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
Let me try to formulate the same objection again from the diametrically opposite standpoint. In keeping with an immanent version of the dialectical image (with which, to use a positive term, I would contrast your earlier conception of a model) you construe the relationship between the oldest and the newest, which was already central to your first draft, as one of Utopian reference to a ‘classless society’. Thus the archaic becomes a complementary addition to the new, instead of being the ‘newest’ itself; it is dedialecticized. However, at the same time, and equally undialectically, the image of classlessness in question is dated back into mythology instead of becoming truly transparent as a phantasmagoria of Hell. Therefore the category in which the archaic coalesces into the modern seems to me far less a golden age than a catastrophe. I once noted that the recent past always presents itself as though it has been destroyed by catastrophes. Hic et nunc I would say that it thereby presents itself as prehistory. And at this point I know I am in agreement with the boldest passage in your book on tragedy [Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels].footnote4
If the disenchantment of the dialectical image as a ‘dream’ psychologizes it, by the same token it falls under the spell of bourgeois psychology. For who is the subject of the dream? In the 19th century it was surely only the individual; but in the individual’s dream no direct depiction of either the fetish character or its monuments may be found. Hence the collective consciousness is invoked, but I fear that in its present form it cannot be distinguished from Jung’s conception. It is open to criticism on both sides: from the vantage point of the social process in that it hypostasizes archaic images where dialectical images are in fact generated by the commodity character, not in an archaic collective ego, but in alienated bourgeois individuals; from the vantage point of psychology in that, as Horkheimer puts it, a mass ego exists only in earthquakes and catastrophes, while otherwise objective surplus value pre