Now, the best essay in Reflections is “The Critique of Violence,” but I have read that enough times that I decided to give it a miss. Instead, I read “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Benjamin had a bunch of really interesting ideas about the value of translation, and this is the second most obvious place to go to get some sort of understanding of them. The upshot is that the plurality of human languages are fragments of a true originary language, in which the names humans gave to things genuinely corresponded to their natures. The value of translation is that by finding what is common in the before and after of translation you get a glimpse of the pure language to which we no longer have access. It’s a pretty cool idea, but without the stained-glass metaphor of the most obvious place to hear about Benjamin’s ideas about translations, it’s not quite as effective.
Almost all of Benjamin’s writing is sufficiently religious that someone like me (or, in a couple of important essays, Jacques Derrida) needs to do a bit of filtering in order to come away with something of value, but this piece in particular is very religious, taking Genesis as literal truth. This introduces some fruitiness (har har) about the knowledge of good and evil being “prattle” rather than any kind of knowledge as such, and an intriguing argument about why the linguistic crisis of the Tower of Babel was inevitable from the moment of the fall. There is also a very definite sense that if we were able to make some messiah-enabled return to original language that we would definitely be all having our words corresponding to things as they really are &c.
This stuff is all quite charming, but not that interesting. I’m pretty sure that this is an earlier work, and it’s grasp of things isn’t as nuanced as they get later on. I suppose it is also the case that Benjamin’s ideas about language were never as interesting as ideas about psychology. Perhaps it was a commitment to the religious fundamentals that made this the case.