Saturday, December 14, 2013

A landscape built of pure life

Among the Convolutes of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin MacLoughlin), one section is devoted to 'Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris.'  There, Benjamin observes that 'few things in the history of humanity are as well known to us as the history of Paris':
'Many of the main thoroughfares have their own special literature, and we possess written accounts of thousands of the most inconspicuous houses.  In a beautiful turn of phrase, Hugo von Hofmannsthal called [this city] 'a landscape built of pure life:' And at work in the attraction it exercises on people is the kind of beauty that is proper to great landscapes - more precisely, to volcanic landscapes.  Paris is a counterpart in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the geographic order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution.  But just as the slopes of Vesuvius, thanks to the layers of lava that cover them, have been transformed into paradisal orchards, so the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.'

Vesuvius, from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, 1664

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