During the last dozen years or more of his life, Walter Benjamin was greatly preoccupied by The Arcades Project. As he leafed through volumes in the cast-iron reading room of Labrouste's Bibliotheque Nationale, this proposed work continued to expand and ramify. A study centred primarily on Parisian shopping arcades became a far-reaching quest into nineteenth- century industrial culture. On Benjamin's suicide (evading Nazis) in 1940, it was unfinished, with no end in sight.
The material - myriad quotations interspersed with Benjamin's own notes and commentaries, and accompanied by his first sketches and synopses - was published in Germany in 1982 and only now appears in English, but in the interim it has generated many articles, theses, even books: for instance, Susan Buck-Morss' The Dialectics of Seeing and Pierre Missac's Walter Benjamin's Passages. Reviewing the latter, Robert Harbison neatly encapsulated Benjamin as 'a Marxist rabbi - a materialist who thinks in theological or mystical categories, and who lets us have it more than one way at once.' (AJ 29.6.95)
Benjamin organised his proliferating fragments under 36 headings: for instance, 'Fashion', 'Haussmannization', 'The Flaneur'. These sections vary greatly in length, with 'The Collector' taking up just nine pages but 'Baudelaire' stretching to 160. In its method, the first topic, titled 'Arcades, Magasins de Nouveautes, Sales Clerks' is characteristic of what follows. Nineteenth-century sources are supplemented by quotes from Benjamin's contemporaries. Many extracts - culled from such titles as Histoire du Commerce de la France - deal directly with the subject, but then one comes across a quote from G K Chesterton on Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop. In this associative way any boundaries are continually eroded.
Buck-Morss argued that, even though The Arcades Project was left incomplete, there is 'a coherent and persistent philosophical design' underlying all the fragments. Unless adding to the mounds of theses on Benjamin, however, few readers will feel obliged to seek it but can instead enjoy the book's open-endedness and follow personal itineraries.
Two alternative ways of approaching this material suggest themselves - one systematic (pursuing a particular subject), one more random. An architectural reading, for instance, would draw together the passages on iron construction, on Great Exhibitions, on Haussmann's reconfiguring of Paris, along with citations of Giedion and Le Corbusier - and much else. Or one could just dip in with the certainty that something would catch the eye. Each approach might well be ambushed by the other: the systematic by discovering an item that leads in an altogether different direction, the random by acquiring an agenda.
Benjamin's own interpolations among the quotes tend to be succinct, and a quality found elsewhere in his writing falls from view. As Harvard gradually publishes his collected works, Benjamin's strengths become more evident. Famous essays like 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' sit beside ephemera that may be redeemed by a phrase or two but speak of someone who was supplementing his income. Among the strongest pieces are Benjamin's writings on place - on Naples, Moscow, Berlin - which are exact but evocative, even lyrical in their description of those everyday scenes that mirror a culture or historical moment. His more compressed formulations in The Arcades Project, like any aphorism, can sometimes seem portentous or vague. But nearby is sure to be a disarming observation: 'Preserved in the arcades are types of collar studs for which we no longer know the corresponding collars or shirts.'
It's significant that one stimulus for Benjamin was a rhapsodic description of the arcades in that classic text of Surrealism, Louis Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris. If the Marxist in Benjamin saw the Paris of the arcades, and the department stores that supplanted them, as in thrall to consumption, and wanted to awaken his audience from continuing immersion in that dreamworld, he never quite cast off a Surrealist appetite for dreams and the strange perspectives and associations they can bring.
With a Surrealist eye and imagination, the city could be a place of enchantment. Which is one reason why The Arcades Project never reached conclusion and would never have been a clinical dissection of a culture. It is part an autopsy, part a reverie - and a Rorschach blot for all its readers.