The introduction to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, was written in 1938 but not published until long after his death. It is an attempt to categorically reveal how, through the apparent chaos and convulsions in 19th century Parisian culture and society, great explorations and exposés of the realities of the epoch and its ramifications for later generations, are afforded us by examination of the lives and works of its inhabitants.
Translation by Johnny Rodger
‘History is like the Janus: it has two faces, that look to the past and to the present, and that see the same things.’Maxime Du Camp, Paris. VI p.115
The subject of this book is an illusion expressed by Schopenhauer in this formula: that to capture the essence of history it is enough to compare Herodotus with the daily newspapers. It’s an expression of the vertiginous feeling that was characteristic of the nineteenth century’s conception of history. And it corresponds to an attitude which sees the story of the world as an infinite series of facts set in the form of things. What characteristically remains with us of that conception is known as ‘The History of Civilisation’, which constitutes, point by point, an inventory of human creation and human forms of life. The riches thus gathered up in the treasury of civilisation appear by that point as recognised for all time. This conception understates the fact that these riches owe not only their existence but also their currency to a constant effort of society, an effort whose addition also brings about a strange alteration in those very riches. Our enquiry aims to show how, as a result of this representation of civilisation through things, the new ways of life and the new economically and technologically based creations for which we are indebted to the nineteenth century have entered the universe of the phantasmagorical. These creations have undergone this ‘enlightenment’ not only in a theoretical sense, by an ideological shift, but also in the immediacy of their perceptible presence. They reveal themselves as phantasmagorias. As such the arcades make their appearance – a first in the field of iron construction. Thus also do the universal exhibitions appear, whose relations to the entertainment industry are significant. In the same order of phenomena is the experience of the flaneur, who abandons himself to the phantasmagorias of the marketplace. Corresponding to these marketplace phantasmagorias, where men appear only under the guise of types, are the phantasmagorias of the interior, which are constituted by man’s imperious custom of leaving the imprint of his private individual existence in the rooms he has inhabited. As for the phantasmagoria of civilisation itself, it found its champion in Haussmann, and its manifest expression in his transformation of Paris. Nonetheless, the brilliance and the splendour in which this merchandise producing society wraps itself and its illusory feeling of security are not immune to threats: the collapse of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune are sharp reminders of that. In the same period, Blanqui, the most redoubtable adversary of that society, revealed to it in his last piece of writing the frightening aspects of that phantasmagoria. Humanity cuts a damnable figure there. Everything that it aspires to have for new, turns out to be nothing but a reality that has always existed, and this newness will always be as little equipped to provide a liberating answer as is the latest fashion of renewing society itself. Blanqui’s cosmic speculation brings this lesson to us, that humanity will be prey to mythic anguish as long as it provides a host for phantasmagoria.
The magic colonies of those palaisNouveaux Tableaus de Paris. Paris 1828, p.27.
Show with their objects on display,
To connoisseurs from every part,
That industry is a rival to the Arts.
Most of the arcades in Paris were built in the fifteen years following 1822. The first condition for their development was the boom in the textile trade. The novelty shops (magasins de nouveauté) make their appearance and they are the first establishments to constantly hold considerable quantities of merchandise. These are the precursors of the department stores. It is to that era that Balzac alludes when he writes: ‘The great poem of display sings its coloured verses from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint-Denis.’ The arcades are centres of commerce for luxury goods. In designing and fitting them art enters into the service of the merchant. Contemporaries never tire of admiring them. For a long period, they remained an attraction for tourists. An Illustrated Guide to Paris says, ‘These arcades, a recent industrial invention deluxe, are corridors with glass ceilings, and marble panelling which run through whole apartment blocks, whose owners collaborated on the undertaking. Along both sides of the arcade, which receives its light from above, are ranged the most elegant shops, in such a way that the arcade itself is a town, a world in miniature.’ The first attempts at gaslighting also took place within the arcades. The second necessary condition for the development of the arcades was supplied by the initiation of metal construction. In the age of Empire, this technique was seen as a contribution to the renewal of Architecture, in the classical Greek sense. Boetticher, the architectural theoretician, expressed a general feeling when he said, ‘as for the art forms of the new system, the ‘Hellenic style’ must come to the fore. The Empire style is the style of revolutionary terrorism for which the state is an end in itself. Just as Napoleon did not understand the functional nature of the state as an instrument of bourgeois power, so the architects of his era did not understand the functional nature of iron, whereby in architecture the structural principle comes to prevail. These architects build supports in the imitation of Pompeian columns, factories in imitation of residential accommodation, just as later the first railway stations are made out like country houses. Structure plays the role of the subconscious. Nevertheless, the concept of the engineer, which dates from the revolutionary wars, begins to take hold, and the rivalry commences between the maker of structures and the decorator of structures, between the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For the first time since the Romans, a new artificial construction material, iron, makes its appearance. It will undergo an evolution at a pace which accelerates as the century goes on. A definite boost is received from the day when it is decided that locomotives – which had been the object of endless experimentation since the years 1828-9 – would only work effectively on rails of iron. The rail was thus the first iron-made component, the forerunner of the iron construction frame. Iron was not used for residential buildings but was encouraged for use in arcades, exhibition halls and stations – all structures which served transitory purposes.
‘It is easy to understand that every mass-type ‘interest’ which asserts itself historically goes beyond its real limits in the ‘idea’ or ‘imagination’, when it first comes on the scene.’Marx and Engles, Die Heilige Familie
The most vital impulse given to the Fourierist utopia is found in the advent of machines. The Fourierist utopia was to put people into a system of relationships whereby morality was no longer needed. Nero would have been a more useful member of that society than would have been Fenelon. Fourier does not dream of trusting on virtue for this, but on an efficient functioning of society where the motive forces are the passions. By the gearing of the passions, by the complex combination of the mechanistic passions with cabbalistic passions, Fourier imagines collective psychology like a clockwork mechanism. Fourierist harmony is the necessary product of this combinatory game. Fourier insinuates into the world of austere forms of Empire the gaily coloured idyll of the style of the 1830s. He brings into being a system where the products of his highly coloured vision and his idiosyncrasies with numbers are mixed together. Fourier’s harmonies do not claim in any way to belong to some mystical numerary order found in some tradition or other. They are in fact the direct results of his pronouncements: lucubrations of an organisational imagination, which he developed to extremes. Accordingly, he foresaw how important meetings would become for citizens. The inhabitants’ day in the Philanstery would not be organised by themselves, but in the grand halls similar to those of the Stock Exchange, where the meetings are set up by managers. Fourier recognised the architectural canon of the philanstery in the arcades. That’s what marks out the ‘Empire’ character of his utopia, and Fourier himself recognised this in a naïve way: ‘The societarian state will be all the more brilliant from its beginning for its having been deferred so long. Greece in the age of Solon and Pericles could already have undertaken this task.’ The arcades which originally came about for commercial purposes, became dwelling houses in Fourier. The philanstery is a town made of arcades. In this ‘city of arcades’ the engineer’s construction takes on a phantasmagorical character. The ‘city of arcades’ is a dream that will flatter the vision of Parisians well into the second half of the century. Even as late as 1869 Fourier’s ‘street galleries’ will be able to supply the ground for Moilin’s utopia of Paris in the year 2000. The city takes on a structure which, with its shops and apartments, makes it the ideal background for the flaneur. Marx took a position backing Fourier against Carl Gruen and upholding the worth of his ‘colossal conception of man.’ He considered Fourier the only man besides Hegel who had brought to light the thoroughgoing mediocrity of the petty bourgeois. Hegel’s systematic undoing of the type has a parallel in Fourier’s humorous annihilation of them. One of the most noteworthy traits of the Fourierist utopia is that the exploitation of nature by man –which at a later age was widespread – is foreign to it. With Fourier, technology appears rather as the spark which puts flame to nature’s powder. Perhaps that is indeed the key to his bizarre representation of the philanstery as propagated ‘by explosion’. The later conception of man’s exploitation of nature, in fact, reflects the exploitation of man by the owners of the means of production. If the integration of the technological into the social life failed, then the blame is with this latter exploitation.
