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

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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.

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