siegfried kracauer on memory and photography

Siegfried Kracauer in 1930.

Forced to leave fascist Germany in 1933, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) began a period of exile that would last the rest of his life. It was thus in Paris and then, after 1941, in New York that he would write the works for which he is known in the Anglo-American realm: a "social biography" of Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in Paris, 1937), a study of Weimar film (From Caligari to Hitler, 1947), an aesthetics of cinema (Theory of Film, 1960) and a meditation on the philosophy of history (History: The Last Things before the Last, 1969). What Kracauer abandoned in Frankfurt and Berlin was not only his native language but also a career as one of the major cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. Trained as both an architect and a sociologist, in the mid-1920s Kracauer became one of the editors of the feuilleton (arts and culture) section of the important, left-liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, a paper in which he eventually published nearly two thousand articles on a remarkably wide range of subjects. While many of these were more or less incidental journalistic pieces, others, such as "Photography," were sustained philosophical reflections. It was in these pages that Kracauer effectively pioneered the genre of sociological film criticism, undertook a pathbreaking series of analyses of the new "employee-class" (collected in 1930 in a book entitled Die Angestellten), and published major essays on Kafka, Benjamin, Weber, Scheler, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, the genre of biography, to name just a few. Together with his friends Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch, whose work he published regularly in the feuilleton section, Kracauer also wrote philosophical and sociological analyses of daily-life phenomena in the tradition of his teacher Georg Simmel. In these quotidian micrologies focusing, for example, on the architecture of cinema pal- aces, unemployment offices and arcades, on travel and dance troupes, best-sellers and boredom, on neon-light displays and mass sports events, Kracauer developed a genre motivated by the following programmatic insight: "One must rid oneself of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on people. They are much more deeply and continuously influenced by the tiny catastrophes which make up daily life." The publication in translation of a collection of these essays from the Weimar period entitled The Mass Ornament will finally make available this important and until recently largely unknown facet of Kracauer’s work.

. . . Memory
encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event. Compared to photography memory’s records are full of gaps. The fact that the grandmother was at one time involved in a nasty story that is being recounted time and again because one really doesn’t like to talk about it-this doesn’t mean much from the photographer’s perspective. He knows the first little wrinkles on her face and has noted every date. Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance. The selection of traits that it assembles must strike the photographer as arbitrary. The selection may have been made this way rather than another because disposition and purposes required the repression, falsification, and emphasis of certain parts of the object; a virtually endless number of reasons determines the remains to be filtered. No matter which scenes a person remembers, they all mean something that is relevant to him or her without his or her necessarily knowing what they mean. Memories are retained because of their significance for that person. Thus they are organized according to a principle that is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter’s perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.

The meaning of memory-images is linked to their truth content. As long as they are embedded in the uncontrolled life of the drives they are inhabited by a demonic ambiguity; they are opaque like frosted glass that hardly a ray of light can penetrate. Their transparency increases to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul and limit the compulsion of nature. Truth can only be found by a liberated consciousness that assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or shut out by them. The image in which these traits are to be found is distinguished from all other memory-images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but instead elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory-images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since in it alone does the unforgettable persevere. The last image of a person is that per- son’s actual "history." In this history, all characteristics and determinations that do not relate in a significant sense to the truth intended by a liberated consciousness drop out. How a person represents this history does not depend purely on his or her natural constitution nor on the pseudo-coherence of his or her individuality; thus only fragments of these assets are included in his or her history. This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament. Eckart’s monogram is fidelity.* Great historical figures survive in legends that, however naive they may be, strive to preserve their actual history. In authentic fairy tales, the imagination has intuitively deposited typical monograms. In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow…

* The German mythological hero, faithful protector, and counselor Eckart warns the Nibelungen at the border of the Rüdegers Mark of the threatening Hunn danger. Kracauer here plays on the association of Eckart and fidelity as manifest in Ludwig Tieck’s 1799 fable "Tannenhauser and the Faithful Eckart" and Goethe’s 1811 text entitled "The Faithful Eckart."

—from Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.

“we never experience an affect for the first time; every affect contains within it an archive of its previous objects.”


Is dwelling on loss not necessarily depressing?  Jonathan Flatley argues that embracing melancholy can be a road back to connecting with others and enable you to productively remap your relationship to the world. Aesthetic activity can give one the means to comprehend and change one’s relation to loss.

Flatley’s argument shares with Freud an interest in understanding the depressing effects of difficult loss and with Walter Benjamin the hope that loss itself can become a means of connection and the basis for social transformation. The affective maps artists like Henry James produce can make possible the conversion of a depressive melancholia into a way to be interested in the world (cribbed from Flatley’s publisher).

Affective Mapping


The decisively new ferment that enters the taedium vitae and turns it into spleen is self-estrangement.


—Walter Benjamin, Central Park


In his influential 1960 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch explored the ways residents internalize maps of their cities. These cogninitive maps give one a sense of location and direction, and enable one to make decisions about where one wants to go and how to get there.1 A later scholar helpfully defined cognitive mapping as “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment.”2 Lynch studied three different cities—Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City—and found that some cities are more “legible” to their residents than others. That is, “the ease with which [the city’s] parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern” varies from city to city.3 In a nongrid city like Boston, with notable points of reference like the Charles River, Boston Common, and Boston Harbor, residents were quite able to assemble usable cognitive maps of the city through repetitive experience of it. Jersey City, on the other hand, organized by an incomplete grid, was found to be more undifferentiated and thus less legible. Many of its residents, Lynch found, had only fragmented or partial images of the city. Since an image of the total system in which one is located is of course a crucial element in establishing one’s confidence in one’s ability to live in the world—see friends, get to the hospital, buy groceries, go out to dinner, arrive at the train station on time—the lack of such an ability can produce a sense of anxiety and alienation.


