Watercolor portrait of Walter Benjamin


In the Footsteps of Walter Benjamin

By Michael D. Jackson

The perfidious reproach of being “too intelligent” haunted him throughout his life.
—Theodor W. Adorno

It was late in the evening when I arrived, and the town was being buffeted by a stiff wind off the sea and squalls of rain. After checking into my hotel, I had dinner in the hotel restaurant and then turned in early, halyards slapping against aluminum masts in the harbor, and a lighthouse flashing in the darkness. My last thoughts before falling asleep were of a photograph I had seen that morning in a Danish newspaper of a listing wooden boat with splintered upper strakes being towed behind an Italian coast-guard cutter on whose cramped foredeck huddled 30 or 40 bewildered African asylum-seekers, and of a report in another paper of a proposal by several European governments to create “holding centers” in North Africa for these clandestine immigrants who every night risked their lives1 crossing the Mediterranean in un-seaworthy boats, hoping to find work and a livelihood in Europe.

If migrants are sustained by their hope in the future, refugees are afflicted by their loss of the past. Of no one was this truer than Walter Benjamin.

I had come to Banyuls-sur-mer on the French Catalonian coast with the intention of crossing the Pyrenees on the anniversary of Benjamin’s fateful journey on September 26, 1940. But though I had contemplated making this journey for at least a year, I had never fully fathomed my motives. I only knew that one must sometimes abandon any conception of what one is doing in order to do it, accepting that reasons and meanings cannot be imposed upon events but have to be allowed to surface in their own good time. Still, I was mindful of Benjamin’s notion of translation “as a mode” that requires one to “go back to the original, for that contains the law governing the translation, its translatability” (1969:70). Could shadowing a writer through a landscape, or repeating a journey precisely 64 years after the original had taken place, enable one to know that writer’s frame of mind or translate his thought? And what kind of translation is it, anyway, that seeks parallels and echoes, not between languages, but between experiences, and, as Benjamin himself suggested, between the lines?

Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892, and reborn 21 years later in Paris. But while Paris was where he came to feel most at home, it would be truer to say that it was the Paris of the nineteenth century that captivated him, and later became not only a refuge but also the subject of his monumental though unfinished Passagenarbeit (“Arcades Project”). Hannah Arendt suggests that the allure of this fabulous city, for Benjamin, had something to do with the “unparalleled naturalness” with which it had, from the middle of the nineteenth century, “offered itself to all homeless people as a second home” (Arendt 1973:170); for Benjamin, however, it was more immediately the “physical shelter” afforded by its arcades, the ghostly presence of a perimeter connected by medieval gates, the village-like intimacy of its old neighborhoods, and the homeliness of the boulevard cafés that invited one to live in Paris as one lives within an apartment or house. Besides, Paris could easily be covered on foot, making it an ideal city for strollers, idlers, and browsers—that is to say, flâneurs. And Benjamin, who had never been successful in getting an academic job, and was obliged to lead a freelance existence that involved “the precarious, errant practices of a critic, translator, reviewer, and scriptwriter for radio” (Steiner 1998:11), living under his parent’s roof until he was in his late thirties and always dependent on the support of friends, was in many ways a man who had missed his time, a would-be man of letters and leisure, with old-fashioned manners, a passion for antiquarian books, and little practical sense, someone whose idea of history never completely encompassed the unfolding tragedy of his own epoch. As he wrote in his essay on Proust, with whom he undoubtedly identified: “He is filled with the insight that none of us has time to live the true dramas of the life that we are destined for. This is what ages us—this and nothing else. The wrinkles and creases on our faces are the registrations of the great passions, vices, insights that called on us; but we, the masters, were not at home” (1969:211-212).

Did he ever feel at home in twentieth-century Germany? “One has reason to doubt it,” writes Hannah Arendt. “In 1913, when he first visited France as a very young man . . . the trip from Berlin to Paris was tantamount to a trip in time . . . from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth” (1973:170).

Benjamin was in many ways someone whose idea of history never completely encompassed the unfolding tragedy of his own epoch.

When the Nazis seized power in January 1933, Benjamin could no longer count on an income from writing, and his attempts to write under pseudonyms such as K. A. Stampflinger and Detlef Holz proved fruitless. In March he left Germany and stayed with friends on Ibiza for six months before settling in Paris, supported by stipends from the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung, where Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, and Theodor Adorno were his staunch allies. Although often isolated, and with Europe moving ineluctably toward war, Benjamin worked patiently at his projects, declining the offers and urgings of friends such as Gershom Scholem, Arendt, and Adorno to move to Palestine, England, or the United States. He was, he explained to them, no longer capable of adapting (Scholem 1982:213). Yet Benjamin was well aware of the fate of Jews in Germany after Kristallnacht—the mass arrests, the new edicts, the concentration camps, the panicked exodus. And even as Scholem tried to find funds to bring the reluctant Benjamin to Palestine in spring 1939, the Gestapo was ordering the German Embassy in Paris to expedite his repatriation, probably because of “Paris Letter,” published in 1936, in which he made no bones about his anti-fascist views, observing, for instance, that “culture under the Swastika is nothing but the playground of unqualified minds and subaltern characters” and “fascist art is one of propaganda” (Brodersen 1996:24). Although he continued to seek naturalization in France, Benjamin’s efforts in the summer of 1939 seemed to have been devoted mainly to his essay on Baudelaire, and he passed up an invitation to Sweden in order to finish it.

