PART XLVIII: PHANTASMAGORIA // WALTER BENJAMIN // PASSAGENWERK

 

The animations, films and videogames of the 20th and 21st century originate, in some sense, from an invention that Johan Georg Schröpfer, a waiter in a Masonic lodge in Leipzig, made around 1768 which is currently known by the name Phantasmagoria. Although we know little about what Schröpfer did before his thirties, we do know that he was fascinated by the masonic rituals and in this year coordinated a secession of the masonic lodge and buys the former Weissleder coffeehouse, situated on the corner of the Klostergasse and the Barfussgasse which where presently a “Subway” can be found.

With great precision and ingenious arrangements, he refurbishes the coffee house and makes it into a space that is suitable for staging seances where the dead, in front of a live audience consisting of his followers, are supposedly being brought back to life. By installing hidden screens inside the walls upon which ghostly appearances were then projected from unseen locations, by hiding actors in the wings and encouraging them to bang the walls and shreek hysterically, by adding smoke effects, by attracting top-notch ventriloquists and not in the least by administering dishes prepared with hallucinogenic substances, he succeeds in convincing a growing number of people of his powers over the spirit world, which earns him a certain status in Leipzig and surroundings.

Even though the original Masonic lodge is quick to sue Schröpfer, he successfully convinces members of the court to sign secret contracts that oblige them to visit his lodge in exchange for great riches, which Schröpfer has supposedly stashed in a treasury in Frankfurt am Main. Eventually the postponement of the opening of the treasury raises suspicion, causing the pressure on Schröpfer to rise and leading him on the night of the 8th of October 1774, after a long night’s work with his followers in the lodge, to invite four close friends for a walk in the woods with the promise to show them ‘something they have never seen before’. And indeed, halfway through the walk Schröpfer distances himself slightly from the group, announces that he will resurrect himself, takes a deep breath and shoots a bullet straight through his heart. Upon opening the treasury some time after his death it is found to contain nothing but rocks and earth, which most probably explains the sudden suicide of Johann Georg Schröpfer.

phantasmagoriagaspard

The incredible success of the Phantasmagoria and its later imitations won’t become apparent until a decade after Schröpfer’s death but in Schröpfer’s work we can already distinguish the first features of a technology that will lay the groundwork for the films and animations of the 20th century. Even in Schröpfer’s early projections, which mysteriously appear on the walls, we can already discern the cinematic principles of the fade-out, the zoom, the dolly and the montage of images in different layers – although none of this is inspired yet by the knowledge that the human eye perceives 24 images per second. The Phantasmagoria offers the first instance of a contraption that uses the interplay between fabricated images in an external reality that is also visible to others and is therefore accepted as real, and the internal perceptions and sensations of the spectator. This interplay, in a way, leads us to the root of what in common parlance is referred to as ‘media-manipulation’.

The second generation of Phantasmagoric artists also make use of Schröpfer’s spectacle and his technology. Some take his last words “I will resurrect myself” as a starting point to create eerie spectacles during which one gets the feeling Schröpfer himself could appear at any moment. The most well-known Phantasmagoric artist is the scientist, magician and balloonist Etienne Gaspard Robert who became a critically acclaimed figure in the nineties of the 18th century due to his spectacles in the deserted Capuchin Convent in Paris, situated next to the Vendome square. In post-revolutionary France he stages unique performances during which the audience is subjected to the incredibly frightening experience of being startled over and over in a hermetically sealed and completely blacked-out space. His spectacles, which got him to resurrect not only murdered revolutionaries like Marat and Voltaire but also writers such as Vergilius and Jean Jacques Rousseau -whose images he projected onto clouds of smoke fashioned from aquafortis and sulfur, rapidly gain popularity until Gaspard-Robert is embarrassed by the request to revive Louis XVI, which he succeeds to politely refuse with a pretext. Nonetheless, the French police arrest him the next day because the sheer idea that he could potentially resurrect Louis XVI is enough of a reason to do so.

“A young man”, we read in a description of one of these seances, “requested to see the ghost of a woman whom he had loved. He showed Robert an image of her and then threw a sparrow’s feathers, phosphor and 12 butterflies onto the fire. A beautiful woman with naked breasts appeared and smiled tenderly. The young man was shocked and called out ‘Heavens, my wife has been brought back to life!’ and then tried to leave the room because he was frightened of the apparition that he had requested to appear”

phantasmagoria

This paradoxical mechanism, in which the longed for is in fact feared and the feared is actually longed for, is a typical feature of the Phantasmagoria and we even find the notion in Gaspard Robert’s diaries. “Who hasn’t, in their younger years, believed in the devil and werewolves?” we read in his notes. “I also believed in the devil, in enchantment and even in witches’ brooms. I thought an old woman, my neighbour was, as everyone suggested, in regular contact with Lucifer. I was jealous of his power and his affiliates. I locked myself in a room and slit a rooster’s throat, after which I commanded the Prince of Darkness to make himself visible to me. ‘If you exist’ I shouted whilst banging on the table ‘show yourself and your horns, or I will deny your existence.’ It wasn’t fear that made me believe in his power but a wish to share this power and master the magical arts.”

The Phantasmagoria develops by way of the Praxinoscope and the Optic Theatre, the panorama, the diorama and in a sense also Wagner’s spectacles in Bayreuth, into the animations of the 20th century. At about the same time Mickey Mouse comes to fruition, the word ‘Phantasmagoria’ plays an important role in the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin is writing, which is also known as the Passagenwerk. This work, we are to assume, remains unfinished because of a bureaucratic obstacle at the border between France and Spain that forced the already slightly suicidal writer who was fleeing the Nazi’s, to indeed kill himself in September 1940.

The project Benjamin works on periodically from 1927 onwards, which even in its unfinished form can be considered his magnum opus, is published after the war when the manuscripts George Bataille hid from the Nazi’s in the National Library, surface and are prepared for publication through the editorial work done by figures like Adorno and Tieleman. This version of the Arcades Project not only offers a number of highly promising essays, but also an astonishing collection of intriguing quotes, mostly regarding the 19th century and Paris’s civil project.

Important themes in this work that contains over a thousand pages, are the Arcades // Galleries //Passages

arcades-project1

which are popping up everywhere in the beginning of 19th century Paris and are effectively splicing the city’s residential blocks in two in order to clear a path for the burgeoning consumer product, the development of Baudelaire as the embodiment of modernity and the profound Haussmannisation of Paris that lead to the construction of the characteristically wide boulevards. About the latter it is revealed in the Arcades Project that although the main argument to construct the wide boulevards was very strong i.e., that it would complicate and discourage the creation of barricades -of which at the time 6000 were spread around the city, the counter-argument was not unconvincing either: namely, that barricades can only be constructed by uniting large groups of men -such as those needed in order to construct the wide boulevards. As long as the result is unknown both ideas seem valid, showing us how fragile the foundations are of every aspiration and every so-called failure or success, because Haussmann’s wide boulevards were barricaded in the end as well, if not by the workers who had constructed them.

The word Phantasmagoria appears in the Arcades Project a hundred and fifteen times, even though it is never mentioned what it means exactly. Apart from the phantasmagoria of history, the phantasmagoria of the interior psyche, the phantasmagoria of society and the phantasmagoria of the arcade, we find the phantasmagoria or the marketplace, civilization, the flaneur, happiness, fashion, space, time, modernity and the phantasmagoria of that which is always the same. The word is found in phrases such as “haussmannisation that sculpts a stone phantasmagoria’, ‘the crowd who turns the city into a phantasmagoria’, ‘the entire capitalist production process as phantasmagoria’, ‘the magical images of the century, or; phantasmagoria’, ‘world exhibitions offering phantasmagorias as distraction’, ‘tradition as characterised by phantasmagoria’ and culture itself, which can be considered the most advanced manifestation of the phantasmagoria.

What exactly constitutes a phantasmagoria is not entirely revealed by the Arcades Project and the question remains whether we should see this is as a characteristic of Benjamin’s mystical marxism, which is characterised by the deliberate use of nebulously defined words, or whether we should suppose Benjamin’s readers had a fairly clear notion of phantasmagoria in the same way they were familiar with the theatrophone and the fumeuse, similar to how current readers understand the silent movie and telegraph even though they have disappeared from daily life as well. On August 8, 1939 he writes a letter to Adorno, who had read a trial version of the Arcades Project, expressing that his goal had been to “to establish the culture of the goods-producing society in the centre as phantasmagoria.” In a further exposition of his plans he provides the following index for the second chapter: “Motivations behind the Arcade, Noctambulism, the essays and a theoretic introduction to the understanding of Phantasmagoria.”

But a mere month after writing this letter, Benjamin is already confined at the “Camp of Voluntary Workers” in Nevers since he signed, like most immigrants from Germany, a document that officially subjects him to the sovereignty of the French military, which after having declared war on Germany gathers refugees from said country in an empty castle in Nevers, perhaps to prevent them from forming a Fifth Colony, perhaps for a military reason possible of a darker nature. “Everyone up to the age of 48 is mobilised”, Benjamin writes regarding this operation, “I am 47.’”

chateau-vernuche

The march to the remote castle is enough to completely exhaust the philosopher and therefore the doctors pronounce him ‘unsuitable for action’, even though it is entirely unclear what ‘action’ would have meant in this context. When they arrive at Vernuche castle all they find is empty rooms and clean-scrubbed floors, but the 300 men and women soon lie their bodies down to sleep since the straw won’t arrive until a couple of days later. In the following weeks Walter Benjamin sleeps in an area under the stairs that he has sealed off from the rest of the castle with some cloth. Here he writes a number of letters that mention, among other things, how some days the philosopher doesn’t even leave his hideout due to physical complications. In these circumstances Benjamin doesn’t find the courage or strength to work on the Arcades Project, hence the ‘Theoretic Introduction to Phantasmagoria’ that he could have written was unfortunately never realised.

Perhaps in a society like ours where everyone is constantly surrounded by image-emitting machines, where people are incessantly consulting other worlds than the ones they find themselves in, where people are constantly attracted and frightened by images that have no real substance even though they pass for reality, it might just be essential  to retrieve the meaning Walter Benjamin had in mind when he used the word phantasmagoria. When we trace the etymology it leads to the ancient greek Phantasma agorein, meaning ‘public speech of the ghosts.’ But this is clearly not the only way Benjamin uses the word. “Phantasmagoria”, he writes, “is not only false consciousness of ideological discourse, it is materialised in space, objects and practices. To internalize it by placing it in a disembodied domain of ideas is thus, in itself, a phantasmagoric operation.”

Benjamin seems to reflect on the fabricated nature of reality, which during the 19th Century was increasingly geared towards the production and purchase of products. He repeatedly stresses how even though people seem to need these products, the production apparatus needs people even more, as evinced by the culture of ‘sale-season’ that is perpetually extended in shopping streets and on websites.

In the Arcades Project, Benjamin eloquently demonstrates that what is expressed in the price of a product is not so much the value of the thing itself but rather the social relations between people. “The source material and the relations of the refined result don’t have any connection with the physical nature of the product and the material relationship emanating from this. It is in fact the definite social relation between the people themselves that for them takes on the phantasmagoric form of a relationship between things.”

Perhaps Benjamin expresses something that 75 years later is such a common notion that we have conveniently forgotten all about it, or maybe there is another reason why this idea hardly plays a role in our everyday considerations anymore, which means that the phantasmagoric apparatus of our own times is operating like a well-oiled machine that stealthily determines the course of our everyday lives. This process can be observed clearly, however, when looking at the local coffee bars that over the recent years have spread like a virus and where people, sometimes for hours at a time and hypnotised by their (phantasmagoric) machines, drink coffee for a price that indeed has little to do with the production cost or its inherent value. This form of mass-hypnosis could, if one is not familiar with it, seem perfectly horrifying, but the fact is that most people get used to it slowly.

