The photo reportage of yore relives through the direct experiences of artists, writers and musicians

Words and images by Francesco Demichelis

So viele Straßen haben Rückfarhtswege,
die man nicht sieht,
und kommt man mit der Richtung ins Gehege:
Es ist nicht wahr, daß einem nichts geschieht.                                                           

                                        (G. Scholem, 1933)

Strolling about in a twenty-first century shopping mall, we might wonder when and where such graves of the spirit first came into being. The answer to that question is a fairly tangible reality, one that we can experience in person, if we are willing to discover what is left of the Paris passages.
Two centuries of urban renouvèlements have spared but a few of the iron-and-glass covered arcades that once wound and twisted their way through an urban area stretching between the Palais Royal and Strasbourg-Saint Denis – shards of a dream born of the glory days of capitalism.
One can hardly suppress a bitter smile when exploring these catacombs of a golden age in 2013, at a time when cast iron, glass, and gas lamps are no longer enough to project the illusion of a future of innovation and unlimited prosperity. The future that felt like a dream has now shrunk to a nightmarish vision: the good omens that were chiseled on the friezes of the deities of commerce, running along the Paris arcades, have all but lost their power.
The Passage du Prado and the Passage Choiseul have been renovated in recent years, but to no avail: even the most cursory of glances cannot fail to apprehend their halo of decadence.
A good way to begin would be by asking when this decadence set in, and, more importantly, when it will come to a halt. A few coats of varnish and the replacement of a mirror or two can hardly slow down the festering of a dream that was old from the very start. 

Walter Benjamin devoted the last thirteen years of his life to a monumental work on the passages: the so-called Passagenwerk, a sort of phantasmagoric apotheosis of nineteenth-century Paris that never made it to the final draft. In Benjamin’s eyes, the crux of the age of the bourgeoisie was the abrupt decadence of technical innovation.
In 1927, when Benjamin began his project, the Paris arcades had long been a thing of the past. Most of them had been razed in the wake of Baron Haussmann’s campaigns of urban renovation, and the few surviving remnants were on their way to being seen as mere architectural curiosities, disconnected splinters, foreign bodies in the urban tissue of Paris.
When we consider that scarcely a century before hundreds of arcades were meandering through Paris and that the passage was being extolled as an emblem of modernity par excellence, Benjamin’s archeological approach might appear surprising.
Benjamin was well aware that the passages had been the cradle of some of the nineteenth century’s crucial innovations in fashion and technology (photography, to cite but one example, was born in the Passage des Panoramas), but he could not help perceiving them as heaps of ruins, as mysterious vestiges of a remote civilization.
In the later stages of the project, the Passagenwerk would evolve into an aggressive criticism of capitalism, based on the Marxian concept of “commodity fetishism.” Early on, however, Benjamin’s driving inspiration had been French surrealism, particularly Aragon’s Le Passage de l’Opéra (1924), in which the passages were described as the temples of the modern age.

Benjamin appropriated this concept, and soon enough his indictment of capitalism evolved into myth criticism: in the ideal forms that dominated throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the “sensation of the newest and most modern” was conflated with the “eternal return of the same” as a “dream formation of events.”
The historian, Benjamin wrote, must look for ways to interpret this dream, not by a mental reenactment of the past (a dangerous move, prey to the rhetorical violence of myth), but through a dialectical reversal of his objects: in this way, their forms would shed the travesty of eternity and melt into something fluid, into which the analyst could plunge.

