Made my semi-annual reading of “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” recently, and was compelled to wonder if I miss crowds. While in Paris over the summer, I noted that it was much more crowded than Portland, and at the time my feelings about that were pretty clear. A little quiet time with Walter, however, has made me wonder.
Portland is very nice, in its way, but I’ve never found it very compelling. I don’t want to go out and explore it very much. Obviously, it suits a lot of people. Perhaps the difference is that I’m the type who finds it refreshing to parry his own blows, as it were. It is certainly the case that I find it very comforting to go out into the world and not recognize anyone. I have often thought of myself as a bit agoraphobic, but perhaps the problem that keeps me indoors is more akin to paranoia.
So perhaps the solution is brunch at The Screen Door? The problem is that many crowded places have lousy crowds. Portlanders, accustomed to a certain amount of leeway, are lousy gatherers. I think it’s also worth nothing that while crowds were smooth in NY when I lived there in 98 and 99, but the time I went back for Draper, the sort of New York flow had been irreparably disrupted by the idea that New York was somewhere that everyone should go, rather than being a place for people whose temperament it suited.
In “Motifs” Benjamin frequently returns to how unlike the crowds of Paris are from the crowds of other cities. In the context of a discussion of Baudelaire, this takes the form of suggesting that at the time no other continental cities were as urbanized (and while London is discussed earlier, it doesn’t get compared at this point.) At any rate, while I did feel penned in over the summer, it is worth noting that Parisian crowds still know how to move quickly, efficiently, and safely (definitely feel more at risk from drivers here than I did there.)
So since my recent reference to it, I have been hankering to reread “Motifs.” It’s true that I often find myself thinking this, but I often fail to get around to it, plus it’s a pretty rich vein, as evidenced by the fact that I came away with some new stuff this time around.
In the past I have tended to focus on the stuff that can be traced fairly explicitly to “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The consciousness divided between perceiving and obscuring, the shattered shield, that sort of thing. This time I was more caught up in the processes of retrieval and ritual. When I was at Hampshire I sort of dismissed Benjamin in favor of Adorno, and I think that even at NYU, where I (along with everyone else) really embraced Benjamin and sort of understood his cultural turn, stayed leery of the stuff that evoked the past too enthusiastically.
Now that I’m an old man I sort of see where some of what he was getting at has to do with the fact that it’s easier to create your own culture in rituals when you have fewer external factors to deal with. Feeling straitjacketed by circumstance, I wonder if there is some sort of madeleine that I might require as well. There’s something to understanding that there was a nature that one was invoking.
Of course, you don’t want to go too far along that path. Just as you’re about to to say “There did I live” about the “breakers, rolling the images of the sky” you get to the stuff about photography and remember that Benjamin was a sentimental Luddite. Still, it’s good to let yourself get to the pretty part and not focus too much on stuff like “Even though chronology places regularity above permanence, it cannot prevent heterogeneous, conspicuous fragments from remaining within it.”