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This report is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

Catchwords (I) Iain Bamforth

Among the many insights into language strewn across the occasional pieces for radio and newspaper that make up Walter Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften is a comment appended to a consolatory letter written by Goethe in 1832, the year of his own death, to Moritz Seebeck. Moritz was the son of Thomas Seebeck, the discoverer of entoptic colours and a lifelong admirer of Goethe the poet, if somewhat more sceptical about his work on the theory of colours. In the letter Goethe tries to account to the son for the cooling of his cordial relations with the father twenty years before, and accepts that he, along the way, might have been guilty of a sin of omission.

Benjamin had been asked by the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung to select and introduce a series of classic German letters, of which this is one: they were later edited and published in book form with the title Deutsche Menschen by the Swiss publisher Vita Nova in 1936. Its innocuous title - and the use of Benjamin’s pseudonym Detlef Holz on the spine - fooled the Nazi censor for a couple of years, until the second edition was placed on the index in 1938: Benjamin’s introductions weren’t quite ‘classic’ enough.

Benjamin writes that Goethe’s language, like Goethe himself, stood at a frontier. His German had become imperial without any hint of imperialism. This remarkable judgement is based on a study to which he refers the reader, Ernst Lewy’s Zur Sprache ...


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