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Correspondence, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (1992)

Marx and the Messiah in conversation

David Samuels
September 17, 2013

On a wall in the Israel Museum hangs a copy of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” an ink, chalk, and wash drawing of a dancing lion-headed creature with angel’s wings. The original, which is locked in a storage shelf in a different part of the museum, was owned by the great German modernist critic and mystic Walter Benjamin, who died on the Spanish border on Sept. 26, 1940, in a doomed attempt to save himself from the Nazis. Before he left Paris, Benjamin entrusted the work to Georges Bataille, who hid it in the National Library and then gave it to Theodor Adorno after the war. Adorno who stayed in Germany and founded the Frankfurt School, gave the drawing to its intended recipient, Benjamin’s lifelong friend, the scholar Gershom Scholem—a committed Zionist who emigrated to Palestine before the war. The dialogue between Benjamin, the modernist hero of the left, and Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, is the finest example of intellectual friendship that exists in the entire library of Jewish books, and it explodes conventional categories of thought—Marxist, Zionist, universalist, Jew, scholar, critic—that adequately contain neither man. Reading these letters is like listening to the most brilliant and highly evolved parts of a single mind talking to itself. The question of who was right is obscene. (It was Scholem.)

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.