Walter Benjamin’s Archive by Esther Leslie — Tomoé Hill

He who has once begun to unfold the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments: No image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside — that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all this has been unfurled and dissected…”

Walter Benjamin

As a child in Wisconsin, I was once taken to a place known as the House on the Rock, a strange fever-dream housed in Japanese-style architecture perched above the forest, legend being that the great Frank Lloyd Wright was approached to build it and promptly rejected it as madness. Inside, the dream does not abate and meekly follow the formal layout of a museum, but instead grows in its cacophonic visual intensity. Room after room is packed literally to the rafters with statues and books, musical instruments and toys of all kinds — in one room there is a full sized carousel, in another, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse hang from the ceiling. Your eyes are overwhelmed, as is your mind, but in the best possible way; you are learning what it means to be obsessed, in particular the obsession of wanting to know about the world. Unlike the museum, which is an ongoing collaboration of numerous people, this is a static collection, frozen in time. Collected over a lifetime, but nevertheless a specific testament to one man’s (Alex Jordan Jr.) singularity. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to arrangements, bar groupings of the most general sort, but to study it up close is for its beauty to be unleashed. This is the collection of the dreamer.

This was the immediate image that sprang to mind on reading Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso). The cultural critic and philosopher was not unlike Jordan Jr. in his lifelong obsession with collecting: postcards, toys, but most importantly, observations, and as Leslie notes, “measured against any conventional system, Benjamin’s ordering appears distorted, affected by subjective memories and meanings.” Memories are remembered connections, and as much we would like to think that we can re-create the beauty and precision of Camillo or Fludd’s memory theatres, obsessed to the last detail in the way that Simon Critchley is whilst assembling his own in the book Memory Theatre, the truth is often that memories are messy affairs, an attic where the placement of contents makes sense only to the owner. But this does not negate its wealth or splendour in any way. On the contrary, for someone who is willing to spend the time going through what is effectively another person’s mind, the rewards reaped are numerous and provide keys to unlock parts of our own that may have lain forgotten over the years.

Beyond collecting, Benjamin distributed: his observations and objects sent to friends for safekeeping, either to be then sent on to more permanent homes, or returned to sender. This was not just the adult considering his place in posterity. If, as he said, collecting “is a form of practical memory,” then entrusting them to others at times is simply another logical part of the archival process. In Travel Scenes, the young Benjamin sends picture postcards to his friend whilst on holiday and then impatiently follows them up, querying why there has been no response but hoping that they have at least been kept “…if not for you, then as a memento for me.” It is not hard to see the appeal of the postcard to Benjamin; a photo is a frozen memory of place. To look at it is to thaw that part of time and have it melt into one’s present again. Most of this part of the archive is gone; lost when Benjamin had to leave Germany in order to escape persecution in 1933. What remains are a few postcards of Italy and Spain, a tantalising but unfulfilled glimpse of the memory of memory. “The photograph captured all of its magic: the wall swung through the landscape like a voice… I made a promise to myself that I would not buy the card before I had seen with my own eyes the wall that was depicted on it.”

Examination of the majority of the written content of the archive draws the reader to Benjamin’s handwriting: a minute script, an almost reverent method of writing. Leslie notes in From Small to Smallest Details that “The spacial density of what is written corresponds to the economy of expression; a precise, laconic style. In this is expressed an ethic of ‘creative modesty’ typical of the person who lives wholly inside his subject and who is utterly incapable of viewing it complacently from the outside.” Writing space is utilised to the utmost; a draft of an article on Moscow has a column written sideways in between regular paragraphs, margins of a printed article are filled with comments that match each line layout. Curiously, the times when blank space is deliberately left, the tiny scrawls seem magnified. A sonnet on Heinle occupying the centre of a sheet on its own echoes its sentiment loudly:

And thus love wanted you
Humble and small
So that I win you
With being alone

These are little thoughts in other languages; scuttling through dreams like spiders, hanging fine webs of meaning in the mind. This is a style of writing that deliberately sets out to capture the reader and forces them to concentrate on the words as much as the writer.

But there is another side, even more dreamlike; we see in Constellations a more graphic style. Sweeping curves surround words and gather them together lovingly, at other times determined lines reach for and connect boxed thoughts. It is interesting to note that the most distinct style shown, the Lullaby Drawing, which resembles something like an embryo lined with a larger, more fanciful and less visually concentrated script, was the result of Benjamin’s experimentation with mescaline. It is beautiful in its relaxation; even the words chosen reflect someone giving themselves up to their thoughts joyfully: off to sleep, sheep, sleepikin. These are soft, pillowed words, even the unformed sentences, such as “sleep must be” look and feel like the letting go of a stricter consciousness.

Whilst he would write on anything available, there appears to be an almost fetish-like preference where possible for tools that will suitably convey and house his thoughts — although it seems that the fountain pen he used was not quite good enough “…which forced him to write with the nib upside down” in order to write as small as he wished. It seems possible to imagine Benjamin frustrated with the non-compliance of an object with one purpose only, to be the medium between mind and paper. The notebook was the ideal object in which to record his thoughts; beautiful, practical and portable, a reminder that what was put in it should be of equally impeccable quality and quantity. The writing here is some of the smallest encountered; it almost belies belief that it could be possible to write in such a hand and still read it, but it is crystal clear just as he intended. He refers to contents of notebooks as (once) “homeless thoughts“. Gathered here and there, they find a fitting home within those pages.


