The Arcades Project 
by Walter Benjamin, translated by Howard Eiland.
Harvard, 1073 pp., £24.95, December 1999, 9780674043268
Show More
Show More

‘There are the Alps,’ Basil Bunting is supposed to have scribbled on his copy of the Cantos. ‘What is there to say about them?’ Mainly this, in the brief poem that follows:

They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree ...
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Well, yes, I guess I shall end up scribbling much the same thing. I do think that Benjamin’s Arcades Project – over a thousand pages of it in this first English-language edition – is some kind of prose Communist Cantos to set beside the verse Fascist one we have. And the comparison immediately suggests the problem. Even Bunting is scribbling to keep his spirits up. Admiring the Cantos is one thing, reading them another. There will never be a shortage of cranks climbing the crags, using the latest featherlite interpretative equipment, but will there be strollers? Will people enjoy themselves? At this altitude will they learn anything?

If the answer in Benjamin’s case is yes, as I believe it is, it can only come with heavy qualifications. For what we have in The Arcades Project is the wreckage of a book that did not get written. Hitler, exile, poverty, despondency, the fall of France, fear, flight and suicide got in the way. And maybe the project itself careered out of control before the final disaster. Any reader will develop opinions on that subject well in advance of page 1073.

Benjamin came to Paris for much the same reasons as other artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century, and adopted much the same way of life. He was in love with modern French literature, and out of love with his native academy. He wanted to drift and burrow in a city that seemed ‘more like home’ to him than Berlin – the phrase crops up in a letter from 1913 – but at the same time deeply strange, deeply alien. Mostly he would pass the day in libraries or read feverishly in his room far into the night – The Arcades Project is testimony to his being incurably un rat de bibliothèque – but he savoured Paris also because the traces of the recent past were still so thick on the ground there. Paris was up-to-date and old-fashioned, with the two conditions coexisting street by street or shop by shop: you could take a detour through the 1860s each morning on your way to work.

In the beginning, for two years or so from 1927, Benjamin seems to have planned a study of Paris in the 19th century which would have had as its centre – its looking and burning-glass – the network of dusty covered shopping streets with greenhouse roofs, most of them built in the 1820s, which still dreamed on in the Jazz Age, cluttered with stores specialising in trusses and life-size dolls and used false teeth. It was the kind of place Benjamin gravitated to, and in any case the Surrealists had discovered and celebrated the passages a few years before. ‘Surrealism was born in an arcade,’ Benjamin wrote at the time. Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris, with its great chapter in praise of the Passage de I’Opéra, had been published in 1926.

How Benjamin’s project would escape from the force-field of Aragon and Surrealism was not clear at the start. Would it be an essay or prose poem or full-scale book? There are drafts and sketches dating from 1928-29 for something Benjamin was calling ‘Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Fairyland’; but already much of the same material was being gathered – or rather, disseminated – through a series of weird folio notecards, bound roughly into folders, exploring a whole range of subjects fanning out from the arcades themselves. Fashion, Boredom, the Barricades, Advertising, the Interior, Dream Houses, Baudelaire, Panoramas and Dioramas, the Idea of Progress: there was from the beginning a shadow spreading across the notecards, of a larger, more wonderful study in which all the great dreams of his father’s generation, and his father’s father’s, would be related and denounced. ‘We have to wake up from the existence of our parents,’ he tells himself later on. But for Benjamin waking, we shall see, involved first falling more deeply asleep.

Work on this project stopped in 1929. He took it up again when he returned to Paris, a refugee, in 1934. The notecards multiplied, new dossiers were started, prospectuses for a book now grandly entitled ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th Century’ were sent to friends. Baudelaire loomed larger in Benjamin’s reading, and so did the question of the commodity – that is, of what happens to the world of things and persons when it is subject, through and through, to the logic of monetary exchange – and the nature of capitalism and class struggle. Marx now had a folder to himself, as did Fourier and Saint-Simon. There were new dossiers on the Stock Exchange, the Working-Class Movement, Professional Revolutionaries, the Commune, the materialist anthropology (and zoology) of the first Socialist Sects. The web was more and more complex – some would say tangled. It is not for nothing that the present editors have opted for the literal translation ‘convolute’ to describe the individual loose-leaf folders. Benjamin seems to have decided that a separate book on Baudelaire might have to be extracted from the folds and whorls; and drafts and essays drawn from such a book were circulated, even published. Maybe the book itself was written, and lost at Port-Bou in 1940, as Benjamin struggled, unsuccessfully, to get across the border to Spain. We shall never know. Some of the best and most difficult thoughts arrived at in the convolutes were hived off into gnomic essays like ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, or ruminative ones like ‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’. English-language readers, in other words, have had inklings of where The Arcades Project was heading. Onto the reef, by the look of it. The various treasures Benjamin and his friends salvaged from the wreck are often dazzling, and viable on their own. But now we have the whole gloomy, touching, submarine thing.

