Indoor Horizons 1 – The spark of an idea.
Waiting for the multiple encounters to echo a single memory upon which to hang the day.
“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list.” Susan Sontag
The birth of an idea, a fresh imprint in the snow begins with the first step. Welcome to our exploration of indoor horizons, breaking down the walls between worlds, using the Arcades of Paris as the framework we will explore the nature of the creative process from the spark of the idea to the expression of a complete vision, using the mindful eye as the symbol of that leap into the abyss, the attempt to apprehend what is so often beyond our grasp, always disappearing over the horizon just as we approach our target. Join us on the journey from the clouds above Montmartre over the rooftops to descend like the boy with the red balloon through the crystal glass into the world of Baudelaire, Breton and Benjamin.
For Baudelaire, it was possible to embark on a static voyage in time and space, to transcend everyday mundanity. When the mindful eye stopped to look, the world itself became a work of art.
Walking the arcades of Paris, Baudelaire was intoxicated by the sights, sounds and smells exploding before him as he wandered without destination to let the city impress itself on his flaneur mind until it found a form with which he could express the multitude of fulminations. He wanted to capture the essence of those infernal delights, to bottle the enchantment rather than the physical space so that he could construct his own version of Paris based on the map of his imagination. To him, the half caught reflections in the glass were the cornerstone around which he could build his own passage, the transmigration of the physical journey to the static voyage sparked by the eye transferring flashes of light onto his own Paris arcade.
The fleeting images the flaneur captured in the Paris Arcades hooked the curious eye, intoxicated by symbolism.
Walter Benjamin took up the ghostly cloak of the Paris flaneur in his vast unfinished Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) furnished with folio notecards, cuttings and observations much like the fluid layout future bloggers would employ, cross referencing a stream of entries or convolutes to be digested and travelled through in many different ways. You are more than likely reading this because a link enticed your fingers to embark on a similar journey or static voyage. You may bookmark this and return to our arcade via a different journey, the narrative is not always linear, increasingly it is comprised of fleeting glances and fragments which in turn will hopefully spark fresh creative ideas. Everything begins with that spark necessary to ignite an idea.
Benjamin appreciated the montage and cut up techniques employed by the Paris surrealists to portray the fragments of their ‘little universe.’ The universe in miniature, or worlds under glass, made up of objects such as snow globes, became a theme to which he would often return in the dossiers. The Paris arcades represented the world under glass where he discovered the panoramas and dioramas for his endless journey, the shop windows containing freeze framed scenes of life returning the epiphenomenal echoes and musical notes he had also noted in the work of the symbolists. His fascination with how the symbolists saw Paris centred on Baudelaire, the writer who created the term modernity, “to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.” (The Painter Of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, Phaidon.)
For many, the different ages of the Arcades of Paris reverberate with the thoughts of symbolists, surrealists and flaneurs, swirling together like the spoon rotating the absinthe before Verlaine. It is barely possible to walk ten paces without bumping into a motif, or tripping over an intoxicating epiphany, even when you reach out for help your hand is likely to disappear through the phantom shoulder of the poet stumbling into the painting of a fellow artist, both of which might later be echoed in the montage of the Dadaist having a coffee, who in turn is observed by others as they mingle on their daily journey between worlds, absorbing the phantasmagoria wrapped up in the iron and glass of these lost passageways containing a secret cascade of symbols running through the heart of the city which establishment figures had fiercely sought to destroy. Some of the physical places may have been dismantled but figurehead phantoms still hover over shop fronts listening for that long echo back from there to here.
‘Not merely does each age dream the next one, but it aims, in so doing, to awaken.’ Walter Benjamin
Figurehead phantoms hover, watching over the palace of memories
The passages suffered at the hands of Baron Haussmann as he set out to make Paris ‘revolution proof,’ destroying many arcades in the dramatic changes which were designed to prevent the raising of barricades. Sadly submerged and marginalised, the remaining arcades declined to become curious backwaters in the middle of the city. At one time there were over 150 but as they fell from favour they were bequeathed to writers, artists and thinkers to wander, already abandoned as ghostly memory palaces of a Paris before Haussmann. In 1927 it was as if Walter Benjamin was building his own barricades in the Bibliothèque Nationale from whatever he could salvage from those memories to reconstruct a future dream for a city dweller lost somewhere along the way.
He would never reach the end of his journey in the Arcades Project, leaving behind a series of dossiers labelled A to Z broken down into lower case sections a to r. As with Finnegans Wake, you can enter the flow anywhere in the stream of folios collected in the thirteen years leading up to his death in 1940. Convolute J on Baudelaire is one place to start, or perhaps Convolute C on Ancient Paris, Demolitions and the Decline of Paris. Benjamin may have been carrying more of the Arcades Project in the briefcase clutched to his chest as he struggled for breath on the border between France and Spain. The mystery surrounding his final journey and that missing briefcase are worthy of a thriller in their own right and a bleak reminder of the dark ages in history when persecuted scholars were forced to flee to the margins like the monks on Skellig Michael clutching remnants of ideas which they thought worth saving so that others might one day pass them on to future generations.
Let’s start on the edge where only the dedicated flaneur would stray. The Paris arcade which appears at 31 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre has the sign CONDUISANT AUX GRAND BOULEVARDS informing the stroller that they are about to embark on a journey should they be brave enough to pass through the dark mouth of this portal to another world, a world of sensation. Even the letters on the sign are resized to tempt the eye towards an odyssey of distant perspectives where memory perceptions converge on poetical space.
Entrance at 31 Rue du Faubourg Montmatre
Passage Verdeau, 75 metres in length, one of the forgotten Paris arcades until sellers of books and postcards made it their home. Built in 1846-7 as an extension of Passage Des Panoramas and Passage Jouffroy. A place on the margins away from the increasingly homogenous Haussmann high street now to be found in any major city. The static voyage takes on another meaning in the sense of the numbing blandness which has removed any local character from so many urban centres, these streets are now all the same, dying their own death as a consequence, no longer holding value because they are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, condemned to a fate worse than Haussmann, geographical mediocrity. Yet nobody expected the speed at which the high street itself would be overtaken by a virtual arcade where eyes and fingers can wander at will, looking for wonders beyond the uniform uniforms of high street fashion. The journey has returned to the flaneur experience of letting something different hook the eye and inspire a new idea.
Passage Verdeau is the place for the collector, the browser looking for something unusual to awaken the spirit upon entering a cathedral of words and images illuminated by the streams of light filtered through the glass roof. Like Beckett and Seinfeld, searching for nothing, and in that nothing possibly finding the spark to ignite a revolutionary idea. This is one of the later arcades to be constructed, just before Haussmann’s first wave of demolition. A photographic shop which opened in 1901 sits next to windows filled with rare books, old postcards and the odd phantom figure frozen in time. Exit at 6 Rue de la Grands-Batelière where Passage Jouffroy (and its wondrous waxwork world) awaits only a few steps to the south.
Exit at Rue de la Grands-Batelière
Revisit us soon to wander more forgotten passageways and map further margins of the imagination.