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

Fragmentary, No. 11

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.

—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ
Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ

Fragmentary, No. 7

The_Nightwatch_by_Rembrandt

In the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable: that is to say it becomes information of a sort, and, like all information, it is either put to use or ignored; information carries no special authority within itself. When a painting is put to use, its meaning is either modified or totally changed. One should be quite clear about what this involves. It is not a question of reproduction failing to reproduce certain aspects of an image faithfully; it is a question of reproduction making it possible, even inevitable, that an image will be used for many different purposes and that the reproduced image, unlike an original work, can lend itself to them all.

♦ John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Notational, No. 11

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. 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. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.

The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.