For the purposes of this review, I read the book straight through from cover to cover. (I was a reviewer doing penance, furthermore, for the kitschy endorsement I had given the volume on its kitschy dust-jacket. How Benjamin would have loved the embossed lettering and the peek-a-boo portrait of himself! How cunning of Harvard to market the Arcades as another John Grisham or The Jewel in the Crown.) I do not recommend my reading tactic to others. This is a book for moving about in, lightly and irresponsibly and, above all, fast. Benjamin seems to have dreamed of a final, rapid-fire, cinematic delivery, accelerating to the speed of exchange – fact after fact, image after image, with relations between them somehow revealed by the glitter and breathlessness of the juxtapositions. Maybe this was one of the fantasies of the book – the book to beat capital at its own game – which drove the convolutes mad. But it is open to us to re-create such a book, in bits and pieces. Not always skittering across the surface, obviously (sentence after sentence is meant to stop the reader dead), but changing pace all the time, gloating over local detail, reading from back to front. Gloating is important – or giggling like a badaud at the sheer parade of unlikely items. How shall we ever recover from the revelation that Maxime Du Camp wrote a poem called ‘Steam’ with the punchline, ‘Last word of him who died on the Cross!’; or that the photographer Nadar was shortsighted to the point of blindness; or that Ernest Renan recoiled from the English word ‘comfort’ in 1859 with ‘I am forced to use this barbarous word to express an idea quite un-French’; or that after Thermidor, busts of Marat and Le Peletier were transferred, presumably from the high altar of the local church, and set up at the entrance to the main sewer in the rue Mandar; or that Dupont’s ‘Song of the Students’ has a line, ‘Sifflons Malthus et ses arrêts!’; or that a sculptor called Ganneau founded a hermaphroditic religion in 1835, sent suitably furnished figurines to important Frenchmen, and changed his name from Ganneau to Mapah – the best parts of Mama and Papa rolled into one? Part of the delight here is in the facts themselves (and there are hundreds more like them); part in imagining how each would have been deployed – exploded – in the book to come.

I should say straight away that, once one disposes of the dust-jacket, the English language edition does a fine job with this wild, often intractable material. Its apparatus is helpful, and properly spare. I could have done without the memoir of Benjamin’s flight and death at the end of the book, but this is because I believe we should read The Arcades Project as mourning for bourgeois society, not as a long premonition of the war and the camps. (I grant the two are intertwined.) I am not qualified, putting it mildly, to pass judgment on the translation from the German, but I have the impression it is careful, and often it is eloquent. When it comes to the hundreds of citations in French (the original German edition kept them as they were) things are somewhat more patchy. Poetry in particular gives the editors trouble. The point of Barthélemy’s weird poem on ‘Steam’ – yes, another one – is that the railroad is a leveller of class distinctions here and now, not in some chthonic hereafter. Hugo’s ‘Plus de mot sénateur! Plus de mot roturier!’ does not mean ‘No more words, Senator! Commoner, no more!’ There are other problems; but what else would one expect in a book of this size and eccentricity? By and large, the edition is a heroic achievement.

Do not think, by the way, that the editors’ rough indications of what each convolute contains – the dossiers themselves were labelled simply with letters of the alphabet (44 in all, from A to Z and then from lowercase a to r) – will necessarily point you to where Benjamin is at his best on a given subject. If you want to know why the arcades mattered so much to him, do not get stuck in Convolute A, the official repository, too full of lumpy information, but go straight to Convolute C (‘Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris’) or Convolute D (‘Boredom, Eternal Return’) or Convolute L (‘Dream House, Museum, Spa’). The folder on Fashion is disappointing (maybe suitably repetitive), ‘The Streets of Paris’ horribly thin, ‘Prostitution, Gambling’ a dumping ground for anecdotes, mostly arch and obvious. Benjamin has brilliant things to say about all these subjects. His insights simply crop up elsewhere. Even the vast Convolute J, on Baudelaire, at which the reader heaves a sigh of anticipatory relief, opens with a great dust-heap of dutiful quotations from requisite authorities, before Benjamin plucks up the courage to recognise ‘the literature’ – the endless mixture of pseudo-biography and moralising – for what it is. By J59 (that is, over a hundred pages later) he is flying. Then for page after page the aphorisms come with the hiss and flash of The Gay Science (and Nietzsche himself becomes more and more a grey presence in the text, pursuing Baudelaire down a hall of mirrors). Even the dutiful quotations improve. The half-dozen copied out from de Maistre are breathtaking.

Part of the point of reading The Arcades Project, then, is being prepared to lose one’s way. I do not think reviewers should set up too many signposts, or pretend that other readers will not find quicker ways through the maze. All readers of Benjamin will have moments when they think they have got it at last. We gloat and gape and chafe at the bit, but then we think we see what the charlatan is up to – he is showing his hand at last. He can say what he means if he wants to – so why shouldn’t we?

In the beginning, I believe, in the late 1920s, a simple and beautiful idea animated the book. It is not one many of us would entertain now. Over the generations, so Benjamin thought, bourgeois society is slowly waking up – waking to the reality of its own productive powers, and maybe, if helped along by its wild child, the proletariat, to the use of those powers to foster a new collective life. And always, however stertorous and philistine the previous century’s slumber may have been, it was dreaming most deeply of that future life, and throwing up premonitions and travesties of it. Once upon a time, what we call ‘education’ consisted essentially in interpreting dreams like these – telling the children about tradition, or the coming of the Messiah, or simply having them learn and recite the tales of the tribe. In the bright classroom of the 20th century, this could not happen; and so the peculiar discipline called ‘history’ had to take over the task. It would tell us what the bourgeoisie once dreamed of, and interpret its dreams – poetically, tendentiously – in the hope that when we dead awakened, we would know what to do with the tools (the ‘information’) our slaves had forged for us.

