The Labyrinth of Consciousness: Walter Benjamin on Dreams and the Underworld of the Mind
Searching for the byway to the unconscious.
By Maria Popova
“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote as she considered creativity and the nocturnal imagination. We know that in dreams consciousness hints at the nature of the universe, but we catch only flitting glimpses of what is revealed. And yet that unreckoned darkness is worth dwelling in, for in it we become differently — and perhaps more fully — ourselves.
That is what Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explores in a passage from what became The Arcades Project — the uncompleted manuscript Benjamin was working on when he died of despair while fleeing from the Nazis. Lost and dormant for decades, this unusual reckoning with life was rediscovered after the war and published in its original form — a swirl of German and French — and only translated into English in the first year of the twenty-first century.
With an eye to those places in Ancient Greece believed to be portals into the underworld, he writes:
Our waking existence likewise is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld — a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting nothing, we pass them by, but no sooner has sleep come than we are eagerly groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors. By day, the labyrinth of urban dwellings resembles consciousness; the arcades… issue unremarked onto the streets. At night, however, under the tenebrous mass of the houses, their denser darkness protrudes like a threat, and the nocturnal pedestrian hurries past — unless, that is, we have emboldened him to turn into the narrow lane.
Turn, passenger, into the narrow lane tonight.
Published December 18, 2022