‘To rescue the intoxication of cosmic experience’: Remembering Walter Benjamin

September 29, 2013

A bit of a subdued end to our time in Amsterdam – the last full day on the 27th. Thoughts of returning to the grind and good things running their course, I suppose. I wonder whether this sad anniversary added to the general mournfulness:

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Benjamin was temporarily interned in the French “concentration camps” established for German citizens. On his release a few months later he returned to Paris and there continued his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale on The Arcades Project. The notes for his unfinished research were left in the safekeeping of librarian and friend, the writer Georges Bataille, as Benjamin fled Paris before the advancing German army in the summer of 1940. The last few months of Benjamin’s life reflect the precarious experience of countless other Jewish Germans in Vichy France: a flight to the border and preparations for emigration by legal or illegal means. Lacking the necessary exit visa from France, he joined a guided party that crossed the Pyrenees in an attempt to enter Spain as illegal refugees. Turned back by customs officials, Benjamin took his life in the small, Spanish border town of Port Bou, on September 27, 1940.

(Taken from here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/benjamin/)

Walter Benjamin

This entry from Benjamin’s diary of 1938 registers a sense of foreboding:

March 6. On recent nights I’ve had dreams that remained deeply engraved in my day. Last night I dreamed I had company. Friendly things came my way; I believe they consisted primarily in women taking an interest in me — indeed, even commenting favorably upon my appearance. I think I remember remarking aloud that now I probably wouldn’t live much longer — as if this were the last display of friendship among people bidding one another farewell.
(Cited by Tom Clark on this blog).

I’d actually taken a sheaf of photocopies to read in Amsterdam, including a copy of this article on Benjamin’s On Hashish. As the author, Scott J. Thompson, observes:

The writings on hashish, opium and mescaline by critic, philosopher, and aesthetician Walter Benjamin provide an antidote to the cognitive straightjacket placed on aesthetic experience by Lukács. On the other hand, Benjamin considered his visionary experiments as a utopian prelude to a worldwide messianic upheaval.

S. J. Thompson 2000 ‘From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish & The Aesthetic Dimensions of Prohibitionist Realism’. The Journal of Cognitive Liberties, Vol.1:2, pp. 21-42, retrieved 17/06/2003.

Gershom Scholem summarises Benjamin’s contribution as a test subject in psychopharmacological research in his essay, ‘Walter Benjamin and his Angel’: ‘to rescue the intoxication of cosmic experience that the human being of antiquity possessed for the proletariat in their coming seizure of power’.

In his later years, the dreamscape of the Parisian Arcades became the urban setting for Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk, exploring the Paris of surrealist revolution, searching for prospects of profane illumination. This monumental work, published in English as The Arcades Project, survived because Benjamin’s friend, Georges Bataille, hid the mountain of papers from which it was composed as the Nazis occupied Paris. The quest to discover the liberatory energies locked up in everyday life remains current.


Eugene Atget Femme 1925


%d bloggers like this: