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Portrait of languid ladies

Walter Benjamin and the Edges of Dreams


The philosopher and his oneiric theory as the horizon of historical thought.

In One Way Street (1928), Walter Benjamin wrote:

A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the sway of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablution, the grey penumbra of dream persists…

But, can we assert that wakefulness and sleep are two separate frontiers that do not pollute each other or, on the contrary, can we say that the understanding of the oneiric universe, as Benjamin puts it, is a runway strip for the general theory of History, in other words, of the collective dream of Western thought, at least of the twentieth century?

To Benjamin, the figure of the flâneur is similar to that of the dreamer that traverses the oneiric world, at once a walking character, vagabond, who explores the places he knows the best as if he did not know them at all, letting himself be fascinated, surprised, seduced, while he also feels outraged and infuriated. It is not by chance that Benjamin wrote some of the best texts concerning Baudelaire, the poet par excellence of flânerie, of hallucinated wandering and creative vagrancy.

For Benjamin, recording our dreams and writing about sleep, are an everyday rite of passage, a form of documenting the memory of that “we do not know we know”, as the psychoanalyst would say about the emergence of the unconscious (regardless of the fact that Benjamin was a fierce critic of the discipline).

But writing about dreams is not the same thing as analyzing them: Benjamin considered that dreaming is: “a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”; to record in writing the discoveries made in the oneiric life does not imply “translating” them, or trying to extract diagnoses from them. As a matter of fact, according to Benjamin it is precisely the opposite. Recalling dreams is, in its own way, a dream during wakefulness, impenetrable and, radically, foreign.

This manner of dealing with our own strangeness can nurture the historical vision which Benjamin foresaw in the Arcades Project (an idea of History presented as a metaphor in the commercial passages of early twentieth century Paris, with the boom of transatlantic mercantilism and the rise of mass production), whose seedling (a work which in the end is fractal) is scattered over his Historical writing. However, awakening is as important as being asleep, both physiologically (whether we keep track of our dreams or not) and collectively:

Awakening is a gradual process that is imposed on the life of a generation and the individual. Sleeping is, by the way, its primary phase. The juvenile experience of a generation has in common with the oneiric experience. Its historical figure is oneiric. Every era has a childish element, that element is turned towards dreams. For the last century, this was represented by passages.

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