Yes, when all the world, from Paris to China,Langle and Vanderbruch; Louis-Bronz et le Saint-Simon (Theatre du Palais Royal 27 February 1832)
Listens to your doctrine, oh divine Saint Simon,
The Golden Age will be reborn with all its brilliance,
The rivers will flow with tea and chocolate;
Sheep roasted whole will bound across the meadows,
And sautéed pike will swim in the Seine,
Fricasseed spinach will grow from the earth,
And crushed fried croutons will accompany them;
The trees will grow ready stewed apples,
And coats and boots will be harvested from the land;
It will snow wine, and rain chickens,
And ducks with turnip will fall from the heavens.
Universal Exhibitions are the main pilgrimage centres for the commodity fetish. ‘Europe has gone to see the goods’ wrote Taine in 1855. As forerunners to those Universal Exhibitions there were the national exhibitions of industry, the first of which took place in 1798 on the Champs de Mars. It was born of the desire to entertain the working classes, and for them it became a festival of freedom’. The first clientele consisted of workers. The framework of the entertainment industry was not yet in place. The structure was provided by the town fairs. Chaptal’s famous speech on industry opened the 1798 exhibition – the Saint Simoniens who forecast global industrialisation, adopted the idea of universal exhibitions. Chevalier, the first expert in this new field, was a student of Enfantin, and the editor of the Saint Simonien journal ‘Le Globe’. The Saint Simoniens foresaw the development of worldwide industry, but they didn’t foresee the class struggle. That’s why, in relation to their participation across all industrial and commercial enterprises in the middle of the century, we have to recognise their weakness on questions concerning the proletariat. Universal Exhibitions idealise the exchange value of commodities. They create a framework in which use value becomes a secondary issue. Universal Exhibitions were a school where the masses were separated perforce from consumption and blasted by the exchange value of commodities to such an extent that they came to identify with them –‘Do not touch the displays’. Access is thus given to folk to enter a phantasmagorical world which exists only to distract. At the heart of these pleasures, to which the individual abandons themselves to the control of the entertainment industry, one remains merely an element in a compact mass. This mass of people enjoys the fairground attractions with their rollercoasters, their ‘waltzers’ and their ‘caterpillars’, in an attitude entirely of reaction. They are led into a type of subjection on which both industrial and political propaganda depend for their effects – the enthronement of the commodity and the splendour of its distractions, that is the secret theme of Grand-Ville’s art. Hence the disparity between its utopian and its cynical elements. His subtle artifices in the subtle representation of inanimate objects corresponds to that which Marx called the theological niceties of the commodity. The concrete expression of this is clearly found in the ’speciality’ – a category of commodity which makes its appearance at that moment in the luxury goods industry. Universal Exhibitions construct a world of ‘specialities’. The fantasies of Grande-Ville amount to the same thing. They modernise the universe. The ring of Saturn is a cast iron balcony on which the inhabitants of the planet take the air at nightfall. Equally an iron balcony at the universal exhibition would represent the ring of Saturn and those who took the step onto it would be drawn into a phantasmagory where they were transformed into the people of Saturn. The literary equivalent to this graphic utopia is the work of the Fourierist theorist Toussenel. Toussenel edited the natural science column for a fashion journal. His zoology ordered the animal world under the authority of fashion. He considered woman as the mediator between man and the animals. She was in a way a decorator of the animal world- which world would in exchange lay feathers and furs at her feet. ‘The lion asks nothing more than to have its nails trimmed, provided it is a pretty girl who holds the scissors.’
‘Fashion : Master Death! Master Death!‘Leopardi, ‘Dialogue between fashion and Death.’
Fashion prescribes the ritual by which the commodity as fetish will be worshipped; Grandville extends its authority from the everyday object to the cosmos at large. In driving it to excess he reveals its true nature. It joins the living body with the inorganic world. With regards to the living it defends the rights of the corpse. Thus the fetishism which is subject to the sex-appeal of the inorganic is its vital nerve. Grandeville’s fantasies correspond to that spirit of fashion –the type that Apollinaire traced in an image:
‘Any material from the natural world can now be used in the making of women’s clothing. I saw a charming dress made of corks … porcelain, earthenware and painted stone have suddenly appeared in the art of dress … shoes are being made from Venetian glass and hats in Baccarat crystal.’
