The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Arcades Project of Walter Benjamin

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62592-8_49-1

Abstract

Although Benjamin wrote about Naples (1924), Moscow (1927), and Marseilles (1928), and Berlin, his work on Paris is the most significant and influential, for what it amassed about the city and theories of the city, and from the provocations it gives to future research. The Arcades Project may fairly be called the single most significant twentieth century document on the city, essential for urban literary studies. Benjamin was engaged with it from 1927 until he had to leave the city and took his life on the Spanish border in 1940. It was inseparable too from work on Baudelaire, which was published separately.

Keywords

Paris Walter Benjamin Dialectical image Phantasmagoria Commodity fetishism Photography Caricature 

With the aid of Pierre Missac, the manuscript, left with Georges Bataille, was passed on to Theodor Adorno in New York in 1947, and edited by Adorno’s student Rolf Tiedemann. It was published in 1982 under the name Das Passagen-Werk (Benjamin’s name for it, in correspondence, was the Passagenarbeit). It comprised 36 alphabetized sections, which Adorno called Konvoluts (i.e., “bundles”) of manuscripts, to be translated as “Convolutes.” Each of the fragments inside each Convolute has its own number, and all references to it here, and throughout the Encyclopedia, follow that format. The Baudelaire convolute (J) is significantly the longest. In the presentation of the material in Benjamin, when he gives a quotation only from some source, the text is printed in bold, but where Benjamin comments, the script reverts to normal. It is therefore easy to decide what is citation, and what is not, though in another sense, the distinction between these two has been eroded, designedly.

Benjamin’s last text, “On the Concept of History,” written between February and May 1940, may be seen as a theoretical gloss on what the Arcades Project is attempting, and it will therefore also be referred to in what follows.

The Idea of the “Arcades”

Benjamin sees the Arcades as a demonstration of Paris after the Revolution and the Empire turning toward spectacle, consumption, and consumerism, a “poem of display” (A1, 4), including advertising (see Convolute G). Historically, the Arcades as an idea for organizing space and consumption of consumer goods began to appear in Paris in the 1820s (A1a, 10), though they had precedents in London, for example, with the Royal Opera Arcade (1815–1817), which was part of John Nash’s reconstruction of parts of the West End, partnered by George Repton, and the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair, the work of Samuel Ware (1781–1860), which opened in 1819 (Geist 1983: 310–327). But these were isolated instances, whereas the Arcades in Paris were a concerted effort by capitalists and owners of houses to create new labyrinth-like spaces where people could walk and lose their sense of the larger city. The London Arcades never allowed the stroller in them to forget the class of the area that he or she was in. The Paris Arcades seemed corralled off from the rest of Paris. The Arcades Project opens with a quotation from 1852 about their appearance in the boulevards, as:

glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city – a world in miniature in which customers will find everything they need. During sudden rain-showers, the arcades are a place of refuge for the unprepared, to whom they offer a secure, if restricted, promenade – one from which the merchants also benefit. (A1, 1)

The names of the various Arcades – properly called “Passages,” as though, as Aragon says “no one had the right to linger for more than an instant in those sunless corridors” (Aragon, 28) – are quoted (A1a, 2). They are seen as developing into department stores, which even more form a single space (A3, 5). The Arcades, combining a new technology (iron) with the ability to stroll in all weathers (so creating the flâneur), form a dream-world, the glass creating a hot-house atmosphere (A10, 3), and an “enchanting haunt,” as Baudelaire said. They are porous and labyrinthine at the same time. “Passages” also imply corridors and passers-by (an older meaning of the word, appearing in OED), and periods of short duration, including funeral rites, and, of course, passages of a text which have been cited.

