Walter Benjamin, the Flaneur, and the Confetti of History
by Robert Fulford

(Queen's Quarterly, Winter, 2006)

As he saw it, the arcades, the ancestors of our shopping malls, existed as a city unto themselves, "a world in miniature." Physically, they were corridors with glass roofs and marble panelling, extending through entire blocks of buildings, where well-to-do Paris expressed its taste in the luxurious shops lining both sides of the corridors. Imaginatively they were much more. They were the generator of dreams, the place where society's ideas about excellence, charm, and style were formulated and spread. They were to their time what magazines like Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair are to ours.

Those carefully arranged spaces became "the theatre of all my struggles," Benjamin wrote. Here he would examine and judge even the most commonplace objects and ideas, revealing the true nature of their time and place. He dreamt of writing a new kind of history, liberating the past from the burden of standard narrative and instead presenting a crucial period through a careful collection of facts, ideas, images, minutiae, and esoterica. He wanted to add montage to the tools of the historian, "to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event."

His friend Theodor Adorno, looking at the early drafts of the work he was doing, predicted in 1935 that the book would be one of the great philosophical achievements of the period. But in 1940, when Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish Pyrenees because he feared he was about to fall into the hands of the Nazis, the project was far from complete. He had given years of his life to it, had filled thirty notebooks, but had never formulated the ideas that might have pulled it together.

Those ideas would naturally have been critical. Certainly they would have shown no friendliness toward the merchants and property developers who built the arcades. Benjamin was never a thoroughgoing Marxist, and certainly no great student of Marx's writings, but he was Marxist enough to distrust the very idea of organized retail business, secure in his belief (and the belief of most people he knew) that buying and selling could lead nowhere but to exploitation and imperialism. He was in certain ways the most accomplished German intellectual of his day, but he nevertheless suffered from the blindness that routinely afflicts intellectuals.

Exposing the dreams of the bourgeoisie, he never understood that he, too, was living in a dream, the Marxist dream of a society that, against all the odds, would be at once adventurous, free, honest, and egalitarian. He did his best to awaken humanity to the empty rapture of consumerism; but there was no one to awaken Benjamin.

Nor did he understand how shopping, and places where shops cluster, can help create a sense of community. The spirit of commerce, which animates so much of mankind, was alien to him. Today it's a commonplace that even the coldest and most forbidding institutions immediately become more approachable when a retail element is added. Consider, for instance, all the hospitals designed or renovated by Eberhard Zeidler, the Toronto architect, who has been heavily influenced by the ideas of the late Jane Jacobs. In his hands boring, empty spaces become busy, shared spaces through the introduction of retail atria. And shopping malls, in many ways the bastard children of the arcades (because franchised stores and relentless market research have made them so numbingly uniform), nevertheless function with some effect as secular gathering places in suburbs that have no other institutions playing that role.

For many years after his death, only a few scholars in Germany read the manuscript Benjamin had left behind. Tantalizingly, Adorno called it a significant document and other scholars quoted brief passages from it. In 1982 it finally appeared in Germany, and the 1,073-page English edition, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard University Press), was published in 1999.

No one defended it as a book of theory. It's "a ruin filled with riddles," as one critic said. Examining it, we feel like scholars studying the research notes for a masterpiece that was never written. It lacks, to put it mildly, shapeliness. It points in all directions and none; it raises issues that never get developed, and it betrays on every page the failure of the author's good intentions. It's like a city from antiquity that exists as rubble, rumour, and mystery, a Pompeii of scholarship.

The first-class reporter accumulates facts until, properly sorted, they turn into knowledge; in the hands of a fact-gatherer like Benjamin, the process moves to another level, toward illumination. Benjamin knew that God is in the details -- and so is everything else, including the understanding of society. There was always a religious aspect to his work. As Peter Brier wrote three years ago in an essay called "Walter Benjamin's sparks of holiness" for the Southwest Review: "He was at once the Talmudist laboriously testing each of the forty-nine interpretations, the Kabbalist searching for sparks of holiness embedded in the encrusted debris of the past, and the Marxist pursuing his dialectical path."

Assembling his material, Benjamin created sections carrying titles like "Dream City," "Boredom," "the Seine," and "Fashion." He noted the Parisian craze for cashmere shawls and chronicled the promise of Marquis Chocolates (44 Rue Vivienne, at the Passages des Panoramas), which in 1846 announced that a selection of verses ("from the year's purest, most gracious, and most elevated publications") would be included in the package with its exquisite confections.

Benjamin wrote about art galleries, prostitution, streetcars, illuminated gardens, and every other subject his eye fell on. He reported his discovery that in 1867 the velvet-bound menu at Les Trois Freres Provinciaux ran for 36 pages and offered, among other things, 71 varieties of compote.

No one had ever before taken such pains to gather up the confetti of modern history. He worked like an archeologist uncovering a corner of the Roman Empire, studying his fragments of stone in the hope they would eventually make sense. Till Benjamin, no theorist had thought to borrow the Balzacian and Dickensian technique of bringing an era to life through attention to its most minute cultural details. Since Benjamin, however, thousands of essayists, critics, and professors of cultural studies have taken the same course, not always to good effect. Students in cultural studies, apparently reasoning that they are entitled to do whatever they think Benjamin did, have a habit of producing essays that contain almost nothing but quotations. They miss the point that Benjamin went deep into the archives for obscure detail; students sometimes think that one quotation is as good as another and even quote Benjamin himself.

On a more serious level, the most distinguished descendants of Benjamin include Susan Sontag, when she shuffled through science fiction to find the spirit of her times, Roland Barthes, who wrote about Garbo's face, and Marshall McLuhan when he pondered the implications of advertising and Dagwood Bumstead.

Graduate students have been stimulated to write uncounted theses about The Arcades Project, but otherwise it sits on the shelf, accumulating (as Woody Allen once said of his old copies of the New York Review) thick layers of dust and guilt. Reading The Arcades Project is impossible. It can be consulted; it can be paged through; it can be looked into; but no one (aside from translators, editors, and reviewers) has ever claimed to have read it straight through, as one reads someone like Barthes.

If we judge it as a persuasive account of its subject, then it will always be considered a failure. On the other hand, it's a magnificent failure, an endlessly interesting and surprising failure, a failure that only a great and ingenious writer could leave us. Or, as Frank Kermode wrote, there are more systematic minds, but there are few that match Benjamin's intuitive power -- "the informing eye, the inquiring spirit." All the articles written since The Arcades Project appeared have only added to Benjamin's stature, though no one has so far tried to emulate the grandeur of his vision.

When Benjamin and the arcades are mentioned, the flaneur inevitably elbows his way into the conversation. This is the sprightliest and most suggestive element in Benjamin's book, the portrait of a particular male type who moved comfortably through the arcades and helped create their character. He crops up often in The Arcades Project, as apparently he once did in Paris, but he also gets a special section of his own in the book, 39 pages long.

Benjamin saw in him an emblem of Parisian life. The flaneur, he believed, expressed the political attitude of the middle classes during the Second Empire -- withdrawn, uncommitted, observant but not deeply involved, proud but not noticeably articulate, sometimes sinister. For all that, Benjamin could not dislike him. He enjoyed the fellow's style and shared his pleasure in the discoveries of curious phenomena.

North American civilization has never made a place for the flaneur. As the late Anatole Broyard of the New York Times once noted, "Our boulevards, such as they are, are not avenues for the parade and observation of personality, or for perusal by the flaneur, but conveyor belts to the stores, where we can buy everything but human understanding."

Even defining the word has never been easy for North Americans. A French-English dictionary will tell you it means "a stroller," nothing more. But on this subject the usually mild-mannered American Heritage Dictionary suddenly reveals intense hostility. A flaneur, it says, is "an aimless idler; a loafer." Webster calls him "an idle man-about-town," though a true flaneur would insist that there's nothing idle about the search for sensation, gossip, and unexpected human beauty.

In studying the flaneur Benjamin followed Baudelaire, the writer who obsessed him more than any other. In Baudelaire we meet the flaneur as a supercilious dandy, alienated from the crowd through which he walks, an aristocrat in his own eyes if not in anyone else's. He dresses well, though he's not necessarily prosperous; at one point Benjamin depicts him returning alone to a single room. As we follow Benjamin on his stroll through the arcades, Benjamin follows the flaneur.

A flaneur never hurries; Baudelaire says that in Paris there was a brief vogue for walking turtles on a leash, so that one's turtle could set the proper pace for a flanerie. So far as I know, the flaneur has made only one notable appearance, en masse, in Canadian history. That was on the site of Expo 67 in Montreal. Expo, in fact, could have been designed with the needs of the flaneur in mind. The architecture was often amazing; the paths connecting the buildings emphasized surprise; there were no cars to disturb the contemplative mood of the stroller, and the on-site population always included a remarkable number of beautiful females (by good fortune, that was the year the miniskirt reached its apogee). I spent four months there, and even I walked slowly, taking it all in. I noticed a good many men who might well be classified as flaneurs, though I saw no one with a turtle.

For years I have aspired to the status of at least a part-time flaneur, but something has always kept it beyond my reach. I blame the presence within me of the pale vestiges of Protestantism, a gentle but oppressively persistent fog which clouded the world around me during my Toronto childhood. We learn most when we least know we are learning; I believe I learned, without knowing it, that there was no place in our world for someone whose main joy was observation and whose main interest was noting, often with a certain disdain, the varieties of humans in his path. I walk, but usually with a purpose. I wander, but not for long; soon I look for a bench where I can read.

The flaneur exalts purposelessness -- which is, literally, against my religion and my community's religion. Sad to say, my experience of serious flanerie remains mainly literary and no doubt always will. Happily, however, Walter Benjamin's awkward masterwork provides the would-be flaneur with a wonderfully capacious boulevard for the imagination.

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