To the planetarium

Walter Benjamin

What follows is an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book One-Way Street, his first definitively Marxist work. The photos that come afterward are of the modernist Moscow Planetarium, built by Mikhail Barshch, M. Siniavskii, and G. Sundblat in 1928-1929. Benjamin would write his well-known Moscow Diary over the course of his stay with Asja Lacis in Russia in 1926-1927, so he would not have been able to visit the structure, for which the foundation had not even been laid. Still, I would like to think that something of its spirit carried over from the missed encounter that isn’t just speculative fluff.

If one had to expound the doctrine of antiquity with utmost brevity while standing on one leg, as did Hillel that of the Jews, it could only be in this sentence: “They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos.” Nothing dis­tinguishes the ancient from the modem man so much as the former’s absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning i marked by the flowering of astro­nomy at the beginning of the modem age. Kepler, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific im­pulses alone. All the same, the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come. The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only commun­ally. It is the dangerous error of modem men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented com­ mingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high­ frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relation­ ship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on in­ calculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The “Luna parks” are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call “Nature.” In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that fol­lowed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation.

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street

The planetarium in Moscow

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