“The act of emerging from an egg”: Walter Benjamin on Marseilles

In Metaphysics on February 17, 2009 at 12:40 am

redlightM. Standfast Thomas, Kyoto

It was in Pittsburgh
late one night
I lost my hat
got into a fight

Bob Dylan

This post represents the first salvo in the grand battle of coming to terms with the writing of Walter Benjamin. Here, I will tackle his two essays on Marseilles (the English versions of which are both collected in Reflections), but not before offering the briefest of outlines of the contours of his mental landscape. Benjamin is sometimes still categorized as a “Marxist,” but, as even the most cursory glance at his work makes apparent, he had many other concerns, some of which aligned very uneasily with any form of Marxism the reader might previously have encountered. As is noted by both Peter Demetz and Leon Wieseltier, Benjamin’s Marxism overlaid his religious and metaphysical concerns, and these competing interests complement and/ or contradict each other–making either for a highly unusual synthesis or some kind of beautiful mess. Benjamin’s friend, the Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem, who dedicated his “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” to Benjamin, thought that Benjamin was “tempted against the grain of his sensibilities, to superimpose the terms of Marxist discourse upon his metaphysical vision of God, language, and a society ontologically in need of salvation” (Demetz, xv), and indeed careful reading of Benjamin’s best work does suggest that Jewish metaphysics was as or more central to his thinking as was Marxism.

The intellectual weight that Benjamin brings to bear in his attempt to synthesize his three major concerns: i) symbolism and semiotics especially as deciphered through everyday objects and the landscape of cities; ii) Jewish flavored mysticism with a messianic, almost apocalyptic tone; iii) Marxism, goes a long way toward convincing the reader that his obsessions are of a piece, but there can be no doubt that his mystical strain in particular, coupled with some of his more esoteric interests such as handwriting analysis and palm-reading, did not always sit well with more doctrinaire Marxists, or indeed with some garden-variety liberals. While some of his friends felt that he wandered a little too far afield from the party-line, Wieseltier, in his preface to the 2007 version of Reflections, argues that Benjamin’s Marxism was “the most embarrassing of his mental wanderings” (viii). Admittedly, from where we sit Benjamin’s Marxism does generally seem the most dated aspect of his thought, but his application of historical materialism in “On the Concept of History” is tremendously fruitful. But that is a subject for another post.

What is clear is that Benjamin was never able to toe the party line, even when it might have been in his material interest to do so. This inability, I think, was both a matter of temperament and of Benjamin’s relentlessly imaginative oddness that insisted on reading between the lines of material culture as manifested in everyday items and structures to unearth the splendor and wonderment of the prosaic. Demetz has it this way: “the failure of the systematic thinker constituted the true triumph of the master of hermeneutics who, in ‘reading’ the things of the world as if they were sacred texts, suddenly decodes the overwhelming forces of human history” (xxii). Wieseltier also refers to Benjamin’s “failure,” calling his a “failed mystic” (ix), but seen another way, Benjamin did as much as was possible in his particular socio-historical context to resuscitate mysticism for the modern age. That this mystical sense was unsystematic, out of the ordinary, and in the end wholly unusable for any political project, is made clear in his two essays on Marseilles that appear in Reflections. These are “Marseilles” and “Hashish in Marseilles.”

Benjamin had great difficulty writing about Marseilles, and in the end turned to hashish in his efforts to make sense of that city.  After reading these two pieces, it is clear that the city brought out something deep, almost atavistic in Benjamin; both pieces are short (6 and 9 pages respectively), but through these alone we see that Benjamin was interested in so much more than party-line politics.  Here he is describing “les bricks,” the red-light district of Marseilles: “Invisible lines divide the area up into sharp, angular territories like African colonies.  The whores are strategically placed, ready at a sign to encircle hesitant visitors, and to bounce the reluctant guest like a ball from one side of the street to the other.  If he forfeits nothing else in this game, it is his hat.  Has anyone yet probed deeply enough into this refuse head of houses to reach the innermost place in the gynaeceum, the chamber where the trophies of manhood–boaters, bowlers, hunting hats, trilbies, jockey caps–hang in rows on consoles or in layers on racks?” (132).  It will be apparent even from this single passage that criticism of Benjamin from his friends for not being a sufficiently good Marxist badly missed the point.  Benjamin was up to something else altogether; his historical materialism was infused with a genuine sense of wonder and awe when confronted with the landscape of the modern city.

Even when Benjamin writing touches on politics, it does so through a scrim of figurative, metaphorical language such that while it may communicate a “message,” it can also be appreciated on a purely literary level.  “Marseilles” is divided into short sections, most no longer than a single paragraph, with headings such as “Noises,” “Shellfish and oyster stalls,” “Suburbs.”  “Walls” reads as follows: “Admirable, the discipline to which they are subject in this city.  The better ones, in the center, wear livery and are in the pay of the ruling class.  They are covered with gaudy patterns and have sold their whole length many hundreds of times to the latest brand of aperitif, to department stores, to the ‘Chocolat Menier’, or Dolores del Rio.  In the poorer quarters they are politically mobilized and post their spacious red letters as the forerunners of red guards in front of dockyards and arsenals” (135).  “The better ones, in the center, wear livery and are in the pay of the ruling class”–for a writer who is now revered by cultural theoreticians and semioticians who regularly dine out on jargon-riddled, often incomprehensible prose, Benjamin has a surprisingly lean, almost aphoristic style that is on full display in these two succinct essays.

Demetz tells us that Benjamin was concerned with “thresholds,” both literal and figurative.  Thus, he flirted with many philosophies and ways of knowing (Jewish mysticism, Marxism, drug experiences, Romanticism) without committing wholeheartedly to any of them.  Likewise, he was fascinated with borders between different sections of cities, red light districts, “edges of the void” (xvii) in Demetz’s phrase, places in which one’s pulse quickened, where one never knew exactly what was around the corner, where a respectable man could lose his hat.  From “Marseilles”: “The further we emerge from the inner city, the more political the atmosphere becomes {…} Outskirts are the state of emergency of a city, the terrain on which incessantly rages the great decisive battle between town and country.  It is nowhere more bitter than between Marseilles and the Provencal landscape.  It is the hand-to-hand fight of telegraph poles against Agaves, barbed wire against thorny palms, the miasmas of stinking corridor against the damp gloom under the plane trees in brooding squares, short-winded outside staircases against the mighty hills” (135-6).  One thing we note about this passage is that Benjamin does not appear to be “taking a side,” certainly he is not doing anything as banal and obvious as decrying the takeover of the countryside by the modern city.  He is simply describing a liminal zone as it appears–Benjamin himself was a city-dweller extraordinaire, the original “psycho-geographer,” and the lead quote to “Marseilles” is from Andre Breton: “The street…the only valid field of experience.”

Indeed, one of the many great things about the second piece, “Hashish in Marseilles,” is the extent to which Benjamin’s account of his drug experience reveals his own urban, bourgeois nature, and how, in small but significant ways, the influence of the drug moves him to push against the limits of his comfort zone.  The lasting interest of this piece lies partly in Benjamin’s extremely funny account of normal course of the drug, much of which is taken with by his trying to find a choose the right restaurant in which to have dinner: “I must note how I found my seat.  What mattered to me was the view of the old port that one got from the upper floors.  Walking past below, I had spied an empty table on the balcony of the second story.  Yet in the end I only reached the first.  Most of the window tables were occupied, so I went up to a very large one that had just been vacated.  As I was sitting down, however, the disproportion of seating myself as so large a table caused me such shame that I walked across the entire floor to the opposite end to sit at a smaller table that became visible to me only as I reached it.  But the meal came later.  First, the little bar on the harbor.  I was again just on the point of retreating in confusion, for a concert, indeed a brass band, seemed to be playing there.  I only just managed to explain to myself that it was nothing more than the blaring of car horns” (138-9).  All this is very good, but also quite typical; Benjamin’s confusion will be perfectly recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature on narcotic intoxication.  What really gives the piece its lasting power is Benjamin’s ever-so-mild, but still deeply significant, flirtation with what in the context of a physically unadventurous life can only be seen as high-risk, threshold behaviors.

As noted above, after taking hashish, Benjamin finds himself in “a little harbor bar” where he finds fascination in faces “that I would normally have avoided for {…} I should neither have wished to attract their gaze nor endured their brutality.  It was a very advanced post, this harbor tavern.  (I believe it was the farthest accessible to me without danger, a circumstance I had gauged, in the trance, with the same accuracy with which, when utterly weary, one is able to fill a glass exactly to the brim without spilling a drop, as one can never do with sharp senses.)  It was still sufficiently far from rue Bouterie, yet no bourgeois sat there; at the most, besides the true port proletariat, a few petit-bourgeois families from the neighborhood” 139-140).  In other words, Benjamin, the bourgeois who has undertaken a drug experiment in order that he may better infiltrate the working-class, hardscrabble Marseilles, knows exactly how far into the threshold, into the liminal zone, he may wander without compromising his physical safety and security.  Potential threats, however, come from within as well as without.  Specifically, terrifyingly, an unlooked for inner musicality seeks on two occasions to express itself in tangible form.  Benjamin’s description of these interludes is irreproducibly splendid.  Benjamin is drinking Cassis and looking out at the Marseilles harbor {“unfathomable wetness that swills from the upper tier, in a dirty, cleansing flood over dirty planks and warty mountains of pink shellfish, bubbles between the thighs and bellies of glazed Buddhas, past yellow domes of lemons…” (134)}, when he feels a truly disturbing sensation: “Here I must observe in general: the solitude of such trances has its dark side.  To speak only of the physical aspect, there was a moment in the harbor tavern when a violent pressure in the diaphragm sought relief through humming” (142).  Later, he is listening to jazz: “The music that meanwhile kept rising and falling, I called the rush switches of jazz.  I have forgotten on what grounds I permitted myself to mark the beat with my foot.  This is against my education, and it did not happen without inner disputation” (144).  If there is a better account in literature of the effects of cultural repression and the ability of music to override such, I am certainly unaware of it.

If “Marseilles” can be appreciated purely on the grounds of Benjamin’s free-wheeling yet precise metaphorical flourishes, “Hashish in Marseilles” can be enjoyed on the basis of its humor (how intentional?) alone {“My walking stick begins to give me a special pleasure {…} One reads the notices on the urinals” (138)}.  But a careful reading of these two brief pieces shed considerable light on the inner condition of the radical author of “On the Concept of History,” light which reveals the well-born son of a bourgeois family willingly coming face to face with the red-light district at the threshold of his own consciousness, a place where, after negotiating “a vast agglomeration of steps, arches, bridges, turrets, and cellars” we may encounter the “midwife Bianchamori {as} she turns a defiant face to all the brothel keepers of the quarter, and points unruffled to a sturdy baby in the act of emerging from an egg” (131-2).

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