In his essay “Cognitive Mapping,” Fredric Jameson expanded the use of the term to suggest that just as one needs a cognitive map of city space in order to have a sense of agency there, one requires a cognitive map of social space for a sense of agency in the world more generally.4 Such a map’s function is “to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.”5 In other words, in its negotiation of the gap between local subjective experience and a vision of an overall environment, the cognitive map is an apt figure for one of the functions of ideology, which is, in Althusser’s now classic formulation, “the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship to his or her real conditions of existence.”6 We all need such representations, no matter how imaginary, in order to make sense and move through our everyday lives. By the same token, “the incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience.”7


The difference with the social map is that where the totality of Boston is quite representable, the “totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole,” conversely, is not. And the socioeconomic systems we all must negotiate on a daily basis are becoming ever less representable.8  Increasingly, Jameson argues, the distance between the structures that order everyday life and the phenomenology and datum of that life itself have become unbridgeable.9 Cognitive mapping in this context would be an essential part of “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.”10 Without such a picture insights remain partial and fragmented; we remain mired in the logic of the system as it exists.




So then what is this thing I have been calling affective mapping? In the context of geography and environmental psychology, the term affective mapping has been used to indicate the affective aspects of the maps that guide us, in conjunction with our cognitive maps, through our spatial environment.11 That is, we develop our sense of our environments through purposive activity in the world, and we always bring with us a range of intentions, beliefs, desires, moods, and affective attachments to this activity. Hence our spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going, the things that happen to us along the way, and the people we meet, and these emotional valences, of course, affect how we create itineraries. For instance, I live in downtown Detroit, and when I am in the suburbs around Detroit, I often get the sense that some people in the suburbs who have not crossed over the city limits for years carry around with them a map on which Detroit is a large, hazily defined space, but a space clearly marked by some mixture of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and nostalgia. They avoid Detroit not because of poor urban planning or a lack of landmarks but because of the emotions they have associated with the city space of Detroit.


Thus, by way of analogy, I would suggest that social maps are also marked with various affective values. To return to the example regarding the suburban resident who avoids Detroit, this is an affective map of social space as well, in a way that parallels ideology. For in all likelihood the person from the suburbs of whom I write is white, and Detroit is largely African American, and this split is of course overwritten by a class divide, so emotions about Detroit as a space are, for these suburban residents, inevitably also emotions about class and “race” and racism. In short, it is not just ideologies or cognitive maps that shape our behavior and practices in the world but also the affects we have about the relevant social structures of our world. The term affective map in this sense is meant to indicate the pictures we all carry around with us on which are recorded the affective values of the various sites and situations that constitute our social worlds.


I should perhaps reemphasize here that “map” is meant in a particular, metaphorical sense, a metaphorics that I hope does not too seriously limit the concept. The affective map, like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic map, is neither fixed nor stable: “The rhizome refers to a map that must be produced or constructed, is always detachable, connectable, reversable, and modifiable, with multiple entrances and exits, with its lines of flight. The tracings are what must be transferred onto the maps and not the reverse.”12 Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. 

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walter benjamin on branding (!)


W.B., brand guru, fills out a creative brief for Slivovitz Cola.

Chaptal, in his speech on protecting brand names in industry: "Let us not assume that the consumer will be adept, when making a purchase, at distinguishing the degrees of quality of a material. No, gentlemen, the consumer cannot appreciate these degrees; he judges only according to his senses. Do the eye or the touch suffice to enable one to pronounce on the fastness of colors, or to determine with precision the degree of fineness of a material, the nature and quality of its manufacture?" Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, Rapport au nom d’une commission spéciale chargée de l’examen du projet de loi relatif aux altérations et suppositions de noms sur les produits fabriqués [Chambre des Pairs de France, session of July 17, 1824], p5. — The importance of good professional standing is magnified in proportion as consumer know-how becomes more specialized. [A7a,4]


—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project


mass culture and the age of anxiety in wasserstein’s barbarism and civilization

‘There is no document of civilization’, writes Walter Benjamin, ‘that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.’


… Whether from the state or the market, pressures for cultural uniformity grew throughout European society. Contemplating this development with some distaste, the Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset defended an elitist, or, as he called it, ‘radically aristocratic’ version of liberalism against the celebration of vulgarity and elevation of mediocrity that he saw in the collectivisms of the age, Fascist and Marxist alike. In The Revolt of the Masses (1930), he lamented that ‘the mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. . . .


The age of anxiety


The apparent breakdown of capitalism, the discrediting of bourgeois social norms, the challenges to Christian moral verities, large-scale refugee movements, the palpable failure of the system of international law based on the League of Nations, as well as the looming shadow of a new world war—all this fed a pervasive public mood of insecurity and lost bearings in the 1930s, what Auden called ‘the Age of Anxiety’.


One symptom of the emotional climate was a rise in the suicide rate, registered in much of the continent. It was highest in Hungary, which even had a special ‘suicide anthem’, the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (Szomoru Vasárnap), composed by Rezső Seress, who used to play it in the Kis Pipa restaurant in Budapest in the early 1930s. The song, which allegedly inspired several suicides, was banned on that account on many radio stations. (Seress killed himself in 1968.) Sigmund Freud is said to have regarded the song as a representation of his theory of the ‘Sonntagsneurose’.


