Thursday, March 11, 2010

Walter Benjamin, His and This Arcades Project

The other day, I picked up a copy of The Arcades Project, by Walter Benjamin. I got it because I had noticed (via Google book search) that Margarete Böhme is mentioned in this massive, posthumously published work. I am doing a bit of research on Böhme and her books for a project I am working on.

Who is Margarete Böhme, you may ask? And who is Walter Benjamin? And what do they have to do with Louise Brooks? Let's take a stroll through the glass covered shops in the passage way of the 20th century. . . .

Böhme (1867 - 1939) was a turn-of-the-last century German writer whose sensational 1905 book, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, was the basis for the 1929 film, Diary of a Lost Girl, starring Louise Brooks. Though little known today, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen was described in one scholarly work I recently examined as part of my research as one of the best selling autobiographical narratives of the 20th century. And, in fact, by the time G.W. Pabst made his film of the book with Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, and Valeska Gert, sales of this controversial title in Germany had reached more than 1,200,000 copies! Um, that's a lot.

Benjamin (1892 - 1940) was a German-Jewish philosopher, literary critic, theorist, essayist and translator of Charles Baudelaire. Benjamin knew and was friends with seemingly everyone from Rainer Maria Rilke (lover of Lou Andreas Salomé, who was the possible inspiration and namesake of Lulu) and Bertolt Brecht (who attended Frank Wedekind's funeral) and Theodor Adorno (who essayed Alban Berg's unfinished opera, Lulu). Benjamin also knew Georg Lukács, Georges Bataille, Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse, Kurt Weill and others remembered today. Tragically, and desperately, Benjamin killed himself while fleeing the Nazi invasion of France. According to Wikipedia, "Over the last half-century the regard for his work and its influence have risen dramatically, making Benjamin one of the most important twentieth century thinkers about literature and about modern aesthetic experience."

Benjamin's The Arcades Project, begun in 1927, is a monumental study on which he continued to work until his death. At one point, the manuscript was destroyed and thought lost forever. However, a second copy was found and published. Unfinished, it is a mass, a mess, a conglomeration of notes and considerations concerning European and French bourgeois life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you will, it is an intellectual ramble down a collective memory lane.

The Nobel Prize winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, writing in the Guardian newspaper, described the work this way. "[The Arcades Project] suggests a new way of writing about a civilization using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than above. . . . What does The Arcades Project have to offer? The briefest of lists would include: a treasure hoard of curious information about Paris, a multitude of thought-provoking questions, the harvest of an acute and idiosyncratic mind's trawl through thousands of books, succinct observations, polished to a high aphoristic sheen, on a range of subjects . . . . and glimpses of Benjamin toying with a new way of seeing himself: as a compiler of a 'magic encyclopedia'."

It was into this bound labyrinth - into this unfinished attempt to liberate the suppressed "true history" of the 19th and 20th centuries - that I strolled in search of Böhme. I found a single reference, a single line of text on page 559 couched between similarly brief jottings on the nature of Jugendstil (the German name for Art Nouveau). The single line read:

"Segantini and Munch; Margarete Böhme and Przybyszewski."

What the fuck? Come on Walter, give me something more to work with than just mere juxtaposition. For Christ's sake! Or was it for the sake of something else. . . . I wondered, and looked things up.

Giovanni Segantini (1858 - 1899) was an Italian painter of the Symbolist persuasion. Same with Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944), the famous Norwegian Symbolist painter and printmaker.

Böhme, as mentioned above, was German novelist whose brand of melodramatic realism could be toned grim. As in Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, she often wrote about the lives  of young women, and prostitutes. Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868 – 1927) was a Polish novelist, dramatist, and poet of the "decadent naturalistic school." He is also associated with the Symbolist movement, which was a considerable force in Middle Europe at the turn of the last century. Elsewhere, it's been noted that Przybyszewski's fascination with the philosophy of Nietzsche and Satanism plunged him into a bohemian lifestyle.

What did Segantini - Munch & Böhme - Przybyszewski have in common? Certainly there was the shared theme of the troubled / in trouble young women. Above is Munch's 1894 painting, "Ashes." It's one of a number of works by this artist which depicts distressed female youths. Other examples can be found at the bottom of his Wikipedia page. There, don't fail to note the painting called "Vampire," which also depicts a young women embracing her lover.

