Walter Benjamin’s Grave
“And when today he lights up his cigarette, he uses a flintstone and a fuse, like everyone else. “In a boat,” he says, “that is the best way. The wind blows the matches out, but the harder the wind blows, the more the fuse glows.”Walter Benjamin, “Spain, 1932”
When she came looking for Walter Benjamin’s grave a few months after he died in the Hotel de Francia in Port Bou on the border between Spain and France, Hannah Arendt found nothing. Nothing, that is, other than one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen. “It was not to be found,” she wrote Gershom Scholem shortly afterwards, “his name was not written anywhere.” Yet according to the records provided by the town hall of Port Bou, one of Benjamin’s traveling companions, Frau Gurland, had paid out seventy-five pesetas for the rental of a “niche” for five years on September 28, 1940, two days after Benjamin died from what was diagnosed by the local doctor, Ramón Vila Moreno, as cerebral apoplexy, but is generally understood to have been suicide by a massive overdose of morphine tablets. “He had enough morphine on him to take his life several times over,” writes Lisa Fittko, who took him over the mountains into Spain.
Yet name or no name, the place was overwhelming.
“The cemetery faces a small bay directly looking over the Mediterranean,” wrote Arendt. “It is carved in stone in terraces; the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls. It is by far one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have ever seen in my life.”
Scholem was not impressed. Years later he seemed downright dismissive, bringing his book-length memoir of Benjamin to an end with these words: “Certainly the spot is beautiful, but the grave is apocryphal.” It was an abrupt and sour note on which to end the story of a life, as if the dead man and therefore we, too, had been cheated of an ending, and what we had gotten instead was a suspension, a book whose last page was missing. For not only was there no name, as Arendt had discovered, but worse still there was a fake name or, depending on your point of view, something even worse, namely, a fake grave. Photographs clearly indicated, to Scholem at least, that a wooden enclosure with Benjamin’s name scrawled on it was nothing more than what he called “an invention of the cemetery attendants, whom in consideration of the number of inquiries wanted to assure themselves of a tip.” Thus ended the life of the person who would be acclaimed, by George Steiner, for example, as the greatest critic of the twentieth century. And thus ends Scholem’s memoir. Even in death, Benjamin was a loser, his grave the plaything of men seeking a tip. In lieu of a real grave, we might say, Scholem buries his subject under charges of profanity.
It is as if he deliberately strives to avoid monumentalizing Benjamin, choosing instead to end on the most prosaic of notes; skullduggery in the graveyard—reminiscent of what Benjamin in his 1929 essay on surrealism called a “profane illumination.” But what exactly is illuminated? In Benjamin’s coining of the phrase, the illumination in a “profane illumination” bears the emphatic trace of a religious illumination it has surpassed. Furthermore, in the famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written shortly before his death, Benjamin had stated that “only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” What impact does Scholem’s assessment of his grave have on that spark of hope?
How can Scholem state that the photographs “clearly indicate” that the grave is fake? How could any photograph clearly show such? And if the photographs do this, then why have the cemetery attendants created such a blatant fake when their machinations would surely be as obvious to visitors to the site as to Scholem studying the photographs? Surely it was not beyond the skill of these grave diggers to manufacture a wholesome replica of the real thing?
When we get right down to it, why trust that any grave contains what it’s supposed to? One of the most important events in life, namely, death, is so shrouded in secrecy and fear that most of us would never dare to check. Who knows what goes on up there in the graveyard of Port Bou? Maybe none of the graves have the right body, or any at all? After all, there is a lot of movement of bodies and bones in this system: you rent a “niche” for a few years and if you fail to renew it, then the bones are disinterred and placed in the fosa común—the “common grave”—in which they lie alongside and eventually mingle and merge with who knows how many others to lose all trace of their individuality. Here they rest united in the unseemly melee that is death; friends and enemies, natives and foreigners, Republicans and franquistas (the followers of Franco), femurs and scapulae, jumbled together to create and recreate what Elias Canetti conceived of as the “invisible crowd of the dead” which, in his opinion, was a privileged source of religious sentiment. For if everything went according to routine then Benjamin’s remains would have been removed in 1945, five years after Frau Gurland’s payment of seventy-five pesetas, and placed in the fosa común.
