Beatification: . . . the process of determining the sanctity of a person who has died and declaring him to be among the blessed in heaven; he is then entitled to public worship and usually, but not necessarly, canonized.
—Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) seems a singularly unprepossessing candidate for critical apotheosis. Professionally, the would-be philosopher was a failure. Personally, his life was ruled, if not by duplicity, then by abulia—a nearly pathological lack of decisiveness and resolve. At the dawn of World War II, still unable to master the world outside himself, he ended as its self-selected victim, killing himself at the age of forty-eight out of accumulated self-pity.

Born to a prosperous art dealer and antiquarian living in the...


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