Go to homepage



Current issue




Go to writer's guidelines

The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

A Passion for Waiting:
Walter Benjamin in the Cafés

by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Ph.D.

I often think of him traveling by train from one of the great cities of the European disaster to another. Berlin to Paris, back and forth, back and forth. I see him sitting in a chair, half in shadows, in the Bibliothèque Nationale to write notes on thousands of index cards with newspaper clippings and photographs piled randomly around him. He walks in the Mediterranean sun and sits, late in the afternoons, on terraces by the sea. After Capri, he is a changed man, for there he has met Asja Lacis, who cuts a one-way street through his heart. He is tired, he thinks about books, he thinks about taking his own life. He knows that Germany is bearing down on him like a relentless locomotive.

Benjamin knows in his bones about the ways in which the specific texture of places inhabits and governs our imaginations. Marseilles, Paris, Naples, Berlin, Port Bou. All illumination depends on place. As he was waiting for someone—who does not matter—at the Café des Deux Magots at St.-Germain-des-Pres, he suddenly sees his life whole, as it were, as a diagram in the shape of a kind of labyrinth. How tempted I am to spend the rest of my time writing about labyrinths and those tables at the Deux Magots. And, less than a stone’s throw away, the Café de Flore. What an amorous couple, full of passion for one another but always keeping a decorous distance between themselves even as they flutter the awnings of their eyelids at each other.

Unfortunately—but this is somehow typical of him—several  years later he misplaced the sheet of paper on which he had drawn the labyrinth of his life. There it is, for once: our life, whole, but then the evil genie strikes and it is all gone. I like, though, to imagine it will one day turn up—just as a photo of Van Gogh by Victor Morin recently turned up at an antique dealer in Massachusetts—somewhere in somebody’s attic, hidden away in a book, almost forgotten by history. Almost, but not quite. All the books we’ve lost forever. Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, the 200,000 in Alexandria. Perhaps Benjamin’s translation of Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe. The street fires flickering like a snake’s tongue at the books thrown into the squares of Berlin.

We owe Sappho, Virgil, Catullus, St Thomas, and Kafka just to a lucky break or to the refusal of good friends to throw manuscripts into fire. Time, after all, is a blind scullery maid sweeping out the room. She gathers all of the objects of history into a pile of trash and tosses them nonchalantly into the always blazing fire. We have to do what we can to pluck the curled and blackening fragments out of the always growing disintegration.

The labyrinth, Benjamin said, has many entrances leading into the interior through what he calls primal acquaintances. Again and again throughout our lives we are guided through passageways to certain types of people until everything contracts to a figure, a symbol. But the configuration of the labyrinth began long before, in the early days of his young adulthood, when he first becomes an initiate into the life of Orpheus. Wandering into the Viktoria Café and the West End Café he admitted that, at the time, he did not yet possess the passion for waiting without which one cannot thoroughly appreciate the charm of a café.

Passion, in and of itself, would seem to preclude all conceptions of waiting. Doesn’t passion want its object now? Isn’t that what the urgency of passion suggests? No. Passion may, in fact, extend itself over a lifetime of effort. The passion for art, for building a business, for keeping a café from sinking beneath the waves of fashion, code, or commerce. The passion for love and self-discovery. All of these require patient effort over decades.

One has, naturally, occasionally to wait for service and wait for the slow peregrinations of the waiter, interrupted by conversation with all the patrons old and new, to return to one’s table at his own, unhurried pace. Sometimes that takes what feels like days. The paper is read, the silver coffee-pot emptied and all one can do is tap one’s fingers slowly, as if reflecting, on the table while staring vacuously into the middle distance. This strategy for attention rarely works, especially in the better establishments that do not require a quick turnover to turn a profit.

It is not, however, merely the service for which one learns the art of waiting. Much more importantly, it is learning to wait with patience for the appearance of love, either as the approach of the person whom one doesn’t want to look at but cannot help the slight turn of the eyes, or for the experience of the slight energizing flush—of mind, body, and spirit—that compels the pencil to write in the notebook, on the napkin, on the flap of the matches. This is why one arrives at midday or after work, places the coat—usually quite worn—on the rack and then sits at the table with an air of receptive expectation that borders very closely indeed on a kind of madness or of absolute indifference.

Benjamin, too, had to learn the art of this waiting. But, as he went about the city, he was learning a great deal more as well. After the Viktoria and West End, Benjamin and his wandering friends moved on to the Princess Café, where he begins to do a kind of playful social history just as he is also beginning to pursue a certain profession of women. Musing about creating a Physiology of Coffeehouses, he begins by dividing them into professional and recreational establishments, although admitting that, in most cases, the two coincide. As his principle example—and one cannot do sociology without the concept of empirical example—he chose the Romanische Café, which proudly boasted the legendary Richard, a hunchbacked, disdainful, and therefore much-esteemed, waiter. (This is not the last time, of course, that he will mention a hunchback.)

The Romanische becomes the Café Megalomania and as the artists withdrew into the shadows, the bourgeois began to take their place, for one of the most elementary and indispensable diversions of the citizen of a great metropolis, wedged, day in and day out, in the structure of his office and family amid an infinitely variegated social environment, is to plunge into another world, the more exotic the better. Hence the bars haunted by artists and criminals. This is another division: artists and criminals on one hand, the professional classes on the other.

Just as Freud kept unwittingly returning to the red-light district in—where was it? Rome? Athens?—so, too, Benjamin returns to the Princess, designed by Lucian Bernhard with private boxes whose purposes were quite clear. What have private boxes been used for other than to begin, continue, or finalize, an assignation with a friend or with a stranger? I, myself, am adamantly opposed to private boxes in a café, for a café is open space itself. There is deep solitude and privacy here, no doubt about that, but it is always in view of others. I am opposed to walls and secrets of the literal sort, here in the café, for there is always the open secret to deal with, whether in talk, drink, writing, or silence.

Benjamin even returns, through the detour of surrealism in Paris, to the mysteries of the Princess in Berlin. He ruminates that in Breton’s description of the bar on the upper floor of the Théâtre Moderne there is something that brings back to my memory that most uncomprehended room in the old Princess Café. It was the back room on the first floor, with couples in the blue light. We called it the `anatomy school’; it was the last restaurant designed for love. The last? Surely not, although every generation believes, at least since the troubadours, itself the first and the last. In any case, Benjamin had described this scene in A Berlin Chronicle as well. The “anatomy school” is in the upper story, hung with violet drapery and illuminated with a violet glow, in which many seats were always empty, while on others couples took up as little space as possible. Blues and violets, the colors of passion and the almost incomprehensible.

It is, in fact, at the Princess Café—although in another epoch of his life—where he eventually comes to write the nearly unreadable Origin of German Tragic Drama. The Princess, drifting like all things down the entropic funnel, eventually became the Café Stenwyk, until finally it deteriorated into a common beerhouse. There is a scale of value as far as architecture, as well as the social function of interiors, goes. The Princess followed the course of Benjamin’s life: downhill, toward ruin. And, yet, there is something that resists this ruin as well. There are remains, traces of charcoal slashed across the torn pages of history.

Reflecting on that which remains, he writes that Language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Language is to memory as earth is to dead cities. Berlin? Paris? Pompeii? Both memory and these cities are buried in the dirt and in words; they must, then, be excavated and brought to the light of the surface.

A common enough image. That is the theater of memory. We work, then, on the theater of language in order to unearth the past? On behalf of what? Not just to know, although surely there is that as well. No, it’s fundamentally for the sake of our own freedom. Something about being-buried locks energy into place, freezing us into the ground that is interred language, which means it is already in the form of drama with its acts, scenes, imbroglios, murders, and grand finales. It’s as if the past is a constellation of frescoes or relief sculptures like those painted on the Villas of Pompeii or like the friezes of the Parthenon. Writing, then, as a form of both burial and resurrection? But with a fine line of distinction, a seismic shift that makes the earth tremble.

By returning time and again to the same site, by meticulously working our way down through the layers of sediment and brushing off the remains with our dental picks and toothbrushes, we are able to discover the real treasure hidden within the earth: the images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand—like precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery—in the prosaic rooms of our later understanding. And, as important as it is to preserve an “inventory” of our discoveries—to make a list for our bosses and those who are to come—the essential thing is to know the “dark joy of the place of the finding itself.

Place finds and speaks itself through our labors. The archaeology of memory, whether of what we call individual or what we call collective recollection, is a poetic undertaking that can never give us “history” or “autobiography” in the form of what Benjamin calls a narrative of continuous time. Time, whatever it is, eddies and remains without a final equation. The passion for history that is unearthed for the sake of the future, when both are always on the verge of dissolution. And to accomplish this, both turn toward the space of art.

