Monday, August 13, 2007

The Arcades Project : Walter Benjamin

The Arcades Project is unlike any book I have read before but then it is unlike anything that one is likely to read. It has been over a year since I purchased it and I have read it intermittently, for this book needs attention, which is not always easy and concentration that is so hard sometimes. Such is the magnitude of this work that I find it hard to even describe it. I have not finished reading this work yet for after all, it took more than a decade to write it. It is Walter Benjamin's effort to write and critique, it is such an immense effort in academia, it is a towering achievement, a magnum opus.

Benjamin started this work in 1927 and carried it on till 1940. The present English edition runs over a thousand pages. published as Der Passagen-Werk in German, this fantastic work is a history, a study of 19th century Paris. It is a posthumously published work. The book is comprised of Convolutes, arranged alphabetically, followed by essays, additional files. He arranged the work in 36 categories like boredom, fashion, photography, catacombs and so on. This book defies categorization for it is actually a research project and I find it monstrously intelligent, unlike anything one can read. Thus this book is a challenge but an intelligent one. There are references to Baudelaire alone that run over 100 pages, in addition to his other contemporary writers like Proust, Adorno and so on.

An arcade in English is a passage in French and a Passagen in German. For those who have been to Paris, a passage basically connects two parallel streets and the passage has shops, cafes and other establishments that face each other. The passage is thus open at both ends and covered with glass and iron. Although arcades are found in other European cities, the arcades were invented in Paris and thus remain a Parisian phenomenon. Benjamin reads into the other a dialectic that suggests both oppression and liberation. For Benjamin, history is Janus, double faced. Since the arcades were created for profit, for economic purpose, they do not tell us of their underlying story. For Benjamin, this is nothing more than promoting commodity fetishism, the only interest being in the goods, at their face value. However, the arcades served the purpose of a burgeoning economy in the 19th century, reflecting the vision of some pioneering minds. He thus wants to offer the true history rather than the surface one.

The arcades also offer refuge from rain, cold, noise and give the passerby a chance to look at a dream in the shop windows, something distant, something that could be attained. The book itself is not a straight forward narrative but a collection of quotations, drafts, commentaries, mosaics, interpretations, ideas, discourses and passages of political, sociological and aesthetic and philosophical nature. Hence, it is not easy to describe this work. Benjamin quotes history to write history. Therefore, this book can only be read in short stints, for the enormous amount of literary references prevent the reader from more natural forays. This therefore becomes an encyclopedia of literature and philosophy and a minefield of variegated knowledge.

To understand Walter Benjamin's works, one needs to be more erudite and more patient than usual. For not only is he a genuine philosopher, he is too well read, like others from the Frankfurt school. His Marxism and his relation with Jewish messianism is not yet clear to me. It seems that he was quite close to Gershom Scholem, the Jewish theologian. Susan Sontag advises us to avoid giving Benjamin any ideological position while in Illuminations, which Hannah Arendt has forewarded, she thinks that Benjamin was a peculiar Marxist. At one time, he did contemplate emigrating to Palestine.There are so many allusions in this work that one finds some as Benjamin's own obsessions at times. This work thus asks for a more learned approach and a discipline while reading, for the text is obscure at times and not readily accessible.

I will endeavour to read this work occasionally for I sometimes wonder if I should but such is the fantastic allure of Benjamin's scholarship, the wide canvas of this work, the amazing literary quality and the unending knowledge in these pages that it would be unwise to not possess this book. I will try to quote excerpts from this work on this blog whenever I can. However, those familiar with Benjamin's other works and essays must understand that this is a truly phenomenal work unlike say his Hashish In Marseilles or other essays.


Alok said...

This is an excellent overview. thanks!

I recently read an essay on the arcades project by j m coetzee too. It was also quite good. Of course the best that I have read is Susan Sontag's Under the Sign of Saturn. In her essay she emphasises Benjamin's treatment of the melancholia and alienation which he says is inherent in the city life and connects it to Baudelaire and generally dismisses Marxist elements (commodity fetishism etc).

My library here doesnt have it I think but will definitely be on a look out for it. The only problem is for reading these kinds of books you need not just time but a solid intellectual background too.

Alok said...

that Hashish essay is not bad either. I was tempted to try it myself after reading it. but first i have to immigrate to a country where it is legal :)

Kubla Khan said...

HI alok
I like your quip about hashish.
well, i agree that an academic philosophical background can help in reading this book or similiar works. however, we can but try. please do understand that this book amazes me and you will never regret buying it or reading it.i am an Arcades fanatic........the gigantic nature of this work is stunning.

Anonymous said...

yes it is absolutely awesome and osmething that one can read one's whole life.
Calasso has some great essays on Benjamin, and he is also able to point out why and at what time in his life Marxism and Kabbalah have become important for him.

Mary E. Martin said...

I have a copy of Benjamin's Arcade Project and was looking for help in drawing it together. Thanks. I found it here. For me, the arcade is a structure which resonates deep into my childhood and I am trying to tap into that feeling/s for the purposes of a novel I'm presently writing. I understand that Benjamin considered arcades as places of dream life. For my purposes, that's the most promising direction.