redric jameson points out in this study that Walter Benjamin never wrote a book, or not of a traditional kind. His account of German baroque theatre, translated into English as The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was written in the early 1920s as an academic thesis, though it was later published as a book. Since the examiners couldn’t understand a word of this stunningly original work, Benjamin withdrew it, putting paid to his hopes of a university career. Instead, he lived a hand to mouth existence in his native Berlin as a cultural journalist, eventually leaving his fascist homeland in 1933 for Paris, where he stayed for the most part until his death in 1940.
The tragedy book lacks any real unity, and the same is true of Benjamin’s other works. One-Way Street is loose in structure, while The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s great study of 19th-century Paris, is in Jameson’s phrase an unfinished ‘collection of clippings’. The ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ can best be read as the jottings of a Jewish communist who will shortly swallow a massive dose of morphine rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis. The fragmentary structure of the text reflects the ruined history from which it arises.