Benjamin, then, turns from the continuous flow of time that underlies most misconceptions of autobiography toward a space of fragments, the broken torso of Apollo. All of those companions who were closest to him in his Berlin days now steal along its walls like beggars, appear wraithlike at windows, to vanish again, sniff at thresholds like a genius loci, and even if they fill whole quarters with their names, it is as a dead man’s fills his gravestone. And he, in his turn, is a wraith for others, for us, for instance. He arrives from Port Bou as an absence who calls for us. For: what does that little word mean? So much, perhaps everything, hinges upon it. For whom do we appear? For whom do we work, here in the café?

And, in any city like Berlin, Amsterdam, or New York, in every small town and along every solitary desert track that winds its way through the night raging with an infinite spray of stars, there are innumerable names whispering to be heard. How does the name of the dead fill a gravestone? It is incised, cut with violence into an adamantine material that will, nonetheless, vanish over time. In a carved, unmarked stone, a certain mark is cut that particularizes the stone. This, the characters say, is my grave. Except, of course, that there is at that time no longer any “my,” so the name that was mine refers to myself as I was at the instant before my death. When, in other words, I was living. The cut skin of the stone is a surface where history, art, and nature all meet and say: he or she was. The name itself, carved by an indifferent mason working for a buck, indicates an echoing space of images hollowed out by the unique resonance of an entire life.

Oblivion, after all, is the common lot. Berlin, Benjamin claims, has more than other cities of those places and moments when it bears witness to the dead, shows itself full of the dead. The caul of death settles everywhere, indiscriminately, but Berlin certainly has its share, not only those who have settled comfortably into the city’s Friedhofe—courtyards of contentment—but also those of untold numbers who were annihilated with absolute brutality. By fire raining from the sky, by a train ticket to a camp, by a pistol shot to the head, by the endless miasma of hunger. They are all here, gathered into the terrible company of the dead.

All of the images of Berlin, Benjamin continues, according to the teachings of Epicurus, constantly detach themselves from things and determine our perception of them. The air is thick with spirits emanating from all things and adhering to our vision even as they reconstitute themselves. Bottle, glass, tablecloth, fork, spoon, vest, door…everything is signed by the ghosts. Berlin, especially for him the Berlin of the late 19th century, returns, remaining true to its nature as a ghost, to the fact that history returns to haunt us. We cannot, it seems, be done with it. The past is not past, for it exerts continuous pressure on the contours of the present, an ancient face emerging from the canvas before our eyes.

It was in the winter months of 1932, with a contract from Die Literarische Welt in hand, that Benjamin first began to get together the notes that became The Berlin Chronicle. But, as was his wont as a restless man, he left Berlin for the sun of Ibiza—via Hamburg and Barcelona—where he walked across the island with the grandson of Paul Gauguin, read Simenon, and drank coffee while staring out at the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

Coffee is not inconsequential for his life, for it was by downing innumerable cups of jet black coffee that, with his hands shaking like a grandfather with Parkinson’s, that he escaped proscription into the Prussian army during the Great War, thus missing out on the grand experience of total mobilization. Who knows? Perhaps he would have survived, had another life, never tried to cross the Spanish border. We all wonder that, about ourselves, and none of us ever has the chance to put our curiosity into action. Only one, at the most two, of the many lives nestled inside our multifoliate seed-casings will ever have a chance to unfold into visibility.

Benjamin brings the Chronicle to a close with a short series of fragmentary notes: Diabolo/The desk at which I did my schoolwork/Neubabelsberg railroad station/Schloss Neubabelsberg. Childhood writing, trains, castles. There is always more to write. The diabolo is a child’s toy, two half-cups that run along a string, and Benjamin always loved toys. Neubabelsberg? A suburb between Berlin and Potsdam. The usual Schloss, beneath which they used to exchange spies during the Cold War. An excellent movie museum and a long history of movie-making. Babbling about a new Babel. What could be better for a translator interested in messianic language? I’m sorry he never got back to it, but railroad stations and castles will surely return, like the rediscovery of an old movie, a silent film or talky, to haunt us here in the café.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “A Berlin Chronicle,” “Surrealism,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.

Selected Writings Volume II, Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren is the author of Narcissus Transformed, Starting Time, and TechnoLogics. This essay is part of The Night Café, a work in progress.

Back to the Top

The Cafe Irreal: Current Issue | Irreal (Re)views | Archives | Theory | Links | Guidelines

Previous | Next


copyright by author 2008 all rights reserved