Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street : The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Thesis

By Marcus D. Niski

“Think about Benjamin, the writer or the thinker, and he has almost always been there first, and written ahead of you…”

– Brian Hanrahan, From ‘For Future Friends of Walter Benjamin’, Los Angeles Review, July 26, 2012.

Walter Benjamin’s classic manifesto One Way Street: The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Thesis is a pure crystalline gem that summarizes Benjamin’s approach to his writing craft in a highly original, quirky, and novel way which explains some of the classic hallmarks of Benjamin’s writing be it in his descriptive, theoretical or philosophical musings on a truly kaleidoscopic range of subjects, or his film criticism, travel memoir or critical theory essays.

Benjamin revelled in the minutiae of everyday life as Susan Sontag writes in her Introduction to One Way Street –

Much of the originality of Benjamin’s arguments owes to his microscopic gaze (as his friend and disciple Theodore Adorno called it), combined with his indefatigable command over theoretical perspectives. “It was the small things that attracted him most”, writes Scholem. He loved old toys, postage stamps, picture postcards, and such playful miniaturizations of winter inside a glass globe that snows when it is shaken…

Best known for his massive unfinished opus The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), Benjamin emerged from almost complete obscurity – save those few who were familiar with his intellectual and philosophical writings – to become a true literary comet that illuminated all of those subjects which he touched upon.

Benjamin is undoubtedly one of my favourite literary writers and One Way Street undoubtedly one of my favourite ‘self-observational’ Benjamin pieces.

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

Post No Bills

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea – but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea – style – writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

From, One Way Street and Other Writings, Surkampf Verlag, Frankfurt.

Marcus D. Niski,  May 2017

 

I straighten my papers
I set up a schedule
My days will be busy
I don’t have a minute to lose
I write.

Blaise Cendrars in Complete Poems, 1992, tr. Ron Padgett

“There is no truth. There’s only action, action obeying a million different impulses, ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible imaginable contingency and contradiction. Life.”

– Blaise Cendrars

 

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.

His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to self up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family…

– From, Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” trans. Jonathan Mayne, in The Painter of Modem Life and Other Essays (London; Phaidon, 1964).

What is a writer actually doing? I put forward as a general proposition that any artist – and I include all creative thinkers – they are trying to make the viewer, the reader, the student aware of what he knows and doesn’t know that he knows.

– William S. Burroughs [1]

[1] Extract from :The William S. Burroughs Workshop – Jack Kerouac Conference, Naropa University, Bolder Colorado, July 23, 1982 – as Transcribed from the Original Audio Recording by Marcus D. Niski as found at https://archive.org/details/WilliamS.BurroughsOnWriting

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it …

But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I”…

On Keeping a Notebook (1966) by Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Penguin, 1974  (first published 1968).

“My intention… was to describe… that which is not taken note of, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

Georges Perec in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris