Sedan Chairs and Turtles

Leland de la Durantaye

On a spring day in 1940 Walter Benjamin gathered together the thousands of pages comprising his work of the last decade and carried them to his favourite place in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale. When he got there he gave them to Georges Bataille, a head librarian there, for safekeeping. Hours before the German army entered Paris with an order to arrest him, Benjamin left the city with ‘nothing but a gas mask and my toiletries’. What happened next – the attempted escape by way of Marseille disguised as a sailor, the exhausting flight over the Pyrenees to Spain, the fatal dose of morphine to avoid capture by the Gestapo, the escape of the rest of his group – is by now well known. After the war Benjamin’s friends went in search of his papers in the library, once Cardinal Richelieu’s palace. During every major conflict, beginning with the one that changed its name from the Bibliothèque royale to the Bibliothèque nationale, the library had taken in the most disparate array of things; it held untold riches in an untold order. It was an ideal place to conceal papers and, consequently, a less than ideal place to find them.

By 1945 Bataille had left Paris and couldn’t entirely remember what he’d done with the pages he’d been given. His uncertain directions led, nevertheless, to the recovery of Benjamin’s papers – or so it seemed. They were sent to New York. As Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno sifted through them he found many things present, and many things absent. Chief among the missing was the book on Baudelaire that had consumed Benjamin during the last three years of his life (and for which he had interrupted his work on the Arcades Project). Rumours about the location of the missing manuscript circulated widely. Some thought it must lie high in the Pyrenees, or languish forgotten in a corner of a Spanish customs office. With the rise of Benjamin’s popularity in the 1960s more and more efforts were undertaken to trace the missing papers, all without success. And then, in 1981, a new detective on the case, Giorgio Agamben, while poring over Bataille’s correspondence, found a clue, and then another. A few months later he held five folders full of typescripts, fair copies, notecards, observations written on café stationery, drafts made on the backs of letters, outlines, schemas, tables and colour-coded indices. It was the lost book, the last work.

In an ideal publishing world Agamben’s discovery would soon have been followed by the book’s appearance in German, Italian, French, English and a host of other languages. But Benjamin’s book was found in this world. The editors of the German edition of Benjamin’s collected works, then in mid-publication, included in their annotations many fragments of the materials Agamben shared with them, but postponed separate publication. Publishing travails beginning with the purchase of Einaudi by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondadori-Mediaset corporation led to the cancellation of the project in Italy. Now, more than thirty years after its rediscovery, it has at last been published in a handsome nine hundred-page Italian edition which painstakingly traces Benjamin’s final work from first intuition to last words. (The German critical edition of the book, originally promised for publication this year, has been delayed until 2016.)

The first line of the first draft for the book that was to become Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of Advanced Capitalism is about allegory: ‘Tout pour moi devient allégorie,’ ‘for me everything becomes allegory.’ This epigraph is from Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Swan’. In it the poet thinks of Andromache, ‘widow of Hector and, alas, wife of Helenus’, asking us to imagine her fate, her exile: she sees Troy in flames and ends up a slave. And then the poet sees a swan. Not a mythological swan like the one that took Hector from Andromache (Helen was born of the embrace of Zeus as swan and Leda), but a modern swan that has escaped from its cage in teeming, chaotic 19th-century Paris. It is far from its ‘beau lac natal’, floundering in the dust, confused by the crowds. The allegorical element spreads through the poet’s world, taking in a host of modern figures: sailors abandoned on a faraway island, an ailing woman who seeks ‘behind the immense wall of fog/the absent coconut trees of her magnificent Africa’, before the poet finally sees himself in the entire host of ‘the captive, the defeated’.

It is unsurprising that this poem of exile, alienation and allegory had such special resonance for Benjamin. It juxtaposes ancient and modern. It moves jarringly from one image to another as though jostled in a crowd. It suggests that no new Troy needs to be sacked for a city to be lost; that urban planners, civil architects and the commodification of culture are more than sufficient to alienate its inhabitants. It also explicitly addresses what had long been one of Benjamin’s central concerns. His greatest early work, The Origin of German Baroque Tragedy (1928), is a book about allegory – allegory as ‘philosophical understanding’, not merely as a literary mode. In it Benjamin discussed Spenser, Dante and the German dramatists but argued that allegory is present in any and all artful expression: that it constitutes ‘expression – just as language is expression, just as writing is’. Whatever the truth of Benjamin’s claim that ‘Baudelaire’s genius, nourished by melancholy, is an allegorical one,’ it is clear that Benjamin’s genius, nourished by melancholy, was an allegorical one, from his study of Goethe’s Elective Affinities to essays on Kafka, Proust, storytelling and mechanical reproduction; from his first book to the remark he made a few months before his death that the gas mask he carried with him was ‘an uncanny double of the skulls with which monastic scholars adorned their cells’.

