Walter Benjamin’s ideas brought to campus by lecturer

October 31, 2014

On Thursday, Oct. 30, the Brandeis community had the unique opportunity to listen to Howard Eiland speak about the works and life of Walter Benjamin, a renowned 20th-century philosopher. The event complemented a conference held at the beginning of October on philosopher Herbert Marcuse to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of his books.

Eiland, an expert on Benjamin and co-author of the first English autobiography of Walter Benjamin, recently retired from teaching at MIT. The lecture, titled “Reality as a Palimpset: Walter Benjamin as Flãneur” had approximately 40 students and faculty members in attendance and was funded by the European Cultural Studies Program, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department and the History of Ideas program.

Patrick Gamsby, a lecturer of History of Ideas at Brandeis, introduced Eiland. “Since I am lucky enough to teach the core course in the History of Ideas program, one of the benefits is that I get to bring in a distinguished guest speaker.” said Gamsby. He continued to commend Eiland for the publication of “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life,” and he spoke about the pleasure he found in reading it.

In addition to introducing Eiland, Gamsby took time to discuss the relevance of Benjamin, a key philosopher in his Introduction to Critical Theory course. “Benjamin once wrote, ‘There are places where I can earn a minimal amount, and places where I can subsist on a minimal amount, but no where in the world where these two conditions coincide.’ So to speculate wildly, if circumstances were different and paradigms matched up perfectly, I would like to think that Benjamin would have found a home here at Brandeis,” stated Gamsby.

The lecture itself lasted approximately 45 minutes, and questions were asked for an additional half hour. Eiland focused heavily on analysis of Benjamin’s work and what it said about Benjamin as an individual. During the questions, however, Benjamin was discussed in the context of the Holocaust and the implications of being a Jewish intellectual at the time. Aneil Tripathy, a post-doc at Brandeis, described Benjamin as the “biggest hero of the Holocaust.”

Gamsby said, “Having Howard Eiland here filled in a lot of blanks for me. In particular, how someone like Benjamin could hold these contradictory views on things. Howard mentioned how Benjamin had become the objects that he saw.” Yet while Eiland answered some of Gamsby’s questions, he provided Gamsby with many to consider about Benjamin. “A great event like this can often make it so you have even more questions. I got a lot of food for thought. A lot of things to ponder,” Gamsby said.

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