Walter Benjamin’s ghost


This isnt a picture of Walter Benjamin. Those are on the internet. This is Longwood open air  theatre in Kirklees. Other images come from Bo’ness, Humbie Churchyard and the Necropolis, Glasgow

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.

My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied.  I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.

Of course dear reader that is not what happened.  We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.


I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter. (See Comment below, 2019)

I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless.  And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour  trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile  phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.


While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.




Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.

Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic.  But, yet,  not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).


We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are.  But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.

The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared.  The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it. I cant really explain it and can only partially describe it, but I can always experience it, and return to it regularly.


I  began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else.  They are actually about  my experiences, and  about the wish and struggle to share these.


The mythogeographer ,  Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane .  These can be profane illuminations.

Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.


Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation

Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as  harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.


* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)



2 thoughts on “Walter Benjamin’s ghost

  1. Michelle says:

    It feels the experience of profane illumination is heightened (and lost ) through the privacy and secret treasuring of something no one else can really see. I imagine in it’s contradictory positioning sharing at once gives and takes away, is lost to you and found to another. Lovely, interesting.


  2. I decided to pretend to be someone else here. It makes me look bigger and the blog more popular..
    But one year or so after I wrote this I went to a lecture in a village hall in Marsden ( a couple of miles from where the first image in my article was found, and three hundred miles from my home), where Andrea Capstick referenced a book called Profane Illuminations. Since, through another coin-cidence, I can now use a University library for the first time in three decades I was able to find it.
    Like all University copies it has the traces and underlinings of its previous hirepurchasers, which literally illustrate the book in red, purple and green. I ve been following their traces for the last few weeks, and trying to guess when they ll turn off the path , and where they are going. I think towards degrees in critical studies.
    The author, Margaret Cohen, is an American based French literature professor, and is interested in the links between Benjamin, the surrealists, Paris its geography and the nineteenth century . And being a serious academic she nails the reference for me, better than Google. The source is Benjamins article on the surrealism written in 1929 and now collected in Reflections(1978). Benjamin is reworking a term the surrealist Andre Breton uses ‘ rencontre’ , via his own ideas of Erfahrung and Chock, in a way , which, as is common in his work, he never exactly describes. Cohen discusses this on pp186-92 of her book, but once again it is used(effectively) as an arresting image in the body of a
    bigger, more intricate set of engagements.
    Benjamin is, it is easy to see subject to a whole series of profane illuminations , momentary surpises in his wanderings where his environment brings him up short into impactful contact with unsuspected reality ( present or past).
    And I can now claim (with some relief) that I am not dissing his idea. If it feels like a profane illumination it probably is. I am also seeing something else in my own selection . Firstly that looking at the essay I wrote a year ago (and the images in it) that they still work for me – they still jump out. And that they are about juxtaposition and precariousness. They are about a surprise connection with the world which we are more part of us than we usually realise.
    Cohen’s conclusion is that Benjamin s aphoristic language is pointing at a contradiction in his practice and our own way of understanding and representing things .
    ‘If Benjamin is one of modernity’s more acerbic critics, he remains indisputably preoccupied with its defining concerns. As do we. Surveying the ruins of post-modernism, we are confronted with proliferating representations instead of the reality that produced them , or rather, the distinction between reality and representation no longer quite describes the shadowy yet acutely perceptible landscape of our own Gothic world.’ ( p259)
    As i look up from the laptop a flock of redwings passes over my back garden in search of food. I wonder what the knowledge we live in an era of climate change would add to this type of analysis.. I imagine the complications that would ensue in taking on an intricate and impractical project at a time when the world is falling around your ears. And I think about the Arcades Project and the end of Benjamins life a few hours from rescue.


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