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The Last Days of Walter Benjamin’s Life

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 22, 2019

Walter Benjamin Library Card.jpg

This Aeon essay by Giorgio van Straten, “Lost in Migration,” is excerpted from a book titled In Search of Lost Books, which explains its fascination with a book that’s fascinated many people, a manuscript carried in a briefcase by Walter Benjamin at the end of his life which has never been identified or located and probably did not survive him.

I’ve always been a little turned off by the obsession with this manuscript among Benjamin fans and readers. There’s something so shattering to me about the end of Benjamin’s life, and how he died, that it feels not just trivial, but almost profane to geek out over the imaginary contents of a book he might have left behind. I feel the same way about dead musicians. It’s all just bad news.

Luckily, though, this essay does contain a compelling and concise account of the end of Benjamin’s life.

First Benjamin fled Paris, which had been bombed and was nearly about to be invaded by the German army, for Marseilles:

Benjamin was not an old man - he was only 48 years old - even if the years weighed more heavily at the time than they do now. But he was tired and unwell (his friends called him ‘Old Benj’); he suffered from asthma, had already had one heart attack, and had always been unsuited to much physical activity, accustomed as he was to spending his time either with his books or in erudite conversation. For him, every move, every physical undertaking represented a kind of trauma, yet his vicissitudes had over the years necessitated some 28 changes of address. And in addition he was bad at coping with the mundane aspects of life, the prosaic necessities of everyday living.

Hannah Arendt repeated with reference to Benjamin remarks made by Jacques Rivière about Proust:

He died of the same inexperience that permitted him to write his works. He died of ignorance of the world, because he did not know how to make a fire or open a window.

before adding to them a remark of her own:

With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker his clumsiness invariably guided him to the very centre of a misfortune.

Now this man seemingly inept in the everyday business of living found himself having to move in the midst of war, in a country on the verge of collapse, in hopeless confusion.

From Marseilles he hoped to reach Spain, since, as a German refugee, he did not have the proper exit papers.

The next morning he was joined soon after daybreak by his travelling companions. The path they took climbed ever higher, and at times it was almost impossible to follow amid rocks and gorges. Benjamin began to feel increasingly fatigued, and he adopted a strategy to make the most of his energy: walking for 10 minutes and then resting for one, timing these intervals precisely with his pocket-watch. Ten minutes of walking and one of rest. As the path became progressively steeper, the two women and the boy were obliged to help him, since he could not manage by himself to carry the black suitcase he refused to abandon, insisting that it was more important that the manuscript inside it should reach America than that he should.

A tremendous physical effort was required, and though the group found themselves frequently on the point of giving up, they eventually reached a ridge from which vantage point the sea appeared, illuminated by the sun. Not much further off was the town of Portbou: against all odds they had made it.

Spain had changed its policy on refugees just the day before:

[A]nyone arriving ‘illegally’ would be sent back to France. For Benjamin this meant being handed over to the Germans. The only concession they obtained, on account of their exhaustion and the lateness of the hour, was to spend the night in Portbou: they would be allowed to stay in the Hotel Franca. Benjamin was given room number 3. They would be expelled the next day.

For Benjamin that day never came. He killed himself by swallowing the 15 morphine tablets he had carried with him in case his cardiac problems recurred.

This is how one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the twentieth century was lost to us, forever.