Where, you might wonder, does such a history start? What are its objects? Where did the sleep of the bourgeoisie take place? In many odd parts of the city, Benjamin thought, but above all in the arcades. The 19th century had been extraordinarily rich, almost prodigal, in its production of ‘dream houses of the collective’; at one point Benjamin draws up a list of ‘winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations’, and one could easily add to this from other sections of the book: the Crystal Palace (ground zero of the bourgeois imagination), the Eiffel Tower, the unearthly reading rooms done by Henri Labrouste for the Bibliothèque Nationale and Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, maybe Hector Guimard’s Metro entrances, certainly the lost Galerie des Machines. But the arcades are central for him, because he senses that only in them are the true silliness and sublimity of the new (old) society expressed to the full. The arcades are thoroughgoing failures and abiding triumphs. They were old-fashioned almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing. Their use of iron and glass was premature, naive, a mixture of the pompous and fantastic. They were stuffy, dingy and monotonous; dead dioramas; perspectives étouffées; phantasmagoria of the dull, the flat and the cluttered. ‘The light that fell from above, through the panes ... was dirty and sad.’ ‘Only here,’ De Chirico said, ‘is it possible to paint. The streets have such gradations of grey.’ They were always ‘close’ (to recall a word that seemed to dominate my childhood), there was sure to be thunder by the end of the afternoon. Drizzle was their natural element. They did not keep out the rain so much as allow the splenetic consumer to wallow in rain publicly, his breath condensing drearily on the one-way glass. (In this climate glass roofs could never be kept clean.) ‘Nothing is more characteristic than that precisely this most intimate and most mysterious affair, the working of the weather on humans, should have become the theme of their emptiest chatter. Nothing bores the ordinary man more than the cosmos.’ Rain was the guarantee of boredom, thank God, since it meant that one could not ‘go out’. The arcades allowed a whole century to be housebound and at loose ends in the company of strangers. They were waiting rooms, caves containing fossils of the primitive consumer, mirror worlds in which out-of-date gadgets exchanged winks, front rooms on endless Sunday afternoons with dust motes circulating in the half-light. Odilon Redon was their painter – his very name sounded like a ringlet on a cheap wig in the back of the shop. They were waxworks of the New. Arcs de Triomphe (commemorating victories in the class struggle).

For all these reasons they were wonderful. They were a dream and a travesty of dreaming – in the golden age of capital, all worthwhile utopias were both at the same time. Or perhaps we should say that they were pieces of nonsense architecture, in which the city negated and celebrated its new potential, rather in the way that those other distinctive 19th-century creations, nonsense verse and nonsense novels (Alice or Edward Lear or Grandville’s Un Autre Monde), negated and exalted mind, logic, innocence and naivety. What the arcades released, above all, was the possibility – a botched and absurd possibility, but for all that intoxicating – of a city turned inside out. ‘Something sacral, a vestige of the nave, still attaches to this row of commodities.’ ‘The domestic interior moves outside,’ but even more, the street, the exterior, becomes the place where we live – where we linger all day on a permanent, generalised threshold between public and private spheres, ‘neither on the inside nor truly in the open’, in a space belonging to everyone and no one. We linger, we drift, we fantasise. ‘Existence in these spaces flows ... without accent like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythm of this slumber.’ The proper inhabitant of the arcade is the stroller. For only the stroller is wordless and thoughtless enough to become the means by which the arcades dream their dream – of intimacy, equality, homelessness, return to a deep prehistory. ‘For the flâneur, every street is precipitous. It leads downward – into a past that can be all the more spellbinding because it is not private, not his own.’

What I have done in the previous two paragraphs, you will realise, is sew together clues, images and half-embedded arguments which are scattered through many disparate convolutes in The Arcades Project itself. Benjamin meant them to be scattered. One of the things that defeated the project, it seems to me, was his wish for a style of argument which would be as jam-packed and thing-like as its objects of study. (And as boring. He revered the principle of boredom at work in Proust.) So I am doing violence in my summary to what Benjamin had to say, or how he thought he had to say it. But not, I hope, to the bare logic of the imagery, which is strong and consistent – and urgent, for all its Through the Looking-Glass tricks.

The arcades were a vision of the city as one great threshold, between public and private, outside and inside, past and present, stultifying dreariness (the reign of the commodity) and final Dionysian rout (Paris as fun house, Paris as Commune, Paris as diorama burning down). Of course in the early 20th century this vision had become old-fashioned. ‘We have grown very poor in threshold experiences.’ The arcades were irremediably in decline, victims of the cult of fresh air and exercise, streets with a care for pedestrians (it was only when tarmac replaced cobblestones that loungers in cafés could hear themselves speak), electric light and vice squads with a sense of mission as opposed to a taste for the on-the-spot deal. Dickens, we could say, gives way to Kafka. Benjamin naturally hated this turn of events. Bourgeois society would only become bearable, he believed, if it had the courage to be stuffy, overcrowded, bored, and erotic again – to sleep, to dream, to see its own tawdriness and absurdity, and therefore to wake to its infinite power.

Just as the sleeper – in this respect like the madman – sets out on the macrocosmic journey through his own body, and the noises and feelings of his insides, such as blood pressure, intestinal churn, heartbeat and muscle sensation (which for the waking and salubrious individual converge in a steady surge of health) generate, in the sleeper’s extravagantly heightened inner awareness, illusion or dream imagery which translates and accounts for them, so likewise for the dreaming collective, which, through the arcades, communes with its own insides. We must follow in its wake [‘we’ means historians and revolutionaries here] so as to expound the 19th century – in fashion and advertising, in buildings and politics – as the outcome of its dream visions.