Opinions et Pensées reveals itself to be one of the most fascinating chapters, as it is focused on his young son Stefan’s (often newly created) words and everyday musings — the title being a reference to great collected thoughts over the years of such authors and thinkers as Montaigne. One must think this is partially in jest, and while there is no doubt there is a fatherly delight evident in his notes, at the same time Benjamin the collector of observations is hard at work: he dissects each new word structure and attempts to decode seemingly nonsensical sentences. Nonsense (as an alternative to conformist sense rather than the idea of something ridiculous) has its own logic: Lewis Carroll’s books perhaps the most obvious example in literature, carrying through to serious movements and philosophies such as surrealism and pataphysics.

More than this however, is its particular musicality and lyricism when expressed by the child: “He (Benjamin) maintains the sonically derived misunderstandings of the child in his ear; notes the surprising metaphorical turns of phrase that Stefan uses.” This is a precursor to what Iona and Peter Opie did in the 1950s with The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, gathering and dissecting wordplay, rhymes and games of (mainly) British children. “The schoolchild’s verses are not meant for adult ears.” Likewise, Leslie notes “Benjamin latches onto the distorting effects of children’s language… Words are torn, twisted, substituted, confused.” The language of the child is a secret one that can be observed, but as Benjamin’s notes will testify, can never completely be understood by the adult. There is a modified version of this for the adult in Hard Nuts to Crack, where we see his love of riddles and word games. Rhyming and rhythm become keys to complex puzzles, sound and thought must work together to find the answers. Words are hidden within words, but so are people: “One of Benjamin’s pseudonyms owes its existence to his desire for anonymity. In exile he wanted to sign his works as O.E. TAL, reversal of the Latin phrase “lateo” (I am hidden).” Just as the child will physically hide at times of stress, so will the adult, but in a different way.

In Stefan’s sentences we see the child making sense of the adult world in ways that we have forgotten: we laugh, but often do not realise the simplicity and directness of their truths. This is due to the wealth of knowledge we have acquired over the years. Children must assemble logic out of the limited information they have thus far gathered in an equally short space of time. When we realise what a feat this actually is, we can grasp the wonder of what they are saying. Compare the following statements:

Stefan — (He was supposed to have some hot milk, because he had a cough): “The tongue doesn’t want it.” (then) “The tongue doesn’t have a cough.”
My sister — (Justifying why she should be allowed dessert when she hadn’t finished dinner): “My dinner drawer (pointing to stomach) is full, but my ice-cream drawer is empty.”

These point to his theory of mimesis as a universal method of learning in children as they interact with the adult world; this is not limited to language, however: he also recognises that it extends to objects. A child is just as likely to identify as a thing (and in the above examples, able to apply a separate and distinct free will to parts of the body) rather than solely attempt to rationalise behaviour via language in order to come to a logical conclusion, as he points out in Doctrine of the Similar, “A child not only plays at being a grocer or a teacher, but also at being a windmill or a train.” Mimesis here is not unlike the trying on of different costumes, but for the purposes of understanding logical structure in what its end result will be the adult viewpoint.

Physiognomy of the Thingworld shows another part of the child’s world through the eyes of the adult. In this, toys, specifically Russian, are its focus. It shows the country come to life through its folklore, a country that exists in modernity but is actually disappearing in its heart; the culture that produces these toys emblematic of who they really are as a people. The ephemeral nature is emphasised even more by the fact that the collection exists as photos only, “…traces of disappearance.” The toys range from domestic miniatures (samovar and sewing machine), to animals (horses), folk items (a straw doll created during a harvest), and man-animal hybrids; two figures on horseback appear to have melded together. “Demotic toys strive for simplified forms,” notes Benjamin. This is an interesting concept — that folk culture is somehow simple culture. Simple perhaps, in that it does not need the trappings of modernity to exist, but complex in that folklore and mythology are quite willing to grasp as normal the unreal and impossible, and weave it into reality.

Throughout, Leslie recognises the connections between the parts of the archive, no matter how obscure they might seem. Looking at the objects and writings here show that Benjamin was someone who saw that culture was made up of infinite small details, and that his life’s obsession was finding and examining each one, fitting parts together like his beloved puzzles. “These would not be Benjamin’s archives if the materials did not communicate with one another. Each of these collections is distinctive and yet none of them lies in a closed drawer. Fine threads lead from one to the other.” The sections mentioned here are only a part of what the book contains and will hopefully act as a tantalising lure in drawing readers into a lengthy exploration of its contents. The personal appeal of Benjamin is beautifully expressed in his archive: like Alex Jordan Jr.’s wondrous House on the Rock collection, the archive is a dream, and Benjamin is the dreamer’s philosopher.

Esther Leslie – is a lecturer in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and sits on the editorial boards of Historical Materialism, Radical Philosophy and Revolutionary History.

Tomoé Hill – lives and writes in Kent. Her pieces have also been in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Open Pen, and LossLit. She is reviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.

ImageHouse on the Rock Carousel, © John Kroll, Creative Commons