How do unifying acts of collection and recollection – our creation of a memory, our recreation of a dream, the construction of our selves – relate to the activity of writing? This is one of the questions Walter Benjamin poses in One Way Street, his semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional work of philosophy.
Because One Way Street is such a sprawling, knotty piece of writing, this article aims to focus on the opening section, in which many of Benjamin’s themes and motifs are first established. It begins by focusing on the relationship between conviction and fact, before moving on to consider Benjamin’s approach to psychoanalysis, the act of writing, childhood, memory, and religion.
Walter Benjamin on Fact and Conviction
Walter Benjamin was a writer and intellectual who was involved, albeit often in ambiguous and partial ways, with most of the major literary and philosophical movements of the second quarter of the 20th century. He knew many of the leading surrealists, was friends with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, was a tacit rival of Heidegger, knew many leading French philosophers, and was both an intellectual comrade and a financial dependent of Frankfurt School thinkers (especially Theodor W. Adorno). And yet, One Way Street is very different from other works of philosophy. Its theses are not clearly stated. It does not carry a unifying argument. Understanding it philosophically requires interpretation, careful reading, and sensitivity to Benjamin’s recurrent obsessions.
Benjamin begins by drawing a distinction between two ways in which life can be constructed – according to fact or according to conviction – and claims that it is the former that currently holds sway. Indeed, although convictions can flow from fact implicitly, these facts are not of the kind which convictions can be based upon. Given this, Benjamin says, true literary activity cannot occur in the conventional literary forms, the use of which only serves as a ‘habitual expression of [literature’s] sterility.’
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This seems to frame One-Way Street and its genre-dodging, tone-shifting qualities. Benjamin then moves to creation and fiction of a different kind, offering a kind of warning about the danger of discussing one’s dreams immediately upon waking. The need for a rupture between the daytime and nighttime worlds, between waking and sleeping, takes on the quality of a religious taboo, or of a betrayal. Is this a dig at psychoanalysis, which often centered the dream as a point of contact with the subconscious? He acknowledges that the tendency to characterize the dream world as a part of oneself is modern, but he is not explicit about the target of his arguments.
The Role of Psychoanalysis
One general note here: most writers try to find the general in the specific and the divine in the parochial. To observe that a writer is trying to do this is rarely especially informative. Benjamin is the rare exception, being a writer who tries to go the other way, trying to focus on something small by way of grand, evocative concepts. He seems, at points, to be trying desperately to move through these concepts to offer something simple, at last! From literature, to dreams, to memory – which is, as Benjamin notes, the “house of one’s life under siege.”
Memory stirs up forgotten events, people, and things: a rarely thought-of school friend, for instance. Another dig as psychoanalysis follows – Benjamin imagines himself and his school friend frolicking together, but in no way presents this image as a repressed desire. There is an element of chaos in our subconscious (including our memory), for which even desire is too structured to account for.
Benjamin then returns to the relationship between literature and dreams. He recalls a dream in which he found himself in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s house. At first, he is a tourist, attempting to sign the visitor’s book (within the visitor’s book, his name is scrawled many times with a childish hand). Then he is with the man himself: first in Goethe’s study, then at dinner with Goethe and his (Benjamin’s) relations. A place is set for his ancestors. It is an incoherent dream (or at least, one to which the key lies in details of Benjamin’s life which he doesn’t wish to share), but associates his literary idol with a sense of his own past (and, therefore, destiny) in an incredibly moving way.
The Writer’s Focus
On writing, Benjamin shares an enigmatic aphorism: “to convince is to conquer without conception,” followed by a warning about writerly focus: the point is that only the “feeble and distracted” writer takes pleasure in conclusions. Whereas, “for the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep into his workshop labour.”
Benjamin returns to memory and the past, claiming that only what we knew or practiced at the age of fifteen will “one day constitute our attraction.” Attraction here sounds more gravitational than sexual: Benjamin seems to be talking about fate. Fate rears itself again in the next section, which discusses the furniture of fin de siécle apartments. Benjamin claims that these apartments were given the best description by detective novels, in which the furniture is made into deadly traps: “on this sofa an aunt cannot but be murdered”.
