Getting lost requires schooling – Some remarks on losing oneself in a city

By Torben Lohmüller

Torben Lohmüller earned his PhD at Cornell University with a thesis on the Aesthetics of Masochism. He has taught in Germany, Spain, and the US and published in the areas of queer studies, psychoanalysis, German literature and film. He currently runs the Career Service and International Office at hdpk Hochschule der populären Künste in Berlin.

Getting lost in a city or actively losing oneself in the mysterious streets and back roads of a strange metropolis belongs to the rather common tropes in the vast array of works that constitute the body of literature occupied with the representation of the city and human experience thereof. Goethe is said to have run out of his Venice hotel deliberately leaving maps and guide books behind so he would be free to accidentally discover those parts of town not yet described and marked by travelers before him, Thomas Mann sends off his alter ego Gustav Aschenbach to the same Italian lagoon to let him lose his tightfisted self, only to then leave him to a sort of erotic self-annihilation, and Elias Canetti follows the voices of Marrakesh, abandoning himself to the charm of the Suks to finally find himself at home in the Jewish Mellah district. As such the attempt to lose oneself is, as it seems, bound to a sort of flight; in losing ourselves we try to flee from ourselves (that is provided we knew where to find these in the first place), or we are fleeing the all too well known environment in which we find ourselves located. What we hope to find instead might not only be a new sense of self, but also a form of unmediated encounter with alterity. Instead of the unknown, as John Zilcosky shows in a very insightful essay on this topic, these travelers might in the end just encounter the all too familiar. The frustrating experience of always returning to the same place described by Freud in his essay on the uncanny is, as Zilcosky argues, a symptom for the impossibility to leave our selves behind.2 Citing Walter Benjamin, he further extend this claim to the art of writing about these experiences:

Referring to the skill of ‘los[ing] oneself in a city’ as essential to mastering the literary ‘art of straying’, Benjamin insists on the difficult – if not impossible – nature of this task. Getting lost in writing might in fact be an unachievable fantasy because writing, especially the autobiographical sort, necessarily takes us back, repeatedly, to the unsettlingly familiar.3

While these observations open undoubtedly very stimulating perspectives especially for the study autobiographical writing, I would insist that there is more to the difficulty of losing oneself in an urban space than could be captured with an ego psychological concept like the return of the repressed. It is again Benjamin, however, and a very similar sounding statement of his that I would take as my point of departure for some preliminary remarks on the art of getting lost in a city.

“Not to find one’s way in a city does not mean much”, Benjamin writes in the often quoted first lines of a childhood memory of the Berlin Tiergarten, further explaining: “But to get lost in a city like one loses oneself in a forest requires schooling.”4 While generally taken as a bonmot of the writer as flâneur, on a second look, this witty observation leaves us with far more problems than it actually resolves. How do ‘not finding one’s way’ and ‘getting lost’ differ conceptually? Why should it be so desirable to lose ourselves like in a forest that we might even consider schooling? Does getting lost in a forest count or does it has to be a city? The conflicting concepts brought into constellation here by Benjamin produce a dialectical tension typical of his writing, and about which Susan Buck-Morss observes that it might “jolt people out of their dreaming state” leading to a moment of revolutionary cognition and ‘awakening’.5 Unsure of such high ambitions, the following hopes, with the occasional aid of some sympathetic drifters of the city, to shed some light on the obscure wanderings of these few lines without losing itself in the elaborated labyrinths of Benjamin’s writing.

Not to find one’s way in a city does not mean much

Not knowing one’s way around might mean not understanding the basic organization of the streets or not understanding the setup of the public transportation system. It might mean that in Berlin we drive out to Schönefeld Airport at 5:30 in the morning just to find out that our plane actually leaves from Tegel, or insisting on finding our Prague hotel at Jirská 7, which turns out to be one of the small streets within castle (what a nice place!), instead of its actual location at Jilska 7 in the city’s center with all the other tourist places. No matter, how alienated and disoriented (or plain stupid) we might feel in such moments, Benjamin insists, it does not mean much to not find one’s way around in a city. It does not require any special skill to do so, rather this reaction seems to structurally correspond to and almost logically follow from the condition of most urban environments. Why should that be the case, and would such a city not be very little functional? The fact that at the end we arrive both at the correct airport as well as at our hotel indicates that our estrangement from the city was only temporary. As users of the city we learn to adapt to its setup, understand our errors as well as how to correct them.

