Saturday, 25 September 2010

reservations of the marvellous

Where, you might wonder, does such a history start? What are its objects? Where did the sleep of the bourgeoisie take place? in many odd parts of the city, Benjamin thought, but above all in the arcades. The 19th century had been extraordinarily rich, almost prodigal, in its production of 'dream houses of the collective'; at one point Benjamin draws up a list of 'winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations', and one could easily add to this from other sections of the book: the Crystal Palace [ground zero of the bourgeois imagination], the Eiffel Tower, the unearthly reading rooms done by Henri Labrouste for the Biblioteque Nationale and the Biblioteque Sainte Genevieve, maybe Hector Guimard's Metro entrances, certainly the lost Galerie des Machines. But the arcades are central for him, because he senses that only in them are the true silliness and sublimity of the new [old] society expressed to the full. The arcades are thoroughgoing failures and abiding triumphs. They were old-fashioned almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing. Their use of iron and glass was premature, naive, a mixture of the pompous and fantastic. they were stuffy, dingy and monotonous; dead dioramas; perspectives etouffees; phantasmagoria of the dull, the flat, the cluttered. 'The light that fell from above, through the panes … was dirty and sad.' 'Only here,' De Chirico said, 'is it possible to paint. The streets have such gradations of grey.' They were always 'close' [to recall a word that seemed to dominate my childhood], there was sure to be thunder by the end of the afternoon. Drizzle was their natural element. They did not keep out the rain so much as allow the splenetic consumer to wallow in rain publicly, his breath condensing drearily on the one-way glass. [In this climate glass roofs could never be kept clean.] 'Nothing is more characteristic than that precisely this most intimate and most mysterious affair, the working of the weather on humans, should have become the theme of their emptiest chatter. Nothing bores the ordinary man more than the cosmos.' Rain was the guarantee of boredom, thank God, since it meant that one could not 'go out'. The arcades allowed a whole century to be housebound and a t loose ends in the company of strangers. They were waiting rooms, caves containing fossils of the primitive consumer, mirror worlds in which out-of-date gadgets exchanged winks, front rooms on endless Sunday afternoons with dust motes circulating in the half-light. Odilon Redon was their painter - his very name sounded like a ringlet on a cheap black wig in the back of the shop. They were waxworks of the New. Arcs de Triomphe [commemorating victories in the class struggle].
For all these reasons they were wonderful. They were a dream and a travesty of dreaming - in the golden age of capital, all worthwhile utopias were both at the same time. ……

T.J. Clark's great review of The Arcades Project
London Review of Books Vol 22 No 12 22 June 2000

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