Discover more from escape velocity
on books #1
one-way street by walter benjamin
How about something a little different?
In this sub-series, “on books,” I’ll do a post on a specific book. I don’t know if these pieces will feel like essays, or even book reviews. My goal is just to pay careful attention to the book and discuss the things that came up for me while I read it. (So there’s going to be way more feelings than arguments!)
Here we go.
I’ve decided to do some focused writing about books, and I’m starting with One-Way Street by Walter Benjamin—a text rich enough to write a book about. What am I thinking?
One benefit: since there’s so much to be said about One-Way Street, it’s impossible to come up empty. Part of the reason I started this series is because I’m working on a longer-form project about the novels of Shirley Jackson, and I’m a bit stuck. I’m not sure how to talk about the books. I don’t want to imitate an academic style, but I also want to take the work seriously.
So I’m practicing.
One-Way Street is a compilation of short writings on a breadth of topics, many of which were originally published in newspapers as feuilleton (so I learn on Wikipedia). My copy is a Verso paperback edition, introduced by Susan Sontag, and includes several other essays. One-Way Street makes up the first 70 pages or so of the 450-page book.
Reading One-Way Street has a different texture than reading the Jackson novels. In Jackson, I am inclined to pick at things—make little comments and comparisons between paragraphs and plots. I loosen threads just to tie them up. In Benjamin, I can only express awe. I draw hearts next to sentences. I write “ugh” in the margins. I can’t busy myself over Benjamin.
So much of what I love about One-Way Street is the way it sounds—so I worry a little about not knowing German. But I can’t dwell on this. As I read the short book (over the course of several months in 2021 and 2022), I flagged or dog-earred many pages. Here are my thoughts on a selection of pieces that stood out on the initial reading.
page 43, Dedication
In my edition, the dedication is placed just above where the text begins, rather than on its own page. I appreciate this, because people will be less inclined to skip it. Readers should not skip this dedication. It’s a good primer for what you’re about to experience.
This street is named Asja Lacsis Street after her who as an engineer cut it through the author.
The unusual sound of the sentence gives it a kind of weight and sharpness—it’s harpoon-shaped. The words cut it through cut through the reader too.
page 94, “This Space for Rent’’
This piece makes me think that One-Way Street might actually be a great place to start a series on writing-about-books. How can I write about books differently? How would I write about books if I thought that “the age of criticism [was] over”? The centering of the “mercantile gaze” as the “most real” seems true to me, and feels fresh by acknowledging the ubiquity and supremacy of consumerism. I often feel like our “cultural institutions”—whatever culture they can still claim—seem to tread badly in consumerism’s wake, pretending at relevance. We kind of play along. If it was foolish to lament the end of criticism in 1928, it’s got to be fully ridiculous now.
“Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” he says, and this is why criticism is long over; the distance has collapsed. I notice that for Benjamin, everything is tangible. Things and even concepts exist in a space together. Reactions are visceral. Maybe this is why he likes to write about streets and weather and love. As usual, I feel invigorated when faced with the futility of literary activities. I’ll take it upon myself to write about books even if no one reads books.
Not that I think that the point of the pieces is to say something definitively “true.” This is a bad thought habit of mine: I tend to assume that writers’ intentions are to explain something they believe in, or designate something as right or wrong. I find it frustrating and embarrassing when I fall into moral binaries. It seems dilettantish, and maybe even worse: ignorance of my dilettantishness. But these are general insecurities, coming out in writing. An old fear of mine is not just being wrong, but not knowing that I am wrong. When writing about books, I want to look closely, but I don’t want to be paranoid about it.
page 79, “Antiques,” subentry: “Fan”
I wrote “sigh” in the margin. I have been here too, Benjamin. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a better explanation of the power of imagination.
But why? What makes it good? The right words (what are they in German??). The way he evokes the small kernel of inventiveness, the tightness, and then movement; how it expands (image of the fan). It’s a perfect example: what are more imaginative than the fantasies created while “in preoccupation” with another?
I’m reminded of a contemporary writer I love, and her writing on obsessions. She says that obsessions show you what a great imagination you have. Look what you made for yourself! Don’t wallow in shame, don’t punish yourself—and, importantly, don’t apply the power to the object of your obsession. Instead, reframe it: you made this with your imaginative power. How else can you use this power?
(It’s almost too good. I almost like it too much. I wonder if I’ve misunderstood, and applied Benjamin’s words too closely to my own favorite things. I will have to read again.)
page 69, “The Critic’s Technique in Thirteen Theses”
“He who cannot take sides should keep silent,” is number two of thirteen. At first I thought, ah, perhaps this is why I find it difficult to critique, assuming I read the line earnestly. Maybe I should shut up. But then I realized that I did take a side. It was so autonomic I hardly noticed. My side is admiration: I love One-Way Street. So I can continue, assured, for the moment, that I do have something to say.
The piece could also be read a bit sarcastically. Other theses on the list suggest a joke. Number ten: “Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.” I like it sarcastic, and take it as a free pass not to be straightforwardly critical. Number nine validates my position: “Only he who can destroy can criticize.” But now I’m hoping for earnestness again.
I still took a side. I can’t have it both ways, earnest or sarcastic where it suits me. Here I am, looking for instructions, for confirmation of my biases. Tell me what to do, Benjamin—especially if it's something I hope to believe. But I don’t want to be like this.
(What would I rather be? I am reaching for… comprehension, skepticism, proper application. But when reviewing my writing, there isn’t a lack: I see intense skepticism. I am more skeptical of my own words than anyone else’s.)
page 71, Ordnance
I shudder. I reread. I wish I could write like that.
It’s impossible to quote this piece. You just have to read the whole thing:
I had arrived in Riga to visit a woman friend. Her house, the town, the language were unfamiliar to me. Nobody was expecting me, no one knew me. For two hours I walked the streets in solitude. Never again have I seen them so. From every gate a flame darted, each cornerstone sprayed sparks, and every streetcar came toward me like a fire engine. For she might have stepped out of the gateway, around the corner, been sitting in the streetcar. But of the two of us I had to be, at any price, the first to see the other. For had she touched me with the match of her eyes, I should have gone up like a magazine.
page 105, Madame Ariane – Second Courtyard on the Left
I love this piece, the message aligns with my personal philosophies—I would never leave anything important to chance. I crave choices. I find it offensive when others abdicate or eschew their choices. I aspire to what he describes beautifully as the “alert dexterity with which the man of courage lays hands on the future.” I am very earnest about all this.
But I also know that Benjamin subscribed, at least a little bit, to the effects of his astrological position (a Saturnine temperament). This might seem like a contradiction, but looking at how he describes the alternative to fortune-telling, I find that it’s still rather mystical. His metaphor does not deny a sense of fate, it’s just bodily: “Omens, presentiments, signals pass day and night through our organism like wave impulses.” Then you have to decide what to do with these hints. In the next line he makes a distinction between “interpret” and “use”: interpretation is cowardly; usage is a way to freedom. I want to be active, I want to use signals from the universe. Earnestly (even desperately). But I think it would be easy to confuse interpretation for usage.
Over and over, and in this piece too, he’s able to write an example that makes you think, Yes, I’ve felt that, that’s exactly right. “Did not the dead person’s name, the last time you uttered it, sound differently in your mouth?” I love this whole paragraph, but it does make me think about memory. Aren’t these perceived omens all in retrospect? Doesn’t this simply show us how quickly memory rewrites itself? Chronically anxious people (like me) see bad omens constantly, words sound scary in the mouth, most of that dread dissipates into the regular flow of time. (But you only need one omen to come true to keep listening to them.)
The incredible image at the end: T-shirt on the bed. Apt in neatness, potentiality, intimacy (close to your chest; it would be completely different if he had said pants)… Jesus. I’m cut through.
page 111, To the Planetarium
I can’t grasp this one. I like how it sounds, I’ve marked several sentences, but it hasn’t clicked yet. Something about distance and space. Something about sight and revelations: “optical connection” versus “ecstatic trance.” Technology… my thoughts wander: I love the sky. I love the stars. I want to go look at clouds tonight.
I remember this feeling: learning to read. Sitting in the kitchen in my childhood home, trying to comprehend Nancy Drew. I will have to try again.
Funnily, I said at the top of this piece that you could write a book about One-Way Street, but I would never attempt that. I’ve written 1500 words, but all I should really say about One-Way Street is read it.