Walter Benjamin's New York

By Peter N. Miller

Notes Continue

Benjamin reading in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris 1937

"And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’" (P.488)


"One may start from the fact that the true collector detaches the object from its functional relations."

Author's Note

Eric Desmazières, "Wunderkammer II"
(1998). Etching and aquatint. Private Collection, New York. This work, like the engravings of Piranesi is a highly informed fantasy. It evokes the many seventeenth-century engravings of collections, especially of naturalia, like those of Cospi, Imperato and Worm. And like Piranesi’s it is an ideal: composed of all the things that ought to be have been present if they could not, at the time, have all been present.


It must be kept in mind that, for the collector, the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects. We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective characteristics of the thing or the details of its ostensibly external history: previous owners, price of purchase, current value, and so on. All of these—the ‘objective’ data together with the other—come together, for the true collector, in every single one of his possessions, to form a whole magic encyclopedia, a world order whose outline is the fate of his object. ("The Collector" [H2,7] [H2a,1])

greyscaled Paul
"Here, therefore, within this circumscribed field, we can understand how great physiognomists (and collectors are physiognomists of the world of things) become interpreters of fate. It suffices to observe just one collector as he handles the items in his showcase. No sooner does he hold them in his hand than he appears inspired by them and seems to look through them into their distance, like an augur." ("The Collector", [H2,7] [H2a,1])

a page of Benjamin’s writing
"One thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter. I do know that time is running out for the type that I am discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended." (p.491-2)

Author's Note
I haven’t seen Paul at his old location for the past few months. . .

Dani Karavan’s memorial for Walter Benjamin outside the cemetery at Port Bou where Benjamin lies buried in an unmarked, pauper’s, grave. The music used in this movie is a late nineteenth-century travesty of the oldest Catholic church dedication song. "Urs beata Jerusalem" has become "Das neue Jerusalem", with its images of David playing the harp and Benjamin the flute, of Isaac dancing with Rebecca and Jacob with Rachel, of coffee, chocolate and tobacco being served, and wine flowing like the Danube.

Multi-Media Essay Notes
To help bridge the space between art and scholarship each author has put together a series of notes to his and her film.

These include the voiced-over words of Benjamin
(Narration) with appropriate citation, other text where appropriate, and a discussion of the author's intent (Author's Note).

H. The Collector Notes

The flea market at Avenue A between 11th and 12th Streets, on a Sunday morning in March

"Broken down matter" Arcades Project, The Collector [H,6].

Author's Note

Benjamin wrote about the phenomenon of collecting while being a collector himself. What makes these observations so rich is the nuance that, drawing on his knowledge of the history of collecting, he is able to tease out.

"Allegories are in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things." "The Origins of German Tragic Drama", pt. II [sec. 6]

Author's Note

"The Origins of German Tragic Drama" is really an intellectual history of seventeenth-century Europe, as framed by the issues that matter most for an understanding of this particularly German dramatic genre. If not based on deep reading, this work nevertheless remains one of the seminal studies of the time and place. In it, Benjamin delves into the "mood" of the times and, in particular, the combination of encyclopedic erudition, collecting and taste for allegory. His view that a theological and psychological principle—a created world plagued by Original Sin manifested in the melancholy of those who know their fate but cannot alter it in the slightest—was manifested in an intellectual taste for collecting things which was, in turn, reflected in the profusion of allegory in the arts, remains compelling if always open to refutation.

"I am unpacking my library. . . I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood—it is certainly not an elegaic mood but, rather, one of anticipation—which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you. . . what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collector." [p.486]

Author's Note
1:38 I met Paul at the Flea Market one Sunday. I walked around to the different tables filled with flotsam and jetsam (read: "junk") and talked with the vendors. I asked them about their things; where they came from; what, if anything they thought about the objects, etc. I had in mind some of Benjamin’s answers to these questions. Paul immediately responded constructively, full of thoughts and ideas. We arranged to meet a few days later at what was then his regular location, on the east side of Avenue A between 7th and 6th Streets in the East Village.

Photographs are of Benjamin as a child.
"For childhood is the divining rod of melancholy" ("Marseilles")
"The collector’s passion is a divining rod that guides him to new sources....." ("Eduard Fuchs")

this photograph of Franz Kafka as a child was owned by Benjamin
"Each stone he finds, each flower he picks, and each butterfly he catches is already the start of a collection, and every single thing he owns makes up one great collection. In him this passion shows its true face, the stern Indian expression that lingers on, but with a dimmed and manic glow, in antiquarians, researchers, bibliomaniacs." ("Untidy Child", "One-Way Street")

Author's Note

Dürer’s "Melancolia I"
This engraving and its theme were of central importance to Aby Warburg’s "Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther" [1920], a work Benjamin cites at crucial locations towards the end of The Origins of German Tragic Drama, but also to other, closer members of the Warburg Circle. Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky published their study of Melancolia I as the second of the Warburg Library Studies (1923) and this work, too, was cited with passion by Benjamin (he urged his friend Scholem, at the time librarian of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to buy it as soon as possible).

Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris 1937
"The purchasing done by a book collector has very little in common with that done in a bookshop. . . I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient." (p.488)

Notes Continued >>