One-Way Street, By Walter Benjamin, trs JA Underwood

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Walter Benjamin was an early exponent of what used to be termed the "Continental" style of intellectual writing: dense, dogmatic, theoretical, anti-empiricist, Marxist. He could spin dichotomies out of thin air; the first essay here, "On the Critique of Violence", is a lesson in using language defensively, making his position impregnable rather than clear. The argument of "The Task of the Translator" – roughly, that translation is impossible, but that insofar as one attempts it, the goal is to make the target language like the language of the original – does not seem convincing to me, but has become the orthodoxy in translation studies.

The title piece is a series of observations and aphorisms ("Killing the criminal may be moral – its justification, never"); some are opaque, but most make you think. The autobiographical writings ("Unpacking My Library") and the literary criticism (essays on Proust and Kafka) reveal a less guarded, more approachable persona.

Those of a liberal humanist cast of mind will find Benjamin uncongenial, but stimulating; one is never in doubt that one is in the presence of a powerful intellect.