But what then to make of Arendt not being able to locate his niche a few months after his death? Scholem makes sure to tell us this as it serves as a dramatic prelude to his 1975 allegation of a fake grave. “His name was not written anywhere,” she said. But there is one detail that might be helpful here and that has everything to do with naming: upon his death Walter Benjamin entered the official records (supplied by the recently established Walter Benjamin Museum in Port Bou) not as a Jew but as a Roman Catholic with the name of Benjamin Walter. Doctor Benjamin Walter, to be precise. Hence he was buried in the cemetery reserved for Catholics and far from being nameless, he became a fake just like his grave, a fake Christian and a body with a fake name.
You see this name in the receipt made out to the dead man, the difunto Benjamin Walter, by the Hotel de Francia, for the four-day stay that includes five sodas with lemon, four telephone calls, dressing of the corpse, plus disinfection of his room and the washing and whitening of the mattress. You see it in the receipt made out by the physician for seventy-five pesetas for his injections and taking the blood pressure of the traveler, el viajero, Benjamin Walter. You see it in the death certificate—number 25—made out on September 27, 1940, for Benjamin Walter, forty-eight years old, of Berlin (Germany—as noted). You see it in the receipt tendered by the carpenter to the judge in Port Bou for making a cloth-lined coffin for the dead man, el difunto, Señor Benjamin Walter, a receipt that includes eight pesetas for the work of a bricklayer closing a niche in the cemetery for Benjamin Walter. And you can see it in the receipt made out by the priest dated October 1, 1940, for ninety-six pesetas, six of which were for a mass for the dead man and seventy-five for “five years’ rent of a niche in the Catholic cemetery of this town in which the cadaver of B. Walter lies buried.”
“Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” wrote Benjamin shortly before his death. This was of a piece with his philosophy of history as something in which every detail of a life counted, nothing was to be forgotten, the present had an ironclad obligation to the past, and running as a slender thread through all of this was the ever-so-faint possibility of redemption. “Even the dead.” It is italicized in the original to give it emphasis. Even the dead …
This recalls his early work on baroque drama in which, focusing on his idiosyncratic concept of allegory, he wrote that the allegorist drains objects of their life so they become his to play with, to set into new designs and thus speak to fate. His friend Theodor Adorno had this in mind when he wrote a decade after his death that the gaze of Benjamin’s philosophy was Medusan, meaning it turned to stone whatever it looked at. But, added Adorno, this was part of a larger strategy, namely, the need to become a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things.
It is important to recall such ideas here because with Benjamin’s own death strong narratives assert themselves to wrest control of that death, narratives that have little to do with the ideas he laid down in his life’s work or that subtly contradict it. Didn’t Benjamin himself in his famous essay on the storyteller spend a good deal of time propounding the thesis that it is death that gives authority to the storyteller? In the shadow of 9/11 none of us need to be reminded on that score. Taken a step further we might even assert that this is what scares us about death yet tempts us as well, as if the story can be completed yet also amputated by the absence that is death, forever postponing the end to the story that was a life. We want that authority for our own story, nowhere more so than when interpreting a death and, of course, its body. A gravestone or a monument—especially the accusation of a fake one—is just such a story, just such an attempt.
“I am not making a pilgrimage,” I said to myself when I visited the graveyard at Port Bou in the spring of 2002. Indeed I was not even sure I wanted to visit the graveyard. I do not think this was entirely due to fear of cemeteries on my part. Nor was it because I am also attracted to them. It was more because I feel uncomfortable about what I discern as an incipient cult around the site of Benjamin’s grave, as if the drama of his death, and of the holocaust, in general, is allowed to appropriate and overshadow the enigmatic power of his writing and the meaning of his life. Put bluntly, the death comes to mean more than the life. This cult is at once too sad and too sentimental, too overdetermined an event—the border crossing that failed, the beauty of the place, the horror of the epoch. It really amounts to a type of gawking, I thought to myself, in place of informed respect, a cheap thrill with the frisson of tragedy further enlivened by the calm and stupendous beauty of the landscape. In any event, one does not worship at the grave of great thinkers. But what then is the appropriate gesture? Death is an awkward business. And so is remembrance.
