The story is by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold. The setting is the Franco-Spanish border, the time 1940. Walter Benjamin, fleeing occupied France, presents himself to the wife of a certain Fittko he has met in an internment camp. He understands, he says, that Frau Fittko will be able to guide him and his companions across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Frau Fittko takes him along on a trip to scout out the best routes; he brings along a heavy briefcase. Is the briefcase really necessary, she asks? It contains a manuscript, he replies. “I cannot risk losing it. It…must be saved. It is more important than I am.”
The next day they cross the mountains, Benjamin pausing every few minutes because of a weak heart. At the border they are halted. Their papers are not in order, say the Spanish police; they must return to France. In despair, Benjamin takes an overdose of morphine. The police make an inventory of the deceased’s belongings. The inventory shows no record of a manuscript.
What was in the briefcase, and where it disappeared to, we can only guess. Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem suggested that it was the last revi-sion of the unfinished Passagen-Werk, known in English as the Arcades Project. (“To great writers,” wrote Benjamin, “finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives.”) By his heroic if futile effort to save his manuscript from the fires of fascism and bear it to what he thinks of as the safety of Spain and, further on, the United States, Benjamin becomes an icon of the scholar for our times.
The story has a happy twist. A copy of the Arcades manuscript left behind in Paris had been secreted in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Benjamin’s friend Georges Bataille. Recovered after the war, it was published in 1982 in its original form, that is to say, in German with huge swathes of French. And now we have Benjamin’s magnum opus in full English translation, by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, and are at last in a position to ask the question: Why all the interest in a treatise on shopping in nineteenth-century France?
Benjamin was born in 1892, in Berlin, into an assimilated Jewish family. His father was a successful art auctioneer who branched out into property investments; the Benjamins were, by most standards, well-to-do. After a sickly, sheltered childhood, Benjamin was sent at the age of twelve to a progressive boarding school in the countryside, where he fell under the influence of one of the directors, Gustav Wyneken. For years after leaving school he was active in Wyneken’s anti-authoritarian, back-to-nature youth movement; he broke with it only when Wyneken came out in support of the First World War.
In 1912 Benjamin enrolled as a student in philology at Freiburg University. Finding the intellectual environment not to his taste, he threw himself into activism for educational reform. When war broke out, he evaded military service first by feigning a medical condition, then by moving to neutral Switzerland. There he stayed until 1920, reading philosophy and working on a doctoral dissertation for the University of Berne. His wife complained that they had no social life.
Benjamin was drawn to universities, remarked his friend Theodor Adorno, as Franz Kafka was drawn to insurance companies. Despite misgivings, Benjamin went through the prescribed motions to acquire the Habilitation (higher doctorate) that would enable him to become a professor, submitting his dissertation, on German drama of the Baroque age, to the University of Frankfurt in 1925. Surprisingly, the dissertation was not accepted. It fell between the stools of literature and philosophy, and Benjamin lacked an academic patron prepared to urge his case.
His academic plans having failed, Benjamin launched himself on a career as translator, broadcaster, and freelance journalist. Among his commissions was a translation of Proust’s À la recherche; three of the seven volumes were completed.
In 1924 Benjamin visited Capri, at the time a favorite resort of German intellectuals. There he met Asja Lacis, a theater director from Latvia and a committed Communist. The meeting was fateful. “Every time I’ve experienced a great love, I’ve undergone a change so fundamental that I’ve amazed myself,” he wrote in retrospect. “A genuine love makes me resemble the woman I love.” In this case, the transformation entailed a change of political direction. “The path of thinking, progressive persons in their right senses leads to Moscow, not to Palestine,” Lacis told him sharply. All traces of idealism in his thought, to say nothing of his flirtation with Zionism, had to be abandoned. His bosom friend Scholem had already emigrated to Palestine, expecting Benjamin to follow. Benjamin found an excuse not to come; he kept making excuses to the end.
