Due saggi su Proust e Benjamin

di Stefano Gulizia

Questi due brevi interventi rappresentano il mio ultimo contributo come redattore di Samgha. Sono legati tra di loro dal tema della filologia e del collezionismo, e li ho scritti pensando al centenario della pubblicazione del primo volume della Recherche proustiana presso Grasset, a Parigi, nel novembre del 1913. Appaiono qui nella loro versione originale inglese. 



A Proust Anniversary and the Theater of the Hand

Proust 1

(Courtesy of BNF)

While the 14 of November marks the one hundredth anniversary of the first published volume of Proust’s Recherche, and given our fascination with a vision of the writer as an entrepreneurial, self-employed agent of himself, it is very likely that such occasion would simply reinforce our interpretation of the author as producer. After all, what Proust was able to do with the Parisian house of Grasset was a legendary exploit in the realm of self-publishing. We should not see the money involved in this transaction as something more than a protective device. Writing, for an artist bored yet highly generous, was a game of intricate enchantment and deception; luxury and excess were also part of a predator’s power of appreciation. As for the reader—the “average reader” who should not be made to think—the nonutilitarian delights of Proust’s 1913 volume would have been abundantly clear from its layout. For one of the first tasks of any commentator is to reveal, through the strictest application of taxonomic changes and laws of priority, a philatelic, entomological side of Proust’s fiction. It was not the first time, or the last, that crucial problems of philology were provided by biological investigations.

Consider the yellow-stained surface of Proust’s Cahiers, housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The oozing ink has organized itself in bubblelike macules of different weight and color, making of writing a fluid kind of performance: one which organically consists of biological races and subspecies. Proust’s writing aspires to the solicitude of the natural collector; it is made, in other words, to be dissected by author and reader alike. And it is only accurate, I think, to assume that such system of writing is the product of its own time, like some evolutionary aspects of criminology in the Victorian era—and it is only fair to attach to these convoluted and fabulously fragile specimens the infancy of Marcel, a snobbish boyhood lived during the years of Zola’s trial for the Dreyfus affair, where various sources of sound, power and penmanship competed for rubrication, abbreviation, gloss and political distortion.

Proust’s Cahiers encourage the viewer to look at them as a theater of the hand. Acrobatic as they are, at times scrubby and in other instances hermetic, sundry and homogeneous, these notebooks are conspicuous for the work of the pen: a writhing larva or, perhaps, a big ant moving its antennae a waspish manner. Scholars have hunted these surfaces for various climes and disguises, to rectify many misunderstandings and internal contradictions; they have developed more or less flexibile systems of classification and further and further links between the intertwined areas of Proust’s writing, as they wrestle for acceptance in the editor’s mind, or simply for mimetic subtlety and independence.

There is so much imitative behavior—and indeed, mimicry—in Proust’s handwriting that the analysis of his raw materials, the numerous passages, annotations and pseudo-refractions from which his colossal Recherche eventually came to life, have always been lionized, at least in France, and for obvious reasons, as a blueprint for a “new” philology.

Strictly speaking, Proust’s variants took a life on their own, beyond the nomenclatorial practices of textual criticism; they became inseparable, undetachable from the novels themselves. And they advertised for a type of literary methodology that culminated in a microscopic study of organs. Retrospectively, those scholars who recognized in their work a contribution to “genetic philology” could not have found a better insect dealer than the great Proust, whose handwritten characters, a quick flutter or colored fluff across the page, are often barely visible to the naked eye, and yet unforgettable and unfadingly magical. Up to a point, of course, Darwin’s theory was part of Proust’s own culture, providing, in this context, hypnotic coincidences between the artist writing fiction and statements such as the “natural selection,” or the “struggle for life.” Moreover, it is hardly a chance if an authoritative, not to say ‘definitive’ edition of Proust’s Recherche, the massive four volumes directed by Jean-Yves Tadié for Gallimard’s Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, came to a final completion between 1987 and 1989—years in which the influence of Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy was at its strongest. It is easy to demonstrate, I would argue, that “genetic” editors were always more interested in structuralist arguments or post-structuralist reforms than in traditional philology per se, and that their achievements derive from a sort of robust faith in textuality as the ultimate horizon of literature.

Textuality relies on itself. Everything can be brought back to it. In literary terms, it is a giant object which has already burnt all bridges to the outside world—all those subservient methods, the cracks of allusion and other fleeting clues and evidence, which enabled the scholar to formulate a biographical hypothesis or resurrect a precise world-view.