There must be rules for the management of death, yet death tests the rule as well. With each death, society itself dies a little, said the anthropologist Robert Hertz in his now classic 1907 study of the collective representations of death. But what is it about society that dies? Death is especially awkward for modern intellectuals who are likely to find themselves swept over by traditions they fought and measured themselves against. To visit Benjamin’s grave or even just timidly approach its outermost waves of force in the periphery of Port Bou, at the massive railway station and shunting yards surrounded by tunnels opening onto the looming mountains, to stop there and hesitate to go further, as I did, to wonder how to proceed—all this suggests a fundamental inability to deal with death and the need to reinvent procedures acknowledging it. Nietzsche pleads in vain for historians who can write histories equal to the events they relate. We need to do the same with our dead. Benjamin says something similar where he cautions that truth is not a matter of exposure that destroys the secret but a revelation that does justice to it. He was referring to the work of truth in the passage of love from the body to the soul in Plato’s Symposium. Death poses the same issue. Exactly.
Was Benjamin the first suicide bomber? The thought crosses my mind as I read the papers in the train heading north to Port Bou with their front-page news of Israeli soldiers with their armored bulldozers and Apache helicopters invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps in response to suicide bombers. Journalists are driven back by the soldiers using stun grenades and tear gas. At least two have been shot by Israeli soldiers. A United Nations-led inquiry into war crimes in Jenin is stillborn on account of Israeli opposition. The president of the United States and the U.S. media insist the Palestinians are to blame for the violence. There is virtually no attempt to even try to understand what it is that motivates the Palestinians, no portrayal of their everyday life in refugee camps and prisons under “administrative detention” imposed without trial. Instead we get lengthy Sunday magazine articles depicting the psychic pain of Israeli elite commando snipers. Yet has there ever been a Sunday magazine devoted to the psychic pain of the apartheid-like pass system that controls the Palestinians’ ability to cross the spiderweb of borders balkanizing Palestinian lands into which illegal Israeli settlements daily press? They say history is written by the victors, but this seems unprecedented. It is as if the Palestinians had no voice whatsoever. They are not only unrepresented but are unrepresentable. Or as Golda Meir once put it, they do not exist. Like Benjamin they are fated to lose. Truth itself lies on trial, and it is the border that defines and redefines it as I slowly travel north from Barcelona, north to the border at Port Bou in the local train that stops at all stops to let me down where Benjamin was stopped sixty years ago.
A young man sits on the other side of the compartment a few seats forward. He speaks no Spanish and he is worried, sick with worry. He has a large black bag made of cheap material that he keeps on the seat next to him, preventing anyone from sitting there. He looks around all the time like an animal in a cage. I first spotted him in the gloomy Estacio Sants in Barcelona where I waited for the train. He approached a middle-aged woman and in his gesticulations seemed to be asking her when the train to the border would come and whether the approaching train was the one he needed. In the train he came over to me with his ticket on which was printed Cerbère, the French town just across the border from Port Bou. “Francia? Francia?” he kept saying and at each, and every stop he looked imploringly at me, eyes wide open, asking if this was where he had to get off. I figured he was from North Africa and probably illegal. He smelled as if hadn’t washed in a long time. A man on the run. Anti-Semitic and anti-Arab Le Pen running on an anti-immigrant platform has just beaten the socialist Jospin at the polls in France, receiving almost 18 percent of the vote. When I got off the train at Port Bou I waved and made a victory sign to the man with the black bag. He smiled wanly. Benjamin had been stopped at the border coming the other way. But of course things were different then.
You climb the hill towards the graveyard, the hill that falls green and steep into the sea. It is late April and the hillside is ablaze with yellow wildflowers. In the hollow of the deep bay just behind you lies the town. It feels cold and unfriendly. There is something wrong with it. A few tourists from France, day-trippers, walk aimlessly around looking for something to look at. The café won’t let you use the bathroom, and the only café open on the waterfront is no less dark and cavernous than the station in Barcelona where I began. It is madly expensive as well. There are few young people in the town; only elderly and a few kids. The supermarket sells mainly low-priced liquor. A border town full of smugglers? But what could they be smuggling now that Spain is part of Europe? Still, why does the town seem so uptight? This is exactly how I remember it driving through from France in 1987 when we stopped for a coffee and drove on. There was no monument to Benjamin then. Just the town. The whole town was his monument as far as I was concerned—cold, nasty, and enigmatic.
I remembered Lisa Fittko in Chicago when I first called her from a public phone in the mid-eighties having just found out from Barbara Sahlins, the wife of my anthropologist friend at the university, that the woman who took Benjamin across the border lived but a few blocks away. “Oh! You’re after the briefcase!” were Lisa’s first words on the phone. My heart sank. Didn’t she realize that one might have perfectly innocent reasons for wanting to talk with her and that lost treasure would only get in the way? The treasure I was after was even less tangible than a missing briefcase. I only felt it dimly at that moment but looking back I’m tempted to say, to wonder, rather, if the treasure I was seeking wasn’t in its inchoate way the first step of the pilgrimage that I had unconsciously begun at that very moment standing in a glass and metal phone booth on a street corner on a blustery day in south Chicago? It was the desire to absorb something of the dead man, the holy man, whatever it is that clings as living presence to the person of the woman who took him secretly over the mountain across the border so many years ago. All this flashed through my mind quicker than it takes to tell, a feeling of foreboding that no matter what I said to her I was lost. The briefcase—the idea of the briefcase, the image of the briefcase—had become a stupendous relic made all the more potent by its disappearance.
When I got to her place a little later she told me how excited Rolf Tiedemann became when she told him of Benjamin lugging a heavy black briefcase across the Pyrenees, saying it contained his most important work. “I cannot risk losing it,” Benjamin had said. “It is the manuscript that must be saved. It is more important than I am.” Tiedemann was then in charge of publishing the collected works of Benjamin in German, and he set off immediately for Port Bou and the regional capital to find the briefcase. He got the local authorities to search high and low. If memory serves me, they even went down into some catacombs under the town, but perhaps that’s memory playing tricks with buried pasts. But they turned up nothing. No briefcase. No fabulous manuscript. Just like there was no body either.
It is strange, for in the documents recorded by the judge at the time of Benjamin’s death that I have seen there is no mention of a manuscript, but there is noted the existence of a cartera grande, a large handbag, as his only baggage. Its contents were carefully itemized: a pocket watch and chain, with the watch’s many inscriptions duly noted; a five-hundred-franc bill, a fifty-dollar bill, a twenty-dollar bill, (all serial numbers duly noted); a passport (numbered 224) issued by the American Foreign Service to Walter Benjamin with a Spanish visa also issued in Marseille; a certificate from the Institute of Social Research, previously of Frankfurt, now in exile in New York and affiliated in some way to Columbia University; six photographs; an ID card issued in Paris; an X-ray; a pipe for smoking with a mouthpiece made of what looked like amber, and its case; a pair of glasses in nickel frames and its case; and several letters and newspapers. But no manuscript.
Yet Lisa Fittko remembered how heavy that bag had been. How could a watch, a pipe, some spectacles, and a few papers weigh anything? “We would have to drag that monster across the mountains,” she said. Up the mountain they went, along the Route Lister, a smuggler’s path set back from the sea and named after the famous Republican general of the Spanish Civil War who led his troops along this same path. In her memoir she notes that Benjamin “breathed heavily, yet he made no complaint, not even a sigh. He only kept squinting in the direction of the black bag.” At one point he stooped to drink from a pool of stagnant water. It was green and slimy and it stank. She warned him not to drink. She told him he would get typhus. “True,” he replied. “I might. But don’t you see, the worst that can happen is that I die of typhus … after crossing the border. The Gestapo wont be able to get me, and the manuscript will be safe. I do apologize.” He was always so polite.
