Benjamin & the City of Light
Benjamin was perhaps the greatest twentieth-century urban Marxist and hence one of the most troubled Marxist thinkers. One big chunk of Arcades is devoted to Marx himself, in which quotation after quotation from Capital is piled one on top of the other; elsewhere, Benjamin has Marx speak through the medium of Karl Korsch, from whom Benjamin learned much Marxism. The rational kernel within all this is the commodity: "On the walls of these caverns," Benjamin writes, "their immemorial flora, the commodity, luxuriates and enters, like cancerous tissue, into the most irregular combinations." Benjamin burrows into Marx's famous exegesis on the "fetishism of commodities." Here the world of actual human labor, of grubby production, of toil and exploitation and minimum-wage work--the world of real social relations--appears in the form of material things, circulates via money, becomes mystified at the marketplace, adorns enticing labels, glistens in store windows, undergoes huge advertising campaigns and is made trendy. Benjamin immerses himself in this world of things and enters the bowels of Paris's arcades, which become "places of pilgrimage to the fetish commodity."
Before long, Benjamin insists, the "fetish character attaches as well to the commodity-producing society." The commodity seduced all of nineteenth-century Paris, penetrated every nook and cranny of daily life. Now, too, image itself became commodified, particularly the image of the crowd, or the phantasmagoria: masses of people promenading through the arcades, pouring into the street, veiling the real nature of the economy but nonetheless insuring intense and enchanting human experience. For Benjamin, both mystification and emancipation were here embodied in his cult-hero, epitomized by the poet Charles Baudelaire: the flâneur. Paris invented this type; back then it alone permitted the fine art of flânerie, aimless strolling, the ability to lose oneself in the crowd, populating one's solitude. In flânerie, Benjamin says, a man (woman?) could fulfill dreams, surpass graphic fantasies, answer uneasy expectations.
Benjamin loved Baudelaire with all the passion of his soul. They had a lot in common, sharing the same dark, solitary, melancholic temperament. Benjamin got turned on by the poet's allegorical style and genius. He insisted that his work on Baudelaire was more dear to his heart than any other. Benjamin likewise wanted the "Christian Baudelaire" to be taken to heaven "by nothing but Jewish angels." With Baudelaire, Paris became for the first time the muse of lyric poetry. With Baudelaire, we follow Benjamin onto the streets of Louis Napoleon's Second Empire, cruising up and down those boulevards blasted and brutally hacked open by the Emperor's master builder--or "demolition artist"--Baron Georges Haussmann. If Benjamin was Dante, then Baudelaire was surely his Virgil. Behind Baudelaire, Benjamin plunges into the throng, glimpses the delights of the demimonde, quaffs wine with the Bohème, is titillated by "mirrors," "fashion," "boredom," "idleness" and "prostitution," major motifs that occupy Arcades for page upon page.
Haussmann's city planning ideal prioritized the "power of the straight line," and the tyrant-builder constructed his impressive new thoroughfares accordingly. Benjamin calls the practice "strategic embellishment," because the old labyrinthine medieval streets, so handy for barricade-building and guerrilla warfare--and grist to the mill of the 1848 insurgents--were wiped out, along with traditional working-class quarters, whose residents now found themselves exiled to the rapidly expanding banlieue to the north and east. Central-city embourgeoisement accompanied this archetypal gerrymandering. Baudelaire, like Benjamin, deplored all this, but also acknowledged its novelty and ambiguity. Of course, the imminent Paris Commune would expose the shallowness of Haussmann's vision, but by then Baudelaire was dead, bidding adieu in 1867 as syphilis kicked in.
Soon to go, too, were a lot of older-style arcades, notably the Passage de l'Opera, immortalized by Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, yet razed to make way for the Boulevard Haussmann. Modernity inexorably pulled the rug from under its own feet, and once-modern landscapes were quickly swept away, becoming antiquated before they could ossify, ground into dust by ever-newer modern forms. Benjamin describes how Aragon lovingly devoted 135 pages to this condemned arcade; in its like Surrealism was borne. If the "father of Surrealism was Dada," Benjamin says, "its mother was an arcade." Surrealists like Aragon and André Breton unearthed the city's unconscious, showed Benjamin a "whole secret society," dreamily walked all night in mysterious dark streets that "led though a vanished time." Benjamin's urbanism, as well as his mysticism, bear distinctive Surrealist hallmarks. One Way Street, for instance, contains his celebrated essay on Surrealism, and in the "Marseilles" chapter Benjamin cites Breton in a very telling epigraph: "The street is the only valid field of experience."
For Benjamin, as for the Surrealists--and as for Baudelaire before them all--streets become the "dwelling place of the collective." For those who know how to inhabit the street, who know how to read the street, "the city neatly splits into its dialectical poles." It opens up to the flâneur "as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room." In the street, Benjamin writes, in one of the many beautiful passages from Arcades,
the collective is an eternally wakeful, eternally agitated being that--in the space between the building fronts--lives, experiences, understands and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls. For this collective, glossy enameled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their "Post No Bills" are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture and the cafe terrace the balcony from which it looks down on its household. More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as the furnished and familiar interior of the masses.