Whenever a Cabaret appears, we cheerfully go along to see it—then, one moment something strikes a wrong note, the next moment something else has changed and doubled back in its tracks. Benjamin’s first essay in this form affords us the same experience.footnote1 There is no lack of playful similes in it, although there well might be. Nor do the more serious similes always hit the mark; instead they move along the street that passes by here. Yet other parts are either too idiosyncratic or unnecessarily reminiscent of the old and familiar; unnecessarily, that is, in this One-Way Street which can stand as the very type of surrealistic thought. The self that it projects is very close to ours, but keeps changing. Indeed we have here a large number of selves: almost every sentence is a new start which prepares different things in a different way. The book deploys extremely modern means with an archaic grace to render what are often recondite or forgotten materials. Its form is that of a street, a sequence of houses and shops whose windows are full of bright ideas.

In our time alone could such a book appear, other than as a mere irrelevancy. Only in our day do inward yet concrete whims cease being solitary, incommunicable and intangible, to become taken seriously. For to a great extent large-scale forms have grown stale. Traditional bourgeois culture with its court theatre and humanist education cannot even be said to have the vitality of decadence. But from the street, the fairground, the circus and cheap fiction new forms—or forms associated with despised corners—emerge and take possession of the traditional stage. The clown has burst in upon the dying ballet, the light and airy dwelling-machine usurps the place of architectural styles long dead, and the old harmonious stage-drama is replaced by the open-work cabaret. In itself, it is true, there is little enough in the cabaret besides its open structure (which can easily become rigid). It has not given birth to any new drama; for the most part it has served as entertainment for the populace and has been as amorphous as they. Indirectly, however, cabaret may be employed as one of the most open and—contrary to its own intentions—most honest forms of the present: it then becomes the mirror of that empty space in which nothing can be made whole without a lie and where only fragments can still meet and intermingle. This indirect effect had its source in the sensuous vigour and mobility of unconnected scenes, in their fluidity and interpretation, in their proximity to the world of dreams. Hence cabaret became a form that could enter into art of a very different kind, from Piscator to the Threepenny Opera; such experiments could even incorporate improvisations, impromptu acts. With Benjamin these acts become philosophical: as a mode of disruption, a form for improvisation and sudden insight, for details and fragments which do not even aim at constructing a system. Aphorism, instruction, dialogue, tractatus—such philosophical genres have always thriven outside any system. They long predate the modern systems, and persist within them. Today, with the demise of the bourgeois principle of a priori reason, the system too is on the wane, for it derived and developed its idealist coherence exclusively from that self-same principle. The self-contained philosophical edifice is crumbling together with the no less coherent abstract calculus of the bourgeoisie—so much so, in fact, that Nietzsche could even define the system as a ‘will to dishonesty’. It was this change that paved the way for Simmel’s questioning and questionable impressionism. The academic Pilgrims’ Chorus, steadfastly singing its ‘systems’ is now invaded by a new cacophony in the shape of so-called existentialism—which has complexes, but no system. Cabaret assumes a very different shape in Benjamin’s experiment with miniature forms: a considered improvisation, debris from an exploded totality, a sequence of dreams, aphorisms and catchwords linked at most by a variety of oblique associations. If cabaret is a journey through a disintegrating culture, Benjamin’s essay gives us snapshots or rather a photomontage of the trip.

Ever new selves, we said, materialize and then dissolve. Indeed, strictly speaking there is no one in person in the streets at all—only their possessions, which seem to subsist on their own. Inmost premonitions are expressed only in external fragments, which assume the shape of signs and showcases, of a one-way street—not as an arbitrary structure, as an empty locality, such as we see in our dreams, but as a philosophical primer and bazaar. The result is the strangest form in which ideas have ever been cast. The chapters bear titles like Filling Station, Breakfast Room, Normal Time, Stand For No More Than Three Hackney Carriages, Fancy Goods, Number 113, Lost Property Office, Fancy-Dress Wardrobe, and so forth. The philosophical fragments which correspond to them are displayed in particular places, under specific showcases, yet are also highly volatile and interchangeable. Cathedrals, for example, appear as ‘the railway-stations of religion’, only to reappear moments later in an allegorical disguise: ‘Sleepingcars to eternity depart from here during mass’. A criticism of the ‘railway-stations of religion’ is no doubt intended here, but by the same token the train runs in the opposite direction too—from eternity and its mythical realms into the station where its contraband is unloaded. This is a style with the same wealth of mental associations to be found in Surrealism from Max Ernst to Cocteau: the union of the Yonder with the Here and Now, of brooding myth with the precision of the everyday. It raises once again the question of the I or the We that cannot be allowed to replace each other so inhumanly in this street, or to be absent entirely. The self that remains in the street, however, is nothing more than the body out for a stroll, i.e. in the first instance not an ear or an eye, not warmth, kindness or taste. To use one of Bachofen’s concepts, we might say that a chthonic spirit has made his home in this philosophy of the street, or more precisely, of the arcades. Like sailing-ships in bottles or blossoming trees and snow-covered towers sealed and preserved in revolving glass balls, the philosophical truths of the world are preserved here behind the panes of shop windows. Even the cosmos is only apprehended by this spirit with the inner glance of taste or the soupçon of a glance, expressed in a kind of physical intoxication (see the section on the Planetarium). A dream-street so close it can be touched, with shops in which the taste of the age is encapsulated and houses in which the varied content of the age is condensed—such is or could be the landscape of this essay. The result is not just a new outlet for philosophy (which after all never had any shops before), but an orgy of flotsam and jetsam as well, a surrealistic collage of familiar objects and forgotten glances.

Looking back over this brief work as a whole, it can be seen to stand for much that has not made its appearance today. Benjamin is a thinker who locates isolated data with the utmost precision, and formulates them incisely, but barely mentions what his coins are worth. He provides face-values which have neither bourgeois currency, nor any tangible alternative. All that becomes visible to us is anarchic meaning, and the sense of salutary but substantially undirected perplexities foraging among ruins. The same gaze which disintegrates also freezes and solidifies the manifold streams of the river (in all except direction) and even eleatizes the most recondite intricacies of the imagination. Gottfried Keller’s defined the Medusa as ‘the frozen image of unrest’: this philosophy is uniformly Medusa-like. But when the current cabaret passes through a surrealist philosophy, what emerges into the light of day from the debris of meanings that survives is a kaleidoscope of a different sort. For the empty spaces of our age (like those of the 19th century, whose ghostly allegories everywhere haunt surrealist thought) do not consist of a vacant sameness, but are to be found rather in the realm of concrete intentionality, in the tendency of matter, by no means something indeterminate. Benjamin’s philosophy makes every intention ‘die unto truth’, while for its part truth is articulated into ‘ideas’ brought to rest and their entourage: ‘images’. However, precisely the authentic images, the trenchant dicta and exact profundities of this book, its central concern with what lies off the beaten track as much as the discoveries of its unconventional explorations, are not to be found in snail-shells or caves of Mithras behind glass, but on open trial; they are in fact the dialectical, experimental figures in that trial. Surrealist philosophy is exemplary for its polished montage of fragments held in pluralist suspense and disconnection. As a montage which helps to build actual terraces it is definitive, since it is the fragment, and not the intention, which dies to the truth and so is utilized for the benefit of reality; one-way streets too have a destination.