In the streets of 19th-century Paris, where the urban pulse quickened and society underwent a profound transformation, a symbiotic relationship between the city and its inhabitants emerged. It was within this dynamic backdrop that Walter Benjamin found himself captivated by the works of Baudelaire, a poet who not only depicted the vibrant Parisian social tapestry but also offered a lens through which to scrutinize the intricate fabric of modern existence. Benjamin, recognizing Baudelaire as the resonant voice of modernity's tumultuous symphony, delved into the poet's allegorical narratives to decipher the elusive codes of the era's "commodity culture." As we embark on a journey to decode the intricacies of modernity's allegorical labyrinth, this exploration will illuminate the paradoxes and heroic figures woven into the urban tapestry, from flâneurs strolling amidst the crowd to prophetic voices echoing through the ruins. Join us as we unravel the layers of allegory that reveal not only the essence of the past but also the enigmatic destiny of modernity itself.

In the world of allegory, words become like puzzle pieces, hiding deeper meanings beneath their surface that challenge curious minds to unravel their secrets. However, within the enchanting maze of allegory, a curious paradox arises—it can sometimes reveal so much that it seems to leave nothing behind. Walter Benjamin, a keen explorer of human insights, ponders this puzzle. He draws a fascinating connection between allegory and a modern embodiment of it—the commodity. Imagine the commodity as a vessel, drained of its essence, embodying both allegory and ruin due to the pressures of trade and display. Benjamin’s brilliance shines as he weaves history's threads into the present tapestry, connecting the dots between eras. Join us on this journey, as we simplify Benjamin's complex thoughts and decipher the enigma of allegory, unveiling its power to bridge the gap between times past and present.

In his exploration, he ventures beyond the surface, stripping objects of their conventional significance to reveal their afterlife, transcending the confines of time and obliterating the dichotomy of opposites. As I will navigate through the intricate alleys of Benjamin's thought, I will aim to unearth the allegorical gaze that transforms the modern city's inexorable progress into a utopian panorama, casting light upon the delicate balance between creation and dissolution, meaning and emptiness. Delve with me into this profound inquiry, as we unravel the allegorical threads that weave together the story of the commodity's transformation and the city's ethereal emergence from the ruins of the past.

For Benjamin and Baudelaire, an encounter with the modern crowd is what gives one a real experience of the modern urban spaces. There was a slight difference between Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s heroes of modernity. For Baudelaire, the heroes of modernity are those who combat against modern capitalism and articulate the modernity. For Benjamin, heroes of modernity were those who had the characteristics that embodies the modern capitalism, and while enjoying the intoxication of modernity, they still resist it with full force. Benjamin’s heroes of modernity defies the modern fate and do not fall prey to the temptations of the commonplace commodity (Ibid, 148) and even in the scuttle of crowd, they maintain their sense of self-identity and integrity. And his heroes were the victim of modernity because they had to endure its consequences and whose rage and endurance takes the form of self-deception.

For Benjamin, the heroism of modernity has three dimensions, "the attempt to give form to the modern; its endurance, and antagonism towards, the modern; and its phantasmagorical character or 'irreality'.”(Ibid, 149) Benjamin extends on Baudelaire’s heroes of modernity in the form of self-deception- flaneur, gambler and self-negation- the prostitute, the worker, the rag-picker. Flaneur is a stroller that takes pleasure in wandering aimlessly in the streets of urban city without any hurry. He’s only looking for diversion from the monotony of his boring life. To Baudelaire, flaneur becomes “‘one flesh’ with the crowd.

But Benjamin disagreed with this notion and proposed that flaneur, is in fact, someone who while walking with the crowd, doesn’t become part of it and retains his individuality. His heroism lies in his refusal to be part of the crowd. For Benjamin, “The flâneur derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards the crowd with contempt, as nothing other than a brutal, ignoble mass.” (Ibid, 153) A gambler is also a hero of modernity because he is lazy and impatient and he doesn’t work hard to have an abundance of wealth but merely relies on fate which is a utopian promise. After Benjamin’s death, Adorno asked for his work and emphasized upon preserving Benjamin’s work on the metaphysical theory of gambler as according to Adorno, it was Benjamin’s most ingenious work. (Wolin, 22). Prostitute is also a hero of modernity for she becomes embodiment of commodity and modern capitalism causes the, “denigration of the female body and dehumanization of women.(Ibid, 164) ” It is her suffering and endurance that makes her the hero.

According to Benjamin, in modern capitalism the terms “prostitution” and “work” becomes interchangeable. (Ibid, 162) The counterpart of the prostitute is the rug picker- also a hero of modernity and “most provocative figure of human poverty.” (Ibid, 165). He picks up things that no one wants because he knows the true historical value of these things and he mends the broken things into functioning again and produce a dialectical image. Baudelaire, according to Benjamin, embodies all these heroes of modernity and his constant struggle against modernity makes him a hero of modernity.

Benjamin mentioned these heroes in his greatly known, ambitious work “Arcade Project.” Benjamin couldn’t complete this work of his and after his death, the manuscripts were sent to Theodor Adorno, who Benjamin was constantly corresponding with through letters since January 1934 about his work on Arcades Projects. It’s a collection of Benjamin’s writings on metropolis, and contained fragments of a mass of quotations and references, various working notes, and a collection of assorted drafts, sketches, and exposes. (Gilloch, 93) This work by Benjamin can only be understood if you see the text urban in character and it is due to the fragmentary form that it gives an experience of wandering in the metropolis.

For Benjamin and Baudelaire, Paris was the home of modernity that “proclaims itself as the end of the myth”. (Gilloch, 105) According to Benjamin, the city was a product of a collective unconscious obtained by dreaming collectively. In the early stages of Arcades Project, Benjamin examines the mythic character of the metropolis and concluded that the modern times is the one in which people are dreamers and in a state of sleep, “as wishes and desires of individuals are repressed in waking life.” (Ibid, 104) He writes that modern city is both the setting for and the product of the fantasies of the collective unconscious, the ‘dreaming collectively.” (Ibid, 105)

These dreams created a utopian visions of humanity where totality could be achieved whose realisation is forbidden in the waking life. According to Benjamin, “collective dreaming finds its expression in the dream, and its meaning in awakening.” (Ibid 109) and we need to wake up from it if ever want to achieve a utopian classless society. Benjamin’s heroes of modernity are examples of the class differences that exist in modern society, which contradicts Benjamin’s theory of collective dream.

As Paris stands as the epicentre of modernity, a collective dream emerges—an ephemeral realm where wishes and desires are repressed, yet hope for a utopian society takes root. Benjamin's work beckons us to awaken from this dream, to transcend the confines of the collective unconscious and bridge the chasm between the past and present.

As we conclude our exploration, the tapestry of modernity is intricately woven, where allegory's puzzle pieces resonate with the heroes of the urban landscape. Benjamin's legacy challenges us to reflect on the dichotomies of progress and emptiness, connection and fragmentation. The labyrinthine cityscape, with its allegorical whispers, continues to beckon curious minds to uncover the hidden truths beneath its surface. Just as Benjamin navigated this intricate realm, we too find ourselves invited to decipher the enigma of modernity's allegorical dance, where past and present converge in a symphony of meaning and mystery.


Gilloch, Graeme. Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Polity Press, 1996.
Wolin, Richard. The Frankfurt School Revisited. Routledge, 2013.
Pensky, Max. "Method and time: Benjamin’s dialectical images." The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin 184 (2004).