Böhme's fiction made a specialty of sympathetically portraying the lives of troubled / in trouble young women. That's the story of Thymian Gottebal, the lost girl or "lost one" whose story is told in Tagebuch einer Verlorenen - and portrayed by Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl. When Böhme's book was released in England in 1907, it even carried an endorsement from Hall Caine, a then well known man of letters to whom Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, was dedicated. His blurb read in part, "It is difficult for me to believe that a grown man or woman with a straight mind and a clean heart can find anything that is not of good influence in this most moving, most convincing, most poignant story of a great-hearted girl who kept her soul alive amidst all the mire that surrounded her poor body."

Just two years after it was first issued in Germany, Böhme's publisher put out a special edition to commemorate the printing of the 100,000th copy of the book. Not surprisingly, at least to me, I happen to have one of those vintage editions.

Here is a scan of its rather striking cover. And yes, that is a Medusa-haired Devil holding up a the dead baby.

Whether Benjamin read this book isn't known. But considering it popularity and controversial nature in Germany and even across all of Europe (it was translated into 10 languages and published in Poland, Finland, Russia, etc...), and considering he name checks the author in The Arcades Project, it seems likely. How could he have missed it? It seems right up his alley.

Which then raises the question: Had Benjamin seen the 1929 G.W. Pabst film? That is also not known, though the always on the move Benjamin was known to be in Berlin in 1929, the same year Diary of a Lost Girl and the earlier Pandora's Box premiered there.

I was curious. Had Benjamin mentioned Wedekind in The Arcades Project? The answer is yes. He does so twice on page 492, in the course of a passage.

Wedekind, of course, was the similarly controversial German playwright whose works include the still popular and still performed Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening, 1891) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box, 1904). Like Böhme, he too wrote about troubled youth. Lulu - whose archetype may be traced back to Lilith and forward to Lola-Lola in the Blue Angel and even to Lolita (penned by another late 1920's Berlin resident) - is Wedekind's most famous character.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin writes, "On what is 'close' (Veuillot: 'Paris is musty and close') in fashion: the 'glaucous gleam' under the petticoats, of which Aragon speaks. The corsets as the torso's arcade. The absolute antithesis to this open-air world of today. What today is derigueur among the lowest class of prositutes - not to undress - may once have been the height of refinement. One liked the women retroussee, tucked up. Hessel thinks he has found here the origin of Wedekind's erotics; in his view, Wedekind's fresh-air pathos was only a bluff. And in other respects?"

WTF. Again, I am left uncomprehending. I look up Hessell (there is a handy "Guide to Names and Terms" in the back of the book) and find out that he is Franz Hessell (1880-1941), a German writer and translator. And interestingly, with Benjamin he produced a German translation of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (in English translation, In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). Interesting, because Proust may well have been Louise Brooks favorite writer. In an article entitled "Books that Gave Me Pleasure" in the New York Times of December 5, 1982 Brooks is quoted as saying "I have been reading Proust all my life, and I'm still reading him."

What I also learned about Hessell is that he was one of the first German exponents of the French idea of flânerie, and later published a collection of essays on the subject related to his native Berlin, Spazieren in Berlin. He was also the inspiration for the character of Jules in Henri-Pierre Roche's celebrated novel Jules et Jim, the same book which became the François Truffaut film.(The possible real life inspiration for the young woman between Jules and Jim was the artist Beatrice Wood, whom I met late in her life. She must have been nearly 100 years old at the time. Ever flirtatious, she kissed me on the cheek. But that's another story. . . . ) However, others think the young woman at the heart of the triangle may have been Hessel's wife, Helen.

The one other reference to Wedekind in The Arcades Project comes in the editor's notes. Entry three in section C [Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris] reads thus (please buckle up, it's chunky):

"Certain of these muses of Surrealism can be identified more precisely: Luna, the moon; Kate Greenway (1846-1901), English painter known for her illustrations of children's books; Mors, death; Cleo de Merode (1875-1966), French dancer who epitomized the demimonde; Dulcinea, the beloved of Don Quixote and the image of idealized woman; Libido, an allusion to Freud; Baby Cadum, publicity and advertising; Frederike Kempner (1836-1904), German poet and socialite. A comparison with the two other 'catalogues of muses' reveals that Dulcinea is a variant of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and that Benjamin thought of adding the painter Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807), a friend of Goethe's. Another list, presumably the earliest, is found in 'The Arcades of Paris.'"

And here is where it gets interesting. The note continues, "Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian artist, is a character in Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, plays which inspired Berg's unfinished opera Lulu. The identity of Tipse remains a mystery. When Benjamin writes that the mother of Surrealism was eine Passage, he plays on the feminine gender of the noun in German." That right, he does.

