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Benjamin & the City of Light | The Nation

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Benjamin & the City of Light

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In September 1940, with a weak heart and even frailer nerves, Walter Benjamin carried on an old smugglers' path in the French Pyrenean foothills a big black briefcase stuffed with a manuscript that must have felt as if it weighed a ton. He'd walk the rolling mountain trail near the Spanish border, amid the vine stalks of Banyuls, for ten minutes, stop, rest a minute, then proceed at the same pace, edging toward freedom, dragging the black monster with the sun beating down. Lisa Fittko, Benjamin's trusty guide, together with their companions fleeing the Nazis, took turns carrying the bag, which rarely left Benjamin's gaze. It was more valuable to him than anything else, Fittko said, even his own life. At Port Bou, hours later, we find Benjamin true to his grim word: A bureaucratic quirk prevented anybody from exiting France that day. Spent and unable to take any more, on the evening of the 25th, with the Gestapo moving in, Benjamin swallowed his entire morphine supply, all fifty tablets. He was dead by morning. He'd threatened suicide for years. Now, he'd really gone through with it.

About the Author

Andy Merrifield
Andy Merrifield, a Marx scholar, writes frequently about urbanism and politics. His last book, The Urbanization of...

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At a quarter to 3 in the afternoon on March 14, 1883, one of the world's brainiest men, Karl Marx, ceased to think. He passed away peacefully in his favorite armchair.

To my distress and perhaps to my delight, I order things in accordance with my passions.... I put in my pictures everything I like.

Sixty years on, Anglophone readers are able to peer into that fabled black briefcase. At last, we can glimpse Benjamin's avowed masterpiece, The Arcades Project, and pay homage to this strange, vulnerable man, for whom letters and thought and books were everything. It was thirteen years in the making, and scribbled beneath the "painted sky of summer"--the huge ceiling mural of Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale. Benjamin often termed his epic a "dialectical fairytale." Other times it was his "magic encyclopedia." This new, large-format English translation, handsomely finished by the Belknap Press (of Harvard University Press), is a huge brick of a book and must weigh nigh on four pounds. Little wonder Benjamin claimed The Arcades Project was "the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas." This struggle, and those ideas, aimed to chronicle the whole history of the nineteenth century, over which Paris, majestically, presided, whose arcades symbolized the city's heart laid bare.

Most of those long and tall iron-and-glass edifices came into being during the decade and a half after 1822. They were the forerunners of the grands magasins--the opulent department stores that would flourish after 1850--and of our very own shopping mall: The Parisian bourgeoise and the California Valley Girl share the same ancestral heritage, as do certain utopian socialists. Fourier, Benjamin emphasizes, actually saw the arcades as "the architectural canon of the phalanstery," a recuperative environment where human beings could come together in an authentic, self-supporting community. Inside, everybody would relish the good life, experience the greatest charm of modernity and "make its charm fruitful."

Advances in iron construction technology and the kindling of gas lighting energized and dramatized these spaces. They quite literally came alive. In them people began to eye other people, and strolling, parading and indulging became favorite pastimes. Elegant shops lined both sides of marble-paneled corridors, and, with glass overhead, every arcade, says Benjamin, "radiated through the Paris of the Empire like grottoes"; they were "the hollow mold from which the image of modernity was cast." Through these passageways, Benjamin fled into his "world of secret affinities," eloped to his dream city, Paris, his vie en rose, a city conjured up more in thought than in fact.

Paris had beguiled him ever since 1913, after a two-week trip--"the most beautiful experience"--made during his Berlin student days. That year was very significant in another way, too. It was then that Benjamin attended the packed lectures given by the brilliant fin de siècle Modernist Georg Simmel, whose Philosophy of Money and Metropolis and Mental Life left an indelible impression on the fledgling philosopher and rookie cultural historian. Indeed, Simmel's latter essay effectively underwrites the urbanism Benjamin evokes in Arcades. Like his former teacher, Benjamin recognized how the metropolis "intensified emotional life" and presented the "continuous shift of external and internal stimuli." The metropolis's brusque tempo, its innumerable interactions and encounters, its dissonance and unexpected upheavals, contrasted markedly with the smoother-flowing rhythm of the small town. That's why Benjamin looked upon Paris as "a landscape built of sheer life."

It was such a setting, too, where modern men and women bloomed, those metropolitan types, full of "blasé outlook" and "matter-of-fact attitude." Benjamin yearned for this disposition himself, and later found it. But he also tried to straddle it, wanted to work through its dialectical basis. On the one hand, he knew the metropolis is the seat of a giant economy, one big division of labor and exchange, where money is the common measure of all human worth and value. All quality gets reduced to quantity, and everybody in this racket is forced into objective relationships and obligatory association. Alienation ensues. The city becomes Célinesque, death on credit.

And yet, on the other hand, this is paradoxically the root of immense developmental tendencies as well, offering tremendous scope for individual and collective freedom. Now metropolitan life somehow opens up human potentiality, enlarges one's frame of reference, lets people breathe and lose their fixed identity, liberates them from small-town prejudice and binds. Thus the modern metropolis--nineteenth-century Paris, twentieth-century New York--was, is, a "seat of cosmopolitanism." Now Benjamin's city suddenly became Whitmanesque, a lighthearted open road. So Benjamin, the Marxist critic, condemns the metropolis with its ruthless money economy, recoils in horror from its crass material trappings and its oppressions, excesses and inequalities. He revels in the city's exuberance as a seat of cosmopolitanism, drenches himself in its heady atmosphere, dances to its luminous flow.

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.

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.

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