Foremost interpreter of the sources of human neuroses, discoverer of the primacy of the unconscious in the determination of human behaviour, Freud enjoyed a fashionable reputation that was now at its peak. He had coined the term ‘psychoanalysis’ in 1895 and, in the decade before 1905, had published his pathbreaking works on hysteria, on the interpretation of dreams, on jokes and the unconscious, on the psychopathology of everyday life, and on infantile sexuality. But he initially encountered hostility from the medical establishment and it was not until 1920 that he was appointed a professor at the University of Vienna. In 1930 he was awarded the Goethe Prize for literature but his ideas remained controversial and were often fiercely contested. Yet his concepts of traumatic repression, of displacement, sublimation, and regression, and of the oedipus complex laid the basis not merely for a new therapy but for a revolution in human self-understanding.


By the 1930s psychology, although divided into warring schools, had become the modish social science of the period. Although fashionable as a treatment for many forms of mental illness, some hitherto unrecognized, as well as for generalized anxiety, psychoanalysis reached almost exclusively a narrow segment of upper bourgeois society in central and western Europe. The Bolsheviks opposed it and it made few inroads in the USSR. Under Nazism it fared little better, although many ‘Aryan’ psychoanalysts, headed by Carl Jung, tried to ingratiate themselves with the New Order. By the end of the 1930s the centre of gravity of the movement had shifted to the United States. The social and cultural impact of Freud’s ideas in Europe, however, was far-reaching, extending into social work, the social sciences, religious thought, the arts, and literature. Like Darwinism half a century earlier, Freudianism permeated the public mind and, in the process, was vulgarized, distorted, and misrepresented. Although primarily concerned with the individual, Freudian concepts were loosely applied to collective behaviour and to ‘mass-man’.


In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud himself ventured into the territory of social psychology. ‘Civilization’, he maintained, was ‘built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications’. The repression of sexuality had reached a high water mark in contemporary western civilization. ‘The standard which declares itself in these prohibitions,’ he wrote, ‘is that of a sexual life identical for all.’ As a result, the sexual life of civilized man was

‘seriously disabled’. The consequences of the inherent human tendency to aggression had led society to restrict sexuality and, further, by means of what he termed a ‘narcissism in respect of minor differences’, to channel hostility against other collectivities, such as Jews or neighbouring states. Given the sacrifices of both sexuality and aggressiveness that civilization demanded, it was hardly to be wondered that civilized man should be unhappy. The aggravated anxiety that seemed to afflict contemporary men, ‘their dejection, their mood of apprehension’, he attributed to the fact that ‘men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man’. Freud was a pessimist who had no faith in the inherent goodness of man but even he could not know how soon, and with what wild abandon, Europeans would cast aside all civilizing inhibitions.


—from Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism And Civilization: A History Of Europe In Our Time (2007)

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."


Stock Photo 


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

a believer writes his diary. he writes it at intervals & will never complete it, because he will die

Walter Benjamin, The Metaphysics of Youth

The Conversation

Where are you, Youth, that always wakes me
Promptly in the morning? Where are you, Light?
—Friedrich Holderlin, "The Blind Singer"


Daily we use unmeasured energies as if in our sleep. What we do and think is filled with the being of our fathers and ancestors. An uncomprehended symbolism enslaves us without ceremony.—Sometimes, on awakening, we recall a dream. In this way rare shafts of insight illuminate the ruins of our energies that time has passed by. We were accustomed to spirit [Geist] just as we are accustomed to the heartbeat that enables us to lift loads and digest our food.

Every conversation deals with knowledge of the past as that of our youth, and with horror at the sight of the spiritual masses of the rubble fields. We never saw the site of the silent struggle our egos waged with our fathers. Now we can see what we have unwittingly destroyed and created. Conversation laments lost greatness.


Conversation strives toward silence, and the listener is really the silent partner. The speaker receives meaning from him; the silent one is the unappropriated source of meaning. The conversation raises words to his lips as do vessels, jugs. The speaker immerses the memory of his strength in words and seeks forms in which the listener can reveal himself. For the speaker speaks in order to let himself be converted. He understands the listener despite the flow of his own speech; he realizes that he is addressing someone whose features are inexhaustibly earnest and good, whereas he, the speaker, blasphemes against language.

But even if he revives an empty past through orgiastic excitement, the listener hears not words but the silence of the present. For despite the flight of spirit and the emptiness of words, the speaker is present; his face is open to the listener, and the efforts made by his lips are visible. The listener holds true language in readiness; the words enter him, and at the same time he sees the speaker.

Whoever speaks enters the listener. Silence, then, is born from the conversation. Every great man has only one conversation, at whose margins a silent greatness waits. In the silence, energy was renewed; the listener led the conversation to the edge of language, and the speaker creates the silence of a new language, he, its first auditor.


Silence is the internal frontier of conversation. The unproductive person never reaches that frontier; he regards his conversations as monologues. He exits the conversation in order to enter the diary or the cafe.

Silence has long reigned in the upholstered rooms. Here he may make as much noise as he wants. He goes amongst the prostitutes and the waiters like a preacher among the faithful—he, the convert of his latest conversation. Now he has mastered two languages, question and answer. (A questioner is someone who hasn’t given a thought to language in his entire life, but now wants to do it right. A questioner is affable even toward the gods.) The questions of the unproductive person break in on the silence, troubling the active, thinkers and women: he inquires about revelation. At the end he feels exalted, he remains unbowed. His eloquence escapes him; enraptured, he listens to his own voice. He hears neither speech nor silence.

But he saves himself by fleeing into the erotic. His gaze deflowers. He wishes to see and hear himself, and for that reason he wishes to gain control of those who see and hear. Therefore, he misspeaks himself and his greatness; speaking, he flees. But he always sinks down, annihilated by the humanity of the other; he always remains incomprehensible. And the gaze of the silent passes searchingly through him, toward the one who will silently draw near.—

Greatness is the eternal silence after the conversation. It is to hear the rhythm of one’s own words in the empty space. The genius [Genie] has utterly cursed his memory in giving it shape. He is forgetful and at a loss. His past was already fate and is now beyond recall. In the genius, God speaks and listens for the contradictions of language.

