Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Benjamin and the Idea of Youth

Benjamin was an ardent, intellectually demanding, melancholy adolescent; in fact, the grand passion of his adolescence was the idea of youth itself. Often publishing under the pseudonym Ardor, he proclaimed youth to be a "steady, pulsating feeling for the abstractness of pure Geist" (B 93) and styled his private reflections a "metaphysics of youth" (II 91-104). In his writings before the outbreak of World War I, Benjamin traded in an idiom that exalts adolescent idealism, an idiom pervasive in European culture since the beginnings of the romantic movement at the turn of the nineteenth century. These texts represent his first gropings toward clarity rather than any articulate intellectual identity. As such, the notions they expound were to play no explicit role in his later works. But it would be wrong simply to write them off as tokens of enthusiasms he outgrew. Read carefully against their historical context, Benjamin's early works can be seen to invoke a particular form of this code, a historically specific set of formulations of adolescent idealism: they speak the idiom of an autonomous youth culture whose mission is to act as the agent of a general cultural renewal; recent studies have provided a good deal of evidence to suggest that this version of youth ideology was specific to Wilhelmine Germany in the decade before the war. 1 Moreover, in order to distance himself from the garden varieties of the Wandervogel ideology that set the tone in the German youth movement at large, Benjamin invoked a second code by identifying with Gustav Wyneken's call for youth to lead a

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1
Comparative studies suggest that this identification of youth as the agent of a general cultural regeneration was the specifically German variant of a generational consciousness that was on the rise across Europe at the time. See Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914, 45- 48, and Hans Mommsen, " Generationskonflikt und Jugendrevolte in der Weimarer Republik," 53- 54.

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