In his preface to the first critical edition of the Passagenwerk, Rolf Tiedemann reminds the reader that Benjamin characterized modernity as “the time of hell”: “What matters here is that the face of the world, the colossal head, precisely in what is newest never itself changes – that this ‘newest’ remains in all respects the same. This constitutes the eternity of hell.”
It is hardly surprising that theology, interpreted as a “commentary on a reality,” was presented as a key to the padlocks of history; the reawakening from that dream and “present action,” however, was a task for politics.
The issue at stake was no less than the redemption of history, the rescue of the past through the dialectical method, as a mystical revolution. 
In working on his materials, the historian had to learn to sift the positive from the negative, and then “a new partition had to be applied to this initially excluded, negative component so that, by a displacement of the angle of vision [...], a positive element emerges anew in it too – something different from that previously signified. And so on, ad infinitum, until the entire past is brought into the present in a historical apocatastasis.”
Benjamin’s criticism, in a word, was still inseparable from characteristically theological figures of thought. It is no wonder that orthodox Marxism generally failed to follow his drift.
He had planned the Passagenwerk as a contribution to a proletarian revolution. In his worldview, however, revolution was tantamount to an apocatastasis that would shatter the illusion of becoming by the sudden breakthrough of a messianic event onto the scene of history. Understandably, even his peers at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research were reluctant to follow his reasoning.We mainly owe the rediscovery and subsequent publication of the Passagenwerk to Theodor Adorno’s efforts and to George Bataille, who stored the manuscript and saved it from the brutality of the German occupiers throughout the war. Of Benjamin’s friends and colleagues, however, only Gershom Scholem appears to have followed the theorist in his reckless escapades into historical materialism as applied to Jewish mysticism.
In his book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, Scholem recounts their last meeting in 1938. Scholem had embarked towards Palestine in the 1920s: although the oldest of friends, the two had not met in eleven years. The tragic vicissitudes of the Jewish people had come between them. 
Scholem was staying in Paris on a professional journey. In those days, Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre were in every bookshop window.
Five years earlier, in 1933, Benjamin had fled from the brutality of the Nazi regime and chosen to live in Paris as an exile. His letters from that time show that Benjamin, when Scholem met him, had been experiencing a crushing intellectual isolation and severe material poverty.
Digging up new materials for the Passagenwek seemed to have become his one reason to live. The amount of notes that he patiently piled up in years of study and research at the Bibliothèque Nationale is staggering.
It appears that Benjamin’s plan was to produce a work that would be almost entirely made up of quotations (although the credibility of this claim has been much debated). Theory and interpretation would recede into the background.
It was a daring concept, particularly for the time. More than a book, the project’s outcome would amount to a colossal net of cross-references, an open-ended hypertext allowing for multiple approaches and capable of producing innumerable results, a labyrinth based on the surrealist technique of literary montage. Once “the art of citing without quotation marks” was “carried to the extreme,” the author would not need to “say anything” but instead to “merely show.”
As it turned out, Benjamin himself was unable to cast his work into a definitive form. Adorno and Horkheimer repeatedly asked for a printable text, but to no avail.
After a few days together, in which they found much to discuss, the two friends parted ways forever.
Scholem, headed to Jerusalem, would quit Europe. Benjamin got back to work. In the last two years of his life he concentrated on his Baudelaire material, planning to develop it into a stand-alone project, and he produced what many consider his ultimate theoretical legacy, On the Concept of History.
One can scarcely conceive why he refused to quit Paris when the winds of war began to blow through Europe, and while he was still in time (a choice that cost him his life).
In his last letters, Benjamin mentioned the prospect of moving to the United States or to Palestine, and applied for a visa or a fellowship though his friends; but one feels, in fact, that he had decided to stay until the very last, to look the catastrophe (of whose coming he was very much aware) straight in the eyes.
He was trapped in a loop, a hall of mirrors, the subject and the object melting into one: Benjamin spent the remainder of the days that history had measured out for him under the majestic iron-and-glass ceiling of the reading room at the Bibliothèque nationale, among his books, in the vain hope that a “tiger’s leap into the past” would halt the course of time.
Internment in a labor camp established by French authorities to keep German refugees under control and a desperate flight from German occupation as Hitler’s troops were marching into the capital were the last tribulations of his errant existence. 
He killed himself in September 1940, on the border between France and Spain.
Hypnotized by the lumière glauque of the Paris arcades, into which he had wandered in 1927, he lost his way in the maze and never found a way out.

A stenopaeic post scriptum

Benjamin stresses the peculiarities of the French word temps, meaning both  “weather” and “time” understood as becoming and duration.
If the iron-and-glass covered arcades of the passages were intended to provide shelter from the notoriously inclement Parisian weather, then why not interpret them as barricades against the passing of time?*
Photographing a passage, therefore, is a magic ritual of sorts, neutralizing the spell of the eternal return of the same.
A stenopaeic camera, requiring a long to very long exposure time, is an ideal tool to materially capture events as they come to pass: they remain invisible on the surface of the film, but they exist in the corners of the picture frame.
Dispensing with lenses or viewfinders, it allows for the capture of the dialectical reversal of images – with which every photographic experiment begins – with no mediations whatsoever. 

* Within a passage, space, too, becomes a category of time at a standstill. Space can be symmetrical, as in the case of the Passage des Princes, or labyrinthine, as in the Passage des Panoramas. The passages are in their essence a place for passing through – il n’était permis à personne de s’arrêter plus d’un instant, wrote Aragon: “Nobody could afford to linger for longer than a second.” But circulation was one way only, and the entrances mirrored each other, which made an arcade a self-contained space, contrary to appearances. Movement within a passage is basically an illusion: as if in a Kaiserpanorama, it is commodities that move, while man, in a trance, gapes at their phantasmagoria.

Francesco Demichelis is an Italian photographer. He was born in Rome in 1974. After irregular studies, he began his apprenticeship in photography in 1997. His interests include: large format photography, siege architecture, roots of Romanticism, pinhole resources, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. He doesn’t live and work in Rome.

(Translated from Italian by Francesco Peri)