In 1926 Benjamin traveled to Moscow for a rendezvous with Lacis. Lacis did not wholeheartedly welcome him (she was involved with another man); in his record of the visit, Benjamin probes his own unhappy state of mind, as well as the question of whether he should join the Communist Party and subject himself to the Party line. Two years later he and she were briefly reunited in Berlin: they lived together and attended meetings of the League of Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers. The liaison precipitated divorce proceedings in which Benjamin behaved with remarkable meanness toward his wife.
On the Moscow trip Benjamin kept a diary which he later revised for publication. Benjamin spoke no Russian. Rather than fall back on interpreters, he tried to read Moscow from the outside—what he would later call his physiognomic method—refraining from abstraction or judgment, presenting the city in such a way that “all factuality is already theory” (the phrase is from Goethe).
Some of Benjamin’s claims for the “world-historical” experiment he sees being conducted in the USSR now seem naive. Nevertheless, his eye remains acute. Many new Muscovites are still peasants, he observes, living village lives according to village rhythms; class distinctions may have been abolished, but within the Party a new caste system is evolving. A scene from a street market captures the humbled status of religion: an icon for sale flanked by portraits of Lenin “like a prisoner between two policemen.”
Though Asja Lacis is a constant background presence in the “Moscow Diary,” and though Benjamin hints that their sexual relations were troubled, we get little sense of Lacis’s physical self. As a writer Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people. In Lacis’s own writings we get a much more lively impression of Benjamin: his glasses like little spotlights, his clumsy hands.
For the rest of his life Benjamin called himself either a Communist or a fellow traveler. How deep did his affair with communism run?
For years after meeting Lacis, Benjamin would repeat Marxist verities—“the bourgeoisie…is condemned to decline due to internal contradictions that will become fatal as they develop”—without having read Marx. “Bourgeois” remained his cuss word for a mindset—materialistic, incurious, selfish, prudish, and above all cozily self-satisfied—to which he was viscerally hostile. Proclaiming himself a Communist was an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins. “One thing…can never be made good: having neglected to run away from one’s parents,” he writes in One-Way Street, the collection of diary jottings, dream protocols, aphorisms, mini-essays, and mordant observations on Weimar Germany with which he announced himself in 1928 as a freelance intellectual. Not having run away early enough meant that he was condemned to run away from Emil and Paula Benjamin for the rest of his life: in reacting against his parents’ eagerness to assimilate into the German middle class, he resembled many German-speaking Jews of his generation, including Kafka. What troubled Benjamin’s friends about his Marxism was that there seemed to be something forced about it, something merely reactive.
Benjamin’s first ventures into the discourse of the left are depressing to read. There is a slide into what one can only call willed stupidity as he rhapsodizes about Lenin (whose letters have “the sweetness of great epic,” he says in a piece not reprinted by the Harvard editors), or rehearses the ominous euphemisms of the Party: “Communism is not radical. Therefore, it has no intention of simply abolishing family relations. It merely tests them to determine their capacity for change. It asks itself: Can the family be dismantled so that its components may be socially refunctioned?”
These words come from a review of a play by Bertolt Brecht, whom Benjamin met through Lacis and whose “crude thinking,” thinking stripped of bourgeois niceties, attracted Benjamin for a while. “This street is named Asja Lacis Street after her who like an engineercut it through the author,” runs the dedication to One-Way Street. The comparison is intended as a compliment. The engineer is the man or woman of the future, the one who, impatient of palaver, armed with practical knowledge, acts and acts decisively to change the landscape. (Stalin, too, admired engineers. In his view writers should become engineers of human souls, meaning that they should take it as their task to “refunction” humanity from the inside out.)
Of Benjamin’s better-known pieces, “The Author as Producer” (1934) shows the influence of Brecht most clearly. At issue is the old chestnut of Marxist aesthetics: Which is more important, form or content? Benjamin proposes that a literary work will be “politically correct only if it is also literarily correct.” “The Author as Producer” is a defense of the left wing of the modernist avant-garde, typified for Benjamin by the Surrealists, against the Party line on literature, with its bias toward easily comprehensible, realistic stories with a strong progressive tendency. To make his case Benjamin feels obliged to appeal once again to the glamour of engineering: the writer, like the engineer, is a technical specialist and should have a voice in technical matters.