If Benjamin shares Baudelaire’s sense of “the religious intoxication of great cities” (A1, 3), that is in the context of the utter secularity of these arcades: indeed any modern city “has so little religion” – a point quoted from Rousseau (J91, 6). (A12, 4). Yet this is not all. There is a strangeness, which is added to by the strange light which the glass created, which Louis Aragon (1897–1982) called “a glaucous gleam, seemingly filtered through deep water with the special quality of pale brilliance of a leg suddenly revealed under a lifted skirt” (Aragon, 28, adding that the arcades were “human aquariums” (28). Benjamin was attracted to the Arcades partly through Louis Aragon’s novel Paris Peasant, which was written and published between 1924 and 1926, as a major text of Surrealism which Benjamin declares was “born in an arcade” (C1, 2, and C1, 3). The strange light Aragon describes adds to another sense of the Arcades as a gateway to the underworld (Convolute C), a sense that Paris is both modern and ancient, primal, at the same time (see C2, 1, C2a, 3): this ambiguity being part of the sense of Paris comprising a “dialectical image” (see below), or more simply indicating how the city is not homogenous (C3, 3), for now, every gateway is a threshold (C3a, 6) like metro stations, entrances to Avernus. Hence, too, the relevance of noting the alternative underground spaces of Paris’ sewers (e.g., C4a, 1) and of the catacombs. Louis Aragon writes about the evocative power of the arcades, as they were disappearing in the 1920s, in “The Passage de l’Opera” in Paris Peasant, saying that “our cities are peopled with unrecognised sphinxes which will never stop the passing dreamer and ask him mortal questions unless he first projects his meditation, his absence of mind, towards them.” He calls them “true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know” (Aragon, 29, cited C2a, 9).

Mapping the Arcades Project

The whole book, while it is incomplete, may be described as an attempt to read Paris, as the capital not only of the nineteenth century, as it is called in the 1938 Exposé which opens the work in its English translation (followed by its 1939 revision), but as the modern city, as modernity, terms which are virtually to be equated with each other. “The world dominated by its phantasmagorias – this, to make use of Baudelaire’s term, is ‘modernity’” (Arcades, 26). Its character shows “the atrophy of experience,” therefore (m3a, 3): i.e., the loss of the capacity to experience and the surrender of authentic knowing and being to the “phantasmagoria” – i.e., to the magical shows and spectacles on view which are looked at and which seem to give meaning to the world, while actually concealing its existence as illusion.

These phantasmagorias in the nineteenth century, as far as they can be separately identifiable, are the arcades themselves, and the panoramas and dioramas; then also they are the Universal Exhibitions; and the bourgeois interior – four ambiguous spatial forms, offering space and denying it, or offering a space which is escapist, private, cocooning the bourgeois individual. The first space – the arcades – are the subject of Convolute A, the second of Q, the third of G, and the fourth of I, where the interior is specially linked with the concept of “the trace,” with what is left from dwelling in interiors, and which gives “appearance of a nearness” (M16a, 4), in other words, the deceptive sense of a human presence. Other spaces closely examined appear in Convolute L, “Dream House, Museum, Spa,” where dream houses include “arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations” (L1, 3).

Beyond this, obvious topics that recur in the project include: iron construction, boulevards, Paris and Haussmannization, railway stations, shops and department stores, museums, the flâneur, Paris streets, mirrors in cities, in cafés, and in bars, gas, and other forms of street-lighting, bohemians, and journalism, and advertisements, and gambling, and the Seine, and the history of Paris, and among authors, Balzac, who is a constant reference-point, and seen as becoming more relevant after his death, which was, historically the case, as he went up in critical estimates; Eugène Sue, Dickens, Baudelaire, Poe, (whom Baudelaire translated), Blanqui, Aragon, Proust, Fourier, Marx (Convolute X), and Victor Hugo (convolute d), and beyond that, there is the visual culture of Paris.

Benjamin’s Artists

The Arcades Project has much to say about visual art: on artistic movements such as Jugendstil and Surrealism; and much on Grandville (1803–1847), who is seen, in an argument deriving from Pierre Mac Orlan, as anticipating Surrealism (B4a, 2, K4, 1). Grandville was discussed in the Exposé “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” He appears in Convolute B, “Fashion,” for his “Le Pont des planets” (see 65 and B1a, 2 and F1, 7) and saying that part of his oeuvre could be called “The Struggle of Fashion with Nature” (B4, 5). He reappears in Convolute G, where Benjamin notes that with his work, everything could eventually be turned into advertising (G1, 3, compare G5a, 2, G7, 2), which gives a point repeated in noting his “comic-cosmic style,” saying that the connection “between advertising and the cosmic awaits analysis” (G2, 2). Advertising, of course, always demands that the product has a universal appeal and brings everything alive, as larger than life, as happens also in Grandville (G12a, 3, compare G14a, 1, J79, 4). For Grandville’s limitation is to let history “be derived from the eternal cycle of nature” (G16, 3), as though history was a natural process, which could not then be questioned, which is the antithesis of Benjamin’s argument throughout his work.

