The City as Palimpsest


José Muñoz Millanes

Lehman College & Graduate Center, CUNY


The image of the other in the urban space is one of the most important themes in modern literature of a metropolitan impulse, and also one of the most studied, following Walter Benjamin and his now classic studies of Paris in the time of Baudelaire. The vision of one's neighbor in the big city has inspired many modern writers because it is, to a large degree, a matter of conjecture: that is, a product of the imagination of a contemplative person, an idle passerby or flâneur. In the manner of a fetishist, the flâneur [dandy, tr.] subjectively completes his fragmentary perception of the other thanks to a process we could call physiognomic. Since physiognomy consists in the art of approximately interpreting surfaces: of trying to explain a phenomenon by way of scattered indications in the external aspect of the space. Thus the flâneur, unable to communicate verbally with most of the strangers he meets on the street, tries to decipher their individual or group identity based on certain details of their visual appearance, caught by chance.

Now, in modern literature of the big city there exists a kind of flâneur (or simply an aspect of that flâneur perhaps) that is less studied but just as important. It concerns not the flâneur who tries to guess the inaccessible internal realm of the fellow citizens that he encounters, but rather the flâneur who, going through a city, shows himself sensitive to the traces that earlier residents or travelers have left there. It is the flâneur about whom Walter Benjamin asks:

Couldn't an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?

This sort of diachronic flâneur has also been characterized by Walter Benjamin, but in texts that are relatively little known and which have only been translated into English very recently: in several fragments of The Arcades Project and, above all, in two reviews of books by his friend Franz Hessel, from the 1920s, one of which bears the title "The Return of the Flâneur," where we can read the following:

Now, if we recollect that not only people and animals but also spirits and above all images can inhabit a place, then we have a tangible idea of what concerns the flâneur and of what he looks for. Namely, images, wherever they lodge. The flâneur is the priest of the genius loci.

In this review, which dates from 1929 and has as its object a book of walks through Berlin (Spazieren in Berlin), Benjamin wonders how the obsolete, nineteenth-century figure of the Baudelairean flâneur has managed to be so belatedly reincarnated in the book's author, Franz Hessel. And he responds that a phenomenon is better perceived the closer it is to disappearing. In his book Hessel strolls through the new Berlin seeking the trail of its old inhabitants precisely because the current architecture and city planning do not favor a way of life that leaves traces, as Benjamin states:

The coming architecture is dominated by the idea of transparency [...] Only a man in whom modernity has already announced its presence, however quietly, can cast such an original and "early glance" at what has only just become old.

In addition to Benjamin, there is another theorist who considers it indispensable to study the persistence of traces from the past in the city of the present. I'm speaking of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi, whose works The Architecture of the City and (to a lesser degree) A Scientific Autobiography are considered classics in architecture schools, but are not sufficiently known by literary critics, for whom they also have great relevance. Since, like Benjamin, Rossi thinks that the observer of the city must be at the service of the genius loci, the mythical divinity who presided over the destiny of places. Because, according to Aldo Rossi, each urban fact has a complex individuality: a singular quality arising from the successive marks that history's changes have left in its space over time. The architecture of the city comes to be the testimony par excellence of daily life because in its fixity the vicissitudes of humankind are registered throughout time. This idea of the city as a palimpsest where traces of heterogeneous times accumulate gives rise to images of great plasticity, like that which Aldo Rossi describes at the beginning of The Architecture of the City:

Architecture, attesting to the tastes and attitudes of generations, to public events and private tragedies, to new and old facts, is the fixed stage for human events. The collective and the private, society and the individual, balance and confront one another in the city. The city is composed of many people seeking a general order that is consistent with their own particular environment. The changes in housing and in the land on which houses leave their imprint become signs of this daily life. One need only look at the layers of the city that archeologists show us; they appear as a primordial and eternal fabric of life, an immutable pattern. Anyone who remembers European cities after the bombing of the last war retains an image of disemboweled houses where, amid the rubble, fragments of familiar places remained standing, with their colors of faded wallpaper, laundry hanging suspended in the air, barking dogs--the untidy intimacy of places. And always we could see the house of our childhood, strangely aged, present in the flux of the city.