Arguing at this crude level did not come easily to Benjamin. Did his faithfulness to the Party cause him no unease at a time when Stalin’s persecution of artists was in full swing? (Asja Lacis herself was to become one of Stalin’s victims, spending years in a labor camp.) A brief piece from the same year, 1934, may give a clue. Here Benjamin mocks intellectuals who “make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on every issue,” refusing to understand that to succeed they have to present different faces to differ-ent audiences. They are, he says, like a butcher who refuses to cut up a carcass, insisting on selling it whole.
How does one read this piece? Is Benjamin ironically praising old-fashioned intellectual integrity? Is he issuing a veiled confession that he, Walter Benjamin, is not what he seems to be? Is he making a practical, if bitter, point about the hack writer’s life? A letter to Scholem (to whom he did not always, however, tell the whole truth) suggests the last reading. Here Benjamin defends his communism as “the obvious, reasoned attempt of a man who is completely or almost completely deprived of any means of production to proclaim his right to them.” In other words, he follows the Party for the same reason that any proletarian should: because it is in his material interest.
By the time the Nazis came to power, many of Benjamin’s associates, including Brecht, had read the writing on the wall and taken flight. Benjamin, who had anyhow for years felt out of place in Germany, and spent time in France or on Ibiza whenever he could, soon followed. (His younger brother Georg was less prudent: arrested for political activities in 1934, he perished in Mauthausen in 1942.) He settled in Paris, where he scratched a precarious existence contributing to German newspapers under Aryan-sounding pseu-donyms (Detlef Holz, K.A. Stempflinger), otherwise living on handouts. With the outbreak of war, he found himself interned as an enemy alien. Released through the efforts of French PEN, he at once made arrangements to flee to the United States, then set off on his fatal journey to the Spanish border.
Benjamin’s keenest insights into fascism, the enemy that deprived him of a home and a career and ultimately killed him, are into the means it used to sell itself to the German people: by turning itself into theater. These insights are most fully expressed in (to use the title preferred by the Harvard translators) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936) but are foreshadowed in a 1930 review of the book War and Warriors, edited by Ernst Jünger.
It is commonplace to observe that Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, with their combination of declamation, hypnotic music, mass choreography, and dramatic lighting, found their model in Wagner’s Bayreuth productions. What is original in Benjamin is his claim that politics as grandiose theater, rather than as debate, was not just the trappings of fascism but fascism in essence.
In the films of Leni Riefenstahl as well as in newsreels exhibited in every theater in the land, the German masses were offered images of themselves as their leaders called upon them to be. Fascism used the power of the art of the past—what Benjamin calls auratic art—plus the multiplying power of the new postauratic media, cinema above all, to create its new fascist citizens. For ordinary Germans, the only identity on show, the one that looked back at them from the screen, was a fascist identity in fascist costume and fascist postures of domination or obedience.
Benjamin’s analysis of fascism as theater raises many questions. Is politics as spectacle really the heart of German fascism, rather than ressentiment and dreams of historical retribution? If Nuremberg was aestheticized politics, why were Stalin’s May Day extravaganzas and show trials not aestheticized politics too? If the genius of fascism was to erase the line between politics and media, where is the fascist element in the media-driven politics of Western democracies? Are there not different varieties of aesthetic politics?
The key concept that Benjamin invents (though his diary hints it was in fact the brainchild of the bookseller and publisher Adrienne Monnier) to describe what happens to the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility (principally the age of the camera—Benjamin has little to say about printing) is loss of aura. Until roughly the middle of the nineteenth century, he says, an intersubjective relationship of a kind survived between an artwork and its viewer: the viewer looked and the artwork, so to speak, looked back. “To perceive the aura of a phenomenon [means] to invest it with the capacity to look at us in turn.” There is thus something magical about aura, derived from ancient links, now waning, between art and religious ritual.
