Self-Portrait in the Study, the recently published autobiography of one of the leading contemporary continental philosophers Giorgio Agamben offers the reader a wide set of interesting motives. Throughout the book, the author recalls all the intellectual encounters which had a decisive influence on his thought, creating, in this way, a magnificent portrait of the late 20th century philosophical and literary scene: following Agamben from encounter to encounter, the reader meets Martin Heidegger, Guy Debord, Giorgio Manganelli, Elsa Morante, Ingeborg Bachmann, Gershom Scholem… The descriptions of these meetings and friendships are interlaced with authentic philosophical meditations on painting, language, poetry, history and inheritance, and, in the final analysis, with glimpses of that “universal science of man” about which Agamben dreamt together with Italo Calvino and Claudio Rugafiori. Agamben’s autobiography thus offers a lyrical synthesis of the three elements whose endless perturbations characterize the whole of the philosopher’s oeuvre: literature, philosophical discourse and a private life that must remain hidden forever.
Over the last few decades Walter Benjamin has become one of the most prominent names in the humanities: considering definitions of modernity, film theory, philosophy of history, cultural studies or criticism of canonical literary texts, his work can hardly be avoided. This is brought about by Benjamin’s broad interests and lucidity, but also by his awareness of the fact that cultural theory or philosophy always implies an act of writing. His penchant towards the use of metaphor, image, allusion rather than systematical argumentation and his insistence on a purified stile rather than a strict composition make Benjamin’s texts – that always place themselves between philosophy and literature – a field of knowledge that never allows an unambiguous interpretation. In his Berlin Childhood around 1900 the dominant element is precisely this ‘surplus’ of literature; applying an autobiographical discourse, Benjamin creates a lyrical picture of his childhood in a rich bourgeois family from Berlin. Nevertheless, this seemingly personal thematic becomes a historically relevant document that bears witness to the life and culture of the big city, evoking a great number of social and philosophical issues: the constitution of subject through memory, the shadow of class struggle, the possibility of objective historical representation, the relation between modernism and messianism. Starting from a specific literary genre, Berlin Childhood around 1900 amplifies the tension between philosophy and literature, the tension that makes them both possible: thus Benjamin anticipates some of the most important themes and techniques of post-structuralism, and stays as modern as ever.