The windbag thinks the genius is an evasion of greatness. Art is the best remedy for misfortune. The conversation of the true spirit [Genius], however, is prayer. As he speaks, the words fall from him like cloaks. The words of the true spirit strip him naked, and are covers in which the listener feels clothed. Whoever listens is the past of the great speaker, his object and his dead strength. The speaking spirit is more silent than the listener, just as the praying man is more silent than God.


The speaker is always obsessed with the present. That is his curse: he can never utter the past, which is, after all, his aim. And what he says has long since taken hold of the unspoken question of the silent, and their gaze asks him when he will stop speaking. He should, rather, entrust himself to the listener so that she may take his blasphemy by the hand and lead it to the abyss in which the speaker’s soul lies, his past, the lifeless field to which he is straying. But there the prostitute has long been waiting. For every woman possesses the past, and in any case has no present. This is why she protects meaning from understanding; she wards off the misuse of words and refuses to let herself be misused.

She guards the treasures of daily life, but also of the night, the highest good. This is why the prostitute is a listener. She rescues the conversation from triviality; greatness has no claim upon her, for greatness comes to an end when confronted by her. She has seen every man’s desire fail and now the stream of words drains away into her nights. The present that has been eternally will come again. The other conversation of silence is ecstasy.


The Genius: I’ve come to you for a rest.

The Prostitute: Sit down, then.

The Genius: I’d like to sit down with you—I touched you just now, and it’s as if I’d already been resting for years.

The Prostitute: You make me uneasy. If I were to lie next to you, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

The Genius: Every night people come to your room. I feel as if I’d received them all, and they’d given me a joyless look and gone on their way.

The Prostitute: Give me your hand—your sleeping hand makes me feel that you’ve forgotten all your poems.

The Genius: I’m thinking only of my mother. May I tell you about her? She gave birth to me. Like you, she gave birth—to a hundred dead poems. Like you, she didn’t know her children. Her children have gone whoring with strangers.

The Prostitute: Like mine.

The Genius: My mother always looked at me, asked me questions, wrote to me. Through her I’ve learned not to know people. In my eyes, all were mothers. All women had given birth to me; no man had played a part in my conception.

The Prostitute: This is the complaint of all the men who sleep with me. When they look at their lives through my eyes, they see nothing but a thick column of ash that reaches their chin.  No one engendered them, and they come to me in order not to engender.

The Genius: All the women I go to are like you. They gave birth to me and I was stillborn, and all wish to receive dead things from me.

The Prostitute: But I am the one who has least fear of death. [They go to bed.]


Woman is the guardian of conversation. She receives the silence, and the prostitute receives the creator of what has been. But no one watches over the lament when men speak. Their talk becomes despair; it resounds in the muted space and blasphemes against greatness. Two men together are always troublemakers; they finish by resorting to torch and axe. They destroy women with their smutty jokes; the paradox violates greatness. Words of the same gender couple and inflame each other with their secret desire; a soulless double entendre arises, barely concealed by the relentless dialectic. Laughing, revelation stands before them and compels them to fall silent. The dirty joke triumphs—the world was built of words.

Now they have to rise and smash their books and make off with a woman, since otherwise they will secretly strangle their souls.


How did Sappho and her women-friends talk among themselves? How did women come to speak? For language extinguishes their soul. Women receive no sounds from it and no salvation. Words waft over women who are sitting together, but the wafting is crude and toneless; they lapse into idle chatter. Yet their silence towers above their talk. Language does not bear women’s souls aloft, because they do not confide in it; their past is never resolved.

The words fumble around them and some skill or other enables them to make a swift response. But only in the speaker does language appear to them; tortured, he squeezes the bodies of the words in which he has reproduced the silence of the beloved. The words are mute. The language of women has remained inchoate. Talking women are possessed by a demented language.


How did Sappho and her women-friends talk among themselves?—Language is veiled like the past; like silence it looks toward the future. The speaker summons the past in it; veiled by language, he conceives his womanly past in conversation—but the women remain silent. Listen as they may, the words remain unspoken. They bring their bodies close and caress one another. Their conversation has freed itself from the subject and from language. Despite this it marks out a terrain. For only among them, and when they are together, does the conversation come to rest as part of the past. Now, finally, it has come to itself: it has turned to greatness beneath their gaze, just as life had been greatness before the futile conversation. Silent women are the speakers of what has been spoken. They leave the circle; they alone perceive the perfection of its roundness.

None of them complain; they gaze in wonderment. The love of their bodies does not procreate, but their love is beautiful to see. And they venture to gaze at one another. It makes them catch their breath, while the words fade away in space. Silence and voluptuous delight—eternally divorced in conversation—have become one. The silence of the conversations was future delight; delight was bygone silence. Among the women, however, the conversations were perceived from the frontier of silent delight. In a great burst of light, the youth of mysterious conversations arose. Essence was radiant.

The Diary

The next place might be so near at hand
That one could hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking;
But the people would grow old and die
Without ever having been there.
—Lao Tzu, trans. Arthur Waley


We wish to pay heed to the sources of the unnameable despair that flows in every soul. The souls listen expectantly to the melody of their youth—a youth that is guaranteed them a thousandfold. But the more they immerse themselves in the uncertain decades and broach that part of their youth which is most laden with future, the more orphaned they are in the emptiness of the present. One day they awake to despair: the first day of the diary.

With hopeless earnestness it poses the question: In what time does man live? The thinkers have always known that he does not live in any time at all. The immortality of thoughts and deeds banishes him to a timeless realm at whose heart an inscrutable death lies in wait. Throughout his life the emptiness of time surrounds him, but not immortality. Devoured by the countless demands of the moment, time slipped away from him; the medium in which the pure melody of his youth would swell was destroyed. The fulfilled tranquillity in which his late maturity would ripen was stolen from him. It was purloined by everyday reality, which, with its events, chance occurrences, and obligations, disrupted the myriad opportunities of youthful time, immortal time, at which he did not even guess. Lurking even more menacingly behind the everyday reality was death. Now it manifests itself in little things, and kills daily so that life itself may go on. Until one day the great death falls from the clouds, like a hand that forbids life to go on. From day to day, second to second, the self preserves itself, clinging to that instrument: time, the instrument that it was supposed to play.

In despair, he thus recalls his childhood. In those days there was time without flight and an "I" without death. He gazes down and down into the current whence he had emerged and slowly, finally, he is redeemed by losing his comprehension. Amid such obliviousness, not knowing what he thinks and yet thinking himself redeemed, he begins the diary. It is the unfathomable document of a life never lived, the book of a life in whose time everything that we experienced inadequately is transformed into experience perfected.

A diary is an act of liberation, covert and unrestrained in its victory. No unfree spirit will understand this book. When the self was devoured by yearning for itself, devoured by its desire for youth, devoured by the lust for power over the years to come, devoured by the yearning to pass calmly through the days to come, darkly inflamed by the pleasures of idleness but cursed and imprisoned in calendar time, clock time, and stock-exchange time, and when no ray of immortality cast its light over the self—it began to glow of its own accord. I am myself (it knows), a ray of light. Not the murky inwardness of the self which calls me "I" and tortures me with its intimacies, but the ray of light of that other self which appears to oppress me but which is also myself: the ray of time. Trembling, an "I" that we know only from our diaries stands on the brink of an immortality into which it plunges. It is time after all. In this self, to which events occur and which encounters human beings—friends, enemies, and lovers—in this self courses immortal time. The time of its greatness runs out in it; it is the glow that radiates from time and nothing else.

This believer writes his diary. He writes it at intervals and will never complete it, because he will die. What is an interval in a diary? It does not occur in developmental time, for that has been abrogated. It does not occur in time at all, for time has vanished. Instead it is a book of time: a book of days. This transmits the rays of his knowledge through space. A diary does not contain a chain of experiences, for then it would exist without intervals. Instead time is overcome, and overcome, too, is the self that acts in time: I am entirely transposed into time; it irradiates me. Nothing further can happen to this self, this creation of time. Everything else on which time exerts its effect yields to it. For in the diary our self, as time, impinges on everything else, the "I" befalls all things, they gravitate toward our self. But time no longer impinges on this self, which is now the birth of immortal time. The self experiences timelessness, all things are assembled in it. It livesall-powerful in the interval; in the interval (the diary’s silence), the "I" experiences its own time, pure time. It gathers itself in the interval; no thing pushes its way into its immortal juxtaposition of events. Here it draws the strength to impinge on things, to absorb them, to misrecognize its own fate. The interval is safe and secure, and where there is silence, nothing can befall. No catastrophe finds its way into the lines of this book. That is why we do not believe in derivations and sources; we never remember what has befallen us. Time, which shines forth as the self that we are, impinges on all things around us as they become our fate. That time, our essence, is the immortality in which others die. What kills them lets us feel our essential nature in death (the final interval).


Inclining her head, the beloved of the landscape shines in time,
But the enemy broods darkly above the center.
His wings are poised in slumber. The black redeemer of the lands
Breathes out his crystal No, and decides our death.

On rare occasions the diary emerges hesitantly from the immortality of its intervals and writes itself. Silently it rejoices and surveys the fates that lie within it, clearly entailed by its time. Thirsting for definition, things draw near in the expectation of receiving their fate at its hands. In their impotence they approach its sovereign majesty; their amorphousness seeks definition. They give limits to humanity through their questioning existence and lend depth to time. And as time at its extremity collides with things, it quivers with a hint of insecurity, and, questioning, replies to the questions posed by those things. In the interchange of such vibrations, the self has its life. This is the content of our diaries: our destiny declares its faith in us because we have long since ceased to relate it to ourselves—we who have died and who are resurrected in what happens to us.

There is, however, a place reserved for the resurrections of the self, even when time disperses it in ever widening waves. That is the landscape. As landscape all events surround us, for we, the time of things, know no time. Nothing but the leaning of the trees, the horizon, the silhouetted mountain ridges, which suddenly awake full of meaning because they have placed us in their midst. The landscape transports us into their midst, the trembling treetops assail us with questions, the valleys envelop us with mist, incomprehensible houses oppress us with their shapes. We, their midpoint, impinge on them. But from all the time when we stand there quivering, one question remains: Are we time? Arrogance tempts us to answer yes—and then the landscape would vanish. We would be citizens. But the spell of the book bids us be silent. The only answer is that we set out on a path. As we advance, the same surroundings sanctify us. Knowing no answers but forming the center, we define things with the movement of our bodies. By drawing nigh and distancing ourselves once again on our wanderings, we single out trees and fields from their like and flood them with the time of our existence. We give firm definition to fields and mountains in their arbitrariness: they are our past existence—that was the prophecy of childhood. We are their future. Naked in this futurity, the landscape welcomes us, the grownups. Exposed, it responds to the shudder of temporality with which we assault the landscape. Here we wake up and partake of the morning repast of youth. Things perceive us; their gaze propels us into the future, since we do not respond to them but instead step among them. Around us is the landscape where we rejected their appeal. Spirituality’s thousand cries of glee storm around the landscape—so with a smile the diary sends a single thought in their direction. Permeated by time, the landscape breathes before us, deeply stirred. We are safe in each other’s care, the landscape and I. We plunge from nakedness to nakedness. Gathered together, we come to ourselves.