Benjamin first speaks of aura in his “Little History of Photography” (1931), where he tries to explain why it is that (in his eyes) the very earliest portrait photographs—the incunabula of photography, so to speak—have aura, whereas photographs of a generation later have lost it. In “The Work of Art” the notion of aura is extended rather recklessly from old photographs to works of art in general. The end of aura, says Benjamin, will be more than compensated for by the emancipatory capacities of the new technologies of reproduction. Cinema will replace auratic art.
Even Benjamin’s friends found it hard to get a grip on aura. Brecht, to whom Benjamin expounded the concept during lengthy visits to Brecht’s home in Denmark, writes as follows in his diary. “[Benjamin] says: when you feel someone’s gaze alight upon you, even on your back, you respond (!). the expectation that whatever you look at is looking at you creates the aura…. all very mystical, despite his anti-mystical attitudes. this is the way in which the materialist approach to history is adapted! it is pretty horrifying.” Other friends were no more encouraging.
Throughout the 1930s Benjamin struggled to develop an acceptably materialist definition of aura and loss of aura. Film is postauratic, he says, because the camera, being an instrument, cannot see. (A questionable claim: actors certainly respond to the camera as if it is looking at them.) In a later revision Benjamin suggests that the end of aura can be dated to the moment in history when urban crowds grow so dense that people—passers-by—no longer return one another’s gaze. In the Arcades Project he makes loss of aura part of a wider historical development: the spread of a disenchanted awareness that uniqueness, including the uniqueness of the traditional artwork, has become a commodity like any other commodity. The fashion industry, dedicated to the fabrication of unique handiworks—“creations”—intended to be reproduced on a mass scale, points the way here.
Benjamin was not especially interested in the novel as a genre; on the evidence of the stories of his included in Volume 2, he had no talent as a writer of narrative. His autobiographical writings are instead built out of discontinuous, intense moments. His two essays on Kafka treat Kafka as a parabolist and teacher of wisdom rather than as a novelist. But Benjamin’s most abiding hostility was reserved for narrative history. “History decomposes into images, not into narratives,” he wrote. Narrative history imposes causality and motivation from the outside; things should be given a chance to speak for themselves.
“A Berlin Childhood around 1900,” Benjamin’s most engaging work of autobiography, unpublished during his lifetime, will appear in Volume 3 of the Selected Writings. What we have in Volume 2 is the earlier “Berlin Chronicle,” also written in the shadow of Proust. Despite its title, this piece is built not chronologically but as a montage of fragments, interspersed with reflections on the nature of autobiography, and in the end is more about the vicissitudes of memory than about actual events in Benjamin’s childhood. Benjamin uses an archaeological metaphor to explain his opposition to autobiography as the narrative of a life. The autobiographer should think of himself as an excavator, he says, digging deeper and deeper in the same few places in search of the buried ruins of the past.
Besides “Moscow Diary” and “A Berlin Chronicle,” Volumes 1 and 2 contain a number of shorter autobiographical pieces: a rather literary account of being stood up by a lover; records of experiments with hashish; transcriptions of dreams; diary fragments (Benjamin was preoccupied with suicide in 1931 and 1932); and a Paris diary, worked up for publication, which includes a tour of a male brothel frequented by Proust. Among the more surprising revelations: an admiration for Hemingway (“an education in right thinking through correct writing”), a dislike of Flaubert (too architectonic).
The groundwork for Benjamin’s philosophy of language was laid early in his career. In the key essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (1916), he argues that a word is not a mere sign, a substitute for something else, but the name of an Idea. In “The Task of the Translator” (1921) he tries to give body to his idea of the Idea, appealing to the example of Mallarmé and a poetic language set free of its communicative function.