In contrast to this work, which lends itself to the new as fashion, is Charles Meryon (1821–1868), Baudelaire’s contemporary, dying 1 year later than him (J33a, 6). His etchings, made around 1850, Benjamin calls “the death mask of old Paris” (23); like a memento mori. Meryon, in letting the “majesty and decrepitude of Paris come into their own” (J66, 7), is aware of what is gone, like Baudelaire in “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”) – “Old Paris is gone (No human heart/Changes half so fast as a city’s face” [“Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/Change plus vite, hélas! Que le coeur d’un mortel” – Baudelaire 1986: 174]. The point in these two lines is how Baudelaire has replaced a woman’s face, which would be the customary romantic sentiment, by the face of the city. The city is a woman, perhaps, even a prostitute, but the statement is modern: it responds to how the city alters.

Baudelaire is quoted for his sense of Meryon, first for wondering, after having had a visit from Meryon, why he had not gone mad (presumably, like Meryon), who had given up a naval career to paint “the gloomy majesty of this most disquieting of capitals” (J1a, 5, J2, 1, see also J2, 2, J2, 3, and the reproduction of an etching of the Pont-Neuf). Benjamin notes “a criterion for deciding whether or not a city is modern – which is the absence of monuments. ‘New York is a city without monuments’ (Döblin). – Meryon turned the tenements of Paris into monuments of modernity” (J91a, 1).

Meryon is interested in the old stones of Paris (L4a, 4), but like Benjamin he is no mere nostalgist and renders Paris in a way photography could not do (J91, 1), bringing, rather, visions of the sea and ships and sea creatures into his depictions of Paris, like a phantasmagoria (J2a, 1) as a way of bidding the city farewell (J2a, 1). This perception is translated into Baudelaire calling chimney-pots and steeples the city’s masts (J86a, 3). Benjamin notes similar ironic and allegorizing possibilities when quoting Baudelaire on a Daumier drawing of Paris under cholera, and saying that the point also applies to Meryon: “True to its ironic custom in times of great calamity and political upheaval, the sky of Paris is superb; it is quite white and incandescent with heat” (J2a, 5). These moments of detecting the city as allegorical are followed by Benjamin’s discussions of Dickens (J3, 2, J3, 3), and they apply both to the question how to read the city and to recognize differences within it – while also noting how writing and art demand other registers, other experiences, other historical moments to be inserted within them. That happens in J3, 1, where elements of Dante as “the poet of Florence” are said to have lived on in Baudelaire “the poet of Paris.” Meryon’s sky is said to be dilated (J22, 3, compare J52, 5) as if marking out changes in perception of space that are essential to him, as when Baudelaire writes about a Meryon etching, that: “the hideous and colossal figure in the frontispiece is one of the figures decorating the exterior of Notre Dame. In the background is Paris, viewed from a height” (J35, 4). Meryon’s “streets of Paris … are chasms [i.e. Gothic narrow streets] above which float the clouds” (J58, 2, compare J76, 4)), this giving the sense of how crucial the sky is in rendering the city (compare J69, 1, J69, 7). The glass roofs of the railway station, for instance at Saint-Lazare, give another perception of the sky, as recorded in Proust (J90a, 3).

Another artist discussed is Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), whose caricatures, one reproduced on p. 67, “were the almost involuntary consequence of a lofty ambition that failed in its aim of attunement with the middle-class” (F5, 2); the middle-class accepting censorship of political caricature. One picture reproduced by Benjamin (717, and commented on in a10a, 5) is “Rue Transnonaim, le 15 avril 1834,” which shows the carnage caused by an attack by General Bugeaud’s troops on the barricades that had been set up to protest against laws limiting free assembly. The riots had begun with the Mutualists in Lyons, weavers who held that factories should be taken over by associations of workers, and they spread to Paris, producing a republican insurrection in the Marais district, culminating in all the occupants of a house on the Rue Transnonain being shot. In his essay “Some French Caricaturists,” Baudelaire, who greatly admired Daumier (Clark 1973: 142–163), noted of this drawing that it showed Daumier as:

