Berlin Research


It has been over a week since my last blog post.  Last week I was in Berlin.  Now I am in Rome where I will be for the next three weeks or so.

While I was in Berlin I managed to see quite a few of the tourist sights (at least from the outside), but most of the days, from shortly after 9AM up until 5 PM, I worked at the Walter Benjamin-Archiv at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.  As result, I was not much of a tourist.   I did visit the Gemälde Gallerie, a collection of classic 14th-16th paintings (with a few Rembrandts) and the Berggruen Museum, a collection of a variety of works from Klee and Picasso.  After 5PM the stores and shopping centers were still open, so on Friday night (my last night in Berlin) after the Archiv had closed for the week, I visited the famous KaDeWe department store.  It is one of the largest and most impressive stores I have ever seen.  Its food court rivals, and surpasses, Harrods in London.  The sheer size of the store is impressive.

I arrived in Berlin on a Friday and left the following Saturday afternoon. I spent my first weekend there trying to get my bearings and figure out where my hotel was located in relation to everything else, including the subway, bus, and train systems.  I had spent a weekend in Berlin back in 1974 with a few fellow students from the Goethe Institut in Grafing, Oberbayern, a suburb of Munich, where I had studied German for the summer.  We stayed somewhere in West Berlin—I don’t remember where exactly—and one afternoon we went though Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, where we visited Lenin’s house, Pergammon Museum, and the radio tower in Alexanderplatz.  There wasn’t much else for a tourist to see.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city has engaged in massive building projects. The East Berlin I remember from 1974 was somewhat of a wasteland with many buildings bombed and destroyed during the Second World War still lying in ruins.  That Berlin now has almost been entirely erased by new construction.  My hotel was located on the Gedarmenarkt in Mitte, the center of the city and the heart of old East Berlin, across from the Franzözischer Dom, the Deutscher Dom, and the Konzerthaus Berlin.  On Sunday I attended an Evangelical Lutheran/Reformed church service at the Berliner Dom, the splendid church on “Museum Island” in the middle of the Spree River that runs through the middle of Berlin.  On the island, and around it on either side, are numerous world-famous museums.  In 1974,  I remember seeing boats with machine guns mounted on them patrolling the waters.  Now there are boats taking tourists along the river to see some of the sights of Berlin.

Working in an archive with a limited amount of time on one’s hands is challenging.  I went to the Walter Benjamin-Archiv to review and update some previous work I had done on Benjamin and to begin on some new work.   I had only scheduled a week to be in Berlin and planned to work at the Archiv each day from Monday to Friday while it was open.   The previous week I had been in Paris looking at some of the many Arcades, or covered passages, that provided the inspiration for Benjamin’s Arcades Project, still unfinished at his death [See my earlier posting about Paris]. I planned to spend one week in Berlin looking primarily at the original manuscripts of a particular chapter of the Project, Konvolut N (or folder N).  For the most part my time was spent looking at computer images of the original manuscripts and typescripts, and in some cases, looking at pictures of actual newspaper articles published by Benjamin.   In certain areas of the manuscript Benjamin had made color markings to indicate passages he intended to use in a work (one that he did publish during his lifetime) on Baudelaire and Paris in the 19th Century.   When I had a question about the actual colors of the signs in the manuscript, I was offered the privilege of seeing the folder and the original manuscript for myself.  I was not allowed to touch it but seeing something that I have studied and written about since the late 1980s was quite moving for me.  Archives tend to lock things up for preservation and safe-keeping, and so unlike museums exhibitions of paintings, one might spend a good amount of time working on a writer having never seen his or her original manuscripts.   Benjamin’s handwriting is in a German script that I had never read before and it is tiny and meticulously written on the page.  I was fortunate to have printed texts for the most part to help me decipher what I was reading but it was challenging and time consuming.

Benjamin was one of the first philosophers to address a process that we have come to know well in modernity, namely that of the reproduction of works of art.   In one of his best-known essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936), Benjamin examines what happens to our perception of the original when works of art can be mass-produced.   How does mass reproducibility change the “aura”—the halo or phenomenal experience—that surrounds an original work of art and that speaks to its originality or uniqueness?

Walter Benjamin grew up in Berlin and wrote of his experience as a child growing up there in his book, Berlin Childhood around 1900.

By the end of the week, I felt as if I had just started. There was so much more to do.  I figure that I will have to come back to Berlin sometime to continue to see what I can learn from Benjamin’s actual manuscripts, what I can learn from those parts of them not found in the printed text. It was wonderful to have to opportunity to investigate something that really interests me and about which there is always more to learn.

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