But there is another even simpler way of understanding this ‘not finding one’s way around’, if we think of it in terms of an ideology critique as the inability to reach beyond the veil of appearances that the simulacra of the city provides. Understood in this sense, not finding one’s way is not only compatible with the structure of commodity fetishism that informs many modern cities also architectonically, but even the behavior expected by the normal citizen. Some twenty years after Benjamin, Guy Debord describes in his Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography the “disorientation of habitual reflexes” produced by a deserted square stemming from the times of Haussmann’s reforms of Paris: “From any standpoint other than that of police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Today urbanism’s main problem is ensuring the smooth circulation of a rapidly increasing quantity of motor vehicles.”6 Benjamin too refers to the building of large avenues during the Second Empire as being mainly a strategic device to prevent the construction of barricades. Already here architecture and urban planning served mainly the efficient administration of the citizen. Seen from an utilitarian perspective it is not desirable that the inhabitants of the metropolis find their way through the city, they are rather to follow the route where they are most efficiently controlled. Benjamin’s nineteen-century arcades and Debord’s society of the spectacle differ not in tendency, but only in degree.

But to get lost in a city like one loses oneself in a forest…

While the notion of not finding one’s way and losing oneself in a city might be generally thought of as being more or less synonymous, Benjamin irritatingly presents them as not only distinct, but in a certain sense even as being in opposition to each other. And again, while the former is said to correspond to more commonplace experience, getting lost in a city is presented as something that even requires some effort on our part in order to be achieved. Finally, the model for all of this is not intrinsic to the civilized city itself, but taken from what seems to be its natural antithesis: the wilderness of a forest.
Fairy tales come to mind, like Hänsel and Gretel or Babes in the Wood where heartless parents try to get rid of their helpless children by bringing them into the midst of the woods, or Georg Büchner’s Lenz and his psychotic wanderings through the mountainous Alsace forests, famously taken by Deleuze and Guattari’s to be a prime example of their concept of schizo-analysis7 – here, the common root of the German verirren (to get lost) and irr sein (to be mad) invites to further speculations. Or we might think of the many adventure novels that came into mass production in the nineteenth century and were still popular in the days of Benjamin’s youth. In the Arcades Project he quotes Roger Callois on the tremendous influence that James Fenimore Cooper had on authors like Balzac and their depiction of the metropolis as a wilderness full of dangerous predators.

We must take as an established fact that this metamorphosis of the city is due to a transportation of the setting—namely, from the savannah and forest of Fenimore Cooper, where every broken branch signifies a worry or a hope, where every tree trunk hides an enemy rifle or the bow of an invisible and silent avenger. Beginning with Balzac, all writers have clearly recorded this dept and faithfully rendered to Cooper what they owed him.8

In the nineteenth century the cliché of the urban jungle helps to create the current fantasy of the city, transfiguring the everyday of Parisian life into a primitive struggle for survival. “The more eerie the metropolis gets, the more knowledge about human nature was needed, so one thought, in order to operate within it. In reality the intensified competition leads the individual to make his claims imperiously.”9 The urban equivalent to the hunter in the woods is the flâneur on his stroll through the luxurious shopping arcades of the metropolis. Whether his profession is that of a detective or a journalist, his fellow men and women on the street become his prey. “He develops forms of reacting that match the tempo of the metropolis. He catches things on the fly; thereby dreaming of himself as being in the company of the artist.”10 While in times of E. A. Poe and Charles Baudelaire still marginal, but already product of the general commodification of life and work, the flâneur had disappeared as a figure in Benjamin’s times, not primarily because of the acceleration of urban life that no longer provided safe spaces for slow deambulations, but, as Buck-Morss argues us, “If the flâneur has disappeared as a specific figure, it is because the perceptive attitude which he embodied saturates modern existence, specifically, the society of mass consumption (and is the source of its illusions).”11 The flâneur has disappeared because flânerie has been totalized to be our only mode of perceiving the city, just as the flâneur in his last stage no longer needed to empathize (einfühlen) with the commodity in order to understand it, because as author-producer for the feuilletons of his time he had already become a commodity himself.12 Thus, if not knowing one’s way in a city does not mean much, then the eclectic perceptiveness of the flâneur does not provide an alternative for more elaborate and skillful wanderings through the cityscape, since both are products of and informed by the commodified condition of the modern city.

