This is a study of a manuscript that was never written. The author of the imaginary text is real. His name is Walter Benjamin. Here are a few well-known facts about his life:
|Born in Berlin to a wealthy family of assimilated Jews.
|Begins his university studies, concentrating on philosophy and literature.
|Dora Pollak, whom he married a year earlier, gives birth to Stefan, their only son. The marriage will not last long.
|In disguise, next to Alice Croner, who passed away in the late 1980s.
|The University of Frankfurt flatly rejects his postdoctoral dissertation, without which it is impossible to get a decent teaching job in Germany. Academically, he will remain a complete failure for the rest of his life.
|Begins independent research for The Arcades Project, also known as Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century. He will work on this book off and on for the next thirteen years. It is a unique fusion of philosophy, history, and literary criticism into an unprecedented theory about our modern condition. Written for the most part in the French National Library, this work, though never completed, will become his magnum opus.
|During a stay in Ibiza, where the cost of living is still within his dwindling means.
|Benjamin’s income from his work as a freelance writer fails to improve his poor economic condition, and his life in Paris during the Third Reich fails to secure his precarious political situation. One of his last rays of hope comes from the Institute for Social Research in New York, which gives him a monthly stipend and will later secure him a US visa, as well as an apartment on Central Park West.
|Fleeing the advancing German army, he reaches Portbou, a Spanish town on the French border. Because he lacks the required exit visa for his trip to America, the local authorities are determined to send him back to occupied France. The precise circumstances of his death remain unclear to this day, but it is believed that in an act of desperation he swallows a lethal dose of morphine.
|The Arcades Project, hidden away by Georges Bataille in the archives of the French National Library during the war, is retrieved and then delivered to New York.
|The belated publication of the book in its fragmentary form solidifies Benjamin’s position as one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century and cultivates his almost mythical status among future generations of scholars and writers.
Whereas this chronology is factual, the following one is counterfactual, fictional, or hypothetical:
|Faced with the desperate situation in Portbou, there was only one way for Benjamin to save his life. With the help of a Spanish doctor he fakes his suicide and produces an unclaimed body as his own. He arrives in Lisbon with forged identification papers and boards the next ship to New York. The man who had already published his essays under quite a few pseudonyms becomes Carl Roseman, in tribute to Karl Rossmann, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Amerika (originally titled The Man Who Disappeared). Notice, however, that he eliminates the fateful K from his anglicized name.
|A man he met on the ship from Europe secures a job for him in the mailroom of the Daily News Building on Forty-Second Street and Second Avenue. Benjamin decides against contacting his many expatriate friends living in the United States (such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, Bertolt Brecht, and Hannah Arendt), or anyone else for that matter. Guarding his complete anonymity under his borrowed identity, he assumes the position of a kind of specter living an afterlife—haunting and haunted by his new city. Rather than contest the reports about his death, he embraces this new solitary life, this posthumous existence, as if it were his personal resurrection.
|After retiring from his job with a modest pension, he begins frequenting the main branch of the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, up the street from his old workplace. His daily research leads to the composition of a sequel to The Arcades Project, which he calls either The Manhattan Project or New York, Capital of the Twentieth Century. This manuscript will remain his sole occupation for the rest of his long life. It is “the theater of all his struggles and all his ideas.”
|A photo taken at the library’s main reading room may or may not be of Benjamin at work.
|Leaving the library building one rainy day in early November, he slips and falls down the grand staircase. His ninety-five-year-old body cannot sustain the injuries, and he is declared dead (for the second time) before reaching the hospital. After the ambulance departs, Beatrice Wald, a librarian who was his only known acquaintance, takes possession of the briefcase he left behind. It contains all of his surviving papers.
|Before her death Wald bequeaths the manuscript of The Manhattan Project to the New York Public Library, where it is filed away as the Carl Roseman Papers, without attracting any scholarly attention whatsoever.
|Inadvertently, I come upon the manuscript while browsing the library’s catalog. It is preceded by Wald’s letter that recounts the above biographical details (she is, though, unaware of Roseman’s true identity or importance). A thorough investigation proves beyond reasonable doubt the true authorship of the text.