How a Symbolist conception of language could ever be reconciled with Benjamin’s later historical materialism is not clear, but Benjamin maintained that a bridge could be built, “however strained and problematic that bridge might be.” In his literary essays of the 1930s he hints at what such a bridge might look like. In Proust, in Kafka, in the Surrealists, he says, the word retreats from signification in the “bourgeois” sense and resumes its elementary, gestural power. Thus in The Castle, Surveyor K.’s two assistants act out their fetuslike, not yet fully born status by folding up their limbs whenever they can and huddling together in a ball. Gesture is “the supreme form in which truth can appear to us during an age deprived of theological doctrine.”
In Adam’s time, the word and the gesture of naming were the same thing. Since then language has undergone a long fall, of which Babel was only one stage. The task of theology is to recover the word, in all its originary, mimetic power, from the sacred texts in which it has been preserved. The task of criticism is not essentially different, for fallen languages can still, in the totality of their intentions, point us toward pure language. Hence the paradox of “The Task of the Translator”: that a translation is a higher thing than its original, in the sense that it gestures toward language before Babel.
Benjamin wrote a number of pieces on astrology, which are essential pendants to his writings on the philosophy of language. The astrological science we have today, he says, is a degenerate version of a body of ancient knowledge from times when the mimetic faculty, being far stronger, allowed real, imitative correspondences between the lives of human beings and the movements of the stars. Today only children preserve, and respond to the world with, a comparable mimetic power.
In essays dating from 1933, Benjamin sketches a theory of language based on mimesis. Adamic language was onomatopoeic, he says; synonyms in different languages, though they may not sound or look alike (the theory is meant to work for written as well as spoken language), have “nonsensuous” similarities to what they signify, as “mystical” or “theological” theories of language have always recognized. The words pain, Brot, xleb, though superficially different, are alike at a profounder level in embodying the Idea of bread. (Persuading us that this claim is not as vacuous as it seems demands Benjamin’s utmost powers.) Language, the supreme development of the mimetic faculty, bears within itself an archive of these nonsensuous similarities. Reading has the potential of becoming a kind of dream experience giving access to a common human unconscious, the site of language and of Ideas.
Benjamin’s approach to language is entirely out of step with twentieth-century linguistic science, but it gives him royal access to the world of myth and fable, particularly to the (as he conceives of it) primeval, almost prehuman “swamp world” of Kafka. An intensive reading of Kafka was to leave an indelible mark on Benjamin’s own, pessimistic last writings.
The story of the Arcades Project is roughly as follows.
In the late 1920s Benjamin conceived of a work inspired by the arcades of Paris. It would deal with urban experience; it would be a version of the Sleeping Beauty story, a dialectical fairy tale told surrealistically by means of a montage of fragmentary texts. Like the prince’s kiss, it would awaken the European masses to the truth of their lives under capitalism. It would be some fifty pages long; in preparation for its writing, Benjamin began to copy out quotations from his reading under such headings as Boredom, Fashion, Dust. But as he stitched a text together, it became overgrown each time with new quotations and notes. He discussed his problems with Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who convinced him he could not write about capitalism without a proper command of Marx. The Sleeping Beauty idea lost its luster.
By 1934 Benjamin had a new and more philosophically ambitious plan: using the same method of montage, he would trace the cultural superstructure of nineteenth-century France back to commodities and their power to become fetishes. As his notes grew in bulk, he slotted them into an elaborate filing system based on thirty-six convolutes (from German Konvolut, sheaf, dossier) with keywords and cross references. Under the title “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” he wrote a résumé of the material by then assembled, which he offered to Adorno (he was by then receiving a stipend from, and was thus in some measure beholden to, the Institute for Social Research, which had been relocated by Adorno and Horkheimer from Frankfurt to New York).
From Adorno Benjamin received such severe criticism that he decided to set aside the project for the time being and extract from his mass of materials a book about Baudelaire. Adorno saw part of the book and was again critical: facts were being made to speak for themselves, he said; there was not enough theory. Benjamin made further revisions, which had a warmer reception.
Baudelaire was central to the Arcades plan because, in Benjamin’s eyes, Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du mal first revealed the modern city as a subject for poetry. (Benjamin seems not to have read Wordsworth, who, fifty years before Baudelaire, wrote of what it was like to be part of a street crowd, bombarded on all sides with glances, dazzled with advertisements.)