‘I believe … in my soul, the Thing’Leon Deubel, Oeuvres Paris, 1929, p.193
During the reign of Louis Phillipe the individual makes their appearance in history. For the individual the place of residence is for the first time distinct from the place of work. The former constitutes the interior, and the office is its complement. (The office is however distinguished clearly from the shop counter, which, with its globes, its wall maps, its railings, presents itself as a survival of Baroque forms anterior to the residential type). The individual who keeps abreast of reality in his office is sustained by their illusions in the domestic interior. That necessity is pressing as they would never dream of grafting a clear awareness of their social function onto their business interests. Both these concerns are repressed in the arrangement of their private environment. Whence are derived the phantasmagorias of the interior, for the individual these represent the universe. Distant regions and memories of the past are brought together for them there. Their living room is a theatre box on the whole world. The interior is a haven where art takes refuge. The collector is the one who truly belongs in the interior. Their business is the idealisation of objects. Incumbent upon them is the task of taking possession and thus divesting things of their commodity character. But they are only able to confer on those objects the value they have for a connoisseur in place of their exchange value. The collector enjoys reviving a world which is not only distant and defunct but also better – a world where people are no better provided with things that they need, but where things are freed from the chore of being useful.
‘The head … on the night table, like a ranunculus, Sits’. Baudelaire, ‘A Martyr’.
The interior is not only the universe of the individual, it is also their carrying case (etui). Ever since the time of Louis Phillipe, there has been a notable tendency in the bourgeoisie to compensate for the absence of any trace of private life in the big city. They have attempted to find this compensation within the four walls of their appartments. It is as if it were a point of honour that they should not lose any trace of their everyday objects and accessories. Without fail they take the impression of a load of objects; for their slippers, their watches, their blankets and their umbrellas they devise coverings and cases. They have a preference for velvet and plush which keeps the impression of all contact. In the Second Empire style the apartment becomes a type of cockpit. The traces of the inhabitant are moulded into the interior. Thereby was born the detective story and the inspection of the tracks. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘new detectives’ and their ‘Philosophy of Furniture’ made him the first physiognomist of the interior. The original criminals in the first detective novels were neither gentlemen nor apaches but simple bourgeois individuals (‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘William Wilson’.)
‘This searching for my home … was my (home)sickness … where is my home? That’s what I ask after and search for and have searched for, I didn’t find it.’Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra
The liquidation of the interior was brought about during the last years of the nineteenth century by the ‘modern style’, but it had long been on the cards. The art of the interior was a genre art. The ‘modern style’ sounded the death knell for genre art. It rose up against the infatuation with genre art in a sort of sickening against its times, in an ever open-armed aspiration. The ‘moderne style’ takes into account for the first time certain tectonic forms. At the same time, it struggles to separate their functional relations and to present them as natural constants, strives, in brief, to stylise them. The new elements in iron construction and in particular the iron frame are the focus of this ‘modern style’. In the realm of ornament, it seeks to integrate these forms into art. Concrete gives architecture new potential. With Van de Velde the house is manifested as the plastic expression of a personality. Ornament plays the same role here as the signature on a painting. It is happy to express a linear, mediated language in which the flower, symbol of plant life, insinuates itself into the very structural lines. The curved line of the ‘moderne style’ appears at the same time as the title Fleurs du Mal. A sort of garland marks the movement from the Fleurs du Mal to the souls of flowers in Odilon Redon, and on to Swann’s cattleya orchids. Thus, as Fourier had foreseen, it’s more and more in offices and in business centres that one should look for the true framework for the life of the private citizen. The fictional framework for the individual’s life is constituted in the private home. Hence the architect Solness in the Master Builder gets the measure of the ‘modern style’: the attempt by the individual to rival technology by relying on flights of genius leads to their downfall: the architect Solness kills himself in the fall from the top of his tower.
‘For me everything becomes allegory’,Baudelaire, Le Cygne.
The genius of Baudelaire, which found its nourishment in melancholy, is an allegorical genius. Paris becomes, for the first time with Baudelaire, the object of lyric poetry. This poetry of place is the opposite of poetry of the soil. The gaze which allegorical genius fixes on the city betrays a profound alienation. It’s the gaze of the flaneur, whose way of life conceals behind a generous mirage the distress of the future inhabitants of our major cities. The Flaneur seeks refuge in the crowd. The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flaneur into a phantasmagoria. This phantasmagoria, in which the city appeared sometimes as a landscape and sometimes as an interior, seems later to have inspired the décor of the great department stores, who thus used the flaneur to increase their bottom line. Whatever else they are, department stores are the final resort for flanerie. In the person of the flaneur, intelligence is familiarised with the marketplace. It gives itself up to the marketplace, thinking only to take a turn there, but in fact it’s already looking to make a sale. This intermediate stage, when it still has patrons, but when it has already begun to bend to the demands of the market (in the guise of the feuilleton) is the bohemian. The uncertainty of its economic position corresponds to the ambiguity of its political function. This latter is made clear in the types of professional conspirators, all recruited from the ranks of bohemians. Blanqui is the most remarkable representative of that category. No one in the nineteenth century had a revolutionary authority comparable to his. The image of Blanqui streaks like a flash of lightning through The Litanies of Satan. Still Baudelaire’s rebellion is nonetheless one of an asocial man: nothing comes of it. The only sexual liaison he had in his life was with a prostitute.
‘No feature distinguished one from the other, they came from the same hell, those hundred-year-old twins’Baudelaire, Les sept vieillards
The flaneur is the advance party on the marketplace. As such they are also the explorer of the crowd. The crowd gives birth, to those who abandon themselves to it, to a sort of drunkenness, which is accompanied by very specific illusions that flatter the beholder into the belief that on seeing a passer-by carried onwards by the crowd they recognise from external appearances all the inner recesses of the stranger’s soul. Contemporary physiologies abound with conceptions of this type. Balzac’s works provide us with some excellent examples. The typical characters recognised amongst passers-by make such an impression that we are not surprised at the curiosity aroused to go beyond and grasp at the special singularity of each subject. But the nightmare which corresponds to the illusory perspicacity of such physiognomists is to see the distinctive traits particular to one subject revealed in turn as nothing more than the elements of a new type; such that when all is said and done the person of most highly defined individuality is revealed as simply an example of a type. And there we see the agonising phantasmagoria at the heart of flanerie. Baudelaire develops this with great vigour in Les Sept Vieillards. The poem presents the apparition, seven times reiterated, of a repulsive old man. The individual, thus presented in his multiplicity as always the same testimony to the anguish of the city dweller, is unable, despite his successive adoption of eccentric peculiarities, to break the magic circle of the type. Baudelaire characterises the appearance of this procession of peculiarities as infernal. But the newness he sought out throughout his life was in fact made of nought but the phantasmagoria of ‘always the same’. (The evidence that could be provided to show that this poem transcribes the reveries of a hashish eater does not at all weaken this interpretation.)
To the depths of the Unknown to seek out the new!’Baudelaire, Le Voyage.
The key to the allegorical form in Baudelaire is tied to the specific signification that the commodity finds in its price. The singular degradation of things by their signification, which is characteristic of allegory in the 17th century, corresponds to the singular degradation of things by their price as commodities. That degradation to which things are subject because they can be taxed as commodities is counterbalanced in Baudelaire by the inestimable value of novelty. Novelty represents that absolute which is not susceptible to any interpretation or any comparison. It becomes the last bastion of art. The final poem of Les Fleurs de Mal ‘Le Voyage’ . ‘Death, my old captain, it is time! Raise the anchor!’ The final voyage of the flaneur: Death. Their destination: the New. The new is a quality independent of a commodity’s use value. It is the source of the illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor. That art’s last line of resistance coincided with the most advanced line of attack by the commodity had to remain hidden from Baudelaire.
‘Spleen et ideal’ – in the title of the first cycle of Les Fleurs du Mal the oldest foreign word in the French language is coupled with the newest one. For Baudelaire there was no contradiction between those concepts. He recognised in ‘spleen’ the latest transfigurations of the ideal – the ideal seemed to him the very earliest expression of spleen. With this title, where the supremely novel is presented to the reader as something supremely old, Baudelaire gave the most vital form to his concept of the modern. The mainframe of his theory of art is ‘modern beauty’, and the criterion of modernity seems to him to be this: that it is stamped with the fatality of one day being antiquity, and it reveals this to whoever witnesses its birth. Here we find the quintessence of the unforeseen, which for Baudelaire is an inalienable quality of the beautiful. The face of modernity itself stuns us with its immemorial gaze. Such was the gaze of Medusa for the Greeks.