For textuality the only life which really matters is that of the text itself. What Jacques Derrida has so effectively shown in 1967, in his seminal study De la Grammatologie and with regards to Rousseau, is that any reader should get interested in the ‘paradoxical’ places of one book and try to dig it for symptomatical reactions, so that one type of discourse is put in dialogue with another—the infallibility or the (in-)escapability of textuality being the foundation of every successful, serious and forceful form of criticism. One of the aspects that make of Proust’s archives of writing a tricky territory for such deconstructionist undertaking is their maddening predilection for details. Philosophical issues aside, there is also an ethical dimension to consider, a vanishing, terminal generosity in Proust’s profusion which remains hard to reconcile with what, for instance, Althusser proposed himself to do while reading Marx: that is, paying special attention to failure and malfunction, to breakdowns and breaking points, to a certain notion of ‘insolvency’ written large.

Spacious sequences of fiction, in Proust, alternate with narrower ones. Episodes are frequently rewritten, retrofitted, and carefully balanced to see if they are suitable to the modern taste. One could hardly imagine an overall profile for the Recherche (other than through the obsolete and decadent metaphor of the ‘cathedral’), let alone make out a visual equivalent of the entire enterprise. The languorous, flopping heads that Proust drew on the margins of one of his notebooks are strange not as stylish on-lookers, but for the fact that their gaze goes nowhere: it is a peek beyond the looped writing gates, and then it is no more. So book marginalia hardly seem to offer an access into the architecture of the novels, in the case of Proust; they are cast aside like mussel shells in the beach at Biarritz—jeweled and spark-streaked, yet socially illegible.

But one could also, if only momentarily, stretch out the plot of Swann’s Way and display it as a glamorous old Express train, upholstery inside and nouveau-riche blue on the outside: a train consisting of polished panels generously interspersed with mirrors and tulip-shaped reading lamps, where only in a few compartments the beds had been made. One such train would travel East-to-West, from Russia to Paris via Germany, as though from a maximum of chaos and disorder to a glory of inset clockwork and embossed leather. It would carry eleven elegant passengers and one dachsund; and it would bring irrefutable evidence, by the time it reached the Gare du Nord, that the world of Tolstoyan naturalism had been superseded, like birch logs were replaced by coal. Jerking yet unrelentless, the Proustian express would offer a long and romantic, intervestibular vista of auburn cars and curtains, a history of lurching waiters and everyday thoroughfares ablazed with copper-bright in the low sun. And only those readers who fully accounted for these shapes and bearings—where, as in a Zeppelin, the materials of travel, wood or iron, are both logical and emblematic—could properly relate to Proust’s rhythmical swing.


Proust’s ideas are single or geminate, and some of these are better seen under frosted glass. So high are the demands of biological forms on the Recherche that the only way, or the best one, to approach its volumes has been to emphasize their ‘natural history’. It has been observed that Proust’s Cahiers are symbolic of his paralyzing, regressive condition (the artifex isolated inside the scaffolds of his own writing); that what Proust knew about Charles Darwin descended by a 1902 translation with the title Des effets de la fécondation croisée et de la fécondation directe dans le règne végétal; and that often, between the recto and verso of his handwritten notebooks, life and fiction and confused and juxtaposed. Unlike in Derrida’s“archives,” in which a deconstructionist notion of textuality prevails, our philology uses manuscripts primarily as platforms for social, performative, and multimedia uses.

In the years of the great Proustian editions scholars have turned their attention to issues of transmission and reception by focusing, among other things, on what sense of ‘original’ and ‘authorial’ intention could be gained from Proust’s paperoles—the characteristic scraps of paper, pasted in columns, on which the writer operates from left to right, and from right to left alike. (Paperole is a difficult term to translate. It has clear importance form a phenomenological point of view, providing a kind of bridge between evidence and temporal suspension, and it must be compared with Montaigne’s use of alongeails, which are extensions or additions to a text, but fairly independent from its orientation.)

It has become increasingly clear that the task of new Proust scholars should be to shift the burden of philological evidence away from a “genetic” notion of textual criticism and aside from any finalistic or  utilitarian considerations deriving from Darwinian evolution. It is time, perhaps, even for Proust’s cahiers—and especially on the hundredth anniversary of Swann’s Way—to coincide with the “sensorial turn” in the social sciences, which has revealed the many ways in which the senses are essential to how humans interpret acts of communication.

