Reflections on the surface of life

The Mass Ornament
November 8, 1996

Among the many statistics that help to make 1920s Berlin into a city of myth-making superlatives is one that was crucial for many writers: there were in Berlin 93 daily newspapers. The statistic is important because for writers whose natural home was not the newspaper office - Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Heinrich Mann, Robert Musil come to mind - newspapers offered an outlet for that genre of reflective commentary, distanced from politics and headline news, for which the 1920s became a kind of golden age: the feuilleton. The scale of the activity is difficult to assess, not least because posterity has tended to overlook the feuilleton as a trial run or an irrelevancy, preferring to focus on the books that came later.

In the case of Kracauer the result of this partial view has been singularly unfortunate. To English-speaking readers he is associated with From Caligari to Hitler and Theory of Film. German-speaking readers have had access to his feuilleton work through the two collections published in Germany, The Mass Ornament in 1963, Streets in Berlin and Elsewhere in 1964. The Mass Ornament is a selection of essays almost all first published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, from 1920 to 1931.

To those familiar with Kracauer only as the analyst and theorist of film, capable of sustained argument linking film to history, to cultural philosophy, to myth and to popular imagination, The Mass Ornament will come as a revelation. The feuilleton provided the opportunity to range across a multitude of subjects from arcades to boredom, from Max Weber to the Tiller Girls. He emerges as an outstandingly sharp-sighted witness to the cultural diversity of the Weimar Republic and to the loss of value that underlay what he calls the "surface-level expressions" of that culture. He is perhaps most explicit on the subject of "Those who wait", an essay first published in 1922, which singles out "the curse of isolation and individuation" of lives lived out in a "horror vacui". The victims of this "metaphysical suffering from the lack of a higher meaning" are dangerously prone to escape into faith, into a specious "renewed being", into a "community bound by form". History ten years on was to prove the prophetic force of Kracauer's analysis.

Elsewhere Kracauer locates the emptiness, the "homelessness", in unlikely places. "The Hotel Lobby" compares "the house of God, which presupposes an already extant community" with the hotel lobby as "a negative church", a "space of unrelatedness", paradigm of a "life bereft of reality". It is characteristic of Kracauer's alertness to parallels that in his tightly argued scrutiny of the hotel foyer he finds space to explore literary implications - the hotel foyer as a favourite ambience in detective fiction.

Culture, it seems, is being read not least for the voids that it papers over. And the voids can be ominous - the title essay of this collection published in 19 examines an aesthetic that was to slip seamlessly into the mass aesthetic of national socialism.

Kracauer's summary of Georg Simmel's exceptional skills serves as a summary of his own. "Simmel is a born mediator between phenomena and ideas . . . he advances from the surface of things to their spiritual/ intellectual substrata everywhere he looks."

Philip Brady is reader in German, Birkbeck College, London.

The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays

Author - Siegfried Kracauer
ISBN - 0 674 55162 1 and 55163 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £31.50 and £15.95
Pages - 403

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