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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...

Also by the Author

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.

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