Yet Baudelaire expressed his experience of the city in allegory, a literary mode out of fashion since the Ba-roque. In “Le Cygne,” for instance, he allegorizes the poet as a noble bird, a swan, scrabbling about comically in the paved marketplace, unable to spread his wings and soar.
Why did Baudelaire opt for the allegorical mode? Benjamin uses Marx’s Capital to answer his own question. The elevation of market value into the sole measure of worth, says Marx, reduces a commodity to nothing but a sign—the sign of what it will sell for. Under the reign of the market, things relate to their actual worth as arbitrarily as, for instance, in Baroque emblematics a death’s head relates to man’s subjection to time. Emblems thus make an unexpected return to the historical stage in the form of commodities, which under capitalism are no longer what they seem, but, as Marx had warned, “[abound] in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Allegory, Benjamin argues, is exactly the right mode for an age of commodities.
While working on the never-completed Baudelaire book, Benjamin continued to take notes for the Arcades and add new convolutes. What was recovered after the war from its hiding place in the Bibliothèque Nationale amounted to some nine hundred pages of extracts, mainly from nineteenth-century writers but from contemporaries of Benjamin’s as well, grouped under headings, with interspersed commentary, plus a variety of plans and synopses. These materials were published in 1982, in an edition by Rolf Tiedemann, as the Passagen-Werk. The Harvard Arcades Project uses Tiedemann’s text but omits much of his background material and editorial apparatus. It translates all the French into English and adds helpful notes as well as a wealth of pictorial illustrations. It is a handsome book, and in its handling of Benjamin’s complex cross-referencing it is a triumph of typographical ingenuity.
The history of the Arcades Project, a history of procrastination and false starts, of wanderings in archival labyrinths in a quest for exhaustiveness all too typical of the collecting temperament, of shifting theoretical ground, of criticism too readily acted on, and generally speaking of Benjamin not knowing his own mind, means that the book we are left with is radically incomplete: incompletely conceived and hardly written in any conventional sense. Tiedemann compares it to the building materials of a house. In the hypothetical completed house these materials would be held together by Benjamin’s thought. We possess much of that thought in the form of Benjamin’s interpolations, but cannot always see how the thought fits or encompasses the materials.
In such a situation, says Tiedemann, it might seem better to publish only Benjamin’s own words, leaving out the quotations. But Benjamin’s intention, however utopian, was that at some point his commentary would be discreetly withdrawn, leaving the quoted material to bear the full weight of the structure.
The arcades of Paris, says an 1852 guidebook, are “inner boulevards…, glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings…. Lining both sides…are the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.” Their airy glass and steel architecture was soon imitated in other cities of the West. The heyday of the arcades extended to the end of the century, when they were eclipsed by department stores.
The Arcades book was never intended to be an economic history (though part of its ambition was to act as a corrective to the entire discipline of economic history). An early sketch suggests something far more like “A Berlin Childhood”:
One knew of places in ancient Greece where the way led down into the underworld. Our waking existence likewise is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld—a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting nothing, we pass them by, but no sooner has sleep come than we are eagerly groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors. By day, the labyrinth of urban dwellings resembles consciousness; the arcades …issue unremarked onto the streets. At night, however, under the tenebrous mass of the houses, their denser darkness protrudes like a threat, and the nocturnal pedestrian hurries past—unless, that is, we have emboldened him to turn into the narrow lane.