The landscape sends us our beloved. We encounter nothing that is not in landscape, and in it we find nothing but future. It knows but one girl, and she is already a woman. She enters the diary along with the history of her future. Together we have already died once. We were once entirely identical with that story. If we impinge on it in death, it impinges on us in life, countless times. From the vantage point of death, every girl is the beloved woman who encounters us sleepers in our diary. And her awakening takes place at night—invisibly, to the diary. This is the shape of love in a diary; it meets us in the landscape, beneath a very bright sky. Passion has slept its fill between us, and the woman is a girl, since she girlishly gives us back our unused time that she has collected in her death. The plunging nakedness which overwhelms us in the landscape is counterbalanced by the naked beloved.

When our time expelled us from our isolation into the landscape and our beloved strode toward us on the protected path of thought, we could feel how time, which sent us forth, flooded back toward us. This rhythm of time, which returns home to us from all corners of the earth, lulls us to sleep. Anyone who reads a diary falls asleep over it and fulfills the fate of its writer. Again and again the diary conjures up the death of its writer, if only in the sleep of the reader: our diary acknowledges only one reader, and he becomes the redeemer as he is mastered by the book. We ourselves are the reader, or our own enemy. He has found no entry into the kingdom that flowered around us. He is none other than the expelled, purified "I," dwelling invisibly in the unnameable center of time. He has not abandoned himself to the current of fate that washed around us. As the landscape rose up toward us, strangely invigorated by us, as our beloved flew past us, she whom we had once wooed, the enemy stands in the middle of the stream, as upright as she. But more powerful. He sends landscape and beloved toward us and is the indefatigable thinker of the thoughts that come only to us. He comes to meet us in total clarity, and while time conceals itself in the silent melody of the diary intervals, he is busily at work. He suddenly rears up in an interval like a fanfare, and sends us off on an adventure. He is no less a manifestation of time than we are, but he is also the most powerful reflector of ourselves. Dazzling us with the knowledge of love and the vision of distant lands, he returns, bursting in on us, inciting our immortality to ever more distant missions. He knows the empires of the hundred deaths that surround time, and wishes to drown them in immortality. After every sight and every flight from death, we return home to ourselves as our enemy. The diary never speaks of any other enemy, since every enemy fades away when confronted by the hostility of our illustrious knowledge; for he is an incompetent compared to us, who never catch up with our own time, who are always lagging behind it or precociously overtaking it. We are always putting our immortality at risk and losing it. Our enemy knows this; he is the courageous, indefatigable conscience which spurs us on. Our diary writes what it must, while he remains active when it breaks off at intervals. In his hand rest the scales of our time and of immortal time. When will they come to rest? We shall befall ourselves.


The cowardice of the living, whose manifold self is present in every adventure and constantly hides its features in the garments of its dignity—this cowardice must ultimately become unbearable. For every step we took into the kingdom of fate, we also kept looking back—to see whether we were truthful even when unobserved. So the infinitely humiliated sovereign will in us finally became weary; it turned away, full of endless contempt for the self that had been given to it. It mounted a throne in the imagination and waited. In large letters the stylus of its sleeping spirit wrote the diary.

These books, then, are concerned with the accession to the throne of an abdicating self. Abdicating from the experience for which he holds his self to be neither worthy nor capable, and from which he ultimately retreats. Once upon a time the things fell across his path, instead of coming to meet him; they assailed him from all sides while he took flight. Never did the noble spirit taste the love of the defeated. He felt mistrustabout whether he was meant by the things. "Do you mean me?" he asked of the victory that had fallen to him. "Do you mean me?" to the girl who has cuddled up to him. Thus did he tear himself away from his consummation. He had appeared as victor to his victory, as the beloved to the woman who loves him. But love had come to him and victory had fallen at his feet while he was sacrificing to the Penates of his privacy. He ran past his fate, unable ever to encounter it.

But when, in the diary, the sovereignty of the self withdrew and the raging against the way things happen fell silent, events showed themselves to be undecided. The ever more distant visibility of this self that relates nothing more to itself weaves the ever more imminent myth of things that storm on, endlessly attracted to the self, as a restless questioning, thirsting for definition.

The new storm rages in the agitated self. Dispatched in the shape of time, things storm on within it, responding to it in their humble, distancing movement toward the center of the interval, toward the womb of time, whence the self radiates outward. And fate is: this countermovement of things in the time of the self. And that time of the self in which the things befall us—that is greatness. To it all future is past. The past of things is the future of the "I"-time, But past things have futurity. They dispatch the time of the self anew when they have entered into the diary interval. With the events our diary writes the history of our future existence. And thereby prophesies our past fate. The diary writes the story of our greatness from the vantage point of our death. For once, the time of things is really overcome in the time of the self; fate is overcome in greatness; and intervals in the interval. One day the rejuvenated enemy will confront us with his boundless love, he who has gathered together all our dazzled weakness in his strength, bedded down all our nakedness in his bodilessness, and drowned out all our silence with his speechlessness. He brings all things home and puts an end to all men, since he is the great interval: death. In death we befall ourselves; our deadness releases itself from things. And the time of death is our own. Redeemed, we become aware of the fulfillment of the game; the time of death was the time of our diary; death was the last interval, the first loving enemy, death which bears us with all greatness and the manifold fate of our wide plain into the unnameable centerpoint of time. Death, which for one instant bestows immortality upon us. Simple and multifold, this is the content of our diaries. The vocation that we proudly dismissed in our youth takes us by surprise. Yet it is nothing but a call to immortality. We enter into the time that was in the diary, the symbol of yearning, the rite of purification. With us things sink toward the center, with us they await the new radiance. For immortality can be found only in death, and time rises up at the end of time.


For the sake of what prelude do we cheat ourselves of our dreams? With a wave of the hand we push them aside into the pillows, leave them behind, while some of them flutter silently about our heads. How do we dare carry them into the brightness of day, as we awake? Oh, into the brightness! All of us carry invisible dreams around with us; how deeply veiled the girls’ faces are, their eyes are secret [heimliche] nests of the uncanny [der Unheimlichen], of dreams, quite inaccessible, luminous from sheer perfection. The music elevates us all to the level of that bright strip of light—you have all seen it—that shines from beneath the curtain when the violins tune up in the orchestra. The dance begins. Our hands slide off one another; our glances meet, laden, emptying themselves out and smiling from the ultimate heaven. Our bodies make careful contact; we do not arouse each other from our dreams, or call each other homeward into the darkness—out of the night of nights which is not day. How we love each other! How we safeguard our nakedness! We have bound everything in gay colors, masks, alternately withholding and promising naked flesh. In everything there is something monstrous that we have to keep quiet about. But we hurl ourselves into the rhythm of the violins; never was a night more ethereal, more uncanny, more chaste than this.

Where we stand alone, on a cartload of fanfares, alone in the bright night of nights which we conjured up, our fleeing soul invites a woman to come—a girl who stands at the end of a distant room.

She walks regally across the parquet floor that lies so smoothly between the dancers, as if it reflected the music; for this smooth floor to which people do not belong creates a space for Elysium, the paradise that joins the isolated into a round dance. Her stately step creates order among the dancers; she presses some to leave; they break into fragments at the tables where the din of the lonely holds sway, or where people move along corridors, as if on tightropes through the night.

When did night ever attain brightness and become radiant, if not here? When was time ever overcome? Who knows whom we will meet at this hour? Otherwise (were there an otherwise") we would be just here, but already complete; otherwise we would perhaps just pour away the dregs of the day and start to taste the new one. But now we pour the foaming day over into the purple crystal of the night; it becomes peaceful and sparkling.

The music transports our thoughts; our eyes reflect our friends around us, how they all move, surrounded by the flowing night. We are truly in a house without windows, a ballroom without world. Flights of stairs lead up and down, marble. Here time is captured. It sometimes resists, moves its weary breath in us, and makes us restless. But a word, uttered in the night, summons someone to us; we walk together, we did not really need the music but could lie together in the dark, even though our eyes would flash, just like a sword between people. We know that all the merciless realities that have been expelled still flutter round this house. The poets with their bitter smiles, the saints and the policemen, and the waiting cars. From time to time, music penetrates to the outside world and submerges them.

Written in 1913-1914; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Translated by Rodney Livingstone.

Image:Grab Walter Benjamin.jpg

uncle walt on book collecting

Has anyone ever topped Benjamin’s wonderful essay on book collecting and its attendant activities—like their packing and unpacking, and in general simply gazing upon one’s books?

“Unpacking My Library—A Talk About Book Collecting”

