Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)
Quotations


The idea that happiness could have a share in beauty would be too much of a good thing.

The killing of a criminal can be moral—but never its legitimation.

The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.

The power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. . . . Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.

These are days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence.” Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.

To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.

We have long forgotten the ritual by which the house of our life was erected. But when it is under assault and enemy bombs are already taking their toll, what enervated, perverse antiquities do they not lay bare in the foundations.

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.

All disgust is originally disgust at touching.

All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.

All religions have honored the beggar. For he proves that in a matter at the same time as prosaic and holy, banal and regenerative as the giving of alms, intellect and morality, consistency and principles are miserably inadequate.

Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations.

Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation.

Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.

Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for a quite different schooling. Then, signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest.

Nothing is poorer than a truth expressed as it was thought. Committed to writing in such cases, it is not even a bad photograph. . . . Truth wants to be startled abruptly, at one stroke, from her self-immersion, whether by uproar, music or cries for help.

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. . . . Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.

Only he who can view his own past as an abortion sprung from compulsion and need can use it to full advantage in the present.

For what one has lived is at best comparable to a beautiful statue which has had all its limbs knocked off in transit, and now yields nothing but the precious block out of which the image of one’s future must be hewn.

Opinions are a private matter. The public has an interest only in judgments.

Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.

Quotations in my work are like wayside robbers who leap out armed and relieve the stroller of his conviction.

Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. . . . For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life. Here, I am talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities.

For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.

Separation penetrates the disappearing person like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance.

Taking food alone tends to make one hard and coarse. T hose accustomed to it must lead a Spartan life if they are not to go downhill. Hermits have observed, if for only this reason, a frugal diet. For it is only in company that eating is done justice; food must be divided and distributed if it is to be well received.

The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.

The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.

The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books.

The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

The construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than convictions.

The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.

Books and harlots have their quarrels in public.

Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.

Bourgeois existence is the regime of private affairs . . . and the family is the rotten, dismal edifice in whose closets and crannies the most ignominious instincts are deposited. Mundane life proclaims the total subjugation of eroticism to privacy.

Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.

Death is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.

Each morning the day lies like a fresh shirt on our bed; this incomparably fine, incomparably tightly woven tissue of pure prediction fits us perfectly. The happiness of the next twenty-four hours depends on our ability, on waking, to pick it up.

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.

Experience has taught me that the shallowest of communist platitudes contains more of a hierarchy of meaning than contemporary bourgeois profundity.

Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.

Gifts must affect the receiver to the point of shock.

He who asks fortune-tellers the future unwittingly forfeits an inner intimation of coming events that is a thousand times more exact than anything they may say. He is impelled by inertia, rather than curiosity, and nothing is more unlike the submissive apathy with which he hears his fate revealed than the alert dexterity with which the man of courage lays hands on the future.

He who observes etiquette but objects to lying is like someone who dresses fashionably but wears no vest.

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. . . . He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is only a deposit, a stratum, which yields only to the most meticulous examination what constitutes the real treasure hidden within the earth: the images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand—like precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery—in the prosaic rooms of our later understanding.

It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.

Like ultraviolet rays memory shows to each man in the book of life a script that invisibly and prophetically glosses the text.

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