But let’s get back to Benjamin’s distinction: If the transfiguration of urban space into an exotic wilderness has been hegemonic rather than marginal in discourses on the city, and if we have all become Mohicans hunting our deep frozen prey at the local supermarket13 why then should it be any more difficult to get lost in a city like in a forest than simply not finding one’s way? Even as Benjamin further elaborates on his idea, stating that “Streetnames must speak to the lost one like the crackling of little twigs and little streets in the center of the city must reflect the time of day as clearly as a valley”14 we wonder how this might differ from Balzac’s remarks on his borrowing from Cooper’s work: “The passer-by, the shops, the rental carriage or a man, leaning at against a window, all of this interests Peyrade’s bodyguards as ardently as a tree trunk, a beaver’s lodge, a rock, a buffalo skin, a motionless canoe or a drifting leaf interest the reader of a Cooper novel”15.
The answer points, as often with Benjamin, in two directions and is closely connected to his ambivalent concept of mystification and understanding of childhood. As has often been noted with respect to Benjamin’s later work, terms like mystification and phantasmagoria, the latter being borrowed from Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, have at least two meanings within his critical work: the most obvious being something like false consciousness or ideology understood, however, in it’s very concrete and material manifestations. “It must be shown how these creations are not first transfigured ideologically in theoretical treatment, but are sensually transfigured in immediate presence.”16 The world exhibitions held in London and Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century are often cited examples for this structure, where the presented consumer goods promise a utopian life in plenty made possible by new advances in technology, while the actual employment of these new means of production has not changed the exploitation of the working class. Balzac’s borrowings from Cooper follow a very similar scheme, he presents the urban environment of Paris as if it were an extension of nature, thereby veiling the city’s historical and man made situatedness at a given point in time – concretely, this means for example presenting the exploitation of humans by humans not as a socio-political deficiency, falling far behind the actual potential of current technological advances, but as following from some kind of natural law of the jungle, safeguarding only the survival of the strongest.17
But there is more to the mystification of the city as nature than just this negative side, and this has partially to do with the fact that in the case of the Tiergarten text we are dealing with a childhood memory. Childhood signifies for Benjamin by no means a Rousseauean state of innocent pre-civilization. Children are always the children of their time, they inherit the dreams and convictions of the previous generation, precisely as dream, and if for the child Walter Benjamin around 1900 the Berlin Tiergarten appears as an adventurous and promising wilderness, it is exactly because this trope has been so widely used in the generation before him. Actualized as autobiography and historiography, childhood can, as Burkhardt Lindner argues, function as a “seismopgraph of the recent past”18. Understood as such, childhood with its receptivity for fairy tales opens a way for a second quality of myth: that of expressing the unfulfilled desires and hopes of a generation that find their collective, albeit terribly perverted expression in consumer capitalism. Explaining how the consumer in a dreamlike state of delusion collaborates in reproducing, much to his and her disadvantage, the same social structures of domination over and over again, Benjamin writes in the 1935 version of the exposé for the Arcades Project material.

The reflections of the base by the superstructure are therefore inadequate, not because they will have been consciously falsified by the ideologues of the ruling class, but because the new, on order to take the form of an image, constantly unites its elements with those of the classless society. The collective unconscious has a greater share in them than the consciousness of the collective. From the former come the images of utopia that have left their trace in a thousand configurations of life, from buildings to fashions.19
Put in other words: just because the glittering world of consumer goods in spite of their promises prevents rather than facilitates that people fulfill their desire for a harmonious life in material plenty does not mean that the desire as such is not legitimate. The utopian wish image preserved in Balzac’s transfigurations of the city as forest is that of nature and man’s second nature reconciled.
What the child finds in his explorations to the Tiergarten are animated beings, statues become alive, Ariadne holds erotic promises for the visitor to the strange labyrinth, and lions take a rest next to a bridge covering the Landwehrkanal. It is no coincidence that these explorations are made in the hybrid space of a public park. As such it is the materialized form of the city mystified as wilderness, nature brought into the city much like the bourgeois interior was brought to the public sphere of the arcades. Far from unambiguously idealizing this early childhood memory, Benjamin also tells us about deceptions: “How much did the Hofjägeralle [Alley of the Hunters of the Court] promise with its name, and how little did it keep.”20 It is above all the intervention of the adult world represented by his governess, the ‘Fräulein’, whose icy shadow inhibits the first signs of erotic desire from flourishing. “Thus this park that like no other seemed to be open for children remained blocked for me with difficult and in impracticable things.”21

…requires schooling

“Wish images do not liberate humanity directly,” we are reminded by Susan Buck-Morss, “[b]ut they are vital in the process.”22 They are vital, because they provide the horizon for which to strive, but more is needed for a revolution of the everyday life. In spite of its ambivalent tone, we do get a hint of what this ‘more’ might be in this reminiscence of Benjamin’s Berlin youth. There is something worth persevering in childhood, something that even requires schooling, when it is to be applied to our adult lives. If we ask, from whom we might receive such schooling, we precisely have to turn to the child mystifying the urbanized wilderness of the Tiergarten. When Benjamin animates the world of things around him, he counters the objectifying tendency of modern capitalism, in which the individual best conforms to the dominant relations of production and consumption by turning him/herself into a commodity – be it in the form of labor, a personalized service, or spending power. No doubt this form of playful magical thinking runs the risk of producing the same delusions as the forms of mystification discussed above; the gesture itself, however, contains a transformative moment that opens at least a perspective for revolutionary action.23 Here, Michel de Certeau’s notion of strategy comes to mind, as he defines it in the context of the micro-political subversions carried out by the modern consumer.

As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the ‘wandering lines’ (‘lignes derre’) drawn by the autistic children studied by F. Deligny ‘indirect’ or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic.24
The intriguing parallels in the use of metaphors like jungle, wandering, and childhood play in the work of Benjamin and Certeau suggest more also structural similarities. And indeed, when Certeau speaks of the different forms of creative (re)appropriations and deflections of power that constitute for him the practice of everyday life, we might feel compelled to draw a connecting line to the Benjaminian child and its playful animation of objects. We have to be careful, however, at this point to not gloss over the fundamental differences between these two thinkers. Certeau follows Foucault and his dispersion of the base/superstructure model of domination into a micro-physics of productive power, when he focuses on the “dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of discipline”, and asserts that “[p]ushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline […].”25 What Benjamin would have found missing here is not only a certain degree of pessimism vis-à-vis consumerism (given the completely unproblematic reintegration of such creative appropriations into the circuits consumer culture such pessimism seems to be appropriate), more importantly, revolutionary change, for him, is not be attained on the level of local and singular subversions, but takes the structure of a messianic coming; for him there is no redemption within a continuous progression of history. While such high ambitions might sound outdated in the face of our present political pragmatism, what remains to be learned when entering schooling with the child losing itself in the city like in a forest is the knowledge that things could be different, if we awake from our current dreamworld.