But she also singled out his lack of “adaptability,” a euphemism with her for a variety of incompetence that, so it appears, was all too common among these refugee intellectuals, lacking what today we call “survival skills” or “street smarts.” This is hard to understand when one looks at academics nowadays, the majority of whom seem blessed with an abundance of such skills, if skills they be. There is even a trace of scorn in Fittko’s remarks about some of the people whom she took over the border on account of their selfishness, their infantilism, and in general their inability to face up to reality and be practical. People on the run, it seems, are not necessarily at their best. But Benjamin maintained his dignity and never once complained even though he struck her as particularly pathetic; the sort of guy who, as she put it, even needed instruction on how to hold a hot cup of tea. This seems more than what we call “impractical.” It encompasses a sort of helplessness and even hopelessness in being in the world for which a hot cup of tea is merely symbolic.
“One should have been able to react spontaneously?” asks her interviewer, Richard Heinemann.
“He couldn’t do that,” responded Fittko. “I think he could only take a hot cup in his hand when he had first developed an appropriate theory.”
My guess is that many of the intellectuals she escorted came from homes with servants and / or had wives who took care of business while they painted, sculpted, wrote their novels, poems, plays, reviews, and so forth. Even when poverty-stricken, as Benjamin was from the early 1930s, they may have lived in cheap hotels and depended on cafés for food and drink, aloof from the exigencies of domestic labor if not from many of the practicalities of everyday life. Who did Benjamin’s typing, for instance?
“Many of these men were incapable of coping with primitive conditions,” Lisa Fittko’s husband, Hans, had told her after his first imprisonment in a prison camp for enemy aliens, the Stade Colombe, on the outskirts of Paris in late 1939. “How do you protect yourself from the wind and the rain, how do you dry your clothes? How do you take hold of a tin bowl of hot without burning your fingers? Often someone would fall over a bench and break a bone or two.”
Hans Fittko met Benjamin in another prison, Versuche, near Nevers, the winter before France surrendered. He told Benjamin to contact Lisa if he ever got south to Marseille. It struck him how incapable Benjamin was at coping with prison life. A chain smoker, Benjamin abruptly gave up smoking. “Not the right time,” said Hans. But Benjamin explained, “I can bear the conditions in this camp only if I’m compelled to concentrate my mental strength on one single effort. Giving up smoking costs me this effort, and thus will be my deliverance.”
There were other diversions, such as the literary journal Benjamin formed with a small number of other prisoners—a camp journal for intellectuals that was to show the country exactly who they had locked up “as the enemies of France.” The editorial board would meet by crawling into Benjamin’s tent under the stairs where he slept, looked after by a young prisoner, “a holy man in his cave,” comments Hans Sahl, “watched over by an angel.” There they would drink contraband schnapps from thimbles the angel had acquired from the French soldiers. Other times Benjamin offered courses “for advanced students,” costing three Gauloises or a button. Despite these initiatives, it seems unlikely Benjamin would have lasted long without his angel. “Never have I been made so conscious of the tragic conflict between thought and action in a person,” wrote Sahl thirty years later.
This conflict is all the more striking in Benjamin’s case when we consider how overwhelmingly attuned his theories were to what he himself called the object world and to mimetic behavior, such behavior being in some regard the quintessence of what has come to be called “embodied knowledge” and what I think Lisa Fittko meant by “adaptability.” “Faut se débrouiller,” she said, “one must know how to help oneself, to clear a way out of the debacle.” This translated into how to “buy counterfeit food stamps, scrounge milk for the children, obtain some—any kind—of permit—in short, manage to do or obtain what didn’t officially exist … But Benjamin had been no débrouillard.” She laughed when she thought back to him trying to disguise himself as a French sailor and unsuccessfully smuggle himself aboard a freighter, along with Doctor Fritz Frankel, notable on account of his fragile appearance and mane of gray hair. The mimetic faculty goes only so far.
Benjamin’s love of modernism, and in particular of montage, allegory, and fragmentation, all would seem to strongly predispose one to “adaptability,” meaning coping with new and strange circumstances. And wasn’t he the theorist of “thick skin”—what Freud called the “stimulus shield”—thickened in response to the shocks of modern living? Moreover, his letters and essays on Ibiza in 1932-33 are glowing testimony to a love of material culture and keen eye for nature. But what does all of this add up to if you can’t even hold a cup of hot tea?
But of course the practicalities of suicide were not beyond reach—as if the lack of “adaptability” had a certain ethical principle behind it which was, precisely, not to adapt.
After Lisa Fittko took Benjamin over the border, she and her husband were recruited by a New York writer fluent in French and German, Varian Fry, whose mission on behalf of the U.S. “Emergency Rescue Committee” was to get intellectuals, artists, politicians, and labor leaders pursued by the Nazis out of France. About the same time Benjamin made his fatal crossing into Spain, Fry arrived in Marseille with 3,000 dollars in cash and a list of people to be rescued. On the strength of Lisa having taken Benjamin across the border, Fry recruited her and her husband into his scheme. At first they were reluctant. How competent was Fry? Didn’t they themselves have to get out to freedom as soon as possible? Fry had a name for them. The smugglers’ route she had used, the Lister Route, was now called the F-Route; F for Fittko.
Fry lasted thirteen months before being deported and was, by his own detailed account, pretty successful. In the first weeks, whenever a refugee came whose name was on his list, he would ask for information about the others. The news was grim. Ernst Weiss, a Czech novelist, had taken poison in his room in Paris when the Germans entered the city; Irmgard Keun, a German novelist, had also committed suicide when the Germans entered Paris; the German playwright Walter Hasenclever had killed himself with an overdose of Veronal in the concentration camp as Les Milles, not far from Marseille; Karl Einstein, partner of Georges Bataille in the famous art journal Documents and a specialist on primitive art, had hanged himself on the Spanish-French border when he couldn’t get across; and the body of the labor leader Willi Muenzenberg, once a German communist deputy, had been found hanging from a tree in Grenoble. “One by one I crossed these men off my list.” Benjamin’s suicide was by no means unique, and drug overdose was a favored means.
Refugees carried vials of poison in their vest pockets “just in case…,” according to Fry, and Arthur Koestler claims he was given large amounts of morphine by Benjamin in Marseille “just in case.” Most telling, I believe, are the numerous accounts of mental paralysis recorded by Fry concerning refugees who, even though they were given money and visas, were too frightened to move. “They were jittery with the idea of staying,” he says, “and paralyzed with fear at the idea of leaving. You would get them prepared with their passports and all their visas in order, and a month later they would still be sitting in the Marseille cafés, waiting for the police to come and get them.”
You climb the hill beyond the town to the cemetery. All the bodies are buried there now. Before it was just for Catholics. The sea is on your left, several hundred feet below. The road curves as you climb. On a small plateau stands the arch through which you enter the cemetery. But about thirty feet in front of the entrance, jutting out of the ridge line like a bent elbow, on the side of the sea, there is a curious triangle of deep brown iron, at least ten feet high.
From the foot of the triangle, running all the way across the roadway, the same rusted iron formed a five-foot-wide slab. “That’s odd,” I thought, marveling at the color and the perfection of this iron slab set into the road.
As I set my foot on it, walking to the cemetery, I heard Alberto, next to me, gasp. His head was turned towards the iron triangle jutting out on his left, and suddenly we saw that it formed the doorway to a chute running underground parallel to the slope of the hill. It was completely lined by the same brown iron, including the steps that led down almost as far as the eye could see to end in a perfect rectangle enclosing a view of the sea way below, breaking onto rocks. For a brief moment everything turned inside out. The mountain opened to create a brilliant doorway bringing the crashing sea, so it seemed, right to where we were standing. This was the monument to Benjamin that Tel Aviv artist Dani Karavan had built just outside the cemetery, completed in 1994.
Some people think of Benjamin as a Marxist or as a Marxist with a surrealist spin. Other regard him as combining Marxism with the mysticism of the Kabbalah. There is truth to these interpretations, but I myself prefer to think of him as a Proustian Marxist, an eccentric overwhelmed by the avant-garde and the fast-moving political scene of the time. As indication of his eccentricity, take “One-Way Street” where he writes: “If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but, rather, in the place where we see it, then we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves.”
That pretty well sums up what it felt like at that moment looking into the mountain opened out to the sea surging below.
Excerpted from Walter Benjamin’s Grave: A Profane Illumination with kind permission of the author.