We are still essentially in 1928-29. What I have been describing is The Arcades Project, not ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th Century’. (One book never gives way definitively to the other, but there are differences, as we shall see.) Mixed up in the first conception of the project is the even stranger and more difficult idea that part of recovering the dream of the 19th century will involve seeing in its bright apparatus of modernity the traces – the bubbling to the surface, as in a tar pit full of mastodon bones – of a deep past, an Urgeschichte. Why so? Because the first heroic stages of industrial capitalism had been a moment in which Nature itself had reared its ugly, beautiful head again, as mankind’s eternal opponent. ‘Capitalism was a natural phenomenon’ – this is early in Convolute K – ‘with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces.’ (The stress here should be on ‘natural’.) ‘The alluring and threatening face of primal history is clearly manifest in the beginnings of technology.’ A genuine awakening, then, will involve retrieving this first horror and delight at the machine. The locomotive and the dinosaur are one. Iron bridges lead to the Lower Cretaceous. The arcades are aquaria, but the tanks have only coelacanths in them.

Benjamin knew that in sketching such an account of bourgeois experience he was as much execrating what historians do as imitating it. The monster called ‘cultural history’ is on several occasions squarely in his sights. He hated the idea of historical empathy, if by that was meant a fitting of oneself into the past like a hand into a glove, and the attendant fantasy that what one was feeling was how it must have felt to be truly back then, before the future happened. The other side of the coin of empathy was always, he reckoned, a surreptitious (unthought-out) Idea of Progress or, just as bad, of Decline – the two assumptions, or some grisly hybrid of both, shaping what counted as evidence and what could be cast aside as trivia or garbage. ‘To the Dustbin of History’ was Benjamin’s strange device.

Therefore he thought very hard, and wrote very clearly (considering the difficulty of the issues), about what might be meant by a dialectical approach to the past. It was a matter of finding a way between the Scylla of empiricism (‘History always flashing its Scotland Yard credentials’, a lovely phrase he borrowed from Ernst Bloch) and the Charybdis of total immersion. But equally, he wanted an approach that went beyond the lumpen choice usually on offer in historical studies between positivism and relativism. ‘Each age gets the history it deserves or fantasises’ – you know the argument. And of course our return to the past is interested and partial, and in a sense we make the past we desire. Benjamin’s project could hardly be more up front about that. But why do we desire this past specifically? That is the interesting question. Who is to say that it isn’t the past itself that has fashioned our desire for it: that we do not go back to these objects in particular (these arcades, this moment in 1830, these poems by Baudelaire) because the dreams they express were always waiting for us to dream them properly, in a state of wakefulness? In our avid Now, a long-ago Then fully becomes itself. ‘The illusion overcome here is that an earlier time is in the Now. In truth: the Now is the inmost image’ – one could almost say, the cunning facsimile – ‘of what has been.’ ‘Historical understanding is to be grasped, in principle, as an afterlife of that which is to be understood.’ Only the sunniest of relativists believe they have ‘constructed’ the Then on their own terms.

One way of characterising Benjamin’s thoughts about past and present is to call them theological – in the sense that he can never escape (nor does he want to) from the notion of a past destined to complete itself in a future, to awaken, to become fully present in a flash of lightning-knowledge. History exists to be redeemed. Granted. But this is the framework. It seems to me a grotesque misreading of Benjamin, at least in The Arcades Project, to call him a theological thinker at heart, if by this is meant (as it usually is these days) not a Marxist thinker, not a historian, not a dialectical materialist. ‘My thinking,’ he says in Convolute N, ‘is related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it. Were one to go by the blotter, however, nothing of what is written would remain.’ Lately we have had the blotter till we are blue in the face. That is because the writing – the actual crazy revolutionary edifice – is so full of bad words and unvarnished partisanship. Convolute a, which the editors call ‘Social Movement’ but which is really a chronicle of poverty, exploitation and working-class despair, will never be a preferred object of the Benjamin cult.

Behind Benjamin’s vision of time unfolding lies his reading of Proust as much as of the Pentateuch. At one point in the ‘Dream House’ convolute, he copies out the great passage from Swann’s Way, beginning just before the scene with the madeleine, as if to remind himself where his notion of history was rooted. ‘The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect [or of empathy], in some material object ... which we do not suspect.’ And a lot of the fascination of The Arcades Project, especially for those of us who have tried to study the 19th century on different terms, is in seeing what happens in practice as a result of such a conception of history. If historical writing is a continual dialectical warfare between past and present – a continual shaping and forcing of the configuration of the past so as to release from it the meanings it always had but never dared state out loud, the meanings that permeated it as an unbreathable atmosphere or a shameful secret – then what entities and images will come first? Those in which an epoch most deeply lives its contradictory nature is the answer. And ‘lives’ here means freezes as much as mobilises, expresses as well as garbles, hypertrophies as much as trivialises. Wherever the historian senses contradiction truly throttling an object or a practice, he or she can intervene.

Intervening is one word for it; collecting would be another. For Benjamin would certainly rather have his book be a collection of 19th-century artefacts than a ‘study’ – of ‘The Bourgeois Experience’, say. What he thinks he is building – he says this explicitly in Convolute H – is an alarm clock to rouse the kitsch of the previous century, and have it gather in a great uprising of the overlooked. Collecting is perhaps another word for allegorising here. And that leads to the other main topic of The Arcades Project: the poet Baudelaire.

The question is whether Baudelaire existed from the very beginning in Benjamin’s mind as a second centre of gravity in the book he was planning. I take it that most (not all) of the huge Convolute J was done from 1934 onwards. How, if at all, the decision to make a separate book about Baudelaire affected the arrangement of the folios is something scholars have fallen out about. These matters are not entirely esoteric, because any reader will sense that something happened to the book about Paris as the 1930s dragged on. It is not just Baudelaire who gets in everywhere; there is Marx, and the fetishism of commodities, and socialism and class. Reading the dossiers begun, or largely fleshed out, in these later years involves constantly wondering where the new material (and the new theory) is going, and whether Benjamin himself really knew. The prospectus of 1935 is beautiful, plausible; but going back to the convolutes that ought by rights to put flesh on the bones of the new argument, you begin to feel that whole sections of the prospectus were more window-dressing than promissory note.

