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Portrait of Walter Benjamin

A Book at Passages' by Walter Benjamin: The Impossibility of an Oeuvre as a Working Method


Walter Benjamin spent 13 years preparing a “dialectic fairy tale” that would tell the story of the nineteenth century, by definition an impossible piece that redeemed other types of intellectual endeavors.

Over the past few years, the work of Walter Benjamin has been enthusiastically rescued in several intellectual spheres. A seduction that might be explained by the eccentricity of his thoughts.

Eccentric in at least two ways. First, its rareness: Benjamin was a Marxist that also explored theology and Jewish mysticism; someone who perfectly understood the economic cycles of production, consumption and for this very reason, unpredictably, he studied the symbolic labor of the collector; an out of time romantic who, during moments of melancholia, nostalgically contemplated the weary disappearance of the nineteenth century; a modern man who discovered in Hamlet the beginning and the condensation of said modernity; a Francophile Berliner who as a reader frequently visited the work of Brecht, Proust, Karl Kraus and Mallarmé with the same curiosity and pleasure.

Secondly, eccentric because of his marginal vocation. Unlike other thinkers like Theodor W. Adorno, Benjamin always remained at the margin, a face hidden behind books (as Susan Sontag portrays him in Under the Sign of Saturn), his activity was spread out over different libraries. Who, during a time when industrialization is irreversible, with palpable examples of the tension between man and machine, the laborer and the owners of production means, prefers to exemplify the class struggle and the consequences of capitalism through the passages of Paris and with the useless idleness of the flâneur who wanders aimlessly in front of the stained glass windows of the City of Light? His characteristic inclination for miniatures, dreams, hashish, and all that which is residual and tries to be unnoticed and that for this very reason is likely to condense all the symptoms of society.

Walter Benjamin reading at a table in the library


Within the Benjaminian corpus, the Book of Passages occupies a primordial place, despite it being an unfinished work (or precisely because it is). At least from 1927 to 1940, Benjamin worked on an essay project that used real example to comment on the vertiginous reality of capitalism, the rushed obsoleteness of the new. What reality was the philosopher speaking of? Of the “architectural works of the nineteenth century —railway stations, exhibition pavilions, large warehouses—”, the changing fashion sense, domestic furniture, collections, the detective novel, pictorial genres born from the irruption of the bourgeoisie into the world of art (“the historical scenes, animal paintings, scenes with children, images of the lives of monks, families and of the village”), Baudelaire, the preferred materials for building certain buildings and a diverse and at times endless something that would eventually tell the story of twentieth century modernity through a “dialectic fairy tale”.

Except for the summary of Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1935, Benjamin kept this work as a series of notes and materials, meaning, comments, notes, spontaneous aphorisms (in the best of the German tradition of the genre, from Lichtenberg to Wittgenstein) and an incredible but coherent number of quotes.

The work, evidently, was endless by definition, and it is hard to speculate had he lived longer, Benjamin would have been able to conclude it in some way. If we can now navigate those chaotic waters, it is because of Rolf Tiedemann’s editorial work, who published a book with its actual format in 1982 in the SuhrKamp-Verlag publishing.

Beyond its contributions to philosophical theory, social science, literary theory and other academic specialties, to the open reader, to curious and attentive one, the common and “free” one, what meaning can the Arcane Project have? Among others, the redemption of the incomplete and the fragmented within the work, suggestion and effort as working methods, the promise to return to an issue as an intellectual motivation.

And perhaps, above all else, this is also the projection of an impossible work as the support for life itself.

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