Benjamin’s last work began as something more modest: an essay commissioned in 1937 by the Institut für Sozialforschung, soon to be better known as the Frankfurt School. Benjamin initially envisioned it as a chapter in the vast work he planned to write on ‘Paris as the capital of the 19th century’, known today in the fragmentary forms of The Arcades Project. In 1938 Benjamin wrote to the institute’s head, Max Horkheimer, to tell him that the essay on Baudelaire had grown into a book, one in which the ‘essential themes of the Arcades Project would converge’ and which would serve as ‘a model in miniature’ for the larger work in progress. Many of Benjamin’s friends were far away – Scholem in Palestine, Brecht in Denmark, Gretel and Theodor Adorno in America – and his letters to them show that in the last three years of his life he postponed work on the Arcades Project to dedicate himself to his steadily growing model in miniature. As it increased in size and diversified in concern the Baudelaire book pulled more and more of the themes and materials initially envisioned for the Arcades Project into its orbit, fundamentally altering what remained (which is why the German critical edition will publish The Arcades Project and Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of Advanced Capitalism simultaneously).

This book about allegory and alienation, lyric poetry and the commodification of culture, was still very much work in progress when Benjamin handed it to Bataille. It was to have a methodological introduction, followed by three distinct parts. Part One would treat primarily poetic matters, focusing on the ‘decisive importance of allegory in Les Fleurs du mal’. Part Two would focus on social, political and historical matters such as conspiracy, revolution and the idea of the modern. (Two versions of section two of Part Two – ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ and ‘On Some Themes in Baudelaire’ – were sent to Adorno and Horkheimer in New York and thus were available before Agamben’s discovery.) The third part of the book was to resolve the tensions of the preceding parts through a treatment of ‘the commodity as the fulfilment of Baudelaire’s allegorical vision’. This section would range widely, exploring the notion of the prostitute as ‘the most complete form of the commodity’, for instance, and the conceptions of novelty and monotony in such strange flowerings of 19th-century thought as Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Auguste Blanqui’s notion of ‘stellar eternity’. Each of these things is treated in the book now published, though none of them finally or conclusively.

Earlier in his career Benjamin had written that the ‘truth-content’ of a work resulted from the most precise immersion into the individual details of a given subject’. In his last work we begin to grasp the nature of that immersion. Benjamin asks himself: ‘What was Golden Age Rome’s population?’ ‘Did Petrus Borel belong to the bohème galante or to the bohème réelle?’ ‘What is sodomy?’ These questions are taken from a list of 67 similarly disparate others relating to Baudelaire. He notes that in Baudelaire’s Paris a fleet of more than five hundred sedan chairs was still in use for elegant transport; that it was fashionable for flâneurs to purchase turtles and use them to set their pace; that a worker committed suicide in the home of the fantastically popular novelist Eugѐne Sue, leaving a note in which he hoped ‘dying would be easier for me if I died under the roof a man who stands up for us and loves us.’ The chief interest of this phase of the work is to watch an array of ‘individual details’ deployed and redeployed in the search for new forms of presentation and illumination.

Benjamin was committed to the notion of compression, with moments charged to the breaking point of revolutionary possibility. This led to formulations of incredible aphoristic density. Many have become famous: ‘there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,’ for example, or his parable about the ‘angel of history’. In the Baudelaire book we are told that ‘the delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight’; that ‘it is virtually impossible to write a history of information separately from a history of the corruption of the press.’ Benjamin’s prose is not easy to read, in part because of the complexity of its sentences, in part because of its unusual rhythms. Many paragraphs read like careful settings for the diamond-sharp aphorism at their centre. One of many fine insights is that ‘Baudelaire was fond of contextualising his theses crassly – placing them, as it were, in baroque lighting.’ Benjamin’s own lighting is very different, but no less singular.

This compression, and this immersion in detail, isn’t without risk. It’s not unreasonable to ask what sedan chairs or turtles, suicide statistics, wine taxes or the year in which house numbers became compulsory in Paris have to do with Les Fleurs du mal. When, in 1938, Benjamin sent the first completed section of his book (section two of Part Two) to New York for publication in the institute’s journal it was met with a long silence and then a long letter of rejection. Adorno took his friend to task for ‘blockading [his] ideas behind impenetrable walls of material’, for falling into ‘a wide-eyed presentation of mere facticity’, for situating his work at the ‘bewitched’ ‘crossroads of magic and positivism’. Adorno was both mesmerised and frustrated by what he read. Benjamin calmly replied that ‘when you speak of “a wide-eyed presentation of mere facticity” you are in fact describing the proper philological attitude,’ and went on in a long letter of his own to argue for his materialist method. The new volume reproduces these letters. On display here more clearly than ever before is the much debated divergence between Adorno and Benjamin, their differing conceptions of Marxism, and their ideas on the role of history in the study of art.

Then there are the fragments published in 1955 under the title ‘Central Park’ – for the central role their methodological speculations were to play in the Baudelaire book, and in anticipation of the apartment on Central Park which his friends in New York had procured for him but which he was never to see. That initial publication was met with some befuddlement; returned now to their original context the fragments make a new kind of sense. But even more interesting for readers of Benjamin is the light the full Baudelaire book casts on the huge mass of notes published posthumously as The Arcades Project. The notes, consisting largely of citations, are available as a book, but for Benjamin they did not constitute a book. They were carefully organised materials for a work still to be written. How it might have looked has been a subject of extensive speculation. No document is of greater assistance in understanding what The Arcades Project might have become than the work for which he interrupted it, its ‘very precise model in miniature’.

But Benjamin left another enigmatic very late work, the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. The single idea which shines through most clearly in the ‘Theses’ is also the most difficult to grasp. At a number of points in his final years Benjamin referred to the ‘now of knowability’. ‘Every now,’ he claimed, ‘is the now of a particular knowability.’ His most deeply felt philological conviction was that no document of the past – whether recent or remote – is equally comprehensible at all times. Every document, every work, every poem, has what he called a ‘historical index’, a secret rendezvous with the present. For Benjamin the point of historical study was not that the past shed continuous light on the present, or that the present cast a steady light on the past. Rather, at certain points in history works offer a ‘now of knowability’ (or a ‘now of readability’), a moment of fortuitous opportunity, a chance that can be seized to change the course of history. Or a chance that can be missed. It is this sense of urgency that motivated Benjamin’s evocation of an ‘angel of history’, as well as his conviction that ‘only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.’

Such an idea is apt to sound mystical, or even mad, and it is often passed over in silence by Benjamin’s exegetes, or explained away as an esoteric caprice. Part of the reason that the idea of a ‘now of knowability’ is so strange is that it seems to place the agency of reading in the hands of the text. Books do not have consciousness, but they are full of potential. Benjamin believed that he had found the ‘now of knowability’ of Baudelaire, and the whole of 19th-century Paris: he wasn’t burying his head in the archives but confronting the unprecedented catastrophe in progress in his own manner. Similarly, thirty years later, Michel Foucault would respond to a mounting crisis to do with confinement and incarceration by writing historical studies of the birth of the psychiatric clinic and the modern prison: he was studying phenomena whose ‘now of knowability’ had, it seemed, arrived. For Benjamin every moment ‘bears in the highest degree the mark of the critical, the dangerous moment which is at the root of all reading’, and it is this vision of reading which most animates his last work.

Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of Advanced Capitalism casts light on something else too: the work of its discoverer. Giorgio Agamben is not only the co-translator and co-editor of the volume, and the author of a perceptive introduction. He is not only one of the most knowledgable and innovative readers of Benjamin’s work. He is also engaged in an exceptionally wide-ranging work in progress of his own, his Homo Sacer series (eight volumes of which have been published so far), whose guiding methodological principle is Benjamin’s ‘now of knowability’. When Agamben discovered Benjamin’s papers he was the author of three books. He is now the author of more than twenty, and among the most famous and most fiercely debated living philosophers. When he first read Benjamin in the summer of 1968, Agamben recounts, ‘it had the most immediate and astonishing effect on me.’ ‘With no other author,’ he adds, ‘have I experienced such an uncanny affinity.’ He was studying with Heidegger at the time, and has said more than once that ‘Benjamin was for me the antidote that allowed me to survive Heidegger.’ How and why this is the case is a story in itself, but his remarks give an idea of the vitality of the connection, a sense of how Benjamin might lead a reader to experience ‘the critical, the dangerous moment which is at the root of all reading’.