‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me!’1 :
The Surreal Spaces of Benjamin’s Metamemory

I wish to write of this afternoon because it made so apparent what kind of regiment cities keep over imagination, and why the city […] indemnifies itself in memory, and why the veil it has covertly woven out of our lives shows images of people less often than those of the sites of our encounters with others or ourselves.2

We wish to […] recognise within the human soul the permanence of a nucleus of […] ever living childhood, outside history, hidden from the others, disguised in history when it is recounted, which has real being only in its instants of illumination which is the same as saying in the moments of its poetic existence.3

In a letter to Gerhard Scholem dated 4 May 1928, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) describes his most recent writing project, his (never completed) socio-historic-philosophical study of the Paris Arcades, as a homeless vagrant in search of shelter. ‘The work’, he admits, ‘howls into my nights like a small beast [but] though I may already be constantly staring into the housing in which it does what comes naturally, I let hardly anyone else have a look inside.’4 A year later, the metaphor shifts, and the Arcades Project has become an edifice under construction: writing to Hugo Hofmannsthal, Benjamin describes a work that has ‘grown’ both ‘in terms of material and its foundation’ (CWB, 353). The emphasis on place and space in these depictions is telling, and one manifest throughout Benjamin’s oeuvre. The home, the city, and the interstices between them – the loggia, the courtyard, the alleyway and the passageway – are conceptual spaces Walter Benjamin returns to throughout his writing career. In his texts, ‘locus’ has numerous, often overlapping, connotations. The self’s place in time, the space of memory, the space of the imagination and the space of the text are often interwoven, while the tension between recollected experiences of place and those imagined remains a constant, recurring and explicit preoccupation, one profoundly influenced by the writer’s engagement with the Surrealist project.

Work on Walter Benjamin as a writer in exile, a displaced Jew and a philosopher of history abounds, as do the studies on his understanding of urban modernity. His autobiographical writings, however, and the interplay, in these, between oneiric space and memory have been largely ignored.5 In this paper, I argue that Benjamin veritably anticipates what French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) would later term ‘metamemory’ – the oneiric space in which ‘imagination and memory are most closely interwoven’ (PR, 106-7), in which ‘transcendence is added to immanence,’ and in which the quotidian (both past and present) is re-imbued with mystery.6 Without fully articulating these questions, Walter Benjamin’s autobiographical writings implicitly ask: where else can the exiled writer stray? Can recollection serve to ‘gather’ these places? Can memory serve as sanctuary? Examining Benjamin’s representation of lived and imagined memory, and the particular syntactical and grammatical nuances therein, I argue, can shed new light on his work, and, in broader terms, on the early twentieth century’s understanding of the self’s spatiality – and of (lived, imagined, re-visited) space, itself, as anything but static. In particular, I use Bachelard’s writings to examine the manifestation of ‘metamemory’ in Benjamin’s unfinished memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, which he wrote while in exile in Ibiza and Poveromo between 1932 and 1934, and the pieces out of which the work emerged: the surrealist montage of aphorisms and reflections One-Way Street (1928), and the unfinished Berlin Chronicle, begun in 1932. I also examine how the disturbing landscapes depicted in Benjamin’s personal correspondence verge on metamemories, and how both these and the Berlin texts constitute an ‘imaginary’ as Bachelard understands it; that is, as a surplus of dream images, a space that is ‘always more than the sum of its images, always beyond them’ and which, in its insubstantiality and potentially endless expansiveness, remains ‘essentially open and elusive.’ (AD, 2). Reflecting the quintessentially modern notion of representation as something that is never truly complete, these oneiric spaces, like their dreamer, are ever in the process of becoming.7

  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking by Library’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. J. A. Underwood (London: Penguin, 2008), pp. 59-68 (p. 63). Henceforth, UML []
  2. Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ in Selected Writing, Vol. II: 1927-1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), pp. 603-615 ( p. 614). Henceforth, BCHR. []
  3. Gaston Bachelard, ‘The permanence of childhood’ in The Poetics of Reverie, p.100. Henceforth, PR []
  4. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910- 1940, ed. by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W Adorno; trans. Manfred R Jacobson and Evelyn M Jacobson (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1994), p. 335. Henceforth, CWB. []
  5. My use of the word ‘oneiric’ relates specifically to its meaning, as articulated by Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, of that which is ‘of or relating to dreams’, from the Greek oneiros, for dream (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam Webster, 1965). []
  6. Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988), p. 3. Henceforth, AD. []
  7. Graeme Gilloch notes that ‘like the ever-expanding Passagenarbeit, the Berlin texts remain as works-in-progress, eschewing completeness while rewarding endless interpolations’ (Gilloch, 58). For a reading of the fragment and the aesthetic of incompletion in Modernism, see Jane Goldman, Modernism, 1910 – 1945: Image to Apocalypse (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). []

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