Hornberg, Black Forest, 2 August 1935

Dear Herr Benjamin:

Today let me try to say something to you at long last about your draft essay, which I have studied very thoroughly and discussed with Felizitasfootnote1 again; she fully shares my response. It seems to me to be in keeping with the importance of the subject—which, as you know, I rate so highly—if I speak with complete candour and proceed without preliminaries to the questions which I may consider equally central for both of us. But I shall preface my critical discussion by saying that even though your method of work means that a sketch and a ‘line of thought’ cannot convey an adequate representation, your draft seems to me full of the most important ideas. Of these I should like to emphasize only the magnificent passage about living as a leaving of traces, the conclusive sentences about the collector, and the liberation of things from the curse of being useful. The outline of the chapter on Baudelaire as an interpretation of the poet and the introduction of the category of nouveauté on p. 172 also seem to me entirely successful.footnote2

You will therefore guess what you hardly expected to be otherwise: that I am still concerned with the complex which may be designated by the rubrics—prehistory of the 19th century, dialectical image, and configuration of myth and modernism. If I refrain from making a distinction between the ‘material’ and the ‘epistemological’ questions, this should be in keeping—if not with the external organization of your draft—at all events with its philosophical core, whose movement is to make the antithesis between the two disappear (as in both the more recent traditional sketches of the dialectic). Let me take as my point of departure the motto on p. 159, Chaque époque rêve la suivante [Every epoch dreams its successor]. This seems to me an important key in so far as all those motifs of the theory of the dialectical image, which basically underly my criticism, crystallize about it as an undialectical sentence: such that its elimination could lead to a clarification of the theory itself. For the sentence implies three things: a conception of the dialectical image as a content of consciousness, albeit a collective one; its direct—I would almost say: developmental—relatedness to the future as Utopia; and a notion of the ‘epoch’ as the pertinent and self-contained subject of this context of consciousness. It seems extremely significant to me that this version of the dialectical image, which can be called an immanent one, not only threatens the original force of the concept, which was theological in nature, introducing a simplification which attacks not so much its subjective nuance as its truth content itself; it also misses that social movement of contradiction, for the sake of which you sacrifice theology.

If you transpose the dialectical image into consciousness as a ‘dream’ you not only disenchant the concept and render it sociable, but you also deprive it of that objective unlocking power which could legitimate it materialistically. The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. This means, however, that consciousness or unconsciousness cannot simply depict it as a dream, but respond to it in equal measure with desire and fear. But it is precisely this dialectical power of the fetish character that is lost in the replica realism (sit venia verbo) of your present immanent version of the dialectical image. To return to the language of the glorious first draft of your Arcades project: if the dialectical image is nothing but the way in which the fetish character is perceived in a collective consciousness, the Saint Simonian conception of the commodity world may indeed reveal itself as Utopia, but not as its reverse—namely, a dialectical image of the 19th century as Hell. But only the latter could put the idea of a Golden Age into the right perspective, and precisely this dual sense could turn out to be highly appropriate for an interpretation of Offenbach—that is, the dual sense of Underworld and Arcadia; both are explicit categories of Offenbach and could be pursued down to details of his instrumentation. Thus the abandonment of the category of Hell in your draft, and particularly the elimination of the brilliant passage about the gambler (for which the passage about speculation and games of chance is no substitute), seems to me to be not only a loss of lustre but also of dialectical consistency. Now I am the last to be unaware of the relevance of the immanence of consciousness for the 19th century. But the concept of the dialectical image cannot be derived from it; rather, the immanence of consciousness itself is, as Intérieur, the dialectical image for the nineteenth century as alienation. There I shall have to leave the stake of the second chapter of my Kierkegaard book in the new game as wellfootnote3. Accordingly, the dialectical image should not be transferred into consciousness as a dream, but in its dialectical construction the dream should be externalized and the immanence of consciousness itself be understood as a constellation of reality—the astronomical phase, as it were, in which Hell wanders through mankind. It seems to me that only the star-map of such a migration could offer a clear view of history as prehistory.