1   Originally published in: Jenny Haase, Janett Rheinstädler, Susanne Schlünder (eds.): El andar tierras, deseos y memorias. Homenaje a Dieter Ingenschay, Frankfurt, Madrid: Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2008
2   Zilkosky (2004: 239sq.).
3    Zilkosky (2004: 238).
4    Benjamin (1983: 9).
5    On the same page she further explains: “Benjamin places concepts strategically, off-angle against referential contents, rather than letting them hover over them like luffing sails. (Note that for Benjamin, against structuralists and post-structuralists, the dialectic power of the language exists only if the things as referents are not bracketed out). The result is a tension between words and the things they represent which, far from blurring distinctions, functions to sharpen perceptions intensely.” Buck-Morss (1986: 109).
6    Debord (1981: 121).
7    Shaken by a psychotic crisis, Lenz seems to dissolve into the environment around him. “He thought that it must be a feeling of endless bliss to be in contact with the profound life of very form, to have a soul for rocks, metals, water, and plants, to take into himself, as in a dream, every element of nature, like flowers that breathe with waxing and waning of the moon” Deleuze/Guattari (1983: 2). Lenz’ fantasy of developing a special form of empathy, a soul, for the thing that surround him points to a different way of perceiving of reading things that, as we are reminded by Deleuze and Guattari, goes beyond a mere return to a primordial unity with nature: “He does not live nature as nature, but as a process of production.” Deleuze/ Guattari (1983: 2).
8    Benjamin (1999: 439).
9    “Je weniger geheuer die Großstadt wird, desto mehr Menschenkenntnis, so dachte man, gehört dazu, in ihr zu operieren. In Wahrheit führt der verschärfte Konkurrenzkampf den Einzelnen vor allem dahin, seine Interessen gebieterisch anzumelden.” Benjamin (1991: 542, transl. T. L.).
10    “Er bildet Formen des Reagierens aus, wie sie dem Tempo der Großstadt anstehen. Er erhascht die Dinge im Flug.” Benjamin (1991: 543, transl. T. L.).
11    Buck-Morss (1986: 104).
12    Cf. Benjamin (1991: 561).
13    Ironically the one in my neighborhood in Berlin is called “real”.
14    Benjamin (1983: 9).
15    “Die Passanten, die Läden, die Mietkutschen oder ein Mann, der gerade gegen ein Fenster lehnt, all das interessierte die Leute von Peyrades Leibwache ebenso brennend wie ein Baumstumpf, ein Biberbau, ein Felsen, eine Büffelhaut, ein unbewegliches Canoe oder ein treibendes Blatt den Leser eines Romans von Cooper” Benjamin (1991: 544, transl. T. L.).
16    Benjamin (1999: 876).
17    Adorno seems to have thought about a project along the same lines as Benjamin. The Arcades Project quote a letter from Wiesengrund: “Theory of the transformation of the city into countryside: this was […] the main theme of my unfinished work on Maupassant […]. At issue was the city as hunting ground, and in general the concept of the hunter played a mayor role (as in the theory of the uniform: all hunters look alike)” Benjamin (1999: 420).
18    Lindner (1986: 43).
19    Benjamin (1999: 894).
20    “Wieviel versprach die Hofjägerallee mit ihrem Namen und wie wenig hielt sie” Benjamin (1983: 10).
21    “Und so war dieser Park, der wie kein anderer den Kindern offen scheint, auch sonst für mich mit Schwierigem, Undurchführbarem verstellt.” Benjamin (1983: 10, transl. T. L.).
22    Buck-Morss (1990: 120).
23    Susan Buck-Morss describes this as follows: “What Benjamin found in the child’s consciousness, badgered out of existence by bourgeois education and so crucial to redeem (albeit in new form), was precisely the unsevered connection between perception and action that distinguished revolutionary consciousness in adults. This connection was not causal in the behaviorist sense of a stimulus-response reaction. Instead it was an active, creative form of mimesis, involving the ability to make correspondences by means of spontaneous fantasy.” Buck-Morss (1990: 263).
24    Certeau (1984: 11).
25    Certeau (1984: 11).

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter (1999): The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.
Benjamin, Walter (1983): Berliner Kindheit um 1900. Frankfurt a. Main.
Benjamin, Walter (1991): Gesammelte Werke Bd. 1. Frankfurt a. Main.
Buck-Morss, Susan (1990): The Dialectics of Seeing. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.
Buck-Morss, Susan (1986): The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering. In: New German Critique 39: 99-140.
de Certeau, Michel (1984): The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley.
Debord, Guy (1981): Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. In: Ken Knabb (ed./ trans.): Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: 121-28.
Deleuze, Gilles/ Guattari, Félix (1983): Anti Oedipus. Minneapolis.
Lindner, Burkhardt (1986): The Passagen-Werk, the Berliner Kindheit, and the Archaeology of the “Recent Past”. In: New German Critique 39: 25-46.
Witte, Bernd (1986): Paris – Berlin – Paris: Personal, Literary, and Social Experience in Walter Benjamin’s Late Works. In: New German Critique 39: 49-60.
Zilcosky, John (2004): The Writer as Nomad? The Art of Getting Lost. In: interventions 6: 229-241.

2 Responses

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  2. I love this article. This is what I have been doing in Berlin this entire week. Losing myself in this city. Berlin is such a wonderful city!

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