today’s weather report:

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

—from Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

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

camilo jose céla on the novel: “to rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths”

The Novel as Concept


by Camilo Jose Céla


On occasion, I have compared the process of making a novel with the process of having a child. The concept is not really original and may even be pedestrian, vulgar, and commonplace. I don’t say it isn’t. Still, to have a child, just as to have a novel, to write it, a set of circumstances must occur, for without them neither child nor novel can be produced. Savants, those who pass their idle hours combining substances in retorts or staring through a microscope or pouring over blurred palimpsests, have children in the same way as foremen on cattle ranches, the same as stevedores or bus drivers. If anyone proposed to make an analysis of a child and determine its desirable parts for combination in a laboratory, who knows what would result? Perhaps stock for soup, or shoe polish, or even dynamite, but as for a child, not likely …

It’s the same with the novel. If a Spaniard, a German, a Russian can put together the necessary ingredients, count on the required circumstances which no one can enumerate, and put their minds to the task, they can produce novels, perhaps magnificent novels. If they were to imitate the savants, they would be lost; the laboratory technician may not engender a viable child, but he can turn out utilitarian objects; novelists-a-la-savant can only produce aberrations.

The life of a child, however short it lasts, completes a cycle: the child is born, grows, dies. In addition, it cries, laughs, sucks a teat, wets itself …

In a letter, a friend tells me: "A novel is the description of a complete circle, an enclosed horizon of life, with no void spaces, just as there are none around us." This friend is quite right: the cycle may be closed—by the death of the child or the end of the novel—but it cannot be interrupted.

To speak of the novel is like speaking of the sea. The novel simply needs to be written. Dogmatic pronouncements are useless.

There is no point in trying to fit it into a Procrustean bed. And no one should forget its inexhaustible sources—of action, of aesthetic beauty, of sustained interest—sources with names like Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal. Divagations and lucubrations are of little value here.

Proust wrote: "Une oeuvre ou il y a des theories est comme un ob jet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix." Proust knew whereof he spoke: it would be frightful to give birth to a child who, instead of causing a fuss and setting up a din, as natural law requires, stood up in his cradle and pontificated: "O parents and brothers: the economic theory of free competition …" Such a child would deserve capital punishment.

A novel has no business expressly defending anything, absolutely anything at all. It will inevitably be seen that it plays some part in life, but those novels which are known to be, before they are opened, intent on defending this or attacking that, are devoid of any importance whatsoever.

The nursery of proletarian novelists which the Communist Party nurtured with a view toward overawing the Western world came to a sterile end, a blasted crop even though the Russians are exceptionally gifted for developing the genre. The great writers of the nineteenth century, who developed and came to fruition under the twin scourges of persecution and imprisonment, a very poor environment indeed for the production of luxury goods like the novel, were never bettered or even equaled by the Soviet hacks whose names are already forgotten—not even by Gorky, the best of the lot.

The concept of the novel must come from within, like the taste of a pear or the odor of a flower or of the sea. It cannot be severed, separated, or cast aside like an orange peel or a banana skin, for therein lies the danger: that the whole will be thrown away with the parings.

It is difficult indeed to conceal the scaffolding of a book from its reader. But it is a necessity. In the novels of Pio Baroja, if we take as an example the most noteworthy and most universal of modern Spanish novelists, we never stumble on the joints or the scaffolding, however much we turn the work about, hold it up to the light, or sniff around in general. For the body of Don Pio’s work is like a seamless tunic, without stitching. It is spawned—just as a boy-child or a girl-child is born—altogether and once and for all.

In contrast, let us mention Valle-Inclan, Don Ramon with his goat’s beard. His plots are more obvious than protruding ribs. What about this plank sticking out here? That board is Barbey, the French writer. And this other protrusion? That belongs to Casanova, the gentleman-writer. And so on … The fact that Don Ramon manages to emerge triumphant simply implies genius, something a bit apart from the point we are making.

The novel requires a gut truth, a whole-bodied verity, one which has been digested and redigested by the author. The novelist by rights should have four stomachs, like oxen. Thus equipped, he would constantly be ruminating his gut truth, and his book would always be well born.

Balancing acts are not permissible in the making of a novel, because if the author ever loses his balance, he falls into the abyss and breaks his neck. The great lacuna in the history of the Spanish novel, which stretches from the time of the writers of the Generation of ’98 until … until when, O Lord? … is filled with castaways who tried balancing acts.


A starving man is more sound in his reasons than a hundred men of letters.

It would be convenient to know, so as not to lose ourselves in a labyrinth whose secret key we do not possess, something about the function of literature. It would also not be amiss to find a way of weighing the worth of literary ingredients, of determining the soundness of the building materials with which we are working. While we are about it, why not plumb, within reasonable limits, the rarefied nature of the writing profession itself? We might then be in a position to guess whether the art of the novel is some kind of scientific paradox or if it is instead a manifestation of wondrous chance—of a pure, if truncated, kind of stern destiny.