A natural history of Proust, in this sense, becomes not only a seemingly “objective” documentary evidence, but also a social history of sense perception, making full sense of the way in which the French writer thought about books as sensory objects—for instance, in his splendid metaphor about Flaubert’s sentences that, like in a Japanese paper-game, dissolve into water and unfold their glossy shapes and molting appendages. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, Nabokov observes in his autobiography Speak, Memory, the mimesis of grubby holes is thrown in with such generosity that it is safer to assume a generosity and abandon which go far beyond the need for survival and protection. Nabokov’s magic-lantern narration, at once vigil and vibrating, coated with the “milky fog” of St. Petersburg and yet anchored at the brassy buttons of a child’s memory, is a perfect companion for the type of environment that Proust envisioned and mobilized for his own writing.

From the perspective of the sensorium, Proust’s paperoles suggest a text meant for reading aloud—a sonic script as opposed to a visual one. These writing surfaces harken back to the scriptura continua (writing without breaks) of antiquity, when each individual reading was voiced and punctuation might have served as modulation: a guide to the performer on how to read. As far as precious objects stored in public libraries go, Proust’s manuscripts will presumably continue to engage more people visually than acoustically. But the lesson of the Recherche, one hundred years after its inception, needs also to capitalize on a sustained appeal to other senses and to free the audible past encrusted in its theater of the hand.


Phantasmagorical Collecting in Benjamin

Benjamin's handwritten notes (Courtesy of BNF)

Benjamin’s handwritten notes (Courtesy of BNF)

By the look of it, as T. J. Clark had the intellectual honesty to observe, Benjamin’s Arcades Project were already heading onto the reef before the actual disaster kicked in—Hitler, exile, poverty, despondency, fear, and suicide. In every collector hides an allegorist, writes Benjamin, and in every allegorist a collector.[1] This image, in spite of its polar contrast or, perhaps, in force of the antithetical articulation, is among the most straightforward self-portraits which the German writer left behind: a man within a fold, busy dreaming the dreams of his father’s generation, while fully realizing the necessity, and the struggle, to wake up from such collective dream. A vitreous globe of gaslight, a symbol of kitsch, or a literary puzzle might be standing at the very top of a totemic pole, but the totem itself, a signpost of primal history within the thicket of bourgeois accomplisment, is supported by furniture. (It would be safe to assume, as Benjamin himself is keen to point out, that E. A. Poe had reached a similar conclusion in his “philosophy” of furniture.[2])

So, waiting for the dialectical or apocalyptic blast that illuminates and transcends all the clutter, the allegorist/collector delivers piece after piece: mirrors, metals, fabrics, pottery, intricate fantasies, Orientalized ottomans, draperied boudoir, mistresses from the Borgia era or Gothic and crepuscular chapels. This accumulation goes a bit too far than the ill-fated (and Marxist) alienation of private property would require. It is frankly appalling to think that this physiological side of collecting—the “nest-building of birds” which Benjamin, hesitantly, once attributes to Vasari’s treatise on architecture[3]—would end in a suffocating slump.

Benjamin’s cryptic remarks on the Louis Philippe style, in one of his customary fascinations with antiquarian lore, which often end in a sort of weird close-up with a musty veneer from a literary source or another, shows that he was aware of the risks of his own enterprise: “The belly overspreads everything, even the time-pieces.”[4] It is all the more mysterious that he did almost nothing to prevent this outcome.

The redeeming blast might never arrive, but there is a growing sense in the Arcades Project that the street is a salvation. Street is the title of one of the most cohesive Convolutes, or sections of the book, along with Barricades; and it is not by chance that some of the best results coming out of Benjamin’s years of study in Paris have poured out into a “mapping out” of literary research.[5] The street is where the idle flâneur walks, and where the anarchists are plotting and scheming to eliminate the enemies of modernity. It is also, quite simply, an alternative to the clutter:

The hideous unbridled speculation that lowers, year by year, the height of the ceilings, that fits a whole apartment into the space formerly occupied by a drawing room and declares war on the garden, will not fail to have an influence on Parisian morals. Soon it will become necessary to live more outside the house than within it.