This is depressing. And anyway we should be grateful for what we got. Maybe the best way of approaching the question of what became of The Arcades Project is simply to take the Baudelaire Convolute for what it is, and ask why it got so large – why it took over. The centre of gravity at the very beginning of the notecards, as you would expect if some of them date from the first campaign in the late 1920s, is Baudelaire as a character, an actual inhabitant of the terrible dream world of arcade and interior. ‘His voice is ... muffled like the night-time rumble of carriages filtering into bedrooms upholstered with plush’: one can imagine Benjamin’s excitement at coming across this in Maurice Barrès. There are good moments, but essentially the convolutes are on a false trail here. They are fitting the poet too literally into a frame. It takes many, many folios before the collage of quotations begins to secrete a genuine sequence of thought. At last Benjamin appears to realise that his subject ought to be ‘Baudelaire’ as a production in Baudelaire’s poetry – as a peculiar kind of hero with no interior life. Claudel once argued that Baudelaire’s true subject was remorse, this being ‘the only inner experience left to people of the 19th century’ – a verdict that is too Catholic for Benjamin, and too optimistic. ‘Remorse in Baudelaire is merely a souvenir, like repentance, virtue, hope, and even anguish, which ... relinquished its place to morne incuriosité.

Allegory, therefore, is Baudelaire’s form, because only allegory can enact the final disappearance of ‘experience’ in the Second Empire and its replacement by glum indifference, stupefied brooding, fixation on the endless outsides of things. ‘Pascal avait son gouffre, avec lui se mouvant./– Hélas! tout est abîme, – action, désir, rêve,/Parole!’ ‘The allegorical experience was primary for Baudelaire’: his actual, everyday apprehension of his surroundings was as a flow of enigmatic fragments. Quite abruptly, as I said before, the quotations in the Convolute become less random and respectful, and start to take on a horrifying momentum – hit after hit of petrifaction, freezing laughter and useless, galvanised gaping. ‘Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside; Baudelaire evokes it from within.’

This train of imagery begins at last to interact with the reading Benjamin was doing at the same time in Marx and Karl Korsch. In particular, Benjamin begins to grasp the point (for him) of a central proposition in Capital: that under the rule of markets and commodity production, men and women increasingly come to see their existence as formed – that is, animated, substantiated – by the things they produce. ‘The participants in capitalist production,’ to quote Marx in characteristic vein, ‘live in a bewitched world and their own relationships appear to them as properties of things.’ So the Baudelaire question becomes the following: how could it possibly have happened that something as null and repulsive as the life of the commodity in the 19th century – the life it provided consumers, but above all its life, its unstoppable, loathsome vivacity – gave birth to poetry? To a poetry we cannot stop reading, and which seems to speak to generation after generation of the real meaning of the New? How did the commodity take on form, and attain a measure of (cackling, pseudo-satanic) aesthetic dignity? (A comparable question for us would be asked of the ‘digital’, or the image of information. But they await their poets.)

The answer to the question, roughly, is that it did so in Baudelaire by means of a retreat to allegory. Allegory is the commodity’s death’s head. ‘The allegories stand for what the commodity makes of the experiences people have in this century.’

Around the middle of the century, the conditions of artistic production underwent a change. This change consisted in the fact that for the first time the form of the commodity imposed itself decisively on the work of art, and the form of the masses on its public. Particularly vulnerable to these developments ... was the lyric. It is the unique distinction of Les Fleurs du mal that Baudelaire responded to precisely these altered conditions with a book of poems. It is the best example of heroic conduct to be found in his life.

But this on its own will not quite do as diagnosis. As with the arcades and collective dreaming, Baudelaire botches and travesties the work he takes on. His version of allegory is in many ways ludicrous – deliberately strained, tendentious and ‘shocking’. More like a pastiche than the real thing. (But is there a ‘real thing’ to allegory? Do not all ‘allegories become dated because it is part of their nature to shock’?) In any case, an allegory of capitalism is obliged to take the very form of the market – novelty, stereotype, flash self-advertisement, cheap repeatable motif – deep into its bones. ‘Baudelaire wanted to create a poncif, a cliché. Lemaître assures him that he has succeeded.’

Finally, then, after what seems like long wandering away from the world of the arcades, we begin to see that Baudelaire, at the level of syntax, diction and mode, belongs precisely there – breathing the mephitic air, looking sullenly through the clouded glass. ‘It is the same with the human material on the inside of the arcades as with the materials of their construction. The pimps are the iron uprights of this street and its glass breakables are the whores.’ ‘No one ever felt less at home in Paris than Baudelaire. Every intimacy with things is alien to the allegorical intention.’ The arcades are the epitome and generalisation of homelessness – the dream of a society with no room of one’s own to go back to.

Does it need to be said that in contemplating Baudelaire, Benjamin is contemplating (allegorising, idealising) himself? At times the reflections on Baudelaire’s loneliness and impotence hardly pretend to be verdicts on somebody else. And more and more, as the notion emerges of a poetry made out of stupefied fragments, frozen constellations, advertisements, trademarks and death rattles – a poetry of capital that could truly take on the commodity’s chattering liveliness and lifelessness – it is the convolutes themselves one sees, dancing attendance on Le Spleen de Paris.