To Carlyle’s way of thinking, writing is the greatest miracle of man’s imagining—perhaps simply a miraculous curse. For Goethe, it seems a laborious way of relaxing, perhaps a form of relaxation which will let us die wearing the frightful grimace of a person succumbing to overwork.

A writer’s singular office may be compared to a disappointing game of blindman’s buff: the principal actor dances in desperation before a chorus of invisible and phantasmagoric spectators. "To write is to arouse interest, but the interest we manage to arouse may be no more than a tiny bell tinkling in a great desert waste, and it may make us forget the blindfold around our eyes and prevent us from properly assessing the materials with which we will have to work: that is, the prose which will give only a poor idea of things, and the poetry which will yield only an inexact notion." Thus spoke that tormented and blindfolded Spaniard, Angel Ganivet, who committed suicide in the Dwina River.

And to write novels, to "novelate"? To novelate is to die step by step on a dusty road leading nowhere. And to go down smiling, the better to please the world’s lurid tastes, the better to endure its mockery, all the while being beaten while fending off the Tyrians, who play with a stacked deck because they are not allowed to lose, and taking additional blows from the Trojans, who jump into the ring bearing arms forbidden by all codes of honor because, according to the laws promulgated by themselves, their side must always win.

To write novels is to uproot oneself, to venture forth carrying one’s roots in the air above one’s head, and to let oneself be cut down by the first fool one encounters without a show of resistance and in the full knowledge of one’s own ignominy.

Today it is not enough to possess a purely artistic understanding of the hara-kiri involved in novelating. A genius may raise his particular science to the heights of art, but the artist lacking genius may be merely a fraud, a dealer in contraband. It’s for the likes of the latter that literary prize contests are organized: fraudulent novelists write novels with a thesis—proletarian novels, inspirational novels, redemptive novels, sex novels—and the host of nonsense books that are invented for the stultification of man, who was once called, in happier times, the measure of all things.

The novelist does not know where he is going. The same is true of the north needle on a compass. The novelist allots himself a certain amount of terrain, applies the technology he has mastered, and awaits to see what he produces: if it’s a boy he’ll know by its lap, likewise if it’s a girl; if it’s bearded he can call out San Anton, if not, he can speak of an Immaculate Conception.

Science, like life or death, does not allow subterfuge. Art, like love, does. Thus, for the latter, fraud is a distinct possibility. The point is to avoid, with a measure of precision, concepts as such, and also to avoid confusing love with alterations in the nervous system. No novelist would ever think "to tell a book by its cover," and neither would he confuse an underground tuber with its leaves, for he must begin by knowing what leaves are and what a tuber is. George Santayana affirmed that the function of literature is to convert events into ideas. This conversion or transformation, be it understood, cannot be attained by exclusively artistic means, or by purely intuitive, nondeliberated means, which would amount to the same. The present crisis in literature is due to the inability of the novelist to dominate modern technical means. Beyond Faulkner’s interior monologue, for example, which can be carried on through talent alone, there rises, like a giant mountain, the terra incognita of strict objectivity. Objectivity in itself is a difficult bone to gnaw, especially with the teeth provided by art. Nevertheless, if the novelistic genre is not to atrophy, science must sooner or later sink its teeth into the matter.

Today’s novelist should surely give up his affair with the likes of Madame Bovary and turn his attention to a Lazarillo, the archetypal picaro of the picaresque. The novel should no longer concern itself with the amusements of featherbrained housewives, maudlin dreamers who whore around, in body or soul, at the far corners of provinces. Such things as hunger and bad faith are still prevalent, as is the wretchedness of the servant with a hundred masters.

To rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths: that is the business of the contemporary novelist, assuming he does not want to go into cold storage, where, as with multicolored cats at night, all things are a monotone.

If it’s all a matter of killing time—a role assigned literature by all its detractors and a goodly number of those who cultivate it—everything we have said is superfluous. Still, something greater may be involved, though it have so many names we dare not name it with any one name.

The art of novelating is clearly, more clearly each day, seen to be an affair of two or three world novelists who work with energy and faith above and beyond the orbit of art. In physics, the same was true with Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and even true before them.

Ortega’s figure of a divine somnambulist no longer serves. That time is done. In the field of the novel, the seer exchanges his walnut wand for a radar installation.

All this does notmean the death of the genre. It may represent its birth. In Galdos’s time the novel was still in its intrauterine stage.


—Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. First Published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, issue 4.3 (Fall 1984).


CAMILO JOSE CÉLA, born in Spain, has published over fifty books of fiction, criticism, and travel writing. His novels include The Family of Pascual Duarte, Hive, San Camilo, and 1936. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989.