- Walter Benjamin, Advertising, and the Utopian Moment in Modernist Literature
In a well-known entry in Convolute G of the Arcades Project (“Exhibitions, Advertising, Grandville”), Walter Benjamin describes the violent impression made upon him many years before by an advertisement for Bullrich Salz seen on a streetcar in Berlin, as well as his loss of memory of all details of this advert and their sudden return in full force upon seeing a sign bearing the words “Bullrich Salz” in the window of a “miserable café” in the same city.1 No one since seems to have been able to locate the original advert—Max Pensky admits he spent ten years searching for it—but it is described by Benjamin as follows:
In the foreground, a horse-drawn wagon was advancing across the desert. It was loaded with sacks bearing the words “Bullrich Salt.” One of these sacks had a hole, from which salt had already trickled a good distance on the ground. In the background of the desert landscape, two posts held a large sign with the words “Is the Best.” But what about the trace of salt down the desert trail? It formed letters, and these letters formed a word, the word “Bullrich Salt.” Was not the preestablished harmony of a Leibniz mere child’s play compared to this tightly orchestrated predestination in the desert? And didn’t that poster furnish an image for things that no one in this mortal life has yet experienced? An image of the everyday in Utopia?(Arcades, 174).2
A better translation of this final question, whose German original is “ein Gleichnis für den Alltag der Utopie,” is “A likeness for the everydayness of utopia?,” as provided by Susan Buck-Morss in The Dialectics of Seeing (1989).3 As well as “likeness,” Gleichnis can be translated as “image,” “allegory,” or “parable,” so the [End Page 769] precise nature of the link between the poster and utopia, which Benjamin in any case phrases as a question, remains open. It is the nature of this relationship, and where it might lead in terms of analyzing advertising in modernist literature, that I aim to explore in this article.4
Benjamin’s fragment has been analyzed by critics in various ways, including by Ruth Iskin as part of a discussion of late nineteenth-century poster design; the authors of Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided Tour, who read it as an “imitation of Proust” akin to surrealism in the way it tears objects from their normal setting and juxtaposes them with others in order to illuminate the everyday; Esther Leslie, who also reads it as a Proustian involuntary memory, which connects personal and collective history and is dependent on the modern city as a place of meeting points and thresholds; and Max Penksy, whose extended reading associates it with Benjamin’s Berlin texts of childhood memory, as does Leslie, and positions it as a combination of dialectical image and commodity image in which heterogeneous times “telescope together” and “intermingle image-contents of a primaeval past with those of a utopian future” (Buse et al., Benjamin’s Arcades, 113; “Geheimmittel,” 123).5
While I find these analyses useful, especially Pensky on the play of presence and absence in the passage, I want to move away from previous readings and instead take Benjamin’s fragment as a spur to explore what I would like to call the “utopian moment” in modernist literature. I focus not on Marcel Proust or French surrealist writing, but on a selection of English and American modernist texts concerned with urban life, in which advertising confronts city dwellers with something like the everyday utopianism Benjamin describes. The examples I choose come from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem (1919). The politics of these texts varies (though it is worth noting that both Dos Passos and Wright were involved with communism at the time of writing), but all of them share the insight that when advertising suddenly and unexpectedly writes or rewrites the urban landscape, it turns language into a set of hieroglyphs...