Grad School

A Vaulted Dream

I have been thinking about the nature of the Paris arcades as Walter Benjamin employs them, and specifically how they relate to his conception of the dream, or the construct of the dream house.

When he writes:

“Arcades are houses or passages having no outside—like the dream” [L1a,1]

he is tapping an essential quality as to what the arcades represent for him, as an accomplishment, but also as a motif, a structuring structure that contributes heavily to a huge proportion his written thought.

The dream house is simultaneously an inner and outer fabulation—it exists in the mind but also as an outer space—yet one that is enclosed by impressively constructed boundaries, beyond which there is no exterior. The formulations intellected by Benjamin, which gift the arcades a secondary existence as an all-encompassing gestalt, preclude a world that does not participate in its ordering principles.

Many of his obsessions relate to this motif. Be it architecture, artistic movements, historiography, psychology, or language, it is the achievements of human conception—either material, abstract, or both—that form the boundaries which encompass the subjects he is driven to explore. The achievement of the arcades, which, as a reality unto themselves, manmade and humanly occupied, contains all the material one needs to analyze them. The extremes of their construction, and the limits of their ontology, are for him a metonym for the edifice of human accomplishment. His preoccupation with the orienting principles of that accomplishment, as well as the minute play of the particular observed within everyday experience, concedes that there is no exterior. We are always already within the colonnades of history. Outside of the that the dialectic does not exist.

Yet this is not a constraining limitation for Benjamin. The arcades are capacious enough to encompass the effectively insurmountable repository of data that emerges within the interior of the civilized edifice. Again, the qualities of his dream house reveal what procedures are enabled within it:

“. . . as we walked on, the ghost accompanied us from inside all the houses. It passed through the walls and always remained at the same height with us. I saw this, though I was blind. The path we travel through arcades is fundamentally just such a ghost walk, on which doors give way and walls yield.” [L2,7, my emphasis]

This is a vision of the interior realm ready for exploration. The arcades do not present barriers to investigation—they influence but do not impede, and movement between zones in pursuit of an objective, some form of apprehension, is unrestrained.

The arcade is effectively the—endlessly productive—ideal world that does not impede, does not pervert, and does not arrest attempts to penetrate and intellectually contend with its existence. Situated within this kind of idyllic model, no understanding is necessarily out of reach, and it is the task of the critic to explore and record. This is the premise which orients his ambition to delineate a thinkably unthinkable concordance of what the arcades contain.

paris-arcades

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When Not to Move

Countries and flags

Even the cosmopolis can feel confining.

I had harboured aspirations of striking out beyond the precincts of my ostensibly humble region and transferring my base of operations to somewhere fundamentally different; somewhere founded on a different design, a local perhaps perpetuated and driven by an ideology of a dissimilar tenor. The trajectory I envisioned, even from the point of my recent journey’s genesis—that first degree—took me up and out of my limited experience to environments diverse and challenging. Goodbye, Toronto! Goodbye, goodbye. Because really, how many jolly adventures can one have in the same local? Won’t the familiarity of a well-worn home lead to stagnation? Doesn’t the well run dry after ceaselessly drawing from it, year after year? And quite honestly, no one wants to be a parochial academic when the world beckons to ambition so compulsively. When you see yourself climbing up onto the shoulders of giants you imagine that giant standing at the epicentre of an unequivocally vital site, somewhere where they’ll see your banner snapping in the troposphere and it will mean something; the little people far afield might be driven to rally or flee.

Possibly, I exaggerate. If not, it’s still an indulgent fantasy. I came late to this.

I phoned a dear friend once many years ago, and I caught her at an unusual time. Her voice was thick with emotion, and as we talked she came to seem genuinely depressed. “My darling,” I said to her, “whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, it’s ridiculous,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I pressed.

“I’ve just finally realized that I’m never going to be a pop star.”

Hearing her articulate this epiphany was a minor detonation. There was a clear and lucid origin of perspective in its essence. Something had sunken in.

The allure of this particular pipe dream was relatively foreign to me. At that point in my life I saw myself as too unconventional, and too contrary, to be suited for any kind of status that relied upon mass appeal. The brand of success I entertained in my own reveries took the shape of a loving peer group and a chance to make a living creatively, but quietly and out of the way; and not so much out of pragmatism but rather an untrustworthy orientation toward brute reality. However, my friend’s realization, and what she was coming to terms with (however tongue-in-cheek) addressed a fundamental mythology that motivates a certain quantity of every project of self-determination. The spectre of destiny draws many of us forward; and it is seldom a modest phantasm that does the work within the formative imagination. Around the corner of the everyday is anticipation for a revelatory moment of discovery, a juncture where the avatars of forces which drive the world suddenly take notice, attend, and carry you off—transmute you from your station and install you within the charmed sphere of the relevant, respected, and adored.

The permutations of these fantasies are, of course, endless; and they drive the compulsive magnetism of celebrity. The public regards, but it also projects; and that delirious projection is a lot of what spurs much of the everyday toil through mediocrity. I suppose it’s most especially acute in the young, before the force of raw statistics begins to wear at your consciousness. However, at some point you have to mourn your chances.

I mourned early. I recovered.

And my ambition has evolved rather than degraded: I haven’t worn down—I’ve sharpened. I’ve fine tuned. This older self I have inherited, thanks to the inexorable dilation of time, entertains much grander designs than what my prematurely pessimistic ego made room for when I thought I was headed nowhere fast. I had always known that I would never be a pop star, but at some point I had become actually optimistic about the prospects of a more modest luminary position in the firmament. My dream machine has been steadily stoked these past few years, and where I would have been familiar tracing the inner contours of my psyche and discerning only resignation, instead I have adumbrated the shape and substance of actual desire; powerful objectives motivated. This is genuinely a surprise.

I blame positive reinforcement: the continuous encouragement of multiple successes after facing difficult odds.

So when my ambition to breach the national barrier surrounding me was forestalled last year, and my long range plans ran afoul of the very real odds stacked against me, I recalled my friend, anguished on the other end of the phone line. This will never be was stitched into the fabric of the sky, and I felt the destitution of a lofty dream aborted.

Never is a brutal oblivion; but never is also hard to ensure. In a universe that thrives on the proliferation of possibilities, of aleatory contingencies and powerfully interlaced probabilities, never is almost as unlikely as always. Not this one, no this time, is so much more palatable, and so much more credible, than never.

The dream can stand some adjustment. I do not need to be stationed in America to realize my ambitions. The well, here in Canada, in Toronto, has not run dry; and whatever arguments I thought made it imperative to shuck this city like an old skin have lost a lot of their validity under detailed scrutiny. Good things can come from familiar territories. Progress without movement can be an exciting way to examine personal morphology. One can trace new outlines over the old shapes on a map. The iterations might create a compelling palimpsest, a record and new manuscript simultaneously. The core of the exercise is solid, is estimable; familiar but still challenging. There are newnesses to learn from right here as much as there.

So I stay. So I commit to inscribing my mark with a fine point on a site that has asked me to use its surface. There are other ways to transcend boundaries and reach beyond one’s original sphere. The world becomes progressively smaller when it consists of continents of text. It can be nice to be at home and to travel without moving.