Geschwitz, played by Alice Roberts, is pictured here dancing with Lulu, played by Louise Brooks, as her new husband Dr. Schon, played by Fritz Kortner, looks on. Could Walter Benjamin have envisioned himself as Schon? Perhaps.

And perhaps it is helpful to mention, in reference to Goethe, that as early as 1935 (according to Barry Paris' sublime biography of Louise Brooks), director G.W. Pabst was intent on making a film of the poet's Faust, "whose dream cast was clearly fixed in his mind. Pabst's Faust would star Greta Garbo as Gretchen and Louise Brooks as Helen of Troy." I can't imagine it. . . .

Also worth noting was Brooks' own fictionalized account of her life called Naked on My Goat. Its title derived from Faust. [The rare 1952 clipping pictured here references the book, though you will have to use an magnifying glass to read the fine print. Brooks destroyed the manuscript by throwing it down an incinerator. Into the flames of hell it went, in a sense, and there it remains one of the great lost books - great in the sense of all that it would have revealed.  I was once told that a few pages of it, along with this clipping, were once found in the back of a Kansas closet. Who knows?]

I can't imagine Naked on My Goat would have been a very satisfying read. Brooks' style as a writer had not yet formed, and her earliest efforts, as when she wrote the September 17, 1925 New York Times review of No, No Nanette assigned to journalist Herman Mankiewicz, were saturated in purple prose. Mankiewicz, you see, was drunk, and Brooks, the brainy showgirl, was game. It would takes years of practice later in life to achieve her style. She did it by literally rewriting her favorite authors -  Brooks copied passages over and over again from favorite books in her distinct arthritic longhand, until she could do so no longer.

Why did she do it? What was she searching for? What did she hope to find? What was Brooks' Rosebud?

According to acclaimed composer David Diamond (again via BP), a Rochester, New York friend of the actress, one of Brooks' cherished books was The Journal of Eugenie de Guerin. Its author was a brilliant, pessimistic, obscure French diarist (1805-1848). One of Brooks' favorite passages was this " . . . This globe is an abyss of misery and all we gain by stirring its depth is the discovery of funereal inscriptions and burying places. Death is at the bottom of everything and we keep continually digging as though we were seeking for immortality."

This passage and its archeological allusions evokes, for me, The Arcades Project - which reads as an unearthing, an unburying of some lost or repressed ideas, or even feelings, a welling up to the unconsciousness and intellect. Was then The Arcades Project the primordial example of archeologicalism? It makes me wonder, what was Walter Benjamin's Rosebud?

Well, enough of this. I spent far too long on this rambling blog. I had meant to do some more background research on Margarete Böhme but got lost in the arcades. This afternoon, I had meant to watch a DVD documentary on Theda Bara - there may still be time - and look at Bram Dijkstra's two brilliant books, Idols of Perversity and Evil Sisters. I had better get on with it.

If anyone is interested, Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project is available for purchase  on-line or through better independent bookstores. And for kicks, here's a scan of Louise Brooks' bookplate. Looks kind of decorative Jugendstil to me.

"A painstaking act of literary reconstruction has fleshed out Walter Benjamin's lost masterpiece. . . . We may consider here Benjamin's wonderful remark that 'knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.' The Arcades Project is the reverberation of that thunder in a thousand different directions. . . . This posthumous volume suggests that, in its incomplete and fissiparous state, his reflections are themselves an unflawed mirror for the world which he was attempting to explore. He seems to have retrieved everything, and anticipated everything." - Peter Ackroyd, The Times of London

"The Arcades Project is truly a kaleidoscopic montage of a dream of the meanings of society, a dream deferred by the advance of Nazis into Paris. In 1940, when Benjamin fled, he left behind the sprawling, incomplete masterpiece he had begun in 1927. But by then, it had already become, he wrote, 'the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.'" - Forrest Gander, Providence Journal-Bulletin


  1. It's hard to avoid reading Benjamin at one (more likely several) point in academia. I have read his "The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction" close to half a dozen times for as many courses, graduate and undergraduate.

    There's always something new to discover, and I have made notes of observations in it that remind me of Brooksie. I wonder if she ever read it or any of his other work. Benjamin, a staunch Marxist, also wrote at length on flânerie.

    I am reminded of your Salman Rushdie quote again. Keep swallowing the world, Thomas.

  2. I have had my copy of the Arcades Project for a decade or so and keep promising myself I will dig in properly, but alas I'm always left bewildered! Fascinating post and it's spurred me on to have another go. Social context is always a good driver of interest.


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