversive collaborator in his efforts to think beyond the hopeless temporality--new and always the same--of the present moment in history. By excavating this neglected relationship philologically and elaborating its philosophical implications in the surviving texts of both men, Constellation produces new and compelling readings of their works and through them triangulates a theoretical limit in the present, a fractured "now-time" suspended between madness and suicide, from which the collective future regains a measure of consequential and transformative vitality.


The Trauerspiel therefore knows no hero, only constellations.

—WALTER BENJAMIN, The Origin of German Trauerspiel

In his essay “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin,” reprinted in the collection Prisms, Theodor W. Adorno gestures toward a methodological congruence between the work of his friend Walter Benjamin and the work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “The later Nietzsche’s critical insight,” Adorno writes, “that truth is not identical with a timeless universal, but rather that it is solely the historical which yields the figure of the absolute, became, perhaps without his knowing it, the canon of [Benjamin’s] practice.” Adorno’s understanding of the relationship between the thought of Nietzsche and Benjamin situates it at a fundamental level of significance, for it holds between an original insight of Nietzsche’s and the very principle governing Benjamin’s speculations, the irreducible presence of history in Benjamin’s thought. At the same time, with his cautious qualification Adorno concedes that the relationship does not have the philological guarantee that would bolster more robust readings. Perhaps Benjamin was hardly aware of this Nietzschean precedent.

An account detailing which of Nietzsche’s writings Benjamin had read and a characterization of what he had said about those texts and the man who wrote them—this basic philological excavation—had not yet been attempted in 1950 when Adorno offered his comparison. Beyond the dispersed condition of Benjamin’s writings and the practical difficulties their study presented, the reasons for this lack of interest are not far to seek. In the wake of a genocidal European fascism that had claimed Benjamin as its victim a decade before, the great tension in his thought between Jewish messianism and Communist commitment seemed prima facie to preclude much sympathy for the antidemocratic and atheist Nietzsche who derided both tendencies and who had found such enthusiastic parrots among the Nazi intelligentsia. Though none of Benjamin’s close survivors could . . .

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