Benjamin anticipates opposition on the basis that the detective novel, of which Poe was the progenitor, preceded the apartments: “without exception the great writers perform their combinations in a world which comes after them.” The best writer pre-empts fate, understands it, and masters it. There is a Messianic quality to the writer’s task.
On Literary Culture
The following section of One Way Street, entitled “Chinese curios,” begins with three, seemingly disconnected tableaux, almost in three different voices. First, some abrupt, blokeish advice; don’t rely too much on what you have practiced, for “all the decisive blows are struck left handed.” Second, the tragic image of a gate where one once met a lover, standing listless after she has moved away, “like an ear that has lost the power of hearing.” Last, a child who is initially nervous to meet guests washes himself and greets them naked.
What follows offers us a clue as to what Benjamin is alluding to: a passage that contrasts reading with copying texts, a prominent element of Chinese literary culture. The latter is much like taking a journey on foot, rather than on an airplane, given the compulsion to “cut through the interior jungle,” which forces introspection on the part of the reader, and is a guarantee of literary culture. Are these first three moments reflections on reading? Jottings, aphorisms, too temporary to make sense?
Benjamin moves from introspection to recognition of others, and focuses on the disgust one feels towards animals. His claim – that an aversion to animals is a fear of being recognized by them through contact – sounds wrong. Lots of bad ‘theory’ involves asserting non-obvious things as though they were obvious, but Benjamin is better than that, so what’s going on here? It might be a parody, given it involves the kind of vast generalization, almost an armchair psychologization, which has been pointedly avoided so far.
The next passage also begins uncertainly, with a quote from Baudelaire, in which the poet says that whenever he passes another religion’s icon, he acknowledges that it could be the true God. It’s worth pausing to note how profoundly religious this quote appears – it isn’t (or at least, is not in isolation) a sardonic, atheistic point about how the existence of many gods undermines the claim of each. It holds open the possibility than any one God really is the true God. Benjamin favors weariness without cynicism.
Religious Conviction and Sacred Texts
What follows is another dream, beautifully recalled, about an isolated sect of missionaries in Mexico. The missionaries have been practicing in total isolation, and therefore integrated some of the local gods. Pluralism of this kind has been known to happen: consider that the Christian festival of Easter is named for the West Germanic goddess of springtime (Eostre).
Benjamin then returns to addressing the theme of writing, specifically the relationship between writing on the one hand with commentary and translation on the other. Here Benjamin makes two, related claims. First, a text, its translation, and its commentary consider the same thing from different aspects. Second, whereas the commentary and translation are only the ‘eternally rustling leaves’ of the sacred text, they are the ‘seasonally falling fruits’ of the profane one. A kind of tragic religiosity is present here in the insight that sacred texts are what they are, liable to no understanding other than in their own terms.
Benjamin shifts to the truism that we love the flaws of our beloved more than anything else about them, certainly more than their perfections. As with certain other things Benjamin has said, this strikes one as a truism that might be utterly false, for some or most. Perhaps that’s just a consequence of advertising. In any case, the point is – as with the “animal nature” truism – hiding oneself: “feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low in safety.”
Walter Benjamin on Fate and Time
What follows is a note about children, which is implicitly about memory: children love to create small worlds within adult ones. That sounds like something a psychoanalyst might say about one’s inner child, though, of course, one can reverse the order of this insight to say something like: well, you are trapping your childhood self in the shell of your adulthood one. Fate – homogenous time – tells us that the child might be aware of this.
Another observation follows, in the form of a saying or a pearl of wisdom, concerning the difference between the conservative and the anarcho-socialist politician. The former proves his own convictions to himself by breaking the rules he propagates publicly in his private life, whereas the latter proves his convictions by following them. The point here is surely about political authority and human weakness.
This is followed by two reflections on departure, to the effect that our warmth towards people as they leave us is matched only by a sense of relief that soon they will be gone, and life in their absence can begin. Benjamin is at once attempting to put his own past in order, to reckon with the debris of his childhood, his memories, and his dreams. One Way Street often gives the appearance of an unedited set of notes – just ideas, not structured or thinned out. Perhaps this is Benjamin’s ambiguous reflection on what coming to terms with oneself requires of a writer.