The fragments Benjamin collected should have perhaps lead to a closer synthesis and it is impossible to draw clear-cut conclusions from his work. Still it might be worthwhile, as a form of synthesis, to point towards a short and easily missed quote from the Arcades Project in which it is mentioned how, in the days before the French Revolution at the Parisian Square of Commerce, the first experiments with the Guillotine were executed by using sheep, this allowed a revolutionary France to fine-tune their device for humane decapitations, which was used until 1977 with relatively few innovations.

Walter Benjamin’s last days can only be partly reconstructed. We know that one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century arrived in Banyuls-sur-Mer with a heavy suitcase and that he joined a reconnaissance trip to chart an illegal route that would allow them to cross the border with Spain. We know the 48-year old Benjamin was struggling with health issues and when his fellows went back reassured by the confirmation that there was indeed a safe passage, he decided to spend the night in the open field because he didn’t want to make the trip twice. We don’t know whether uncontrollable thoughts, fears or demons took hold of him that night, whether mosquitos and animal noises plagued him, or whether sleep just overtook him. But we do know that the next day, after the group had joined him, he always walked for ten minutes after which he would take a one minute break because of heart problems and when his fellows recommended that he leave the suitcase behind he is supposed to have said that the suitcase was more important than him. From the testimony of Lisa Fittko, who guided the expedition, we know that Walter Benjamin was very obliging and polite, insisting on calling her ‘Gnädige Frau’, which in the middle of the Pyrenees had a slightly absurd effect, that she spoke with him about tomatoes and other crops growing in the region and that none of this indicated the extent to which Walter Benjamin experienced his own fate as tragic.

We know the group successfully reached Port Bo, where local customs told them the border was closed for refugees and they would be sent back to France the next day. The day before his arrival the borders were open, as well as the day after, but on this specific day it had been decided to close the border because contradictory orders made it impossible for the customs staff to make decisions. We know the news had a devastating effect on the exhausted Benjamin and that in room four of Hotel Francia he took enough morphine pills to kill a horse.

His statement that the contents of his suitcase were more important than he was has inspired a lot of speculation on this matter. Unconfirmed suspicions have it that he was transporting an almost finished edition of the Arcades Project that has been either stolen or destroyed by customs. Another theory holds that Benjamin has been killed by Soviet agents that were working with the Nazi’s in the South of France at the time because he had published his ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’ some months before, which offered an exceptionally refined analysis on the failure of Marxism. The charm of this theory is undoubtedly, aside from the political importance attached to the publication of philosophical texts, the fact that it is difficult to prove or renounce. However, this theory cannot entirely explain the mystery of the missing manuscript either, leaving us no choice but to accept the official reading of the police report that was drawn up in the presence of the local judge.  This stated that the suitcase Walter Benjamin carried over the Pyrenees contained the following objects upon opening: a golden watch with a nickel chord, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseille by the American Consulate and approved for transfer through Spain, six passport photos, glasses, an x-ray of his weakened heart, papers, the content of which unknown, a 500-franc note, one 50-dollar note and one 20-dollar note, which together covered the medical, legal and funeral costs almost exactly.

ADDENDUM: While writing this lemma I intermittently stayed in Berlin, which allowed me to visit the Walter Benjamin archive where I tried to shed some light on certain matters that could not have been clarified in any other way. Walking through the Karl Marx Strasse I stumbled upon the PASSAGE KINO, where the job office on the opposite side of the street seemed to me especially striking in respect to the idea of the Arcade as I had found it in Benjamin, almost just as striking as what happened to me the day after when I was sucked into the so-called Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz without much resistance on my part and where almost everyhting appeared to be a manifestation of the Arcade, or even of the Phantasmagoria.

translated by: Tashina Blom
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