An image that recalls, of course, the one that surprises another important flâneur of modern literature, Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge, before a house in demolition:

One saw its inner side. One saw at the different storeys the walls of rooms to which the paper still clung, and here and there the join of floor or ceiling [...] But most unforgettable of all were the walls themselves. The stubborn life of these rooms had not let itself be trampled out [...] It was still there; it clung to the nails that had been left, it stood on the remaining handbreadth of flooring, it crouched under the corner joints where there was still a little bit of interior. One could see that it was in the paint, which, year by year, it had slowly altered [...] And from these walls once blue and green and yellow, which were framed by the fracture-tracks of the demolished partitions, the breath of these lives stood out--the clammy, sluggish, musty breath, which no wind had yet scattered.

The city presents itself then, to the diachronic flâneur, as an immense archeological deposit in whose vertical cuts scenes come to light where, in a certain way, lives and events already extinguished still survive. That is why Benjamin states that for the flâneur "each street is a vertiginous experience. The street conducts the flâneur into a vanished time" and the entire city constitutes for him "an epic book through and through, a process of memorizing while strolling around." An epic and not lyric book because the streets do not evoke in him a personal and private past through the interior realm of memory. On the contrary, the fixity of the signs deposited there allows him to imaginarily go back to a past that is much more vast, never lived by him. For its impersonality and objectivity, Benjamin compares the city-palimpsest with a natural landscape: citing Hofmannsthal, he states that before the flâneur the city unfolds "like a landscape lived" by many other earlier inhabitants. But that landscape would correspond to what in his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama Benjamin calls "natural history": that is, it would be a petrified, geological landscape. A landscape of ruins, formed by strata of the residues of lives now dead; a monument to human obsoleteness.

According to Benjamin, the city, bearing multiple pasts inscribed, resembles a geological landscape. But, paradoxically, this natural landscape in turn has something of a domestic interior. Throughout his work Benjamin repeats that, with its abundance of photographs, cases and covers and with the fabrics of its cushions and armchairs, the bourgeois interiors of the nineteenth century lent themselves very well to register and preserve the traces of their inhabitants for posterity, freezing time as in a museum. In the same way, the folds and surfaces of the city can be considered an immense interior: a chora or primal receptacle where the successive traces of its inhabitants settle awaiting a ghostly resuscitation in the reading of the flâneur, the mobile personage par excellence:

Just as every tried-and-true experience also includes its opposite, so here the perfected art of the flâneur includes a knowledge of "dwelling." The primal image of "dwelling," however, is the matrix or shell--that is, the thing which enables us to read off the exact figure of whatever lives inside it.

Now, the past that survives fragmentarily in the space of the city is an insignificant past only in appearance, as corresponds to the tenuous and imperceptible quality of its traces. Therefore, to appreciate the microscopic gaze of the flâneur amounts to claiming a history that grants more importance to the quotidian and the circumstantial than to the great events, a type of history that prefers material details and nuances to the outstanding names and syntheses. Or, as Benjamin says:

The great reminiscences, the historical frissons-- these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist [...] Often, he would have given all he knows about the domicile of Balzac or of Gavarni, about the site of a surprise attack or even of a barricade, to be able to catch the scent of a threshold or to recognize a paving stone by touch, like any watchdog.

For Benjamin the flâneur is like a detective because he tries to identify the strangers who attract his attention in the street and for that he uses fragmentary details from the periphery of his body. But, what's more, Benjamin compares a dog's sense of smell to the subtlety of the flâneur, who (as Hofmannsthal points out) is able to read what was never literally written down: since the flâneur is able to detect the traces of the past, dispersed and almost vanished in the city's present.

According to Benjamin, the floor that the flâneur walks on is at least double, given that, thanks to the traces of previous inhabitants, the specter of someone else's past echoes in the present:

As he walks, his steps create an astounding resonance on the asphalt. The gaslight shining down on the pavement casts an ambiguous light on this double floor. The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history.

Benjamin's definition of "trace" corresponds in general terms to the classic definition of "indication":

The trace is appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be [...] In the trace, we gain possession of the thing.

That is, in the persistence of the trace somehow an incompatible past and present can manage to coincide: a distant or never lived past can still be dimly experienced on being projected into the present thanks to the material fixity of the trace.

