One of the highlights of my PhD so far has been discovering The Arcades Project. This immense, evocative, thorough and unfinished work was a project that Benjamin was in the midst of researching as World War Two broke out. Begun as a newspaper article, it soon sprawled into 'the theatre of all (Benjamin's) struggles and all (his) ideas." It is unfinished because Benjamin committed suicide (allegedly) in the midst of trying to flee Nazi-occupied France in 1940.
The brilliance of this work cannot be understated. In writing the detail of 19th century Paris, he both preserves its memory and resuscitates it through the intimacy, immediacy and breadth of his material. As a reader, you wander through a metaphoric Paris, experiencing its multitudinous facets as they are revealed to you in glimpses and snatches- the description of a hoop skirt moving across the footpath to contemplation of the Louis Philippe style of decoration ('the belly overspreads everything') to historical details about the competing omnibus companies and the colour of their coaches to the names of people who were the architects of Haussmann's new Paris and their familial relations to one another.
For someone who's imaginative, often what Benjamin writes is a match sparking against the striking surface of your mind, so ensuing the weird, the wonderful, the teasing.
Thus it seems fitting that as a celebration of what has been a lovely semester of weekly Benjamining, here I present my favourite excerpts from this week's convolutes (L-Dream House, Museum, Spa and M-The Flâneur) in Benjamin's own style.
L [Dream House, Museum, Spa]
The modern city as a collective place and space for dreaming. In this, Benjamin alchemises the concrete materiality of the city into the intangible, the shared, the ethereal. Some of the 'dream houses' of the collective are listed as: 'arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railroad stations.' (405) Perhaps they are such because they are places where life happens but does-not happen- places of waiting, of wandering, of passing through, of remembering. Except for factories- places of dreaming because the workers are in a state of waiting for the day to finish? Or slipping into sonambulance because of the repetition of their labour? Or entering an ecstatic state because they are at the cutting edge of modernism, transformed from single units into a collective, unified in purpose? (socialist impulse versus boredom versus tedium)
"Arcades are houses or passages having no outside- like the dream." (406)
Anecdote of homeless painter who hides in a wax museum for the night. So he ends up sleeping in the bed of a waxwork cholera patient for six weeks, waking each morning under the gaze of the kindly waxwork nurse. (408)
"How much I admire those men who decide to be shut up at night in a museum in order to examine at their own discretion, at an illicit time, some portrait of a woman they illuminate by a dark lantern. Inevitably, afterward, they must know much more about such a woman than we do." André Breton, Nadja (Paris, <1928>) (408)
M [The Flâneur]
Paris as "the landscape built of sheer life" (417) Both in the sense that buildings were erected, inhabited and adapted according to need, and also because of how populaced it was- the centre of the modern world and peopled with millions of inhabitants. And the life that was birthed alongside modernism- the machines, the forward-motion of ideas, the turning of the gaze to the everyday (Baudelaire). The city as the new landscape (contrary to the Romantics and their wildernesses)- "(Paris) opens up to him as a landscape even as it closes around him as a room."(417)
"stairs like the train of a dress" (419)
I think of this Tim Walker image.
"Dialectic of flânerie: on one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man." (420) The dialectic of style blogging too, perhaps- or any kind of personal blogging. That you are metaphorically exposed to the gaze and consideration of your readers whilst simultaneously concealing aspects of yourself that are not hidden so much as non-existent in your online selfhood.
"Streets as domestic interior... 'the shops resemble closets'" (422) Mentally refers me to the old dream of being locked in a store after-dark for hours of playing with the stock, letting yourself out sometime before dawn, armed with thieved swag. When I was a kid, my dream location was a toy store, then from around 10 or so, a bookshop. Now it alternates between bookshop and a department store composed of The Corner Shop, Colette, Barneys, Liberty and Dover Street Market. A dream location indeed!)
"In 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie in the arcades." (422)
"The best way, while dreaming, to catch the afternoon in the net of evening is to make plans. The flâneur in planning." (423) Sometimes you have no idea what on earth Benjamin is talking about. It's like he's jotting down notes to self that only he could hope to decipher.
"O night! O refreshing darkness! ... in the stony labyrinths of the metropolis, scintillation of stars, bright bursts of city lights, you are fireworks of the goddess Liberty!"- Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, p. 113 (434)
And finally, a prophetic word- "The man of letters: 'The most poignant realities for him are not spectacles but studies.'" Alfred Delvau, Les Dessous de Paris (Paris, 1860) (435)
I wake up and my mind is amidst thoughts, my floor is strewn with books, I come to the ARC and swim through letters all day, I walk home nutting out vague ideas. I fall asleep musing over what I did that day and wake again to do it all once more.
Often as I walk and think, I am insensible to my surrounds. In this way, I have unwittingly ignored and likely offended many people who I would otherwise stop and chat to. I also get caught out staring at people unseeingly when they start frowning in my direction and I realise they must think I am being rude when I'm actually thinking (and being rude.) So most of the time the world of ideas is more immediate and in this way "real" to me than the tangible world that I inhabit.