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Philosophy as Cabaret
Whenever a Cabaret appears, we cheerfully go along to see it—then, one moment something strikes a wrong note, the next moment something else has changed and doubled back in its tracks. Benjamin’s first essay in this form affords us the same experience.1 There is no lack of playful similes in it, although there well might be. Nor do the more serious similes always hit the mark; instead they move along the street that passes by here. Yet other parts are either too idiosyncratic or unnecessarily reminiscent of the old and familiar; unnecessarily, that is, in this One-Way Street which can stand as the very type of surrealistic thought. The self that it projects is very close to ours, but keeps changing. Indeed we have here a large number of selves: almost every sentence is a new start which prepares different things in a different way. The book deploys extremely modern means with an archaic grace to render what are often recondite or forgotten materials. Its form is that of a street, a sequence of houses and shops whose windows are full of bright ideas. In our time alone could such a book appear, other than as a mere irrelevancy. Only in our day do inward yet concrete whims cease being solitary, incommunicable and intangible, to become taken seriously. For to a great extent large-scale forms have grown stale. Traditional bourgeois culture with its court theatre and humanist education cannot even be said to have the vitality of decadence. But from the street, the fairground, the circus and cheap fiction new forms—or forms associated with despised corners—emerge and take possession of the traditional stage. The clown has burst in upon the dying ballet, the light and airy dwelling-machine usurps the place of architectural styles long dead, and the old harmonious stage-drama is replaced by the open-work cabaret. In itself, it is true, there is little enough in the cabaret besides its open structure (which can easily become rigid). It has not given birth to any new drama; for the most part it has served as entertainment for the populace and has been as amorphous as they. Indirectly, however, cabaret may be employed as one of the most open and—contrary to its own intentions—most honest forms of the present: it then becomes the mirror of that empty space in which nothing can be made whole without a lie and where only fragments can still meet and intermingle. This indirect effect had its source in the sensuous vigour and mobility of unconnected scenes, in their fluidity and interpretation, in their proximity to the world of dreams. Hence cabaret became a form that could enter into art of a very different kind, from Piscator to the
This review of Benjamin’s One-Way Street, first printed in the Leipziger Zeitung in 1928, was reworked and republished in Erbschaft dieser Zeit, Zurich 1934, itself reissued in Frankfurt 1962. It is published here by kind permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.
95 . Aphorism. Fancy Goods. we said. This is a style with the same wealth of mental associations to be found in Surrealism from Max Ernst to Cocteau: the union of the Yonder with the Here and Now. which seem to subsist on their own. such as we see in our dreams. is nothing more than the body out for a stroll. for it derived and developed its idealist coherence exclusively from that self-same principle. appear as ‘the railway-stations of religion’. To use one of Bachofen’s concepts.Threepenny Opera. Cabaret assumes a very different shape in Benjamin’s experiment with miniature forms: a considered improvisation. impromptu acts. yet are also highly volatile and interchangeable. Today. a form for improvisation and sudden insight. i. The result is the strangest form in which ideas have ever been cast. for example. or more precisely. materialize and then dissolve. in the first instance not an ear or an eye. which assume the shape of signs and showcases. The philosophical fragments which correspond to them are displayed in particular places. and persist within them. Inmost premonitions are expressed only in external fragments. kindness or taste. A criticism of the ‘railway-stations of religion’ is no doubt intended here. but as a philosophical primer and bazaar. strictly speaking there is no one in person in the streets at all—only their possessions. and so forth. tractatus—such philosophical genres have always thriven outside any system. that Nietzsche could even define the system as a ‘will to dishonesty’. The academic Pilgrims’ Chorus. Fancy-Dress Wardrobe. a sequence of dreams. steadfastly singing its ‘systems’ is now invaded by a new cacophony in the shape of so-called existentialism— which has complexes. With Benjamin these acts become philosophical: as a mode of disruption. for details and fragments which do not even aim at constructing a system. Stand For No More Than Three Hackney Carriages. or to be absent entirely. Cathedrals. with the demise of the bourgeois principle of a priori reason. If cabaret is a journey through a disintegrating culture. in fact. only to reappear moments later in an allegorical disguise: ‘Sleepingcars to eternity depart from here during mass’. The chapters bear titles like Filling Station.e. Benjamin’s essay gives us snapshots or rather a photomontage of the trip. They long predate the modern systems. but by the same token the train runs in the opposite direction too—from eternity and its mythical realms into the station where its contraband is unloaded. but no system. however. such experiments could even incorporate improvisations. under specific showcases. Breakfast Room. Indeed. The self that remains in the street. The self-contained philosophical edifice is crumbling together with the no less coherent abstract calculus of the bourgeoisie—so much so. of brooding myth with the precision of the everyday. dialogue. Normal Time. Lost Property Office. It was this change that paved the way for Simmel’s questioning and questionable impressionism. we might say that a chthonic spirit has made his home in this philosophy of the street. aphorisms and catchwords linked at most by a variety of oblique associations. instruction. not warmth. Ever new selves. as an empty locality. It raises once again the question of the I or the We that cannot be allowed to replace each other so inhumanly in this street. debris from an exploded totality. of a one-way street—not as an arbitrary structure. Number 113. the system too is on the wane.
96 . and formulates them incisely. All that becomes visible to us is anarchic meaning. Looking back over this brief work as a whole. experimental figures in that trial. what emerges into the light of day from the debris of meanings that survives is a kaleidoscope of a different sort. He provides face-values which have neither bourgeois currency. a surrealistic collage of familiar objects and forgotten glances. but on open trial. but an orgy of flotsam and jetsam as well. The result is not just a new outlet for philosophy (which after all never had any shops before). But when the current cabaret passes through a surrealist philosophy. Surrealist philosophy is exemplary for its polished montage of fragments held in pluralist suspense and disconnection. are not to be found in snail-shells or caves of Mithras behind glass. the philosophical truths of the world are preserved here behind the panes of shop windows. A dream-street so close it can be touched. expressed in a kind of physical intoxication (see the section on the Planetarium). by no means something indeterminate. Even the cosmos is only apprehended by this spirit with the inner glance of taste or the soupçon of a glance. they are in fact the dialectical. its central concern with what lies off the beaten track as much as the discoveries of its unconventional explorations. Benjamin’s philosophy makes every intention ‘die unto truth’. and the sense of salutary but substantially undirected perplexities foraging among ruins. However. since it is the fragment. As a montage which helps to build actual terraces it is definitive. but barely mentions what his coins are worth.of the arcades. and not the intention. whose ghostly allegories everywhere haunt surrealist thought) do not consist of a vacant sameness. with shops in which the taste of the age is encapsulated and houses in which the varied content of the age is condensed—such is or could be the landscape of this essay. For the empty spaces of our age (like those of the 19th century. which dies to the truth and so is utilized for the benefit of reality. in the tendency of matter. but are to be found rather in the realm of concrete intentionality. it can be seen to stand for much that has not made its appearance today. Gottfried Keller’s defined the Medusa as ‘the frozen image of unrest’: this philosophy is uniformly Medusa-like. while for its part truth is articulated into ‘ideas’ brought to rest and their entourage: ‘images’. one-way streets too have a destination. The same gaze which disintegrates also freezes and solidifies the manifold streams of the river (in all except direction) and even eleatizes the most recondite intricacies of the imagination. Like sailing-ships in bottles or blossoming trees and snow-covered towers sealed and preserved in revolving glass balls. the trenchant dicta and exact profundities of this book. nor any tangible alternative. Benjamin is a thinker who locates isolated data with the utmost precision. precisely the authentic images.
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