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Walter Benjamin

“THE GOAL I SET for myself,” Benjamin wrote Gershom Scholem in 1930, “is to be regarded as the foremost critic of German literature. The trouble is that for more than fifty years, literary criticism in Germany has not been regarded as a serious genre. To create a place in criticism for oneself means to re-create it as a genre.” It is not insignificant that Benjamin wrote this in French, as if German itself had to be re-created as a language if one were to do serious literary criticism in it. Characteristically, Benjamin transformed German into an instrument willfully oblique, and just dark enough to permit the thought behind it to be dimly sensed by his rare sympathetic readers. An early essay (1914–15) on two poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime like most of the writings in this collection, employed a style that, according to the translator, is “hieratic,

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