‘I follow the cult of the Beautiful, of the good, of great things, Of beautiful nature inspiring great art, which enchants the ear or charms the gaze, I love springtime in flower; women and roses!’Baron Haussmann, Confessions of a Lion Grown Old.
Haussmann’s activity is incorporated into Napoleonic imperialism which favours investment capitalism. In Paris speculation reaches its zenith. Haussmann’s expropriations cause speculative activity which borders on fraud. The rulings of the Court of Cassation sought by the bourgeois and Orleanist opposition heighten the financial risks of Haussmannisation. Haussman attempts to bolster his regime by placing Paris under emergency rule. In 1864, in a speech to the Assembly, he vents his hatred of the rootless urban population. His works cause an even greater increase in that population. The rise in rents pushes the proletariat out into the suburbs. Accordingly the neighbourhoods of Paris lose something of their distinct character. The ‘red belt’ is formed. Haussmann gave himself the title of ‘demolition artist’. He felt he had a vocation for this enterprise and he emphasises that fact in his memoires. Les Halles –the central covered marketplace – is considered Haussmann’s most successful construction, and that’s an interesting symptom. It was said of the Ile de la Cite, the cradle of the city, that after Haussmann passed through only a church, a hospital, a public building (the courts) and a barracks remained. Hugo and Merimee show us how the transformations wrought by Haussmann appeared to the Parisians as a monument to Napoleonic despotism. The inhabitants of the city no longer felt at home– they began to notice the inhuman character of the city. Maxime Du Camp’s monumental work Paris, owes its existence to this awakening of consciousness. The etchings of Meryon (around 1850) constitute the death mask of Old Paris.
The real aim of Haussmann’s works was to secure the city against the possibility of civil war. He wanted to make it impossible ever to construct barricades in the streets of Paris. Following the same aim, Louis Phillipe had already introduced timber street paving. Nonetheless, barricades played a considerable role in the February revolution. Engels studied the tactical problems of fighting from barricades. Haussmann sought to prevent such eventuality in two ways. The broader streets made construction of barricades impossible and the streets were made in straight lines to connect the workers’ districts to the barracks. His contemporaries christened the enterprise ‘strategic beautification’.
‘The beautiful world of decorationFranz Böhle: Theater-Katechismus. München, p-74
The charm of landscape, of architecture,
And of all scenic effect, rests
On the law of perspective alone.’
For Haussmann the urban ideal consisted in the perspectives opened up by the long ordered stretches of streets. That ideal corresponds to the tendency current in the nineteenth century to ennoble technological necessities via pseudo-artistic outcomes. The temples to the spiritual and secular power of the bourgeoisie could reach their apotheosis framed in the long stretch of those streets. Before their inauguration those perspectives were concealed by canvas sheets, which were drawn aside as one reveals a monument, to show a church, a station, an equestrian statue or some such symbol of civilisation. With the Haussmanisation of Paris the phantasmagoria is built in stone. Although it was cast with the intention of a perpetual destiny, we are also given a glimpse of its brittleness. The Avenue de l’Opera – which in the malicious gossip of the day was said to open a perspective on the janitor’s hut at the Louvre – reveals how relentless was the prefect’s megalomania.
Show the disgraced ones, Oh Republic,Pierre Dupont, Chant des Ouvriers
Your great Medusa face
Ringed with red lightning,
And undo all their scams!
The barricade is resurrected by the Commune. It is stronger and better built than ever. It blocks the great Boulevards, often rises to the height of the first floor, and shelters the trenches behind it. Just as the Communist Manifesto ends the era of professional conspirators, so the Commune puts a stop to the phantasmagoria which had dominated the early aspirations of the proletariat. Thanks to the barricades, the illusion, that the task of the proletarian revolution would be to finish the work of 1789 in strict collaboration with the bourgeoisie, is dissipated. That chimera was a strong feature of the period from 1831 to 1871, from the Lyons riots to the Commune. The bourgeoisie never shared in that mistake. Their struggle against the social rights of the proletariat is as old as the Revolution itself. It is as one with the philanthropic movement which hides it from view and had its full day in the sun under Napoleon III. Under his government the monumental work of this movement appeared: Le Play’s book ‘Workers of Europe’. Alongside its open position of philanthropy, the bourgeoisie has always maintained the covert position of class struggle. In 1831 the Journal des Debats recognised that ‘All industrialists live in their factories like plantation owners on their plantations amongst their slaves.’ If it was fatal to the history of workers’ rebellions that no revolutionary theory existed to show them the way, then that was also a necessary condition for the immediacy of the enthusiasm and energy with which they set to the creation of a new society. This enthusiasm reached its high point in the Commune, and sometimes gained to its workers’ cause the best elements of the bourgeoisie, but ultimately led the workers to succumb to its worst elements. Rimbaud and Courbet joined up with the Commune. The burning down of Paris was a fine end to Baron Haussmann’s destruction.
