thoughts on walter benjamin: when dickens gave way to kafka

" ‘We have grown very poor in threshold experiences,’ says Convolute O. The arcades were, once again, irremediably in decline—victims of the cult of fresh air and exercise, streets with a care for pedestrians (it was only when Tarmac replaced cobblestones that loungers in cafés could hear themselves speak), electric light, and vice squads with a sense of mission as opposed to a taste for the on-the-spot deal. Dickens, we could say, was giving way to Kafka. I do not have to tell you how much Benjamin hated this turn of events. Bourgeois society would only become bearable, he believed, if it had the courage to be stuffy, overcrowded, bored, and erotic again—to sleep, to dream, to see its own tawdriness and absurdity, and therefore to wake to its infinite power."

 

 
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Let me start from the question, then, of what guiding ideas seem

to have got Benjamin started with The Arcades Project in the late 1920s,

and of how near or far from the world of Marxism those first ideas may

have been. I am thinking in particular of Benjamin’s sense of what The

Arcades Project was for—what the point of historical reconstruction was, in

his view, and specifically the reconstruction of something as negligible as

these odd, down-at-heel, petit bourgeois remnants. Partly,

the answer to this—the general, overall answer, I mean—is familiar. Bourgeois

society, Benjamin thought, was slowly, over the generations, waking

up—waking to the reality of its own productive powers, and maybe, if helped

along by its wild child, the proletariat, to the use of those powers to foster a

new collective life. And always, however stertorous and philistine the previous

century’s slumber may have been, it was dreaming most deeply of that

future life and throwing up premonitions and travesties of it. Once upon a

time, what we call ‘‘education’’ consisted essentially of interpreting shared

dreams of this sort—telling the children about tradition, or the deeds of fools

and heroes, or the coming of the Messiah, or simply having them learn and

recite the tales of the tribe. In the bright classroom of the twentieth century,

this could not happen, and so the peculiar discipline named ‘‘history’’ has

had to take over the task. It will tell us what the bourgeoisie once dreamed of,

and interpret the dreams—poetically, tendentiously—in the hope that when

we dead awaken, we shall know what to do with the tools (the ‘‘information’’)

our slaves have forged for us.

 

I take it most commentators on Benjamin agree that some such view

of the task of history is what brought The Arcades Project into being. Where

agreement breaks down is over how to interpret Benjamin’s choice of the

spaces I illustrate (the Passage des Panoramas, photographed, I would

guess, at much the same time Benjamin started writing about it; and the

Passage Choiseul, shot, by the look of the costumes, maybe a decade or

so earlier) as his central objects of study. Many ingenious pages have been

written on the subject, but it still seems to me to slip through readers’ fingers.

It is Benjamin’s great riddle, built into the structure of his book. Here

is my answer to it, which can only be tentative.

 

Of course Benjamin was aware that the passages made sense only if

they were seen as belonging to a whole family of nineteenth-century inven-

tions, many incomparably more strange and beautiful than they. The epoch

had been rich, almost prodigal, in its production of ‘‘dream houses of the

collective.’’ At one point in Convolute L, Benjamin draws up a list of ‘‘winter

gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations,’’

and one could easily add to this from other sections of the compendium: the

Crystal Palace (ground zero of the bourgeois imagination), the Eiffel Tower,

Labrouste’s exquisite reading rooms, maybe Guimard’s Metro entrances,

certainly the lost Galerie des Machines. But the arcades are the key to this

wider history for him, because only in them were the true silliness and sublimity

of the new (old) society expressed to the full.

 

The arcades were utter failures and abiding triumphs. They were old-fashioned

almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing. As

early as the 1830s, commentators could be found declaring them hopelessly

passé. Their use of iron and glass was premature, naive, a mixture of the

pompous and fantastic. They were stuffy and dingy and monotonous; dead

dioramas; phantasmagoria of the dull, the flat, and the cluttered; perspectives

étouffées (a subject-heading from early in the convolutes, which seems

to me to sum up much of Benjamin’s thinking).

 

The word phantasmagoria in this connection is perhaps best understood

technically: The arcades were perspectives where near and far, and

large and small, could be endlessly subject to tricks of the light. But the tricks

were lugubrious and always easily seen through: This, too, was part of the

places’ appeal. ‘‘The light that fell from above, through the panes . . . was

dirty and sad’’ (AP, F1,2). ‘‘Only here,’’ said de Chirico, ‘‘is it possible to paint.