By Walter Benjamin
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood—it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation—which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer?
I, for one, have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the toss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness. “The only exact knowledge there is,” said Anatole France, “is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books.” And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.
Thus there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order. Naturally, his existence is tied to many other things as well: to a very mysterious relationship to ownership, something about which we shall have more to say later; also, to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate. The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. in this circumscribed area, then, it may be surmised how thegreat physiognomists—and collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects—turn into interpreters of fate. One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired, So much for the magical side of the collector—his old-age image, I might call it.
Habent suafata libeii: these words may have been intended as a general statement about books. So books like The Divine Comedy, Spinoza’s Ethics, and The Origin of Species have their fates. A collector, however, interprets this Latin saying differently. For him, not only books but also copies of books have their fates. And in this sense, the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his own collection. I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age. For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals—the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names. To renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions. How do books cross the threshold of a collection and become the property of a collector? The history of their acquisition is the subject of the following remarks.
Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book fair catalogues; after all he could not afford to buy them: Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like. You, ladies and gentlemen, may regard this as a whimsical definition of a writer. But everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical. Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would borrowing a book with its attendant non returning. The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervour with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books.
If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book on occasion than to read it. And the non reading of books, you will object , should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear out with me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question “And you have read all these books, MonsieurFrance? “Not one tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your serves China every day?”
Incidentally, I have put the right to such an attitude to the test. For years, for at least the first third of its existence, my library consisted of no more than two or three shelves which increased only by inches each year. This was its militant age, when no book was allowed to enter it without the certification that I had not read it. Thus I might never have acquired a library extensive enough to be worthy of the name if there had not been an inflation. Suddenly the emphasis shifted; books acquired real value or, at any rate, were difficult to obtain. At least this is how it seemed in Switzerland. At the eleventh hour I sent my first major book orders from there and in this way was able to secure such irreplaceable items as Der blaue Reiter and Bachofen’s Sage von Tanaquil, which could still be obtained from the publishers at that time.
Well—so you may say—after exploring all these byways we should finally reach the wide highway of book acquisition, namely, the purchasing of books. This is indeed a wide highway, but not a comfortable one. The purchasing done by a book collector has very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a textbook, a man of the world buying a present for his lady, or a businessman intending to while away his next train journey. I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books.
By no means all of the most important purchases are made on the premises of a dealer. Catalogues play a far greater part. And even bought a though the purchaser may be thoroughly acquainted with the book ordered from a catalogue, the individual copy always remains a surprise and the order always a bit of a gamble. There are grievous disappointments, but also happy finds. I remember, for instance, that I once ordered a book with colored illustrations for my old collection of children’s books only because it contained fairy tales by Albert Ludwig Grimm and was published at Grimma, Thuringia. Grimma was also the place of publication of a book of fables edited by the same Albert Ludwig Grimm. With its sixteen illustrations my copy of this book of fables was the only extant example of the early work of the great German book illustrator Lyser, who lived in Hamburg around the middle of the last century.
Well, my reaction to the consonance of the names had been correct. In this case too I discovered the work of Lyser, namely Linas Märchenbuch, a work which has forever remained unknown to his bibliographers and which deserves a more detailed reference than this first one I am introducing here.
The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the ardent establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself. Anyone who buys from catalogues must have flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned.
Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings: all these details must tell him something—not as dry facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not. An auction requires yet another set of qualities in a collector, To the reader of a catalogue the book itself must speak, or possibly seemed to its previous ownership if the provenance of the copy has been established. A man who wishes to participate at an auction must pay equal attention to the book and to his competitors, in addition to keeping a cool enough head to avoid being carried away in the competition. It is a frequent occurrence that someone gets stuck with a with the high purchase price because he kept raising his bid—more to assert himself than to acquire the book.
On the other hand, one of the arousing the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the marketplace and bought it to give it its freedom—the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
To this day, Balzac’s Peau de chagrin stands out from long rows of French volumes in my library as a memento of my most exciting experience at an auction. This happened in 1915 at the Rumann auction put up by Emil Hirsch, one of the greatest of book experts and most distinguished of dealers. The edition in question appeared in 1838 in Paris, Place de la Bourse. As I pick up my copy, I see not only its number in the Rumann collection, but even the label of the shop in which the first owner bought the book over ninety years ago for one-eightieth of today’s price. “Papeterie I. Flanneau,” it says. A fine age in which it was still possible to buy such a deluxe edition at a stationery dealer’s! The steel engravings of this book were designed by the foremost French graphic artist and executed by the foremost engravers. But I was going to tell you how I acquired this book. I had gone to Emil Hirsch’s for an advance inspection and had handled forty or fifty volumes; that particular volume had inspired in me the ardent desire to hold on to it forever. The day of the auction came. As chance would have it, in the sequence of the auction this copy of La Peau de chagrin was preceded by a complete set of its illustrations printed separately on India paper. The bidders sat at a long table; diagonally across from me sat the man who was the focus of all eyes at the first bid, the famous Munich collector Baron von Simolin. He was greatly interested in this set, but he had rival bidders; in short, there was a spirited contest which resulted in the highest bid of the entire auction—far in excess of three thousand marks. No one seemed to have expected such a high figure, and all those present were quite excited. Emil Hirsch remained unconcerned, and whether he wanted to save time or was guided by some other consideration, he proceeded to the next item, with no one really paying attention. He called out the price, and with my heart pounding and with the full realization that I was unable to compete with any of those big collectors I bid a somewhat higher amount. Without arousing the bidders’ attention, the auctioneer went through the usual routine—”Do I hear more?” and three bangs of his gavel, with an eternity seeming to separate each from the next—and proceeded to add the auctioneer’s charge.
For a student like me the sum was still considerable. The following morning at the pawnshop is no longer part of this story, and I prefer to speak about another incident which I should like to call the negative of an auction. It happened last year at a Berlin auction. The collection of books that was offered was a miscellany in quality and subject matter, and only a number of rare works on occultism and natural philosophy were worthy of note. I bid for a number of them, but each time I noticed a gentleman in the front row who seemed only to have waited for my bid to counter with his own, evidently prepared to top any offer. After this had been repeated several times, I gave up all hope of acquiring the book which I was most interested in that day. It was the rare Fragmente ausdem Nachiass einesjungen Physikers [Posthumous Fragments of a Young Physicist], which Johann Wilhelm Ritter published in two volumes at Heidelberg in 1810. This work has never been reprinted, but I have always considered its preface, in which the author-editor tells the story of his life in the guise of an obituary for his supposedly deceased unnamed friend—with whom he is really identical—as the most important sample of personal prose of German Romanticism. Just as the item came up I had a brain wave. It was simple enough: since my bid was bound to give the item to the other man, I must not bid at all. I controlled myself and remained silent. ‘What I had hoped for came about: no interest, no bid, and the book was put aside. I deemed it wise to let several days go by, and when I appeared on the premises after a week, I found the book in the secondhand department and benefited by the lack of interest when I acquired it.
Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day—or, rather, of night—what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity. I had started at noon, and it was midnight before I had worked my way to the last cases. Now I put my hands on two volumes bound in faded boards which, strictly speaking, do not belong in a bookcase at all: two albums with stick-in pictures which my mother pasted in as a child and which I inherited. They are the seeds of a collection of children’s books which is growing steadily even today, though no longer in my garden. There is no living library that does not harbor a number of booklike creations from fringe areas. They need not be stick-in albums or family albums, autograph books or portfolios containing pamphlets or religious tracts; some people become attached to leaflets and prospectuses, others to handwriting facsimiles or typewritten copies of unobtainable books; and certainly periodicals can form the prismatic fringes of a library. But to get back to those albums: Actually, inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility. You should know that in saying this I fully realize that my discussion of the mental climate of collecting will confirm many of you in your conviction that this passion is behind the times, in your distrust of the collector type. Nothing is further from my mind than to shake either your conviction or your distrust. But one thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter. I do know that time is running out for the type that I am discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.
Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight. Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about—not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Base!, Paris; memories of Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzig Stockturm, where the late Hans Rhaue was domiciled, of Süssengut’s musty book cellar in North Berlin; memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseitwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand voiumes that are piled up around me. 0 bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s “Book worm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
— from Walter Benjamin, Illuminations