‘Men of the 19th century, the hour of our apparitions is fixed forever, and always brings us back to the same’Auguste Blanqui, L’Eternite par les Astres, Paris 1872, p74-5.
During the Commune Blanqui was taken prisoner in the fortress of Taureau. That is where he wrote L’Eternite par les Astres. This book brings to completion the constellation of the century’s phantasmagorias with one final phantasmagoria, a comic character, who embodies the most bitter critiques of all the others. The ingenuous reflections of an autodidact form the principal part of this piece of writing and open the way to speculations which cruelly belie his revolutionary standing. The conception of the universe which Blanqui develops in this book that leans on grounds from the mechanical natural sciences, turns out to be a vision of hell. It is, furthermore, the complement to that society which Blanqui towards the end of his life was obliged to recognise had triumphed over him. The irony of this whole construction- an irony no doubt hidden from the author himself – is that the frightful accusations he makes against society take the form of an unqualified surrender to its results. This writing presents the idea of eternal return ten years before Zarathustra; in a way scarcely less moving than Nietzsche, and with an extremely hallucinatory force.
This force is not triumphant, it rather leaves a feeling of oppression. Balnqui is concerned with tracing an image of progress which (immemorial antiquity transvested as contemporary novelty) in reality is the phantasmagoria of history itself. Here is the essential passage:
‘The whole universe is composed of solar systems. In order to create them nature has only one hundred simple bodies at its disposition. Despite the great advantage it has in these resources, and the innumerable combinations which provide great fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves, and to achieve its scope, nature has to repeat to infinity each of its original combinations or types. Each cosmic body, whatever it might be, exist in infinite number in time and space, not only under one of its aspects, but as it is at each single second of its existence, from its birth to its death… The earth is one of those cosmic bodies. Every human being is thus eternal in every single second of their existence. The things I have written here in my cell in the fortress of Taureau I have written and I will write throughout eternity, on a table, with a pen, in these clothes, in all these circumstances. And that’s the way it is for everyone… The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. In good conscience what more could one ask for? These doubles are in flesh and blood, even in jacket and trousers, in crinoline and in silk. They are by no means phantoms, they are the eternal present. Here, however, lies a great disadvantage: there is no progress… What we call progress is found only in each particular world, and disappears with it. At all times and everywhere, in the earthly context, the same drama, the same backdrop, on the same narrow stage, noisy humanity, infatuated with their own grandeur, believing themselves to be the universe, living in their prison and believing it some vast realm, only to falter soon enough along with their globe which has carried the burden of their pride with the greatest disdain. The same monotony, the same immobility, on all those far-flung planets. The universe repeats itself without end and stands pawing the ground. Eternity plays on, imperturbably, the same old routines.’
That hopeless resignation is the last word of the great revolutionary. The century was unable to respond to new technological possibilities with a new social order. That’s why the last word was left to the maverick intermediaries between the old and the new, who were at the heart of those phantasmagorias. The world is dominated by its phantasmagorias, and that is, to employ Baudelaire’s expression, modernity. Blanqui’s vision has the whole universe enter into modernity –heralded within by Baudelaire’s seven old men. Ultimately the new appears to Blanqui as an aspect of all that is sentenced to damnation. It’s rather like a vaudeville show that was staged just before publication of this book, Ciel et Enfer (Heaven and Hell), where the tortures of hell feature as the latest novelties for all time as ‘pains eternal and forever new!’. The people of the nineteenth century, addressed by Blanqui as though they were apparitions, all belong to that region.
All images by ‘flaneur par excellence’, Eugène Atget via Wikimedia commons CC0