Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Cataluyna

The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Cataluyna

In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me. I ask you to pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain the position I found myself in. I do not have enough time to write all the letters I would liked to have written. Walter Benjamin, Letter to Henny Gurland & Theodor W. Adorno (1940)
I traveled to Barcelona for a business meeting. When the meetings were through, I still had nearly three days before being joined by my family for holiday. Some said  to visit Madrid, but was that too far for too short a time? Scanning the map, I saw that Portbou was just a short three or so hour train trip from Barcelona. Portbou. Hmmm. That would be a perfect spot to make a pilgrimage. And what is in Portbou many ask? It was in that small town, just over the French border, that the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), saw  his final hours.

What better way to spend a few days on the Costa Brava, in a small seaside town, and search for the ghost of owl-glassed flâneur, chronicler of the Parisian Arcades, and tragically reluctant refugee from Nazi (and Stalinist) Totalitarianism, Walter Benjamin.

He was modernity’s kabbalist. In his turgidly enchanted world there were only mysteries, locked and unlocked. His infatuation with Marxism, the most embarrassing episode of his mental wanderings, the only time that he acquiesced in the regimentation of his own mind, may be understood as merely the most desperate of his exercises in arcane reading. The text, this time, was history; but there was nothing that was not a text, for Benjamin. He was the most bookish of the agitator-intellectuals. (He looked ridiculous in the Ibiza sun.). "Preface" by Leon Wieseltier in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
The R11 Renfe line speeds north out of Barcelona and makes a few stops along the way, Girona (home, as all the tourist sources tell us, of the widest Gothic nave), Figueres (birthplace of Salvador Dalí), and a few more less-notable stops. Arriving in Portbou, you de-train in the immense train station (first constructed in the late 19th century and the original driver of Portbou's fame). Situated on a hill above the town, you walk down a long flight up steps to the streets. A signboard directs you immediately to a walking tour of Benjamin sites. I took a small side diversion to get a close up view of the Església de Santa Maria and then continued downhill into the town.

Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of “peace of mind,” the mindless peace of complacency. “Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions” (Schriften I, 571). "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt  in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
A few steps down the hill, past small bars and snack shops, is the former Hotel de Francia. It was here, on the top floor on 26 September 1940, that Benjamin died. My preconceived notions of Portbou were based on black and white pictures I'd seen from the 1940's. In my mind, I pictured even further decay barren streets. I was surprised to find a lively seaside resort (a small one to be sure) with shops selling inflatables, ice cream, and the usual beach paraphernalia. The Hotel de Francia is no longer a hotel (what is it? An apartment building? Hard to say, but it was painted a bright red and squeezed between two similar buildings. The gated front reminded shuttered my whole time in Portbou, so it remained a mystery. The upper (4th floor) windows were also closed. Which, I wondered, was Benjamin's room? A plaque on the building notes:

En esta casa vivió y, murió
Walter Benjamín
Tot el coneixement humà
Pre forma d'interpretació. WB.

I wandered down from the Hotel de Francia to the waterfront beach and looked at the small bay for a while and then up to the Hostel Juventus. Loud voices are heard as I turn the corner and it's the bar of the Juventus, I head in and find the bar is also the reception. I pay my twenty something Euros in cash, get a key, and directions to go up the stairs next door. Up two flights to a tidy single room with a shared bath. I drop my bag and head back out.

A few blocks away, I find the Restaurante Andrés and have Jamón ibérico and an Estrella. Finished, it's time to look for Walter Benjamin.

Each numbered section a mere paragraph or two, a general deficiency of analysis and rigour, one describes a painting Adorno knows, Klee’s Angelus Novus. Walter owned it, paid a thousand marks for it. The angel is the figure of history, looking retrospectively at chaos and disaster: we are blown backwards into the future by a tempest. This is the painting that will later come to Adorno, rolled in a cardboard tube, just like the postcard and the essay he will not publish, an act that Arendt will publicly condemn. Already the years are filled with nowness from the end of time. Andrew Crumey, The Secret Knowledge (2013)
Scottish writer Andrew Crumey is the brilliant author of such works as Music in a Foreign Language (1994), Pfitz (1995), D'Alembert's Principle (1996), Mr. Mee (2000), Mobius Dick (2004), Sputnik Caledonia (2008), and most recently (2013), The Secret Knowledge.

The Secret Knowledge, a complex exploration of the multiverse and quantum suicide, is also a thought provoking mediation on the life (and death) of Walter Benjamin. Moving fluidly between the past, present (and future?), Crumey's depiction of Portbou and Benjamin's death (murder?) there, was with me during my visit.

