A Gnostic in the City: Walter Benjamin and the Redemption of Things
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The essay is an interpretation of Walter Benjamin's 'Passages' from the theological angle. It tries to determine the specificity of Benjamin's religious convictions which seem to combine in a highly idiosyncratic way the elements of German Romanticism, Jewish Messianism, and Gnosticism. The main focus of the analysis is the concept of allegory, formerly elaborated by Benjamin in 'Origins of the German Tragic Drama', however now applied to the Marxist idiom of commodity fetishism and reification. In Benjamin's view, as emerging from his vast work on Parisian passages, the whole world appears as fallen into a sleep of reification: there are no more subjects and objects (as it is still in Simmel, whose works Benjamin misreads and revises), only 'things' and their reciprocal interactions.'The inhabitants of a big city' (Simmel) acquire a thing-like condition: a flaneur watches the metropolitan spectacle with his indifferent 'stony gaze'; a Baudelaire's allegorist becomes 'petrified' under the influence of dead artifacts that surround him; and a collector leads his dreamy existence in an intimate relationships with material souvenirs that are more meaningful to him than relations with other people. Benjamin's question is how to wake up from the 'sleep of the 19th century', which for him indicates the deepest Fall into materiality, the very nadir of human history. By following the antinomian Gnostic logic of the Fall, he claims that the deeper the sleep, the more vivid the moment of a dream (reverie) which contains a vision of redemption: 'there is a spark of an eternal life in everything' that needs to be recovered. He thus presents his triad of flaneur, allegorist and collector as those bearers of 'the weak messianic power' who, by submerging themselves to the level of dead material things, try nonetheless to enkindle in them the saving 'living spark'.
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