Two books served Benjamin as models: Louis Aragon’s Un Paysan de Paris (“A Paris Peasant”), with its affectionate tribute to the Passage de l’Opéra, and Franz Hessel’s Spazieren in Berlin (“Strolling in Berlin”), which focuses on the Kaisersgalerie and its power to summon up the feel of a bygone era. In his book Benjamin would try to capture the “phantasmagoric” experience of the Parisian wandering among displays of goods, an experience still recoverable in his own day, when “arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe.” The great innovation of the Arcades Project would be its form. It would work on the principle of montage, juxtaposing textual fragments from past and present in the expectation that they would strike sparks from and illuminate each other. Thus, for instance, if item 2,1 of Convolute L, referring to the opening of an art museum at the palace of Versailles in 1837, is read in conjunction with item 2,4 of Convolute A, which traces the development of arcades into department stores, then ideally the analogy “museum is to department store as artwork is to commodity” will flash into the reader’s mind.
According to Max Weber, what marks the modern world is loss of belief, disenchantment. Benjamin has a different angle: that capitalism has put people to sleep, that they will wake up from their collective enchantment only when they are made to understand what has happened to them. The inscription to Convolute N comes from Marx: “The reform of consciousness consists solely in…the awakening of the world from its dream about itself.”
The dreams of the capitalist era are embodied in commodities. In their ensemble these constitute a phantasmagoria, constantly changing shape according to the tides of fashion, and offered to crowds of enchanted worshippers as the embodiment of their deepest desires. The phantasmagoria always hides its origins (which lie in alienated labor). Phantasmagoria in Benjamin is thus a little like ideology in Marx—a tissue of public lies sustained by the power of capital—but it is more like Freudian dreamwork operating at a collective, social level.
“I needn’t say anything. Merely show,” says Benjamin; and elsewhere: “Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” If the mosaic of quotations is built up correctly, a pattern should emerge, a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts but cannot exist independently of them: this is the essence of the new form of historical-materialist writing that Benjamin believed himself to be practicing.
What dismayed Adorno about the project in 1935 was Benjamin’s faith that a mere assemblage of objects (in this case, decontextualized quotations) could speak for itself. Benjamin was, he wrote, “on the crossroads between magic and positivism.” In 1948 Adorno had a chance to see the entire Arcades corpus, and again expressed doubts about the thinness of its theorizing.
Benjamin’s response to criticism of this kind was to invent the notion of the dialectical image, for which he went back to Baroque emblematics—ideas represented by pictures—and Baudelairean allegory—the interaction of ideas replaced by the interaction of emblematic objects. Allegory, he suggested, could take over the role of abstract thought.
The objects and figures that inhabit the arcades—gamblers, whores, mirrors, dust, wax figures, mechanical dolls—are (to Benjamin) emblems, and their interactions generate meanings, allegorical meanings that do not need the intrusion of theory. Along the same lines, fragments of text taken from the past and placed in the charged field of the historical present are capable of behaving much as the elements of a Surrealist image do, interacting spontaneously to give off political energy. (“The events surrounding the historian and in which he takes part,” Benjamin wrote, “will underlie his presentation like a text written in invisible ink.”) In so doing the fragments constitute the dialectical image, dialectical movement frozen for a moment, open for inspection, “dialectics at a standstill.” “Only dialectical images are genuine images.”
So much for the theory, ingenious as it is, to which Benjamin’s deeply anti-theoretical book appeals. But to the reader unpersuaded by the theory, the reader to whom the dialectical images never quite come alive as they are supposed to, the reader perhaps unreceptive to the master narrative of the long sleep of capitalism followed by the dawn of socialism, what does The Arcades Project have to offer?
The briefest of lists would include: a treasure hoard of curious information about Paris; a multitude of thought-provoking quotations, the harvest of an acute and idiosyncratic mind trawling through thousands of books; succinct observations, polished to a high aphoristic sheen, on a range of Benjamin’s favorite subjects (example: “Prostitution can lay claim to being considered ‘work’ the moment work becomes prostitution”); and glimpses of Benjamin toying with a new way of seeing himself: as collector of “keywords in a secret dictionary,” compiler of a “magic encyclopedia.” Suddenly Benjamin, esoteric reader of an allegorical city, seems close to his contemporary Jorge Luis Borges, fabulist of a rewritten universe.
