Archive Fever

Every year brings another pile of books on Walter Benjamin. As one might imagine, these volumes are of uneven quality and usefulness, but one new book stands out from the crowd. Walter Benjamin’s Archive, a companion book to a 2006 exhibit in Berlin, presents samples from the vast number of notebooks, photographs, collectables, postcards, and manuscripts Benjamin left behind when he died in 1940.

Each chapter of Archive focuses on a different aspect of the archive. The most interesting chapter examines his notebooks, including his date book pictured above. Notebooks are now more of a metaphor than an everyday working tool–the MacBook Air is essentially a $3,000 Moleskine–and cheap digital storage allows us to see writing as almost infinitely extensible. It’s surprising, and a little touching, to see Benjamin writing in his tiny, precise script over every square centimeter on every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on. He owned some Moleskine-like leather-bound notebooks, but sometimes he resorted to writing on both sides of a doctor’s prescription pad.

The longest chapter in the book focuses on Benjamin’s notes on his son’s language acquisition. Benjamin’s interest in children (another chapter is devoted to his collection of Russian toys) is one of the most incongruous aspects of his character. It’s hard to imagine Hegel following his children around, recording their every utterance, as Benjamin did with his son. This section isn’t especially interesting, except for the glimpses it offers into Benjamin’s chaotic and troubled home life. Benjamin records, without a hint of self-consciousness, his son Stefan imitating his father by stomping around their Berlin apartment, yelling at everyone to be quiet because Daddy is trying to work.

The children’s language chapter, as well as some of the brief and somewhat haphazardly assembled last chapters, expose the limits of the book’s origins as an accompaniment to a museum exhibit. The edition’s four editors were clearly primarily interested in rummaging through Benjamin’s published work to find rubrics through which they could display the material in the archive. The book doesn’t follow the familiar outlines of Benjamin’s themes. The Trauerspiel book, for instance, is barely mentioned, and neglected altogether is Benjamin’s early involvement with youth movements, which may explain his later interest in children. Still, Benjamin himself would have appreciated a representation of his career as a collection of things.

There’s at least one unexpected gem in the book: a page from Benjamin’s notes for the original essay on the Paris Arcades. (Disclosure: I did my dissertation on the Arcades Project, so I’m interested in everything to do with it.) Michael Schwarz explains Benjamin’s working methods for the Arcades Project, which eventually grew to include 10,000 notes, most of them quotations from obscure nineteenth-century sources. A few pages of notes are reproduced, and another chapter contains Germaine Krull’s evocative photographs of the Arcades, but otherwise the sampling from Benjamin’s largest project–and his most intense exploration of the idea of the archive–is disappointingly slim.

But Walter Benjamin’s Archive succeeds in conveying Benjamin’s life-long interest in allowing things to speak for themselves. The Surrealists and the Baroque allegorists taught Benjamin to search for the buried life of culture, to pay attention to all those things we once thought were essential but later forgot about. By showing us two poles of Benjamin’s life–the stable organization of the collection on the one hand, and the spontaneous, constantly evolving text of the notebook on the other–the book illustrates the drama of the life of the mind lived during a time of madness.

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