The Canon: The Arcades Project. By Walter Benjamin

December 17, 2009

In the late 1920s, Walter Benjamin decided to pursue an ambitious project: a study of Paris, capital of the 19th-century world, with particular emphasis on what he believed was its quintessential architectural structure, the arcade. Over subsequent years, he worked on this ever-expanding and ever-deepening project, developing what should have been his magnum opus. However, the final status of Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project) is a tragic, fractured masterpiece. Benjamin took his own life in 1940 - at the age of 48 - in Port Bou, a small Spanish town just over the French border, while fleeing the Nazis. The Arcades Project was left unfinished and joins the pantheon of other incomplete masterpieces where the "death of the author" is literal.

It is a controversial choice for The Canon - perhaps the best ones always are? - given that for some the work is at most a tragic wreck, its broken textual rubble a bitter testament to the horrors of its historical context. When Benjamin should have been finishing it he was running for his life, struggling over the Pyrenees, drinking water from stagnant puddles, gaining entry to Spain only to commit suicide. The Arcades Project, meanwhile, remained safe thanks to Georges Bataille, to whom Benjamin handed the manuscript before he fled Paris. Bataille, who worked as a librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale, hid the manuscript in the library where it was discovered after the war. It was not published until 1982, pieced together in Rolf Tiedemann's edition. A 1,000-page English edition, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, finally appeared in 1999.

It is a truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, appealing across the broadest range of arts, humanities and social science disciplines imaginable. Benjamin's collage of sourced texts, informed commentary and ingenious speculation leads us through architecture to artistic movements; technology to economics; fact to fantasy. To read this book is to witness a fragmented phantasmagoria: we experience utterance and aphorism; snippets and snapshots; public declamation and private letters; historical minutiae and spectacular scenes. It is a global work, its explorations ranging far beyond 19th-century Paris to illustrate and unravel the universal essence of urban experience.

Benjamin was an authentically democratic thinker, inasmuch as he diligently explored, analysed and understood the widest range of cultural forms, no matter how elitist or populist: in The Arcades Project, the reader will encounter political proclamations or philosophical pronouncements in one place and jokes or pornography in another.

Is The Arcades Project we read now the one that Benjamin envisioned? Absolutely not. But this eclectic work, a coruscating palimpsest, is a modernist, perhaps even a proto-postmodernist, masterpiece. It is a form of textual flanerie where the journey of exploration is infinite and adaptable: it is ever-open, ever-fresh and, uncannily, when one dips into it, it seems to be ever-changing.

Like other formidable creations by writers taken too soon - Lord Byron's Don Juan, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Franz Kafka's The Castle - Benjamin's The Arcades Project lives, breathes and goes on for ever.

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