The two questions that guide this book are as tricky as they are absurd: What if this is all true and The Manhattan Project does exist? What will we read in this book that was never written? Benjamin really (and cryptically) wrote shortly before his death: “The historical method is a philological method based on the book of life. ‘Read what was never written,’ runs a line in Hofmannsthal. The reader one should think of here is the true historian.” If we take Benjamin’s advice literally, we can also take the previous questions seriously, rather than as some postmodern legerdemain. To follow the Roseman Hypothesis means that the proverbial lines dividing reality from fantasy, the text from its commentary, the author from his interpreter, are from this point on suspended. This will definitely raise a question about the text’s voice: Is it him or is it me, or one of the many sources quoted by either of us? To which someone once replied, “What does it matter who is speaking.”
What follows is my attempt to make sense of the hundreds of loose pages, written in miniature script and somewhat broken English, which the unearthed manuscript comprises. Since further biographical details will be kept to a minimum, and since quotations from the text itself will be restricted to Benjamin’s own citations from his numerous sources, my book is designed as a work of pure textual interpretation. In other words, this is not a reproduction of his Manhattan Project but only its analysis. It may therefore be understood as a work of secondary literature, insofar as we bear two things in mind: first, that Benjamin treats the urban setting as a book that must be constantly read and interpreted; second, that his actual writings are also structured like a metropolis. These are his “city-as-text” and “text-as-city.”
The subject of my book is equal parts an author named Walter Benjamin and a city called New York. Yet its success or failure should be measured by its fidelity to a place more than to a thinker. Like virtually anyone who has ever written anything of value about New York, Benjamin must be relegated to the position of the city’s “ghostwriter.” Following Rem Koolhaas, we could say that, like many public figures, the city has neither the time nor will nor ability to contemplate its own life and recount it in orderly chapters. Instead, it hires a host of spectral scribes who are more than happy to do this job for it. Benjamin’s Manhattan Project—this epic montage of quotations from, and reflections on, a seemingly endless array of texts revolving around New York—should certainly earn its ghostly compiler a seat of honor among his shadowy peers. But if this is indeed the case, then I am no more than the ghostwriter of a ghostwriter of a ghostwriter.
. . .
In Greek, hypothesis means “that which is placed under.” Like The Arcades Project, The Manhattan Project takes an actual place and places it under. These texts can perform this neat trick by not pretending to make a statement about the reality in which we live (a thesis). Instead, they are allowing us to observe what happens to our duly accepted reality once their ideas are placed underneath it. What is placed under can function either as a pillar or as a bomb. Though a hypothesis as such does not make a direct claim for truth, the truth depends on the hypothesis that lies, or lurks, under. Sometimes using a lie is the best way to tell the truth.
But there is another important thing that a hypothesis can do. In ancient theater, the term hypothesis denotes something like the program that, nowadays, is handed out by the ushers before a play begins. A classical hypothesis supplies a compact plot summary, describes the setting, identifies the actors, and gives various notes about the production and the playwright. The Manhattan Project can be understood as a hypothesis in this sense as well, for it is meant to elucidate in a condensed form the elaborate drama that unfolds in front of our eyes—not only in this specific city but also, by synecdoche, in other parts of this world.
“One can read the real like a text,” Benjamin writes. “We open the book of what happened.” But a philosophical book dedicated to a city is different from the scientific Book of Nature. Besides, in the same way that philology is commentary on a text, it is theology that Benjamin treats as “commentary on a reality.” It is uncertain whether God is still watching us up there, but even if he is, it is possible that he no longer bothers to record our names in the Book of Life and the Book of the Dead. Instead, he probably just peeks at Benjamin’s manuscript from time to time, as theatergoers peek at their playbill whenever the show becomes too confusing or too overbearing.