a really great artist; the drawing has become quite rare because it was seized and destroyed. The scene is a poor miserable bedroom, the traditional type of proletarian bedroom, with only the poorest and most essential sticks of furniture; stretched across the floor lies a dead workman, sprawling on his back, naked but for his nightshirt, and his head in its cotton nightcap, legs and arms outstretched. The room must have been the scene of a violent struggle and hubbub, for the chairs have been knocked over, as well as the bedside table and chamber-pot. Under the weight of his corpse, the father is crushing between his back and the floor boards the body of his small son. In this cold attic nothing but silence and death. (Baudelaire 1972: 218–219)

Benjamin collects materials for a Convolute on Daumier (b), which notes his reaction to the bourgeois (b1, 2, b1a, 3) and comments how through Monnier, Gavarni, and Daumier, “bourgeois society of this century was opened up to art” (b1, 4), while he also speaks of Traviès, the creator of Mayeux; of Gavarni, the creator of Thomas Vireloque; and of Daumier the creator of Ratapoil – the Bonapartist lumpenproletarian (b1, 9). Traviès (1804–1859) had helped found La Charivari (1831) and Mayeux was a generic figure of the bourgeoisie under Louis-Philippe in that journal, and in La Caricature, Philippon’s creation. Benjamin notes that he often portrayed the ragpicker (J68a, 4), a key figure for considering the nineteenth century city. Viroloque was the old destitute (J82a, 5) created by Gavarni (1804–1866); Baudelaire’s comment on Gavarni as being, like all men of letters “slightly tainted with corruption” is quoted by Benjamin (J52a, 3); it is a point that reflects on both Benjamin and Baudelaire; it de-idealizes, it evokes the nature of the city. Similarly, Ratapoil, whose name means “skinned rat,” was a statuette created by Daumier to mock the shadowy agents behind Louis Bonaparte in 1851. And Daumier also created lithographs of Robert Macaire, a confidence man in French plays. And Henri Monnier (1799–1877) as actor and caricaturist, created Prudhomme as a type of the bourgeois or “petty bourgeoisie” (i1, 2).

The photographer most noticed is not Atget, but rather the bohemian Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910), “son of a poor printer” (U8z, 5); photographer of Baudelaire (reproduced 229, see also J1a, 4) and of Théophile Gautier (242) and of himself (680) of the sewers (413: the sewers are the subject of L3a, 1 to L4, 3), and of the catacombs (Y2, 2; see note on 1001). Nadar, “of the fiery locks” (Y6, 2), says of himself that was “formerly a maker of caricatures … ultimately a refugee in the Botany Bay of photography” (Y6, 1); in either sense, with old or new technology, creating new ways of seeing. The most famous illustration of Nadar, reproduced on 682, is Daumier’s skeptical one of 1862 (Nadar photographed Daumier in 1857, see 742). The caricature shows Nadar in a balloon, since, alongside the other subterranean places he captured, he was the first to take aerial photographs, beginning in 1858. The caption reads “Nadar raising photography to the level of art” and since every building below him is inscribed with the word “Photographie,” it implies absolute mastery of a new world which reflects itself constantly, as if mirroring itself in photography. Indeed, Benjamin quotes a passage where Nadar is called “the famous aeronaut,” that technology being paired with what the nineteenth century has invented: “the symbol of memory; it has invented what had seemed impossible; it has invented a mirror that remembers. It has invented photography” (Y8a, 3).

The Dialectical Image

In Convolute N, which is the most theoretical of the sections, Benjamin explains something of what he is doing: “Method of this project: literary montage” (N1a, 8), having already said that the project has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. “Its theory is intimately related to that of montage” (N1, 10). From this, several points may be noted. First, the city invites comparison with film, hence the reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s sense of montage in film, a technique, and way of seeing, which is now transferred to literature. The Eiffel Tower is regarded as built on the principle of montage: “the plastic shaping power abdicates here in favour of a colossal span of spiritual energy, which channels the inorganic material energy into the smallest, most efficient forms, and conjoins these forms …. Each of the twelve thousand metal fittings, each of the two and a half million rivets, is machined to the millimetre …” (F4a, 2, quoting A. G. Meyer). There is, then, an analog between the Eiffel Tower and this project of Benjamin’s. Both are constructions, both are made up of several parts.