The streets have such gradations ofgray’’ (AP, D1a,7). Arcades were unfailingly

‘‘close’’ (to recall a word that seemed to dominate my childhood)—

there was sure to be thunder by the end of the afternoon. Drizzle was their

natural element. They did not keep out the rain so much as allow the splenetic

consumer to wallow in rain publicly, his breath condensing drearily on

the one-way glass. ‘‘Nothing is more characteristic than that precisely this

most intimate and most mysterious affair, the working of the weather on

humans, should have become the theme of their emptiest chatter. Nothing

bores the ordinary man more than the cosmos’’ (AP, D1,3). Rain guaranteed

boredom, thank God, since it meant that one could not ‘‘go out.’’ The

arcades allowed a whole century to be housebound and at loose ends in

the company of strangers. They were eternal waiting rooms, caves containing

fossils of the first consumers, mirror worlds in which gadgets exchanged

winks, mephitic front parlors on endless Sunday afternoons with dust motes

circulating in the half-light. Odilon Redon was their painter—his very name

sounded like a ringlet on a cheap wig in the back of the shop. They were

waxworks of the New—Arcs de Triomphe (commemorating victories in the

class struggle).

 

And for all these reasons they were wonderful. They were a dream

and a travesty of dreaming—in the golden age of capital, all worthwhile

utopias were both at the same time. Or perhaps we could say that they were

pieces of nonsense architecture, in which the city negated and celebrated

its new potential, rather in the way that those other distinctive nineteenth-century

creations, nonsense verse and nonsense novels (Alice or Edward

Lear or Un Autre Monde) negated and exalted mind, logic, innocence,

and imagination. What the arcades released above all as a possibility—a

botched and absurd possibility, but for all that intoxicating—was the idea

of a city turned inside out by the operation of the market. ‘‘The domestic

interior moves outside’’—this is Convolute L—but, even more, the street, the

exterior, becomes where we live most fully, which is to say most vacantly,

lingering all day on a permanent, generalized threshold between public and

private spheres, ‘‘neither on the inside nor truly in the open’’ (AP, C3,4), in

a space belonging to everyone and no one. We linger, we drift, we finger

the goods. ‘‘Something sacral, a vestige of the nave, still attaches to this

row of commodities’’ (AP, F4,5). ‘‘Existence in these spaces flows . . . without

accent, like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythm of this slumber’’

(AP, D2a,1). The proper inhabitant of the arcade is the stroller. For only

the stroller is wordless and thoughtless enough to become the means by

which the passages dream their dream—of intimacy, equality, homelessness,

return to a deep prehistory. ‘‘For the flaneur, every street is precipitous.

It leads downward . . .—into a past that can be all the more spellbinding

because it is not private, not his own’’ (AP, M1,2).

 

What I have done in the previous paragraphs, you will realize, is sew

together clues, images and half-embedded arguments that are scattered

through many different convolutes in The Arcades Project itself. I know the

procedure is risky. Making a set of connected propositions out of Benjamin’s

card catalog inevitably takes liberties with what Benjamin had to say, or how

he thought he had to say it. But then, we do not know how he would have

chosen to say it in the end. And I am confident my sketch is true to the bare

logic of his imagery in the key dossiers, which is strong and consistent—

and urgent, for all the writer’s Through the Looking-Glass tricks.

 

The passages sum up the golden age of bourgeois society as Benjamin

conceived it because they were a vision of the city as one great threshold—

between public and private, outside and inside, past and present, stultifying

dreariness (the reign of the commodity) and final Dionysian rout

(Paris as fun house, Paris as Commune, Paris as diorama burning down).

Already in the early twentieth century this vision had become old-fashioned.

‘‘We have grown very poor in threshold experiences,’’ says Convolute O. The

arcades were, once again, irremediably in decline—victims of the cult of

fresh air and exercise, streets with a care for pedestrians (it was only when

Tarmac replaced cobblestones that loungers in cafés could hear themselves

speak), electric light, and vice squads with a sense of mission as opposed

to a taste for the on-the-spot deal. Dickens, we could say, was giving way

to Kafka. I do not have to tell you how much Benjamin hated this turn of

events. Bourgeois society would only become bearable, he believed, if it had

the courage to be stuffy, overcrowded, bored, and erotic again—to sleep, to

dream, to see its own tawdriness and absurdity, and therefore to wake to its

infinite power.

 

 

—from T.J. Clark, “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?” boundary 2 30:1, 2003

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