Benjamin’s Dream City

Early in The Storyteller, a collection of short pieces that includes fables and parables, diary entries and dream notes, the critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) writes of a young girl living and ...
Klee_Great Hall for Singers_no frame

Early in The Storyteller, a collection of short pieces that includes fables and parables, diary entries and dream notes, the critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) writes of a young girl living and working in the home of a wealthy merchant. Preparing to leave her alone in the grand old house, the merchant hands her a set of keys. Now that she is old enough, he explains, she may do as she pleases in his absence. Noting her wonderment at this proposition, the man fixes her with a penetrating gaze and utters with Bluebeardian caution, “Never let yourself be tempted to ascend to the upper floor.” Benjamin closes the passage with the girl “standing by the stairs in a daze, gazing at the large bundle of ancient keys … in her hand.”

This previously unpublished novella fragment illustrates a quandary that troubles this recent collection, the first of the author’s fiction, edited and translated from the original German by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski. The selections tarry in moments of discovery, fascination, and fantasy, but their focus on unfulfilled desire suffuses them with the longing and melancholia signaled by the book’s subtitle, Tales out of Loneliness.

In sections entitled “Fantasy,” “Dreams,” “City and Transit,” and “Landscape and Seascape,” Benjamin’s writings elaborate this dreamy longing, often framing it in terms of the relationship between self and city. The home to which the young girl possesses the keys is a microcosm of the city around it. Both engulf the would-be wanderer, and a knowledge of their many unexplored rooms remains elusive.

The city exceeds and tantalizes the imagination, the archive, visual or linguistic representation.

The analogy between a big, ancient home and a big, old city recalls Benjamin’s nonfictional oeuvre, particularly his ongoing and unfinished engagement with Paris in The Arcades Project. The Arcades, much like The Storyteller, is a work composed of fragments, a series of précis for a grander work to come. Both embody the desire for discovery and knowledge, and the awareness that even the most comprehensive representation can never be complete. The encyclopedic yet unfinished Arcades Project and these newly published slivers of writing both register the impossibility and seductiveness of attaining complete knowledge.

In The Storyteller, dreams and fantasy become important ways to register the confrontation between the desire to know and the limitations to this desire. The collection contains a substantial section of Benjamin’s dreams, stories teeming with the frustration of desire—sublimated sex, missed trains, mass protest, unrevealed secrets, blindnesses. In another of Benjamin’s fragments, entitled “The Second Self,” dreaming and the desire to know the unknowable are intimately bound. On a lonely New Year’s Eve, Benjamin’s protagonist, Krambacher, stands warily before an Imperial Panorama.1 The owner of the dubious establishment explains that the Panorama will show him his second self, the self that would have been had he chosen impulse over inhibition. Each image shows:

The path that you wanted to take

The letter that you wanted to write

The man that you wanted to rescue

The seat that you wanted to occupy

The woman that you wanted to follow

The word that you wanted to hear

The door that you wanted to open

The costume that you wanted to wear

The question that you wanted to pose

The hotel room that you wanted to have

The opportunity that you wanted to seize

But Krambacher wakes up. It is all a dream. The vision permits Krambacher to transgress the limits of the knowable and to see into an alternate self. At the same time, it reproduces the anxiety it was meant to assuage. The second self can only be seen through the distancing lens of the Panorama, always just out of reach. Similarly, of a dream in which he found himself standing on the banks of the Seine, Benjamin writes, “I stood … overwhelmed, right in front of Notre Dame. And what overwhelmed me was longing. Longing for the very same Paris in which I found myself in the dream.”

Kant used the term “sublime” to describe the uneasy sensation of limitlessness produced by an object that exceeds comprehension, yet nonetheless demands to be grasped. The relationship of self to city can take the form of awed viewer to sublime object, as the city dweller thrives on a fantasy of possession that exceeds her. Only in dreams can she fulfill her desire for the city. This is at least how Freud—whose theory of dreams influenced Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire—understood the dream: as the place where frustrated drives become gratifying fantasies.

In Benjamin’s case, the frustration that his dreams express stems from the prohibition on fully realizing the wish to know the city, to eradicate its mystery and possess it. As the Arcades make clear and The Storyteller elaborates, the city is not amenable to this kind of possession. It exceeds and tantalizes the imagination, the archive, visual or linguistic representation. The lonely storyteller wanders the city, tormented by fantasies of a possession he can never attain. Perhaps he wants to recount and exchange his experience, but he finds himself capable only of producing dreamy, scattered fragments. icon

  1. The Imperial Panorama was an elaborate device for the public display of stereoscopic pictures whose popularity peaked in Europe and America at the turn of the 20th century. In its classical form, the Panorama seated 25 people around a circular structure to view two sets of 50 transparent stereo images rotated from within. Panorama images consisted mainly of views of “exotic” lands and European monuments. See “Kaiserpanorama,” in The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, edited by Robin Lenman (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 338.
Paul Klee, Great Hall for Singers (1930). Watercolor and gouache on gesso on paper mounted on cardboard. Metropolitan Museum of Art