This latency of the past in the present is manifested above all as superposition: "We know that, in the course of flânerie, far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the present moment." The flâneur, therefore, sees the image of the earlier city show through in the image of the present-day city. Thus, for example, in his review of the book about walks through Berlin, Benjamin praises Franz Hessel's insight for tracking in the permanence of places the changes they have suffered through time. And this insight is demonstrated on recognizing, in the actual configuration of the space, an adaptation that evokes by contrast a way of living that has disappeared. For example, Hessel goes to an impoverished neighborhood and still discovers the ghostly presence of the old mansion in the modest rented rooms into which it has been converted:

in one of the dwellings [...] we find again the world of old beneath a new layer: the glass door, which once separated the drawing room from the living room, blocked up behind some closets; in the notably angled position of the divan we recognize the ghost of the grand piano, which used to be here with its velvet cover and family photographs. Near the window, in the poor flowerpot something still remains from the tropical world of palm trees found in drawing rooms.

In the urban image the past can coexist with the present thanks to what Aldo Rossi calls the "dispositional" or potential value of the forms. According to Rossi, in cities some forms of buildings present a great capacity for adaptation and through time assume functions and values quite different from those for which they were destined: for example, the Roman amphitheater in Lucca was turned into a market place in later centuries. And the relation between the part and the whole is even modified, when a single building comes to house the entire city, as happens with the Croatian city of Split, which arose within the ancient palace of Diocletian. That is, on adopting a new function, the architecture changes its relative position within the city, even without having changed place. And the flâneur goes back to the past when he discovers in urban forms the original function persisting in the present-day function. Thus, recognizing in a triumphal arch one of the ancient gates of the city, Benjamin notes: "Mystery of the boundary stone which, although located in the heart of the city, once marked the point at which it ended." And he continues: "On the other hand, the triumphal arch, which today has become a traffic island."

As the city's past survives fragmented and scattered in its traces, its voice is rather weak: "At the approach of the footsteps [of the flâneur], the place has roused; speechless, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him hints and instructions."

But, in standing out from the homogeneous background of the present-day city, the traces break the perceptive balance: they surprise, they seem to gaze at the person who encounters them. Benjamin states that, in that moment, "the space winks at the flâneur." Along the flâneur's route the palimpsest becomes active and images from the city's past begin to file by in a succession that is not necessarily chronological. And this voyage in time provokes a sort of vertigo or "anamnestic intoxication":

An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets [...] When the authentically intoxicated phase of this condition announces itself, the blood is pounding in the veins of the happy flâneur, his heart ticks like a clock.

The allusion to the inebriation of drugs is understandable because, in his experiments with hashish, Benjamin was attracted to the capacity of the space to modulate: to open itself to another, totally different space, without being reciprocally assimilated in the slightest:

The appearances of superposition, of overlap, which come with hashish may be grasped through the concept of similitude. When we say that one face is similar to another, we mean that certain features of this second face appear to us in the first, without the latter's ceasing to be what it has been. Nevertheless, the possibilities of entering into appearance in this way are not subject to any criterion and are therefore boundless. The category of similarity, which for the waking consciousness has only minimal relevance, attains unlimited relevance in the world of hashish.

In the eyes of the flâneur the modern city, without ceasing to be itself, is capable of momentarily assuming the appearance of previous phases in its development, as different and remote as they may be. This plasticity which allows for the urban space of the present to echo with all the successive variety of the past recalls surrealist images, which also provoked stupefaction in combining two elements that were impossible to associate normally. Especially if it has to do with images where incompatible spaces are made to coincide, as when Rimbaud sees, in Une saison en enfer, "a mosque in the place of a factory" and "a drawing room at the bottom of a lake".

And it is no wonder that Benjamin, like the surrealists, favors ambiguous or double-edged images from popular culture of the nineteenth century, like the illustrations from [threepenny or Kolportage novels] cheap novels or the automats of so-called "mechanical pictures." Since all these images have in common the fact that in them the space modulates in function of the spectator's mood: in them the same figures acquire different values and represent different things according to how they are looked at. That is why they express so well the inexhaustible power of evocation which, in their fixity, places in the city guard for the flâneur: their condition as depositories for the collective memory, as Rossi says. Because in them situations and events that were never related in the linear order of time manage to virtually coincide.

[Translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss]


Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter, Selected Writings, Vol. 2 (1927-1934) (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).

Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).

Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977).

Hessel, Franz, Ein Flaneur in Berlin (Berlin: Das Arsenal, 1984).

Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, translated by M. D. Herter Norton (New York: W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1964).

Rossi, Aldo, The Architecture of the City, translated by Diane Ghirardo and Joan Ockman (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1984).