Reservations of the Marvellous

T.J. Clark

‘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?

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[*] The quotations are from Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.