I said previously that during the 1930s Les Fleurs du mal kept company with Capital in Benjamin’s reading. This fact is, on the whole, unwelcome to the Benjamin industry, and their efforts to explain it away have been strenuous. Rolf Tiedemann’s essay, ‘Dialectics ata Standstill’, printed in the back of the book here, is one locus classicus. This makes it difficult to keep a sense of proportion in replying. I think the fairest verdict on Marxism as a mode of thought in the Paris project is that it is pervasive, vital and superficial. More than once in the convolutes you come across Benjamin copying out a hoary passage from Marxist scripture – the ‘theological niceties’ paragraph, the sentences from the 1844 manuscripts on the ‘sense of having’ – and then a few pages (months, years?) later copying it out again, like a slow learner kept in after school. In each case, the passages are taken from introductions or anthologies. Things get more serious later – I shall come to that – but even in the beginning the Shakespeare’s Holinshed rule applies. Benjamin learned more about the logic of capitalism from a skim of Hugo Fischer and Otto Rühle than most of us ever shall from months in the Marx-Engels archive. Given the surrounding circumstances of Marxism in the 1930s, the flimsiness of Benjamin’s materialism may even have been a positive asset. It meant that he never seems to have felt the appeal of high Stalinism, nor even that of its partner in the Dance of Death, the Frankfurt School. ‘Marxist method’ never got under his skin. Not for him a lifetime spent like Adorno’s, building ever more elaborate conceptual trenches to outflank the Third International. One has the impression Benjamin hardly knew where the enemy within dialectical materialism had dug itself in. He is Fabrice del Dongo at Marxism’s Waterloo.

But none of this means that his Marxism, such as it was, did not feed and enliven the project he had in hand. His reading grew deeper as the decade wore on. Capital was dreamed over, clearly for weeks on end. Many of the quotations taken from the 1844 manuscripts are striking – it is hard to be dull when choosing aphorisms from this source – and the brief headings he gives his fragments speak already to his sense of how Marx might work for him. ‘On the doctrine of revolutions as innervations of the collective’, one of them reads. ‘A derivation of class hatred that draws on Hegel’, says another. The way is beginning to open towards the searing first pages of the Baudelaire book. ‘When we read Baudelaire we are given a course of historical lessons by bourgeois society.’ ‘From the outset it seems more promising to investigate his machinations where he undoubtedly is at home – in the enemy camp’ (he means the bourgeoisie). ‘Baudelaire was a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.’*

By the end of the 1930s, there is a real convergence between Marx’s understanding of capitalism’s key representational logic – the logic of commodity exchange – and Benjamin’s sense not just of what Baudelaire was doing, but of the flâneur, the automaton, the photographer, the prostitute, the feuilletoniste. ‘Abstract labour power’ becomes his subject. That is, the conversion of actual sweat-and-skill operations on the body of Nature into items and quantities, to be bid up or down. Forced equivalence of the unequal. He sees the 19th century more and more as a society with abstraction as its doppelgänger, haunting and deranging its great panoply of inventions – ‘whereby the sensuous-concrete counts only as a phenomenal form of the abstract-general’. What the new Paris book aims to do, above all, is to show this inversion actually happening. ‘Actually happening’ is the key.

For Benjamin is deeply dissatisfied with the un-sensuousness of most Marxist demonstrations. ‘Must the Marxist understanding of history necessarily be acquired at the expense of history’s perceptibility? ... In what way is it possible to conjoin a heightened vividness [Anschaulichkeit] to the realisation of Marxist method?’ Or again:

Marx lays bare the causal connection between economy and culture. For us, what matters is the thread of expression. It is not the economic origins of culture that will be presented, but the expression of the economy in its culture. At issue, in other words, is the attempt to grasp an economic process as perceptible Ur-phenomenon, from out of which proceed all manifestations of life.

One way of saying this (which we have heard repeatedly since Benjamin’s death) is that we need, as counterweight to the theory of the commodity as a form of alienated social relations, a parallel theory of its evocation of endless desire. A theory of consumption, that is, as well as exchange. But late Benjamin cannot really be enlisted in this cause. His thinking in the 1930s is headed not towards clean alternative theories of the power of capitalism, but towards a theory of the nesting of consumption in exchange (that is, in the cruelty and force of relations of production). ‘It would be an error to deduce the psychology of the bourgeoisie from the attitude of the consumer’ – this is towards the start of the dossier on Marx. ‘It is only the class of snobs that adopts the consumer’s standpoint’ – for ‘snobs’ we could nowadays substitute ‘symbol managers’ and Post-Modern intellectuals. ‘The foundations for a psychology of the bourgeois class are much sooner to be found in the following sentence from Marx, which makes it possible, in particular, to describe the influence which this class exerts, as model and as customer, on art ...’ I shall spare you the heavy sentence in question, but it has to do with capitalism not just as a whirl of exchange value, but as a system of appropriation and control of the labour of the proletariat.

This coming to consciousness of capital as a form of specific domination over labour is fundamental to Benjamin. It is the great problem he is struggling with in the last three years of his life. For, of course, it puts his initial, wonderful idea of the ‘dreaming collective’ at risk. Which collective? is now the question. Whose collective? At the expense of who else’s dream of community? It is not that Benjamin was ever in two minds about the arcades being a fantasy of togetherness strictly on the bourgeoisie’s terms. But it was hard (the way through Convolutes U, V and W is laborious, and in a sense deeply obtuse) for him truly to use his knowledge that the dream houses were redoubts, armed camps with guns pointing in the direction of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Only slowly do contrary dreamings appear. Only slowly (against massive resistance) does he come to see his own 1928 dreaming in the Passage Choiseul as not just class-specific but actively on the side of the commodity. You will have noticed, and I hope shuddered at, the casual inclusion of ‘factories’ in his initial list of Wonderlands. The verdict on Baudelaire as secret agent in the enemy camp is again a verdict, hard won, on himself.

