Essay Review: A Berlin Chronicle by Walter Benjamin

Topographical Map of Berlin c. 1910

Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle deserves a stream of consciousness-style review. Although what else, really, do I have to offer when it comes to the sake of blog-style “production” and the pressure of time that makes me reject editing these posts?  I’m not even going to break this post into paragraphs!  While Benjamin’s autobiographical portrait of his childhood, A Berlin Chronicle, embodies a particular Proust-ish flavor, unlike Proust’s madeleine which is the trigger to a string of memories that lull to and from Proust’s set of special objects that form particular images in the mind, Benjamin’s memories start spinning in relation to the physical shapes of the spaces he’s been in or beheld, moving backward in time in fits and starts. Sometimes, though, the images, or stopping points of memory, which he finds akin to postcards (forming a certain serial abundance), lead inward towards a relic, like the prostitute adorned in a tight fit sailor suit, or the Moorish sculpture missing its pair on their mantlepiece. Since his father was an art collector, it is of no great surprise that the magnetic pull of aesthetic objects would shape some of Benjamin’s memories from an early age. Likewise, the shapes of the city become mythical shapes that comprise the movement or the material composition of memory. The cafes are concentric rings that spin inward from the circle of unknown artists and bohemian strangers towards his inner circle, which sets themselves apart from the others, and at the furthest central core of that interiority there are only two necessary cafe dwellers: Benjamin and his good friend Heinle.  And the pathos that swells in rings around Heinle pertains to the fact that Heinle is that singular poet-friend who Benjamin so-revered and who died at the age of 19. Outside of the cafes are streets filled with  transients and vagabonds. The structural epitome of their feeling of passage is the Arcade, known most famously for their Parisian construction that Benjamin will return to in his project, “The Arcades Project.” The spatial construction of memory seems to provide Benjamin’s wandering narrative its template, as it moves by way of attraction into or towards particular shapes, and then it retracts from them into different memories with different casts of characters, but similar forms: the shapes of rings or knotted labyrinths. The image of a fractal comes to mind, if we try to synthesize the entire set of motifs into one, because of the emphasis on passing between interiority and exteriority while also expressing the shifts of repetitious forms in both microscopic and macroscopic renderings. He quotes Nietzsche on this concept, “If a man has character,” says Nietzsche, “he will have the same experiences over and over again.” He uses this quote to describe the way that people, like the architectural structures of the city, themselves are passageways that will lead us again and again to “the friend, the betrayer, the beloved, the pupil, or the master.” People comprise the turning points of Benjamin’s life-labyrinth.  He is also able to capture that peculiar retrospective juxtaposition of memory when obscurity of not knowing particular things about the world runs up against the wizened clarity that he now knows.  This clarity forms bitter nodes of dissonance due to the real implications of what he later discovered, such as the mechanisms of his parents’ bourgeois financial existence.  Traditions of mercantile activity form the backdrop of his relationship with his mother who would take him along to shop at particular places owned by particular shop owners with particular last names. This is the network of trust that he contrasts with the ambiguity of his father’s trade agreements. The city of Berlin is both new and modern in a historical sense as well as in the sense of youthful discovery, which reminds us that for people of Benjamin’s generation, the newness of getting lost on a grid of streets or submerging oneself in the ‘subterranean’ cafe-culture are the changes and discoveries that wed Benjamin’s personal age and his historic age of modernity.  He renders the paradoxical structure of his memory, and thus the significance of his life, as a riddle. He states, on the one hand: “‘too late, time was up long ago, you’ll never get there’–and, on the other, by a sense of insignificance of all of this, of the benefits of letting things take what course they would.” He draws the image of his life, and it appears as a labyrinthine topographical map. It is a map that should serve as a guide, but the guide is too complex. The description of this map integrates all of the people he has known as entry points into the complexity. Interestingly, he divides men and women to the right and left sides of the map, rather than intermingling them in stages, or something. The ring he finds at the antique shop is not only a ring, it is a microscopic labyrinth and he describes how the person it was intended for would remain at the periphery of the theatrical “stage” that comprised action in his life, and in history as well. The historical mirror-image of Benjamin’s life makes him a living embodiment of his time, but the woman he would marry, and then almost immediately grow distant to, was too plantlike and still, whereas he was a mover in history.  The Kabbalistic elements of the story are clear. Benjamin is a story-teller who recounts his life not for posterity, but for some esoteric truth or magic or some combination of the two. It is not so remarkable as to what transpired between him and other people–even less what they thought or argued over–so much as the legibly symbolic importance of repetition by varying degrees. The four rings on the floor of one space mirror the four rings he and his friends bought for their future wives in the antique shop.  He weaves in the mythical shape that he finds true for all stories, of the seen and the unseen, the duplicitous and interwoven symbolic significance of time and space, and the importance of the names of people, places, and things for their rich, individual essences. And, of course, the light! The lights are mentioned everywhere, in each setting: candelabras, chandeliers, lamps–every glowing orb–these are Benjamin’s extraction of the heavens–the constellations of the night sky, from his memory.  These lights are mirrors to the moments of flashing illumination that stick out to him in his memory at times he least expects.  And the three-dimensionality (or four? or five?) of this expedition through memory is evidenced by the layering of the city: there are not only streets, but underground tunnels to pass through. Once again, to contrast Benjamin from Proust, Benjamin’s memories are sometimes the triggers into myths and fairytales rather than objects triggering memories. The concomitant relationship between these myths and memories form a partnership that provides new surprises. Those formerly loved tales are depicted for their new-found accuracy at capturing the mood of particular memories.  A quarter of the way into the tale, in a strange passage, Benjamin refutes the use of the first-person “I”.  He attributes this rule to the success of his own writings and those of other writers of his generation. However, he immediately performs the antithesis to this “rule” in that same passage, but inserting “I” everywhere! It becomes odious, and later, somehow, the “I’s” disappear, but their smooth disappearance just confirms his rule. Once they disappear, nothing sticks out in the text quite as glaringly.  The so-called logical thesis of the structure of his work is found in the middle of the piece. “Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. And these quite certainly do not, even for the Berlin years that I am exclusively concerned with here. For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities.” To top off all of the memories he charts, there is also an inventory of things he’s forgotten: books, plays he went to with his grandmother, and deaths that only now resurface as charted blank spots.  I also love the synesthesia of the passage in which he describes de ja vu as a sound, like an echo. Here again, the waving set of ringlets, this time in the form of the compression and expansion of sound, forms a multidimensional immersive quality. Of course, the word that rings out to him in this strange form of sonar remembrance is “syphilis.”