This is a citation from Balzac’s Petits Bourgeois, which was assembled in a book on the French writer published by E. R. Curtius and read by Benjamin in Paris.[6] It is interesting that Benjamin should feel at ease with Curtius in the first place, an erudite medievalist and philologist with a fondness for Jungian archetypes, apart from the overall topic of a ‘shrinking’ of pictorial space and the disapperance of durability. The same could be said of Benjamin’s occasional use of the Dutch historian Huizinga. It remains hard to know how Benjamin escaped the allure of Weltliteratur, as it was practiced by romance philology at the time, its medieval ogives, its phraseology, and the Romanticism of its lavish archaeology. But it is equally challenging, on the other hand, to establish how he escaped, if he did at all, the force-field of Surrealism (Aragon’s great chapter on the Passage de l’Opéra, from Le Paysan de Paris of 1926, had already set up the Parisian arcades as a dialectical fairyland) and its intrinsic vacillations between poetry and prose.

Poised between authority and legacy, Benjamin’s allegorical collecting is at once heraldic—if not, more precisely, hereditary—and archaic. In fact, Benjamin himself insists on relationship between collecting and archaism, often by pointing to Proust’s mémoire involontaire as the canon of the collector: an ability of connecting antipodal regions of the past. To the eye of the collector, as well as to a messianic scholar, there would be always a single piece missing, which makes the collection incomplete; and a patchwork is “what things are for the allegory from the beginning.”[7]


The next step is to ask how this creative disorder is displayed—or rather, disseminated—in the book as we have it, which in itself is a perilous construction born out of folio notecards, roughly bound into folders elevating into ‘galleries’ with titles such as Boredom, Fashion, the Interior, Dream Houses, Baudelaire, Panoramas and Dioramas. Marcel Proust believed that, once someone recaptured a fragment of the whole, by scanning antique shops or art sales, it would have been possible for him to reconstruct the rest of the panels dispersed in various churches, museums and private collections. He did specify, though, these ideas in the context of painting, and by underlining that the main restoring operation unfolds in a mental image. Proust also insisted on “medieval” metaphors: the cathedral as a general scaffold for the Recherche, and the single object from which the connoisseur would be able to reassemble the other missing pieces of the altar where it belonged. When it comes to Benjamin, one feels that his idiosyncratic method of division—which, strangely enough, amounts to a stumbling roadblock in the ‘avenue of reading’, the way a late-1840s barricade forcefully interrupts the flowing of trams and wares on a bridge or in a Haussmannian boulevard—provides a different registry. The objects are given a classificatory number behind which they simply disappear.

Dutiful quotation, moreover, is often mediated by slippery translation, an aspect whose eccentricity Benjamin commentators have overlooked. And it significantly slows down the articulation of a new philosophy of history, which remains hidden and implicit inside the Arcades Project. In other cases, Benjamin’s citations make the contours of things fuzzy. A prostitute or a cocotte, for instance, would always act like a strange, flirtatious sister-in-law type, whose sexual orientations are repeatedly unclear, but she will never be allowed the circumstances in which she could decide to turn herself into a fully-fledged lesbian (a real threat).

This is a situation that should give us pause. Such a dumping ground for anecdotes must find an immediate forebear in Flaubert’s unfinished and satirical novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, whose own influence in the Arcades Project is, however, lukewarm at best. In Hans Blumenberg’s terms, both Flaubert and Benjamin are champions of the traditional “ocularcentric” approach of Western culture: they transform reception into a community of onlookers; their mutual quest is also essentially humanistic, for it resolves into an attempt to construct, or restore, a structural grid of intellegibility in the history of ideas. Benjamin and Flaubert are obviously fascinated by the power of opinion, or doxa—with descriptions surviving in fragment, or dissolving into a magnetic field.

And yet, Flaubert collapses his discourse in general and amorphous statements, perverse in the cumulative effect of deformations, reversal and distortions. Benjamin’s repository, by comparison, is more “place” than “space,” a location permeated by subjectivity; it is lumpy and official, too, a mechanism that, like the alphabetic labels (44 in all, from A to Z and then from lowercase a to r), makes it quite impossible to go straight to the point. Some sections are disappointing and repetitive (Fashion, or Gambling), while a few other are horribly thin (Streets of Paris). It is only when Benjamin is in full flight, like in the vast Convolute J, on Baudelaire, that the quotations themselves change of tone, becoming breathtaking. As the reader’s pulse accelerates, the hiss and flash of pure literature finally redeems the grey plethora of pseudo-biography and the endless cacophony of interpretation and moralizing. In a way, those students of Benjamin who read his Arcades Project in search of a premonition of war (and the camps) might be better served by Flaubert’s anti-novel, for in Benjamin’s anti-essay, the element of bourgeois mourning prevails without any reasonable doubt.


By the time Marx, Saint-Simon and Fourier all get their own folder, it is doubtful whether the great, businesslike heap of secondary annotations and materials helps a representation of their thinking, or to elucidate, as Benjamin wants, the scatter of their allegorical, collectible qualities.