Second, and conversely, the art of the Arcades Project is that of the fragment, which compares with Benjamin’s interest throughout his work with the ruin. There can be no complete statement, no “totality,” which is one of the differences in Benjamin’s work from that of Lukács, the great Marxist critic who was such an enthusiast for Balzac. Third, the city calls for a new form of writing which comes from the interest in the aphorism, which runs through Nietzsche: i.e., in the short utterance which provokes by its refusal to draw a single conclusion, which states but does not state, and which may be read in several ways as a dance of words. The aphorism, as a Nietzschean form, as a dance with words, compares with the essay, which was Robert Musil’s interest in The Man Without Qualities, but it is less prosaic than the essay in its sharpness and refusal to become a single statement. The city as inviting aphoristic writing is also the place of quotation without quotation-marks: everything in Benjamin responds to the city as a text, or as plural texts where architectural styles are quotations of others, and where there is no single or original utterance. The absence of quotation-marks indicates that there is no authentication possible. Everything is “torn from its context,” and since all thinking about the city, for instance, picks up on it as a text, “to write history … means to cite history” (N11, 3). There are several histories given in the Arcades Project, but throughout there is a resistance to the idea of history as progress.

Everything flashes by in the form of the image, which has some resemblance to the aphorism, for, in an aphorism itself: “history decays into images, not into stories” (N11, 4, compare N15a, 1). It is the way the city needs to be seen in terms of the image that is crucial. The definition of image, however, is complex and must be given close attention:

image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression, but image, suddenly emergent. – Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is not, not archaic), and the place where one encounters them is language. (N2a, 3)

Several points may be noticed here. The “flash” recalls Baudelaire’s poem “To a Passer-by” (“A une passante,” Baudelaire 1986: 186) whose subject is the shock of seeing a woman in the street (“Un éclair … puis la nuit” – “a flash of light – then darkness”). But it also evokes Benjamin’s fascination with “the moment,” for example, the moment of placing a bet (O12a, 2): Benjamin discusses gambling as part of the “shock” experience of Paris (see below). Another moment is that which the photograph records. The “constellation” is an essential concept for Benjamin, as a gathering together of stars into a pattern: the pattern in the sky may be fictional, but sailors still can sail by its guidance. To form, therefore, new perceptions into a “constellation” which may be read, or rather, to have a sudden perception that disparate images fit a pattern, which is new, is a creative work which forms new ways of seeing (it may be said that the city may be constellated into different patterns in the way different aspects of it are put together). A famous aphorism from his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) says that “ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars” (Benjamin 1977: 34). When objects are laid together, ideas emerge; hence, the project in the Passagenarbeit is to lay objective details side by side with each other, as in a montage.

A further term in the quotation given above (N2a, 3), i.e., “dialectics,” belongs to Hegelian-Marxist thinking, whereby in history, opposite tendencies of thought and action replace and absorb each other, that being the way in which historical movement happens. Here it needs to be recalled that Benjamin is intensely opposed to concepts of history showing either progress or decline – see N2, 5, and he sees the nineteenth century as the one which first started using the concept of progress. But in the image – and in the city, and in modernist writing – such dialectics are frozen, or arrested, which implies that both tendencies are visible simultaneously, though there may also be an occlusion of one tendency. An image, therefore, should not be read as one thing, but as two, having opposite and contrary tendencies. Benjamin’s thinking about photography is crucial here. An image, because it is plural, may show the possibility of moving from state to state, and Benjamin concludes the aphorism in N2a, 3, by finding these images in language. And that obviously shifts the definition of the image away from the visual. It implies that language is double and not readable in a single way for a single meaning. This sense of the “dialectical image” impacts on the city in multiple ways. It increases the sense of the city as a text; it shows that for it to be read requires observing its contradictions, that it does not say one thing but that it has a past and present together, and it indicates how writing that engages with the city, or which is formed by it, must also be plural. Benjamin insists on the moment of “recognizability” when such images can be noted (N3, 1, N18, 4), and such recognizability may happen in the “flash” of the city-encounter as in Baudelaire’s poem “A une Passante,” which is also a shock.

Such doubleness creates a “tension” and a “caesura” (N10a, 3): in other words, it makes a breakage, a split in the continuity of thought. History-writing depends on such continuities: Benjamin sees breaks throughout all historical movement. The caesura in the context of city writing indicates that the city cannot be narrativized in terms of continuity, or steady movement forwards, or progress, but works by violent moments of splitting – such breaks return us to the thought of montage, where contrasted images are put together in a way that generates a third thought. Elsewhere, Benjamin speaks of shock as the characteristic of life in the modern city.

The city is also the place to read history as the dialectical image, including its “rags,” its “refuse” (N1a, 8, with which compare N15, 4, where Benjamin notes the rags of the beggar boys in Murillo’s pictures of Seville). Rags and tatters are what history as progress negates, but the Arcades Project salvages them, and in a way the whole collection of fragments Benjamin has compiled comprises the junk of history: hence Benjamin’s interest in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin) (N19, 3) with its long description of the contents of a curiosity shop. Rags and what is discarded belong still to the “small individual moment,” and the task is to discover in this “the crystal of the total event” (N2, 6). The figure of the ragpicker is central to Baudelaire’s poem “Le Vin des chiffoniers,” and returns on many different levels: see for example J88, J88a, 1, J88a, 4, J88a, 5, J89, 4, J89a, 4, a3, 2. Ragpickers, collecting and putting together, walking round the city may evoke alienated labor in it, while being “the most provocative figure of human misery … clothed in rags and occupied with rags” (J68, 4). And as a revolutionary force too, they may also evoke the work of the materialist historian, who must also work on the discarded trash that history leaves behind. And Benjamin thinks that Baudelaire recognized himself in the ragpicker.

The arcade, too, as completely enclosed, and with windows which do not look out onto anything, is a “windowless house,” which makes it a monad, complete, for “what is true has no windows; nowhere does the true look out to the universe” (Q2a, 7). Nor is there any looking in (F°, 24). The monad does not imply something larger than itself; in its self-containment it resembles the dialectical image. With this in mind, it should be possible to read this passage from “On the Concept of History”:

Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches an historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or … a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. (SW4: 396)

The task of the historian, as gathering the documents of the Arcades Project, is to allow for the appearance of a constellation, and in that monad, everything is suddenly present, and there to become an element in reclaiming the past which has been repressed. History-writing, as in the work of the Project, is reclaiming what has been oppressed or repressed.

Benjamin’s Histories

Benjamin notes a formulation by Ernst Bloch that in this Project, “History displays its Scotland Yard badge” – which implies both that history in the hands of historians, who are like policemen, has the power of surveillance and detection, and control. And this, too, is what the text must reveal. Benjamin says he was describing to Bloch how this work “comparable in method, to the process of splitting the atom – liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historiography. The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the century” (N3, 4). That latter form of history-writing, which Benjamin calls historicism (Benjamin, SW4: 391), presents what has been as irrevocably past, and to be read as objectively as possible, which implies that there can be no use for it in the present, because it is finished off, and only observable as past. It sends the critical historian to sleep, as a drug. In comparison, Benjamin writes, playing on the idea of “passages”:

We can speak of two directions in this work: one which goes from the past into the present and shows the arcades, and all the rest, as precursors, and one which goes from the present into the past so as to have the revolutionary potential of these ‘precursors’ explode in the present. And this direction comprehends as well the spellbound elegiac consideration of the recent past, in the form of its revolutionary explosion. (O°56)

In a piece written in 1927, called “Arcades” (Arcades, 871), Benjamin notes that the entranceways into the arcades are as much exits: in other words, there is no single chronology in these spaces: we can go forward or back equally. In this passage, the word “spellbound” implies the arrest of thought. And such an arrest, which has the power of shock, and of concentration, finds that the past still has the power of revolutionary explosion; that the energy is not gone from that past. Benjamin’s stake is in seeing it in its everyday manifestations, then locked up to be used now. The association of past and present together in a space such as the Arcade is exactly what Benjamin understands by a “constellation,” and the reader may remember that this “space” is also that of language (N2a, 3, cited above).

Old and New Paris

Benjamin’s subject is the Paris which was so extensively modernized and made imperial by Baron Haussmann in changes which happened after Balzac, who died in 1850, but during the time of Baudelaire’s writing. Salvaging what has been left as detritus and always anticipating the war to come, for history comprises “one single catastrophe which keeps piling [up] wreckage upon wreckage” (SW4: 393), Benjamin is interested in those who were fascinated by “vieux Paris” (C7a, 1, E12a, 1, W12a, 2), such as Baudelaire, whose subject is this, Paris as “the most disquieting of capitals” (M19a, 2). Thinking of Haussmannization, the clearing out of old Paris produces a “parvenu” city which erases monuments and thus memories. Benjamin quotes Victor Fournel, writing in the 1860s:

In the previous century, to write the annals of the monuments of Paris was to write the annals of Paris itself, from its origins up through each of its epochs; soon, however, it will be … merely to write the annals of the last twenty years of our own existence. (E12a, 3)

Fournel notes that previously Paris was “many distinct small cities within the capital city,” these differences now being obliterated to produce something which is “always the same” (E12a, 4). Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) picks up this thought wittily when he says that Haussmann had always to build with the same materials as before (E11a, 2). Blanqui is one of those writers whom Benjamin revives: a republican and revolutionary much-imprisoned advocate of the poor, who could be thought of as unique to Paris (J87a, 7) and angry about the clearing out of the working classes in the rebuilding of Paris (E11, 4), and over the failure of the Commune. Benjamin came across his work in 1937 and discusses him in the Conclusion to the 1939 Exposé, on account of Blanqui’s book L’Eternité par les astres (“Eternity via the Stars”, 1872), making use of passages cited from him in D5a, 6, D6, 1, D6, 2, D6a, 1, D6a, 2, and D7, and D7, a, in a Convolute called “Boredom, Eternal Return.” Boredom (ennui) is the condition described in Baudelaire, as “Au Lecteur,” the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal.

Benjamin, however, pairs Blanqui with Nietzsche (1844–1900), who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra sees eternal return – the idea that everything returns and will continue to do so and that there can be no escape from this as an impersonal process – as having the potential of being a “Medusa head: all features of the world become motionless, a frozen death throe” (D8, 6). That is, eternal return, with any change being ruled out, has the power of castration, cutting off the power of action and of narrative, and being, perhaps, Balzac’s fear, as representative of the nineteenth century. Blanqui’s sense of eternal return is earlier, then, than Nietzsche’s, and it implies that experience may be recomposed, but not changed. But, there is value in struggle itself.

In the Exposé, Benjamin notes that Blanqui sees the world as dominated by the mechanistic natural sciences to be a vision of hell, while progress (here drawing on his theory that everything returns and will continue to do so) is “immemorial antiquity parading as up-to-date novelty” (25). He cites as epitaph to the Conclusion Blanqui’s words: “Men of the nineteenth century, the hour of our apparitions is fixed forever and always brings us back the very same ones,” where the “apparitions” clearly mean for Benjamin the same as the phantasmagoria which is “history itself” – the idea of history as progress. He comments on the pessimism of Blanqui that “the century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order”: showing then that there could have been the hope of something different, but confirming, to Blanqui’s sense that nothing changes.

Elsewhere (B8a, 3), Blanqui is quoted as polemicizing against the fashion industry, where “novelty” is always the word. We are left with the phantasmagorias, which here are a constant move between the old and the new – where the new is not new, but continues to be, as with Haussmann, a strategy of containing (revolutionary) change in a way which looks radical but is not. Hence, Benjamin writes: “The world dominated by its phantasmagorias – this, to make use of Baudelaire’s term – is ‘modernity’. Blanqui’s vision has the entire universe entering the modernity of which Baudelaire’s seven old men are the heralds” (26). The reference is to Baudelaire’s poem of Paris, “Les Sept Vieillards” (Baudelaire 1986: 177), where each old man that appears in the fog is identical to the last: there are seven, as if for each day of the week, and the dread is that there might be an eighth, which would mean there could be no change at all.

Modernity, then, for Benjamin, means the failure to escape from levels of illusion which make everything the same, while the appearance is that there is progress, and while there is the ever-present fear of Fascism.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK