Formal aspects in Walter Benjamin

1- Swing

In his essay On the Image of Proust, Walter Benjamin explores the “Physiology of style”. He tries to approach Proust’s work as dynamic and metabolic, as if it was alive. In order to set the tone for that text Benjamin asserts that “it has rightly been said that all great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one”[1]. In many senses, that same statement could be applied to Benjamin’s own work and his unique style, with which he practically established a new literary genre.

In his travel literature, his texts on Paris, One Way Street, as well as Berlin Childhood, Benjamin exudes a mode of understanding life and literature, an existential swing that oscillates in both directions. The swing is presented here not as a jazz style or a golf movement, but as a sort of balance, a movement that goes from inside out with certain harmony. In general terms, swing is the grace of being able to flow through existence displaying a kind of aura. Some sportsmen have it, some intellectuals too, and it makes a huge difference. Maybe that is what Benjamin is referring to when he says that: “These are days when no one should rely unduly on his ‘competence’. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed”[2].

In Benjamin’s work it is hard to differentiate between existential and aesthetic, between erlebnis (lived experience) and erfahrung (perceived experience). It is difficult precisely because they are bound together, and that’s what makes both of them highly suggestive. All this, however, may already be getting dangerously close to the realm of kitsch. But is it possible to write about Benjamin without sounding kitsch anymore? Infinitely quotable, Benjamin doesn’t really argue, he juxtaposes intuitions. Therefore, he lends himself to kitschiffication because he mixes emotions and lived experience with rationality and academicism.  His capacity for swinging between high sensitivity and supercilious rationalization is one of the reasons that have made him the most quoted author in the humanities, and the easiest target for people who are moved by their own emotions.

2- Fragments

The most remarkable formal solution Benjamin found to express himself freely was fragmentation: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. It’s theory is intimately related to that of montage” (N1,10)[3]. Through such metonymic style Benjamin achieved a fertile porosity in his texts, as well as occasional precision in the thoughts that come out of them. It is in those moments of random intellectual accuracy that Benjamin’s words become transcendent (almost messianic) and horizontal juxtaposition gives way to vertical metaphor (Jakobson). The capacity for metaphor is innate, according to Aristotle it is an essential ability in a poet: “the most important thing is to be good at using metaphor. This is the one thing that cannot be learnt from someone else, and is a sign of natural talent; for the successful use of metaphor is a matter of perceiving similarities” (Poetics 59a22)[4]. In Benjamin there is this innate capacity for metaphor, as well as an innate swing that allows him to go from metonym-juxtaposition-horizontal to metaphor-illumination-vertical. He had an impressing facility for swinging from the concrete to the universal, and an example of that can be found in “The Task of the Translator”:

“Fragments of a vessel that are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must livingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel”[5]

In this occasion Benjamin’s use of the vessel as a metaphor, a denkbilder (thought-image), can be applied on his general approach to the world. Like a modern Heraclitus, Benjamin expresses more through fragments than through completeness.

3- One Way Street

“To great writers finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives. For only the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in closure, feeling that their lives have thereby been given back to them. For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep itself into his workshop labor. Around it he draws a charmed circle of fragments.”[6]. This bold opinion expressed in One Way Street is programmatic and applicable to Benjamin’s own work. He probably wrote that beyond his need for self-justification. Through the fragment, the unfinished, he found a way of leaving the door open for the reader to complete his thoughts, which matches very well with Barthes’ influential theory on the ‘death of the author – birth of the reader’ appeared almost thirty years after Benjamin’s death.

One Way Street is a clear example of the style that suits Benjamin’s mind. In his peculiar ars combinatoria, we find all kinds of observations, from prosaic to elevated, even a Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses. The following three theses epitomize his commitment to writing regardless of the circumstantial predisposition:

“VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power…

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honor requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae in your inspiration by tidily copying out what you have already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.”

Regardless of his admirable commitment, which easily lends itself to a kitschy reference to Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”, Benjamin knew too well that his most successful form of intellectual expression had to be seasoned with raw material. “Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better that does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.”[7] Such predisposition to swing between action and writing put Benjamin in a privileged position for understanding the zeitgeist of his time, but at the same time jeopardized his chances to become an established ‘worker of culture’, due to this permanent makeshift. For that he kept his inspiration alive as he worked his way towards intellectual martyrdom.

 4- Flâneur

In his texts on Paris of the Nineteenth century Benjamin looks at the past to find motifs that explain and justify his present. He does that with Baudelaire, with the crowd, and with the most kitschified of his motifs: the flâneur. Through this figure, the city opens out and becomes a panorama, a landscape regarded with a new attitude. “The flâneur is the priest of the genius loci”[8], he looks for images wherever they lodge, and his natural habitat are the arcades:

“The arcades are something between the street and an intérieur … The street becomes a dwelling place for the flâneur; he is as much at home among house façades as a citizen is within his four walls. To him, a shiny enameled shop sign is at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his living room. Buildings’ walls are the desks against which he presses his notebooks”[9]

Baudelaire, the writer of modern life, had his desk always empty because the city was his office. In many ways he represents what Benjamin wanted to rescue from the Nineteenth century, that is, the acceptance of modernity with all its contradictions. Baudelaire understood his own times and transformed them into poetry, making the most of the urban experience and trying to keep it breathing through his work. By studying his poetry Benjamin tries to make Baudelaire come back to life, and he finds in the flâneur a semblance of what links him intimately to the Capital of the Nineteenth century.

Benjamin draws part of the fascination for images and allegories that preside over his thinking form the flâneur: “Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail”[10]. Progress here is not the wind of the Angelus Novus, but rather the energy that drives the crowds and sets the fast pace that the flâneurs tried to slow down with turtles. Inasmuch as Benjamin could be considered a flâneur, he also distanced himself from that figure by engaging with his own present and even trying to brush it aside by projecting himself messianically towards the future.

5- Modernity

In On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, VIII, Benjamin writes:

“The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock, as it were. Haptic experiences of this kind were joined by optic ones, such as are supplied by the advertising pages of a newspaper or the traffic of a big city. Moving through this traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man “kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness”. Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions, seemingly without cause, today’s pedestrians are obliged to look about them so that they can be aware of traffic signals. Thus, technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. There came a day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by film. In a film, perception conditioned by shock (chockförmige Wahrnehmung) was established as a formal principle.”[11]

This fragment is one of the rare examples in which Benjamin tries to sustain an argument. Influenced by Simmel’s sociological approach to urban life, his reasoning gravitates around the visual experience of the city. Modernity brought about the shock experience of traffic lights, advertising, etc. turning the citizens into “kaleidoscopes endowed with consciousness” and preparing the ground for the redemptive advent of film. Therefore film is regarded as the perfect medium for modernity, and particularly the montage technique is what makes it such a good fit. The parallelism with Benjamin’s weltanschaaung and the formal aspects of his work is obvious.

Benjamin is very quick and lucid detecting how film has enriched our fields of perception, and that is one of the main topics in his most frequently quoted essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproductibility:

“Our bars and city streets, out offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris. With the close-up, space expands, with slow motion, movement is extended (…) slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them”[12].

It is as if Benjamin’s tubular sight tried to dig into an ever-expanding fractal-like reality in fractals and at some point exploded within. The optical unconscious is revealed through the new medium, but Benjamin almost shows more fascination for the medium itself than for the reality that it helps reveal.

6- Travel

“I travel in order to get to know my geography”

-Note of a madman, in Marcel Réja, L’art chez les fous (Paris, 1907)[13]

Is there an articulation of Benjamin’s way of life in his texts? His itinerant predisposition, his will to immerse himself in the object of study, his obsession for personally meeting important people, his vocation of collector… Benjamin’s travel literature is a good example of how his polyhydric figure manifests itself through his writings. Particularly in his youth, he seems to have had an obsession for traveling, even when he didn’t have enough money, evidence of that are his nonchalant vacation periods in Capri. When Benjamin travels he is interested in the local, but he doesn’t ‘go local’, he always keeps a prudential distance. In his travel literature, as in boxing, there is a constant struggle for finding the right distance to be able to engage with the other.

Talking about the sobriety of Ibiza and its people for example, Benjamin thinks that: “Chairs and clothes, locks and rugs, swords and planes can all be precious. And the true secret of their value is the sobriety, the austerity, of the living space they inhabit. It means that they do not simply occupy, visibly, the space they belong in, but have the scope to perform a variety of unforeseen functions which enables them constantly to surprise us anew. This is what makes them precious and elevates them above the level of a common object.”[14] With such an aesthetic attitude it is easier to understand why the flanêur feels intoxicated when he or she walks aimlessly trough the streets of Paris. Such messianic feeling of imminence, as if at any moment the truth could be revealed, together with the disposition to always be surprised anew by the objects are among the most remarkable formal aspects in Benjamin.

In his observations on Moscow Benjamin achieves a fine balance between description and theory, and he reveals himself through the specific experiences he decides to shoot at from the distance like a sniper: “One ought to know Moscow as such beggar children know it. They know of a corner beside the door of a certain shop where, at a particular time, they are allowed to warm themselves for then minutes; they know where a sleeping place among stacked sewage pipes is free. They have developed begging to a high art, with a hundred schematisms and variations”[15]. Through this kind of microscopic (or telescopic) appreciations Benjamin can reveal more than with many pages of theory. Always keeping the safety distance, he immerses himself in the object of study and tries to present a full-blown picture of it.

Benjamin’s flâneuresque travel methodology sees itself reflected in the suggestive image by which he presents Moscow as a place where “each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table. And as if it were a metal from which an unknown substance is by every means to be extracted, it must endure experimentation to the point of exhaustion. No organism, no organization, can escape this process”[16]. Benjamin’s traveling through cities, countries, literature and history is a way of experimenting with his own geography as he keeps mining for an unknown substance, be it profane illumination, messianic revelation or just a well-drawn metaphor. But can such substance be found within the same traveler?

“I stood and thought of Horace’s famous truism, “What exile fleeing from his native land would ever flee his own mind?” – and how questionable it is. For isn’t traveling a purification, the overcoming of settled passions that are to one’s accustomed environment, and hence an opportunity to develop new ones – something that in fact amounts to a metamorphosis? (…) This time I wanted to explore the epic vein – collect whatever facts and stories I could find, and test out my journey to see what it might yeld once it was purified of all vague impressions. This should not be thought of as a travel account; rather, it is a matter of travel technique”[17].

Traveling is for Benjamin another form of knowledge, and he wants for reality to catch him in fraganti as he navigates the world. Understanding traveling as purification, he expects to go through a metamorphosis that can only happen with a blank slate attitude. That is why he questions Horace’s truism, being at the same time its victim. Horace also wrote that it is the sky, and not the soul, what changes when one travels through the seas (Caelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt). Benjamin adopts a ‘purified’ travel technique in order to explore the epic vein, but he can’t help seeing the world through his lenses, therefore he tends to end up exploring his own geography.

7- Child

“For a long time, life deals with the still-tender memory of childhood

like a mother who lays her newborn on her breast without waking it”[18]

After the flâneur and the Angelus Novus, the child is probably the third most kitsch reference in Walter Benjamin. Childhood has been praised as a refuge of free creativity, imagination, lack of counterfactuals, etc., but all that is just the result of looking at the world always anew, which is not a capacity exclusively endowed to children.

Such state of latency during which everything is always as seen for the first time needs to be constantly cultivated and nourished. In the Timaeus Plato explains how an Egyptian high priest told Solon that the Greeks were like children (22b), always willing to gather new knowledge. Benjamin is like one of those Greeks, but instead of ordering his thoughts with logic he rather juxtaposes them with intuition. Walter Benjamin, whose last name means the youngest child (Benjamin was Jacob’s twelfth and last son), has remained a perennially young philosopher for posterity thanks to his capacity for catching reality against the current and his unique swing for oscillating from the quotidian to the transcendental.


– Aristotle. Poetics. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings I 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings II (Part 1) 1927-1930. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings II (Part 2) 1931-1934. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings III 1935-1938. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings IV 1938-1940. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

– Benjamin, Walter. The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Baudelaire. Edited by Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2006

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings II 1927-1934. Edited by Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.


[1]On the Image of Proust. p. 236 in Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings II (Part 1) 1927-1930. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. All the quotes not indicated otherwise in this paper correspond to this edition of Benjamin’s complete works the volumes of which are listed in the bibliography.

[2]One-Way Street. p. 447

[3] Arcades. On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of progress. p. 458

[4]Aristotle. Poetics. London: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 37

[5] The Task of the Translator. p. 260

[6]One-Way Street. p. 446

[7] One Way Street. p. 444

[8] “The Return of the flâneur” Benjamin, Walter Selected Writings II 1927-1934. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. P. 264

[9] Benjamin, Walter.  The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Baudelaire. Edited by Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2006. p. 68

[10] Benjamin, Walter.  The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Baudelaire. p. 84

[11] Benjamin, Walter. The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Baudelaire. 2006.p. 191

[12] The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproductibility (Third Version) p. 266

[13] Benjamin, Walter.  The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Baudelaire. 2006.p. 41

[14] Spain,1932. p. 638

[15] Moscow. p. 28

[16]Moscow. p. 28

[17]Spain. 1932. p. 645

[18] Berlin Childhood around 1900. p. 345

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