Benjamin & the City of Light
People across America, especially middle-class white people, go on retreating into their neat suburban havens or secure privatopias and gated communities, and shopping malls no longer bolster street life but happily undermine it, purposely disengaging--both geographically and politically--from every sidewalk convulsion; but Benjamin romantically upholds the central city street. His city is a city of hope, a place full of pedestrians and sexiness and bustling streets. In these streets, outside becomes inside, and plain old walkers become dandies and flâneurs who "blush before the eyes of no one." In Arcades, Benjamin sings a paean to an expansive and inclusive urban public space, one that simply internalizes the whole wide world.
When Benjamin trekked across the Pyrenean foothills in 1940, gripping the black briefcase, in his pocket was a US entry visa. We know he had New York firmly in his sights. Two years earlier he wrote "Teddie" Adorno, from Bertolt Brecht's Danish retreat, how he'd been studying the details of Manhattan's streets on a map stuck to Brecht's son's bedroom wall. "I walk up and down," Benjamin told his comrade in New York, "the long street on the Hudson where your house is." He never did take that stroll up Riverside Drive. He would have doubtless felt at home amid the Jewish émigré culture of the Upper West Side. He might even have taught at the New School and played with his grandson's toys in Central Park. Benjamin would probably have loved Upper Broadway, with its constant ebb and flow of people and traffic and its intricate ballet. But he would have detested Mayor Giuliani's curbside crusade, would have been appalled by the merciless crackdown on the homeless and the intolerance toward street vendors, jaywalkers and the shambling habitués of New York's sidewalks. (Benjamin himself would have figured on the Mayor's hit list at some point, if a recent New York Times headline is anything to go by: "Giuliani's New Mission: Get Marxists Off Streets"!)
Baudelaire taught Benjamin a lot about urban low-life, about panhandlers and ragpickers and the lumpenproletariat. He opened Benjamin's eyes to the "heroism" occurring in these depths, each and every day, showing how life in the city is "rich in poetic and marvelous subjects," and that the "marvelous envelops and soaks us like an atmosphere, only we don't see it." Benjamin responded to Baudelaire's plea: He dutifully opened his eyes to see this heroism and forces us to open ours. That's why Arcades should appear on bookstore racks alongside Mitchell Duneier's sensitive new study of New York's street people, Sidewalk. Both demonstrate how disorder and conflict dramatize the experience of the city, keep cities alive, make for intense human yearning and fascination, but also release a deeply problematic energy. Menace, injustice and death are never far away. Benjamin knows cities burn with an infernal flame and that the line between delirium and democracy is thin. But he also knows that urban hell is something we have to progress through, learn from, live with, not wish away. Only by working through hell, he suggests, will we ever--in Dante's words--"see the stars." Benjamin makes the stars glow in the neon-lit city of night.
And yet, when all is said and done, The Arcades Project remains a literary failure, a frustrating text, overwhelming and befuddling, one that wears the reader down, leaves you wallowing in a gigantic maze of quotations and ideas, gossip and rumination. Little of anything is developed in depth, rarely is there continuity between themes and thoughts, and the narrative--if we can call it a narrative--flits about at whim. Beside wonderful citations and genius prose we find ponderous quips and tedious lists, repetitious passages and elliptical evocations, few of which are accessible or intelligible to the mortal mind. What we're left with here is the best and worst of Benjamin, a work strictly for the aficionado, for the miners dedicated to their dig. The man in the briefcase endures as Benjamin raw. Arcades is his method of inquiry as opposed to his mode of presentation, his Grundrisse rather than his Capital, his notebooks that squeal for careful editing and honing. God knows what Benjamin would eventually have done with the manuscript--if only he'd had time to finish, if only his reading lamp hadn't been dimmed by the Gestapo. Regrettably, the editors and translators haven't shone any more light on matters. If anything, they've rendered things even more opaque: Their use of typefaces differing in style, mixing bold and nonbold print to differentiate Benjamin's own reflections in German from his citations in French and German, is a perplexing ploy. Meanwhile, sectional headings such as "Convolutes" (not Benjamin's own, but originated by Adorno) seem needlessly pretentious and only academicize a man who was forever leery of the ivory tower.
Harvard's Belknap is brave to publish such an esoteric and pricey specimen. The world is better for its doing so. Along with its two recent volumes of Benjamin's Selected Writings, and with a concluding collection on its way soon, we are now much better able to assess the man--foibles and all--and his legacy as a creative whole. Walter Benjamin is one of the twentieth century's most tragic bunglers, a nearly man: someone who nearly received critical acclamation, who nearly secured that steady university job and book contract, who nearly made it to daylight. He's also one of the century's bigger brains and most original thinkers, somebody still ahead of his time. He loved kids and toys, marveled at Paris, made loyal friends with books and with people in books, haunted library stacks as much as streets, yearned for literary recognition but never got it. Sixty years on, his writings have found wide appreciative audiences around the globe, in various tongues and numerous disciplines, influencing academic philosophers, cultural and literary critics, as well as those involved in media studies, architecture, photography and film. With open wings and head turned backward, the angel Walter can help us understand the pile of debris that accompanies the storm of progress.