This does not lead him to the hairshirt and the act of self-denunciation (it does not turn him into a Stalinist), but rather, to a sketch of a truly dark history of the working class, a history without consolation. The clues to this are preliminary, but they constitute one of The Arcades Project’s most terrifying legacies. ‘It may be considered one of the methodological objectives of this work,’ he writes in Convolute N, ‘to demonstrate a historical materialism which has annihilated within itself the idea of progress. Just here, historical materialism has every reason to distinguish itself sharply from bourgeois habits of thought.’ Nothing could demonstrate the hold of those habits better than the way the history of the urban proletariat has usually been written – under the sign of redemption, with the Party or the revolution or the socialisation of the means of production as the Messiah who gives suffering a meaning, a destiny. It is one indication of how far Benjamin came in the end from his theological origins that in the appalling montage of working-class sadness, nihilism and suicide he puts together in Convolute a, truly no redeemer liveth. At one moment in 1939, he extracted from the Convolute an image of sharpshooters all over Paris in 1830, on day two of an uprising already running into the sand, aiming their guns at the clocks on the towers. In the context he found for it in 1939, the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, the story takes on a certain chiliastic glamour. I prefer the tonality given it by the place it had originally, almost at the end of this relentless dossier – we might call the whole forty or so pages Les Misérables – where the bullets slamming into the clock face are a form of dreaming, for sure; but Benjamin has the dream speak to us from the last circle of hell.

This is not a book to be read reverentially, and I hope my praise of it has none of the ‘sad hero of the age of Fascism’ flavour which makes so much of the Benjamin literature hard to stomach. The book is cranky, preposterous, disorganised. Several times I felt like flinging it across the room. It leaves one dissatisfied, as the building-blocks of a Marxist history of capitalism’s inner life should. Let me talk finally to some of the things it leaves out or gets wrong.

One aim of The Arcades Project, at least in its later stages, was to plot the relation between the true (unconscious) collective dreaming of the 19th century, encoded in the constellation of forms, materials, novelties, commodities, advertisements and literary detritus which Benjamin made his own, and the conscious utopias of such as Saint-Simon and Fourier. (Marx believed himself to have surpassed such utopia-building, but did he?) This cluster of issues never comes into focus. Saint-Simonianism, which is the epitome of a kind of technocratic dreaming of the future familiar to us digital scribes, slips dully through Benjamin’s fingers. Yet the point at which socialism and machinolatry intersect is vital to an understanding of the last two hundred years. Benjamin never gets on terms with Saint-Simon, and even his treatment of Fourier is ultimately too picturesque, too much an item in a cabinet of socialist curiosities. Nor do I think his notecards do much to clarify the relation of these forms of dreaming to the one going on in the Passage de l’Opéra. And doesn’t the failure to do so – to show us even a glimpse of how such a clarification might be managed – point to the limits of Benjamin’s notion of history? For the 19th-century ‘collective’ dreamed many of its futures while it was wide awake. It dreamed different futures, according to its changing sense of which collective (within the dream totality of collectives) counted. And it acted on its dreams; it acted them out.

Benjamin would reply, if I understand him, that these waking acts of the imagination (these strange discourses, these rushes to the barricade) were too flimsy and technical to lead us to the heart of things. But were they? The Commune awaits a truly Benjaminian treatment. Fourier’s madness is deeper than we know. There is a cryptic entry in Convolute W, taking off from Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, in which revolutions are described as ‘an innervation’ – we could almost say a coming to life – ‘of the technical organs of the collective’, like ‘the child who learns to grasp by trying to get hold of the moon’. Reference is made to the ‘cracking open of natural teleology’. Both are described as ‘articles of my politics’, as if such a politics were being actively aired and developed elsewhere. Maybe the book, had it been written, would have faced these questions head on. Maybe they would have intertwined with the inconsolable history of the proletariat sketched out in Convolute a. Dream v. revolution, then. Collective v. class. Utopia v. allegorical stifling and dispersal. One shivers at the presence of the ghost of a further, wider dialectic in the scattered notes. But making the ghost palpable would have meant throwing almost everything back in the melting-pot.

Then we come to the question of Parisian art, and beyond it Paris seeing. There is a lovely phrase for the arcades in one of Benjamin’s first sketches – ‘the city in a bottle’ – which he drops when he moves the sketch into Convolute Q. The phrase was surely not lacking in poetry, but maybe the poetry was of the wrong kind. Benjamin wanted his arcade windows always to be dusty, not opening onto the outside world. Visual art for him was confined to Grandville, Eiffel, Daguerre and Nadar, the panorama painters, Daumier (a separate convolute is begun on him, but quickly peters out), Redon, the Metro entrances. Manet is mentioned only once in passing – striking in a project where Baudelaire is the main guide. Impressionism does not get a look in; Ingres barely figures; Seurat not at all. Benjamin’s Paris is all interior, all gaslit or twilit. It has no true outside – no edges, no plein air, no Argenteuil or Robinson. No place, that is, where Nature itself is put through the sieve of exchange value, and laid on in the form of daytrips and villégiatures; and no answering dream of pure visibility and outwardness, or of the endless strangeness of earthbound life. No Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Grande Jatte.

Paris for Benjamin is a city of signs, words and gesticulations, not scenes and sights. He is a flâneur not a tourist. Nowhere in the convolutes is there an entry from Murray or Baedeker. I do not believe Benjamin was deeply (meaning blankly) receptive to the sheer look of things. He was at home in the Passage des Panoramas, with the indoor machinery of visualisation working full tilt; one senses that if he had ever found himself on Manet’s Butte de Chaillot, or at Caillebotte’s great intersection of the rue de Saint Pétersbourg and rue de Turin, he would not have allowed himself the true frisson of loss of bearings and entry into the realm of the eye. Agoraphobia was not his thing. Somewhere he tells the story of Mallarmé crossing the Pont de l’Europe every day and being ‘gripped by the temptation to throw himself from the height of the bridge onto the rails, under the trains, so as finally to escape the mediocrity which imprisoned him’. But he does not build on the anecdote, and he does not quite see its point. Benjamin’s Paris is not frightening enough – not empty enough, disenchanted enough. I do not think the Paris book is sufficiently aware that its arcades were pathetic enclaves of dreaming – reservations of the marvellous – in a great desert of the smart. Benjamin wanted the wonderful too much.

One way of putting this (it has the air of a formula, but it gets matters clear) is to say that Benjamin’s Paris, you could say, is all dream and no spectacle; the apparatus of spectacle is not understood by him to invade the dream life and hold unconscious imagining in its grip. Not to recognise the way the city was becoming a regime of false openness, even in the time of the arcades, seems to me to miss something essential about bourgeois society – something dreadful and spellbinding. If you leave out Mallarmé swaying by the railings, you leave out part of modernity’s pain. Equally, if you leave out the line of painting that runs from Delacroix to Matisse (and Benjamin does, essentially) you leave out too much of what made the pain endurable: meaning bourgeois hedonism, bourgeois positivism and lucidity. This is not a matter of pitting high art against photography and caricature, by the way (of course we need histories of all three), but of asking what this particular high art has to tell us about the culture that spawned it. ‘Why was there no French Idealism?’ reads one of the notes Benjamin made at the time of his 1935 prospectus. There cannot be an image-answer (a dialectical image-answer) to that question without Monet and Cézanne. And the question is vital. It connects with the further question of why the painting of Paris in the 19th century still matters to the bourgeoisie so much.

Will anything remotely like Benjamin’s project be attempted for the 20th century, by some stoic expatriate in Los Angeles or Hong Kong twenty years or so from now? Are there pieces of the gone city which one day a writer will teach us to fall in love with again? Maybe. Maybe the great cinemas of the 1930s and 1940s, a few of which, if we are lucky, will resist the logic of the multiplex. (Going to the Castro on a Saturday night, sitting in the audience 1400 strong, laughing and gasping at Gilda and Rear Window – that’s my image of collective dreaming.) Maybe we shall muse over old TV sets and airport lounges, technopop museums, ‘parking structures’, Holocaust Memorials and dog-eared copies of Jaws or The Selfish Gene. And everywhere we shall stumble over the Star Trek consoles of abandoned PCs. Perhaps only these will have the proper whiff of pseudo-utopia about them.

And Benjamin’s Paris? Not much is left of it. The reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Benjamin thought he could hear the leaves of the summer trees in the great murals rustling in time to the turning of pages, is empty, waiting for the state’s next bright idea. When last I peered into it from the entry booth I felt like Robert Lowell outside the Old South Boston Aquarium – ‘Its broken windows are boarded ... the airy tanks are dry.’ The arcades themselves still fight, quixotically, to keep the spectacle at bay. The beautiful Passage Véro-Dodat, where new Daumiers once fluttered in the office window of La Caricature, is now a short cut on the way from the plastic Pyramide du Louvre to the putrid Forum des Halles. Cock an ear at either entrance and you can hear the funeral music. There are one or two less tragic passages across from the reading room itself, to which one can imagine Benjamin adjourning in the late afternoon after the plod through Capital. They are inevitably a bit overpainted and boutique-ified; but on a dreary Wednesday in February, with piles of cardboard boxes spilling styrofoam, and shopkeepers standing at their doors looking despairing but contemptuous of custom (looking Parisian, in other words), you get a sense of how things might have been. Go there, and I guarantee you will forget the Internet. The past will wink at you, and a future worth having will cross your mind.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 13 · 6 July 2000

I was struck by the serendipity of T.J. Clark’s article on Walter Benjamin appearing in the same issue as the review of Andy Marino’s book about Varian Fry (LRB, 22 June). It was Varian Fry who was responsible for organising the expedition over the mountains in which Walter Benjamin attempted to leave occupied France. But his group was refused entry at the Spanish border on 26 September 1940, and fearing repatriation to an internment camp, Benjamin killed himself with morphine that night. The next day the group crossed the border safely. He had already been interned in September 1939, in the Colombes stadium in Paris and his sister Dora had been sent to the Gurs internment camp. Arthur Koestler had also been detained in Colombes and knew that Benjamin had been carrying morphine pills since the burning of the Reichstag. Koestler wrote in Scum of the Earth:

Walter Benjamin, author and critic, my neighbour in 10, rue Dombasle in Paris, fourth at our Saturday poker parties, one of the most bizarre and witty persons I have known. Last time I had met him was in Marseilles … and he had asked me: ‘If anything goes wrong, have you got anything to take?’ For in those days we all carried some stuff in our pockets like conspirators in a penny dreadful, only reality was more dreadful. I had none, and he shared what he had with me, 62 tablets of a sedative … He did it reluctantly, for he did not know whether the 31 tablets left him would be enough. It was enough.

Agnes Grunwald-Spier

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences