Peter Conrad in Guardian
Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs
Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz and Erdmut Wizisla; translated by Esther Leslie
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin,’ says a nameless voice in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The fragments are a collage of quotations, jumbled mementos of a lost world. For Walter Benjamin, this might have been the motive of cultural history: he, too, salvaged scraps from the wreckage of culture, anthologising quotes in the hope of reconstructing a past that he knew to be irretrievable. Having fled from Germany after the Nazi putsch, he tenderly reassembled memories of his Berlin childhood in a short, episodic autobiography that is also a tour of the city during the days of the Weimar Republic. In his Parisian exile, he conjured up the vanished Paris of the 19th century.
Whereas Proust’s evocation of the blissful past was as easy as eating a cake, Benjamin likened himself to ‘a man digging’. Proust’s enchanted reveries typically happened in a cafe or a park. Benjamin, however, was working in a graveyard and his ‘spade probing in the dark loam’ was likely to encounter a cadaver. Unlike Proust, he did not have the luxury of completing his mnemonic research. He had to quit Paris after the fall of France. His archive, patchily pieced together in this book, which derives from an exhibition in Berlin, was dispersed among friends and in part destroyed.
He died in the Pyrenees in 1940, probably killing himself with an overdose of morphine: he had despaired of being allowed to cross into Spain and then into neutral Portugal, from where he could have sailed to safety in America. He was only 48. The manuscripts in the briefcase Benjamin was carrying vanished. All that mattered to the authorities was his meagre bankroll, used to settle his hotel bill and the cost of his funeral. He might have been sourly or sadly amused by the fate of his treasured meditation ‘On the Concept of History’, which was, no doubt, binned when the room occupied by this dead transient was cleaned out.
Benjamin relished Baudelaire’s description of the poet as a ragpicker, cataloguing and collating the refuse of the city and he applied the same image to his method as a cultural historian. He was a connoisseur of ephemera, like advertisements for the defunct products once sold in Paris’s empty, obsolete arcades.