“There is not enough time remaining for me to write all the letters I would like to write.” What we believe to be Benjamin’s last recorded words from 1940 could not have been further from the truth. His tragedy verges on comedy. So before we begin, let me quickly deflate your possible enthusiasm. Reading The Manhattan Project and The Arcades Project side by side might give the impression that these are the brainchildren of two different authors. It is not unlikely that those who are familiar with Benjamin’s early European writings will be taken somewhat aback by the turn his later work took. For the devoted followers of Saint Walter, this is probably going to be sacrilege. Yet it is the spirit, not the letter, of his work on Paris to which his American writings can still be compared.
Consider, in this respect, the circumstantial factors that must have caused his change of heart: the trauma of the war; his new identity, city, language, and culture; the sixteen years of silence while enduring his menial job; the shifting intellectual and political postwar climate; his monastic existence and advancing old age. This is not to suggest that The Manhattan Project can be dismissed as the inconsequential, senescent afterthought of a displaced or disoriented mind. Assuming that the composition of the manuscript under consideration indeed consumed the final three decades of his life, one can only imagine how scrupulous and deliberate his work on his last word was.
“Speech conquers thought,” runs Benjamin’s personal motto, “but writing commands it.” Even though his ascetic lifestyle excluded him from the conversation of his contemporaries and exposed him to only the thinnest sliver of what New York had to offer, his immersion in the endless accounts of the city, readily available and continuously accumulating in the stacks of the Public Library, was apparently enough to satiate his voracious intellect.
“Action can, of course, be as subtle as thought. But a thought must be crude to find its way into action.” Benjamin learned this lesson from Brecht in the 1930s. Yet two decades had to pass before he finally found a way to put it into literary practice. In comparison with many of the knotty texts predating his staged suicide, the plain and pragmatic language of his postcontinental work seems to be influenced by some of what American literature has to offer. The prose of The Manhattan Project is like an open fist. Its crude theory can be described as minima philosophia. It deliberately defies our academic expectations.
On the first page of the manuscript is an epigraph from W. H. Auden: “Sad is Eros, builder of cities.” In Benjamin’s case “builder” should be replaced with “philosopher.” Notice also that, despite his sadness, it is still Eros, the Greek god of love and Freudian symbol of the life instinct, who presides over this urban experiment, or experience. The melancholic angel who hovered over Benjamin’s European texts still visits the New York manuscript occasionally, but Benjamin’s last book project is the product of much more than spleen.
In an essay Arendt wrote about Benjamin in 1968, she recalls that he was not looking forward to his planned trip to America, “where, he used to say, people would probably find nothing to do with him except cart him up and down the country exhibiting him as ‘the last European.’” But as I was reading The Manhattan Project, I began to realize that his fear was unjustified. Although calling Benjamin an American writer would be off the mark, and though not once throughout the manuscript does he explicitly refer to himself as a New Yorker, I couldn’t help imagining him as “the last New Yorker,” writing his book in between saturnine strolls through the remnants of his beloved city after its entire population has been wiped out by some apocalyptic event, like a flood.
IN THE SKY OF POSTWAR NEW YORK Benjamin lived his life like a “star devoid of atmosphere.” The fact that this invisible man avoided as much human contact as possible, despite dwelling in the most populous spot on earth, could have easily led him to imagine that he was living on a deserted island. For this reason it is not impossible that the initials of Carl Roseman are a reversal of Robinson Crusoe’s. Since a city is often compared to a language, it makes sense that Benjamin was at home neither in New York nor in English. But precisely because he was keeping his distance from his subject matter—while inhabiting its very heart—he managed to see this undeserted island as no one else did.
Think, for example, of how the encounter with the same place during the same period triggered in Adorno his strong critique of “mass” culture, his warning to readers of an array of ostensible modern ills ranging from jazz to laughter. Benjamin appreciated Adorno’s ability to reveal many of the insidious traps of twentieth-century life. But unlike those thinkers “who so thoroughly studied every shade of avarice,” and without losing sight of their insights, Benjamin sensed that his own contribution must be different. Following Carl Andre’s distinction between art and culture, he declares at one point: “Philosophy is about what we do. Critique is about what is done to us.” Adorno’s warning, in a letter from 1935, against Benjamin’s “abandonment of the category of Hell” is therefore not entirely unjustified.
In New York, Benjamin was trying to write a report on what he once called an “eddy in the stream of becoming.” He says as much in a long passage copied from The Arcades Project verbatim, save for his substitution of “Manhattan” for “Paris”:
Few things in the history of humanity are as well known to us as the history of Manhattan. Tens of thousands of volumes are dedicated solely to the investigation of this tiny spot on the earth’s surface. . . . Many of the main thoroughfares have their own special literature, and we possess written accounts of thousands of the most inconspicuous houses. . . . At work in the attraction New York exercises on people is the kind of beauty that is proper to great landscapes—more precisely, to volcanic landscapes. Manhattan is a counterpart in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the geographic order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution. But just as the slopes of Vesuvius, thanks to the layers of lava that cover them, have been transformed into paradisal orchards, so the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.
Another interesting similarity between Benjamin’s analyses of Paris and New York is that both are the fruits of a careful literary montage, intentionally left in fragmentary form. The difference is that the European Benjamin still held on, even if only halfheartedly, to some holistic view of an original, “organic totality.” He therefore had to understand the fragment within the context of a tragic reflection or an experience of disaster. The American Benjamin, however, upholds the fragment without reverting as he did in the past to notions of ruin and loss, mourning and catastrophe. Like Walt Whitman’s poetic reflection on the city’s ensemble of specimens, Benjamin’s theoretic diffraction results in a mosaic of forms of life that may still constitute the apparent homogeneous whole that we call New York, but only as a conscious abstraction, only as long as any suggestion of a grand urban narrative is understood as mere fiction. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s portrayal of the metropolitan crowd, this philosophy of New York (or is it a paraphilosophy?) demonstrates that “the description of confusion is not the same as a confused description.”