A few quotes from the novel:
  • Suner can see that Walter Benjamin is not a well man. The date of birth on the passport he surrenders shows him to be forty-eight but he’s more like sixty. “You could have had a heart attack,” Suner says to him.
  • The luggage they carry is whatever they have managed to haul over the mountain, Dr Benjamin has only his briefcase; though had they been more heavily burdened, José still would not have carried anything for them.
  • Benjamin’s face is grey, his eyelids dark and pouchy, his lips strangely puckered, as if he has been kissing a ghost. He seems on the verge of collapse. “I don’t feel well,” he says. “My pulse…”
  • Love begins with the contemplation of beauty, yet contemplation is a situation produced by capitalist production. Love itself is therefore allegorical: Asja could be anybody, she is the shape of the particular emptiness.
  • I love you, he writes secretly to himself. I want to be with you, I want to leave my wife and child and live only with you. I want to be living the past that we will jointly remember, reading these words that will have become historical fact.
  • My life is not to be found in drawers, photographs, letters tied with ribbon, souvenirs without context; it lies in the future I yearn for. I will sacrifice everything for you, this is the meaning of passion, which is to say suffering and martyrdom, I shall be annihilated by your immortality, it is what I wish, though I know the desire is not a free one: that is what renders it authentic. We cannot choose whom we love; love chooses us, its emblem a skeleton wielding a scythe.
  • Everywhere is a foreign country.
  • “They met on only that single occasion. Some people say once is as good as never, but I’ve always felt that a single meeting can mean more than a thousand.” “An interesting observation. So your husband was in Portbou?” “And I was with him, at the Hotel de Francia. Louis had the visas and Benjamin had what Louis wanted in return.”
Fama, that much-coveted goddess, has many faces, and fame comes in many sorts and sizes -- from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name. Posthumous fame is one of Fama’s rarer and least desired articles, although it is less arbitrary and often more solid than the other sorts, since it is only seldom bestowed upon mere merchandise. The one who stood most to profit is dead and hence it is not for sale. Such posthumous fame, uncommercial and unprofitable, has now come in Germany to the name and work of Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer who was known, but not famous, as contributor to magazines and literary sections of newspapers for less than ten years prior to Hitler’s seizure of power and his own emigration. There were few who still knew his name when he chose death in those early fall days of 1940 which for many of his origin and generation marked the darkest moment. "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
Just south of the main street and beachfront, you walk uphill to find a fabulous view of the bay and the crescent of the town from the perfectly placed mirador. The Mediterranean stretches off into the distance, its blue merging with the blue of the sky.

As you approach the cemetery gate, on your left is a Cor-ten steel box angled sharply into the earth with a complimentary Cor-ten path from the opposite hillside to its mouth. This is Passage, a Homage to Walter Benjamin, a sculptural installation honoring Benjamin.

The work, designed by the Israeli architect, Dani Karavan, was built 1990-94. I had the area all to myself. Entering the mouth of the memorial, you descend the metal steps through a box just wide enough for two. The tunnel is dark, but brightly lit where it opens to a view of the sea. The end is closed with glass on which the visitor sees their own reflection as they travel the minute or so downwards, steps echoing and reverberating during the journey. The glass is an abrupt and jarring end to the walk; the view through the glass is a vertiginous drop directly to the sea below and the sharp rocks that lay just offshore. Engraved in glass at the bottom of the passage is a shortened version of Benjamin's comment on commemoration:
It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)
Turning to ascend, the dark tunnel is now lit not by the sea, but the Costa Brava sky that must be described as azure, just as Homer's Aegean was ever wine dark.

He is buried in Port Bou, but nobody knows where, and when visitors come (Scholem tells us), the guardians of the cemetery lead them to a place that they say is his grave, respectfully accepting a tip. We have neither monument nor flower, but we have his texts, in which his elusive, vulnerable, and terribly tense mind continues to thrive. "Introduction" by Peter Demetz in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (1978) by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Peter Demetz.
Turning from the memorial, I opened the rusty gate and passed under the arch into the Portbou City Cemetery. Climbing a few steps to the second level of the cemetery and turning right, s simple stone path leads to the cemetery wall where a rough-hewn stone sits surrounded by six evergreens. The stone is adorned with flowers and remembrances (an apple, a coffee pod, a chocolate bar, a pine cone, that cascade to a pool of stones and more. A marble plaque is set in front, engraved with Benjamin's mortality and the following quote from Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen, VII (in German and Catalan):

Es is niemals ein dokument der kulture, ohne zugleich ein solcher der barberei zu sein
(There is no document of culture that is not also at the same time, a document of barbarism)

I lingered a bit and then continued on up, through the cemetery, past the closed chapel and out along the path behind the cemetery. I walked beside the road that climbed up over the cliffs to increasingly rocky cliffs. At a mirador overlook, I took a rocky path down towards the water and went down closer hoping to find a route to the beach, but it got to steep and I returned the way I came.