From a distance, Benjamin’s magnum opus is curiously reminiscent of another great ruin of twentieth-century literature, Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Both works are the issue of years of jackdaw reading. Both are built out of fragments and quotations, and adhere to the high-modernist aesthetics of image and montage. Both have economic ambitions and economists as presiding figures (Marx in one case, Gesell and Douglas in the other). Both authors have investments in antiquarian bodies of knowledge whose relevance to their own times they overestimate. Neither knows when to stop. And both were in the end consumed by the monster of fascism, Benjamin tragically, Pound shamefully.
It has been the fate of the Cantos to have a handful of anthology pieces excerpted, and the rest quietly dropped. The fate of the Arcades may well be similar. One can foresee a condensed, student edition drawn mainly from Convolutes B (“Fashion”), H (“The Collector”), I (“The Interior”), J (“Baudelaire”), K (“Dream City”), N (“On the Theory of Knowledge”), and Y (“Photography”), in which the quotations will be cut to a minimum and most of the surviving text will be by Benjamin himself. And that would be not wholly a bad thing.
The range of interests represented in Benjamin’s Selected Writings is broad. Besides the pieces discussed in this review, there are a selection of his early, rather earnestly idealistic writings on education; numerous literary-critical essays, including two long pieces on Goethe, one of them an interpretation of The Elective Affinities, the other a masterly overview of Goethe’s career; excurses on various topics in philosophy (logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of history); essays on pedagogy, on children’s books, on toys; an engagingly personal piece on book collecting; and a variety of travel pieces and forays into fiction. The essay on The Elective Affinities stands out as a particularly strange performance: an extended aria, in supersubtle, mandarin prose, on love and beauty, myth and fate, brought to a high pitch of intensity by the secret resemblances Benjamin saw between the plot of the novel and a tragicomic erotic foursome he and his wife were involved in.
The third and final volume of the Selected Writings, due out in the spring of 2002, will include the 1935, 1938, and 1939 résumés of the Arcades Project; “The Work of Art” in two versions; “The Storyteller”; “A Berlin Childhood”; the “Theses on the Concept of History”; and a number of key letters to and from Adorno and Scholem, including the important 1938 letter on Kafka.
The translations in Volumes 1 and 2, by various hands, are excellent. If any one of the translators deserves to be singled out, it is Rodney Livingstone for his discreet efficiency in coping with the shifts of style and tone that mark Benjamin’s development as a writer. The explanatory notes are of nearly the same high standard, but not quite. Information on figures referred to by Benjamin is sometimes out of date (as with Robert Walser) or incorrect: the dates for Karl Korsch, on whom Benjamin relied heavily for his interpretation of Marx (Korsch was expelled from the German Communist Party for his maverick opinions), are given as 1892-1939 when they were in fact 1886-1961. There are errors in the Greek and Latin.
Some general practices of the editors and translators are also questionable. Benjamin had a habit of writing paragraphs pages long: surely the translator should feel free to break these up. Sometimes two drafts of the same piece are included, for reasons that are not made clear. Existing translations of German texts quoted by Benjamin are used when these translations are clearly not up to standard.
What was Walter Benjamin: A philosopher? A critic? A historian? A mere “writer”? The best answer is perhaps Hannah Arendt’s: he was one of “the unclassifiable ones…whose work neither fits the existing order nor introduces a new genre.”
His trademark approach—coming at a subject not straight on but at an angle, moving stepwise from one perfectly formulated summation to the next—is as instantly recognizable as it is inimitable, depending on sharpness of intellect, learning lightly worn, and a prose style which, once he had given up thinking of himself as Professor Doctor Benjamin, became a marvel of accuracy and concision. Underlying his project of getting at the truth of our times is an ideal he found expressed in Goethe: to set out the facts in such a way that the facts will be their own theory. The Arcades book, whatever our verdict on it—ruin, failure, impossible project—suggests a new way of writing about a civilization, using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than from above. And his call (in the “Theses”) for a history centered on the sufferings of the vanquished, rather than on the achievements of the victors, is prophetic of the way in which history-writing has begun to think of itself in our lifetime.
January 11, 2001