Marx is a typical example. The readers crosses his section, X, with the hope that Benjamin will show his hand, at last. The overall atmosphere is remarkably cluttered, and the pervasive tone derives from abstract gloss. Benjamin’s Marx in the Arcades Project is for the most part Karl Korsch’s, a Marxist editor and scholar whose main goal, and a pretty orthodox at that, was to properly show Hegel’s underlying influence in the philosophical successor. At times, Benjamin’s own treatment is as coarse and naïve as the “Dutch pictures,” which in an essay by Marx on the Rheinische Zeitung of 1842, are said to correspond to the primitive economic conditions of labor.[8] Then, at the very end of this section, the explanation returns to the logic of phantasmagorical collecting, and to the way magical qualities are stores in objects elevated to supernatural commodities. What allows Benjamin to capitalize on this connection, apart from a rare, internal reference to his own reflections on Eduard Fuchs is, surprisingly, Adorno’s essay on Richard Wagner, which the author must have known, perhaps intimately, in its manuscript form:

The art of Wagner’s orchestration has banished. . . the role of the immediate production of sound from the aesthetic totality. . . Anyone fully able to grasp why Haydn doubles the violins with a flute in piano might get an intuitive glimpse into why, thousands of years ago, men gave up eating uncooked grain and began to bake bread, or why they started to smooth and polish their tools. All trace of its own production should ideally disappear from the object of consumption. It should look as though it had never been made, so as not to reveal that the one who sells it did not in fact make it, but rather appropriated to himself the labor that went into it. The autonomy of art has its origin in the concealment of labor.[9]

There is no reply after this paragraph about techne and its effacement; and the mystery is doubled by the consideration that Walter Benjamin, for all his unspeakable intellectual acumen, has never been an original thinker or critic about music. Since he does cite, at the beginning of X, three revolutionary songs, in which some French comrades suggest to hang the aristocrats from the lamppost, the argument could be made that Marx, in the Arcades Project, is a topic which finds some degree of emotional catalyst in music. Or it could be that we are facing here a subtle exercise of Aufhebung—a dialectical ruse. The Harvard editors of Benjamin’s volume allow themselves an uncharacteristic dose of energy when they annotate this passage: “It might be said that the method of citation in The Arcades Project, the polyphony of the text, works precisely to counter the phantasmagoria Adorno speaks of.”[10] The problem with this idea is the correct sense of the text’s polyphony (is it a Bakhtinian ideal or a Surrealist montage?), and the difficulty to find out if there is a loftier order of consideration in Benjamin’s assembly, and if so, which one it is. (And how to recognize it in the mise-en-page? What made it “loftier,” literary birthright or impending philosophical necessities?)

In order to prove that Benjamin’s use of Adorno in the dying end of the Marx folder is an elaborate scenic effect, one should first demonstrate that each individual section in The Arcades Project, or the entire book, functions as a kind of of stage machinery. Failing that, Benjamin’s play with the “primitive” (which in the text translated naturwüchsig) might indeed be self-conscious, but it is perplexing to consider how Adorno, who among Benjamin’s readers and friends was the most aware of a dimension of ‘failure’ in this sprawling project, should have the final word on the issue of Marxist genealogy. As it stands, there is a sense of exactitude matérielle lingering over The Arcades Project—it hovers until it recedes into an indistinct, foggy archive. Like the extended arc of the Jugendstil flowers studied by Benjamin, part of the volume is conspicuous for its iron-cast supports and yet hardly viable on its own. But when the details of the cultural wreck are recollected by the pious allegorist—the mournful and slumbering follower of a hermaphroditic religion—we are free to adjust our gaze and speed, to bask in the whole gloomy, touching, submarine thing.[11]

[1] This, as all subsequent references, are from W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 211.

[2] Arcades Project, p. 212.

[3] Arcades Project, p. 210.

[4] Arcades Project, p. 225.

[5] I am thinking, specifically, about Olga Matich’s wonderful Petersburg Petersburg project, published in 2010 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

[6] Arcades Project, p. 224. With reference to Curtius’s Balzac (Bonn, 1923).

[7] Arcades Project, p. 211.

[8] Arcades Project, p. 668.

[9] Arcades Project, pp. 669-670.

[10] Arcades Project, p. 1001.

[11] I co-opt in this conclusion the terms of T. J. Clark’s review of Benjamin, appeared in the London Review of Books (22 June 2000).