Back down via the back of the cemetery and find another part of the Benjamin Memorial, another Cor-Ten steel square placed in a strategic spot to overlook the Memorial below. I wandered the streets back towards the water. Stroll along the shingled and rocky beach towards Les Tres Platgetes, but the rising tide cuts off easy access and I return to the Hostel Juventus and have a vermut negre. After resting up a bit. I headed to the nearby Passatges Restaurant along the water and had the Catalan spring specialty, Calçot, a type of scallion or green onion, served braised and celebrated in annual Calçotada festival.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us”: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)  "Theses on the Philosophy of History: V" by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin.  Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
I woke early the next day and headed out to trace back Benjamin's path out of France. Still too early for breakfast at the hotel, so I had a Café con leche at a stand open near the beach and then started my trek to Coll dels Belitres (roughly translated, "Smugglers Notch").

The Spanish/French border near Portbou has an even darker history than the death of Benjamin. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, after Franco had effectively taken over the country, Republicans and other Franco opponents became refugees. Some say upwards of 500,000 men, women, and children swarmed across the border in 1939. Near the still standing border crossing (rendered irrelevant -- at least for the time being -- by the European Union) at Coll dels Belitres is a memorial to the Retirada (the "retreat")

The walking route from Portbou to Coll dels Belitres is a walk uphill on the city streets, then a gravel trail, then a dirt path. The area is the foothills of the Serra de l’Albera, the tip of the Pyrenees before they tumble into the Mediterranean. Lots of cactus around (invasive species). A good walk and I got to Coll dels Belitres in about 40 minutes. Walking along the crest of the hill at about 200 meters, Portbou was to the right, the French town of Cerbère on the left, and the sea ahead. The path was strew with fortifications left from the Second World War era and became increasingly tricky as I reached the sea.

I start the climb down. Going is tricky, lots of cactus and fear of leaning into them while guiding along the path. One side is now a 150-200 meter drop into the ocean (literally straight down), the other is a 100 meter rolling drop on sharp rocks and cactus. When the path becomes impassable without better equipment, I admit discretion is the better part of valor and retrace my steps back to the crest of the ridge and then all the way back into Portbou. Benjamin's route, which was much further inland away from the coast, is now a marked trail name for Lisa and Hans Fittko who guided Benjamin and many other refugees from France to Spain.

He is concrete because he is impenetrable and elusive.... What he accomplishes he accomplishes as its master. And much of the greatness of this work will remain inaccessible or undiscovered until this class has revealed its most pronounced features in the final struggle. "The Image of Proust" by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
Spending the rest of the day relaxing in Portbou, I head back to the cemetery and Benjamin Memorial later in the evening. I wander the cemetery and Memorial as the sun starts to set. I take one more walk down the steps through the Memorial to look at the sea and then back up to the light.

Returning to the hotel, I encounter an elderly German gentleman searching for a light in the hallway. I help him and we go down to the street together. We talk a bit and he invites me for a drink later. After a solo dinner, I find Gerhard S. sitting at the Juventus bar and join him for an Estrella. He tells me he is 80 years old from Mannheim, an author of three books and traveling to Zaragoza to work on a film and then on to Lisbon. We talk into the evening and then say goodnight.

Up early the next morning for my train back to Barcelona, I see Gerhard leaving the hotel in full hiking gear, backpack, walking stick and hat. We walk to the station together and then after boarding the train, say our farewells to be alone to process our time in Portbou.

On September 26, 1940, Walter Benjamin, who was about to emigrate to America, took his life at the Franco-Spanish border. There were various reasons for this. The Gestapo had confiscated his Paris apartment, which contained his library (he had been able to get “the more important half” out of Germany) and many of his manuscripts, and he had reason to be concerned also about the others which, through the good offices of George Bataille, had been placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale prior to his flight from Paris to Lourdes, in unoccupied France. How was he to live without a library, how could he earn a living without the extensive collection of quotations and excerpts among his manuscripts? ... But the immediate occasion for Benjamin’s suicide was an uncommon stroke of bad luck. Through the armistice agreement between Vichy France and the Third Reich, refugees from Hitler Germany -- les refugiés provenant d’Allemagne, as they were officially referred to in France -- were in danger of being shipped back to Germany, presumably only if they were political opponents. To save this category of refugees -- which, it should be noted, never included the unpolitical mass of Jews who later turned out to be the most endangered of all -- the United States had distributed a number of emergency visas through its consulates in unoccupied France.... One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseilles would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible. "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. "Theses on the Philosophy of History: IX"  by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in Benjamin's brief time in Portbou to visit the website,
Walter Benjamin au Portbou. The site also includes maps and routes of Benjamin's escape from France and a walking tour of the town (see "Routes"). There is also a site for the Walter Benjamin Hiking Trail. More photos from the visit can be found in Walter Benjamin/Portbou and Portbou. Other resources include:

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