Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

7 thoughts on “Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

  1. Hi Simon,

    How simply fascinating. Dutifully trotting off to the Giant Dictionary of Obscure Words at lunchtime to search for “florilegia,” “divagation,” and “anamnestic.”

    Wow. How chilling to learn of the end of an author of such fine sensibilities. I often think wistfully of the very idea of the flâneur. It presupposes such reserves of time and basic survival finances, such a luxury, which Flaubert (I think) referred to as “complacencies of the peignoir,” lolling in bed to mid-morning dreaming of ideas and images.

    But was the age of such an indolent fellow really ever more than a blip on a long human history of fear, war, and brute survival, and even then, limited to the elite? The age of Haussman, bookended by the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Nazis. Even now, so sad to think of the Paris shootings, then Brussels, with my memories of lovely, lazy days wandering on the Left Bank in 1991 and 1993 (what a surfeit of travel).

    In Washington DC, if one is not scrapping to keep from being summarily laid off and left with no money for the rent, the risk of robbery or random beat-downs would make the poor flâneur look like an easy target! Sigh.

    • Maureen: good to hear from you again. Sorry about the lexical obscurity – it’s a weakness of mine, perhaps reflecting my medieval lit research (‘florilegium’ and ‘chresthomaty’ – variously spelt) were collections of medieval texts I came across as I bumbled through the library’s shelves…I liked your Flaubert quotation. I’d like to think the age of flâneurs hasn’t fully passed. I’ve enjoyed the odd dérive in various European cities – Berlin for one. Think I posted something about it here in the blog’s early days. I too have fond memories of divagations and peregrinations in Paris (sorry, I’m off again). I was in Washington two summers ago and loved it – but it rained. Managed to evade muggers. Not sure what a ‘beat-down’ is, though.

  2. “Sorry about the lexical obscurity” — Not at all, enjoy learning new words.
    P.S. “Beat down” is a pummeling, usually by more than one person. We have a disturbingly large number of teens (13-17) who will randomly start beating a total stranger then run away a la “Clockwork Orange.”

    On topic of modern times, I was just reading a very sad story about Denmark. An elderly woman was convicted of “human trafficking” for giving water, food, and a car ride to some refugees. She said she “had never seen people starving and thirsty” and that “she would do it again, but doesn’t like being thought of as a criminal.” So sad. Far right legislature in control there, apparently.

  3. Pingback: Walter Benjamin, flâneurs, the historical shudder, lorettes and Paul Gavarni - Tredynas Days

  4. colporteur is a hard word to get your head around. Benjamin seems to use it in wider ways than the OED definition too, though OED says its referring to English use but as W.B. is writing in German… its not that helpful. I even wondered if Cole Porter the composer, did he make the name up as a pun, a joke that no one got for instance? No, a proper old American family name after all. Pity. There’s somewhere W.B. uses the word in relation to ballad singers that move around the town too and I can’t find it , yet. Something to do too with interactions of different places, times, multiple realities to deal with. Music, memory.

    • It’d be interesting to know how the English translators arrived at ‘colportage’. A handy portmanteau sort of word, flexible as you suggest for all kinds of context and connotation. I hadn’t thought of Cole Porter, and just looked him up; that first name is taken from his maternal grandfather’s surname. Born in Peru, Indiana. They certainly went for ambitious place names, those settlers.

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