You could spend years trying to read Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project
--after all, he spent much of the last 13 years of his life doing the research. When he committed suicide in 1940, he destroyed his copy of the manuscript, and so for decades the work was believed lost. But another copy turned up, and Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin have translated it into English. It is a complex, fragmentary work--more a series of notes for a book than a book itself--which probes the culture of the Paris arcades (a cross between covered streets and shopping malls) of the mid-19th century and the flaneur ("the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets" in an "anamnestic intoxication [that] ... feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge--indeed, of dead facts--as something experienced and lived through"). The Arcades Project
is, frankly, so dense a work that one hardly has enough time to glimpse fleetingly at its sections--over 100 pages of notes on Baudelaire alone!--before mentioning it to you, though one certainly looks forward to the opportunity to peruse it at leisure.
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Benjamin's crowning achievement...The Harvard University Press edition of Benjamin now in monumental progress is an admirably generous undertaking. -- George Steiner Times Literary Supplement Arcades is an assemblage of quotations, notes and theses that wrestle with themselves to extraordinary effect. In his lifetime, Benjamin saw published only the fragmentary collection One-Way Street, and he initially conceived The Arcades Project as a continuation of that book...It is a privilege, through this collection, to gain access to the workings of such a distinctive mind. -- Guy Mannes Abbott New Statesman Some of us don't read fiction. We live on history, biography, criticism, reporting and what used to be called belles-lettres. We will be feasting on Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project for years to come. Just published in its first full English edition, The Arcades Project should also win readers with broader tastes. By any standard, the appearance of this long-awaited work is a towering literary event. A sprawling, fragmented meditation on the ethos of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project was left incomplete on Benjamin's death in 1940. In recent decades, as portions of the book have appeared in English, the unfinished opus has acquired legendary status. The Arcades Project surpasses its legend. It captures the relationship between a writer and a city in a form as richly developed as those presented in the great cosmopolitan novels of Proust, Joyce, Musil and Isherwood. Those who fall under Benjamin's spell may find themselves less willing to suspend their disbelief in fiction. The city will offer sufficient fantasy to meet most needs. -- Herbert Muschamp New York Times At last, we can glimpse Benjamin's avowed masterpiece, The Arcades Project, and pay homage to this strange, vulnerable man, for whom letters and thought and books were everything. It was thirteen years in the making, and scribbled beneath the 'painted sky of summer'--the huge ceiling mural of Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale...Benjamin claimed The Arcades Project was 'the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.' This struggle, and those ideas, aimed to chronicle the whole history of the nineteenth century, over which Paris, majestically, presided, whose arcades symbolized the city's heart laid bare...Harvard's Belknap [Press] is brave to publish such an esoteric and pricey specimen. Along with its two recent volumes of Benjamin's Selected Writings, and with a concluding collection in its way soon, we are now much better able to assess the man--foibles and all--and his legacy as a creative whole. -- Andy Merrifield The Nation The Arcades Project was a legend before it became a book...This large volume reproduces every relevant scrap in the Benjamin archives, reprinting, verbatim, every entry in the more than 30 notebooks that Benjamin had meticulously maintained to organize his observations and pertinent passages from books pertaining to a variety of different topics and themes, from 'Fashion' and 'Boredom' to 'Barricade Fighting' and 'the Seine.' -- James Miller New York Times Book Review Benjamin is important because of his insight into the cultural consequences of capitalism, an insight that gives us a style of thinking about the now inescapable culture of consumerism. We can read Benjamin's enormous fragment on the Paris arcades not so much to gather information about nineteenth-century Paris, of which it is an abundant and pleasurable resource, as to inform our own experience of everyday life. With Benjamin as a guide, one can begin to glimpse a way of reflecting on capitalism that promises to stave off the despair threatening to overwhelm those who choose not to celebrate this age of trademarked emotions, patented identities, and ready-made souls in plastic bags. And if today one is fortunate enough to walk the streets of Paris with his massive book in hand, as I recently was, Benjamin's vision of that city's past begins to haunt the contemporary Parisian streetscape, with phantoms of long-dead dandies and flaneurs, prostitutes and decadents, the ghosts of Baudelaire and Mallarme appearing and disappearing amid the neon signs and garish billboards advertising American hamburgers and Finnish digital telephones. -- Mark Kingwell Harper's Magazine [Benjamin's] style of writing has a narcotic effect that soon envelops the reader in Parisian ambiance. Picking up The Arcades Project is like visiting a ghostly city. One becomes familiar with its thematic streets and alleys, its peculiar cultural constructs, its architecture, and its literatures...The Arcades Project is indeed a sort of magic encyclopedia, freeing its subject from traditional historical and literary interpretations and re-inventing it as a living, breathing picture. It is a maze of small revelations, its pages as seductive and confused as the streets, dreams, and arcades of Paris. -- Jason Cons Boston Book Review A painstaking act of literary reconstruction has fleshed out Walter Benjamin's lost masterpiece...We may consider here Benjamin's wonderful remark that 'knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.' The Arcades Project is the reverberation of that thunder in a thousand different directions...This posthumous volume suggests that, in its incomplete and fissiparous state, his reflections are themselves an unflawed mirror for the world which he was attempting to explore. He seems to have retrieved everything, and anticipated everything. -- Peter Ackroyd The Times [Benjamin's] magnum opus, The Arcades Project, has finally been translated into English...If the low price for such a large academic volume is anything to go by, the publishers expect this to be a major event. -- Julian Roberts The Guardian Benjamin was a vital member of what cultural and art historian Robert Hughes has called the 'modernist laboratory' of the early part of the 20th century, and, like Virginia Woolf or Paul Cezanne or any other modernist worth her salt, his masterwork presents its own form as worthy of as much interest as its content...Fragment or not, The Arcades Project is a vast creative work that is one part realist novel, one part cultural anthropology, and one part social history and critique. -- Matt Weiland National and Financial Post Walter's Benjamin's The Arcades Project, a doorstopper of a book by one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, starts with the specifics of the technologically innovative Parisian shopping arcade, then spins off into a vast and complex universe of ideas about art, architecture, politics and consumer culture. Not unlike the novels of Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, The Arcades Project uses the template of the past to demystify the present. -- Joe Uris Portland Oregonian Because his ideas never cohered into a doctrine, The Arcades remained a treatise about everything that never amounted to anything. But, like the vanished bohemia it documented in such obsessive detail, this ruin of a book has its own sublime grandeur. -- Daniel Johnson Daily Telegraph This is a treasure: a translation of Benjamin's great unfinished--and unfinishable--work, a study of the imagination in nineteenth-century Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century, and hence an archaeology of our own strange and wondrous 'consumer society.' ChristianityToday.com The Arcades Project is truly a kaleidoscopic montage of a dream of the meanings of society, a dream deferred by the advance of Nazis into Paris. In 1940, when Benjamin fled, he left behind the sprawling, incomplete masterpiece he had begun in 1927. But by then, it had already become, he wrote, 'the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.' -- Forrest Gander Providence Journal-Bulletin Finally available in English, Walter Benjamin's study of nineteenth-century Paris is brilliant...Benjamin wrote many marvelous essays in the 1930s, but his main energy went into a giant enterprise that he called 'the Arcades project.' The forerunners of modern-day department stores, the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris were arched passageways with shops on each side. Benjamin was confident that the book would be his masterpiece. Not only would it grasp the structure of life and thought and art in Paris circa 1848, it would explain all modern art, politics, and life...Harvard University Press has given [The Arcades Project] to us in English in a sumptuous volume. -- Marshall Berman Metropolis If The Arcades Project is still worth reading today, it is not only for the quixotic pleasures of its dead ends, but for the traces of hope it finds within 'the guilty context of the living' (as Benjamin wrote elsewhere). Through an analysis of the 'collective dream' of the 19th century, Benjamin hopes to liberate the 20th. -- Diana George The Stranger [Readers can] enjoy the book's open-endedness and follow personal itineraries...As Harvard gradually publishes his collected works, Benjamin's strengths become evident. -- Andrew Mead Architects Journal Because of its standing as Benjamin's final, and unfinished, work, this tome will prove a curious blessing for those wearing the right equipment...This kaleidoscopic work is arranged in 36 categories with such loosely descriptive headings as 'Prostitution,' 'Boredom,' 'Catacombs,' 'Dream City,' and 'Theory of Progress.' It makes sense why Benjamin would refer to this work as 'the theater of all of my struggles and ideas.' Everything seems to be in there, making it at once awe-inspiring and inscrutable in its present form. Had the war not kept him from its final flower, this theater might have been one of the greatest intellectual works of the century. As it stands, it is merely brilliant. Kirkus Reviews Now, at last, American readers too have access to [Benjamin's] final, great unfinished work in an edition that is both well translated and helpfully annotated by the editor of the German edition, Rolf Tiedemann. In 1927, Benjamin began taking notes for a book that would critique the cultural, politic, artistic and commercial life of Paris, a city Benjamin thought of as the 'capital of the nineteenth century'...This edition is comprised of the fastidious notes he made from this never-complet...