When war was declared on September 1, 1939, all Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians aged between 17 and 50 and living in France were subject to internment. Men rounded up in Paris were first taken to football stadiums—the Stade Colombe and the Stadion Buffalo—where they remained for 10 days and nights, sleeping in the bleachers, killing time playing cards, strolling around the track, or planning how they might gain their release (women were assembled for screening in an ice-skating stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver). The internees were then trucked to the Gare d’Austerlitz under military escort, thence in sealed railway carriages to various hastily prepared camps throughout France. Benjamin was interned first at Nevers, where empty chateaux, vacant factories, and farms had been converted into camps de concentration for ressortissants (“enemy aliens”), including ressortissants allemands (those “coming from Germany”), and then at Vernuche, where 300 prisoners were crammed into a disused furniture factory. In November 1939, thanks to the intervention of friends in Paris, notably the French poet and diplomat St.-John Perse, Benjamin was released, and seemed finally reconciled to leaving France (Max Horkheimer had managed to secure for him an emergency visa to the United States). But once again, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, Benjamin took refuge in intellectual labor, unable to break his longstanding habit of seeking security in an interiorized existence, in libraries, and in the collecting of rare books. After renewing his reader’s card for the Bibliothèque Nationale, he attempted to begin researching and writing his sequel to his Baudelaire.2

In a letter to Gretel Adorno, dated January 17, 1940, he wrote of this tension between the exigencies of his own survival and the work that was his life:

The fear of having to abandon the Baudelaire once I have begun writing the sequel is what makes me hesitate [to leave Paris]. This sequel will be work of monumental breadth and it would be a delicate matter to have to start and stop again and again. This is, however, the risk I would have to take. I am constantly reminded of it by the gas mask in my small room—the mask looks to me like a disconcerting replica of the skulls with which studious monks decorated their cells. This is why I have not yet really dared to begin the sequel to the Baudelaire. I definitely hold this work more dear to my heart than any other. It would consequently not suffer being neglected even to ensure the survival of its author. . . .

In May 1940, Hitler’s armies overran the French forces and in June they entered Paris. That same month, the Franco-German Armistice was signed, with its ominous Article XIX requiring the French government to “surrender on demand” anyone the Third Reich wanted extradited to Germany—an edict that effectively ended the issuing of exit visas to German refugees like Benjamin, whether in the occupied or unoccupied zones.

After entrusting his precious manuscripts to friends, Benjamin and his sister Dora joined the 2 million or more refugees trudging en pagaille toward the unoccupied zone. After spending most of that summer in Lourdes in the Basses Pyrénées, he traveled to Marseilles in August to ratify his emergency visa to the United States. There, he briefly met Arthur Koestler, to whom he confided (as he had to Arendt in Paris) that he carried with him 15 tablets of a morphine compound—”enough to kill a horse.” From Marseilles, Benjamin and two other refugees (Henny Gurmand and her 16-year-old son José) traveled to Port Vendres where they met Lisa Fittko and her husband, Hans, who were in the process of reconnoitering, with the help of the socialist mayor of Banyuls, a new escape route across the Pyrenees. During the previous few months, refugees had fled France by taking a train to Cerbère, the last town before the Catalan frontier, and then walking to Portbou in Spain through the railway tunnel or over the steep ridge along which the border ran.

Only a week or 10 days before Walter Benjamin tried to reach Spain, several other Jewish refugees—among them Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, Alma Mahler Werfel, Franz Werfel, Heinrich Mann, and Golo Mann—had successfully used the route via Cerbère, traveling on to neutral Portugal, where they found ships to America. But with increasing Gestapo pressure on the Spanish government, and the French police obliged to collaborate under Article XIX of the Armistice, French exit visas were impossible to procure, and Cerbère was, in any event, too carefully watched by the gardes mobiles.

After a five-minute train journey from Port Vendres to Banyuls (although, in her memoirs, Lisa Fittko thinks they may have taken the coastal path), Lisa Fittko led Benjamin and his party on an afternoon reconnoiter of the route they would take the following day. After walking for almost three hours, they reached a clearing where Benjamin announced he intended to sleep the night and wait for the others to rejoin him in the morning. Fearing for his safety, Fittko tried to persuade him against this plan, but der alte Benjamin, as she called him (although he was only 48, and she 31) prevailed, and she had no option but to leave him, without provisions or a blanket, clutching the heavy black leather briefcase he had brought with him and that he claimed to be “more important than I am, more important than myself ” (Fittko 2000:106). Well before first light the next day, the others again left Banyuls-sur- mer. Passing through the village of Puig del Mas, and making themselves inconspicuous among the vineyard workers, they climbed to their rendezvous with Benjamin, and on across the Col de Cerbère toward Spain.3 After a grueling 12-hour journey, they arrived in Portbou only to find that their transit visas, which would have taken them through Spain to Lisbon, had been canceled on orders from Madrid.4

That night the exhausted and dispirited travelers were placed under guard in a local hotel; in the morning they were to be escorted back to France. At ten o’clock that night, unable to see any way out, Benjamin swallowed some of the morphine tablets he carried with him. He died at seven the following morning.5 Ironically, had these refugees attempted the border crossing one day earlier or one day later, they would have made it, for the embargo on visas was lifted—possibly on compassionate grounds, possibly for some unspecified bureaucratic reason—the same day Benjamin died.

The last thing Benjamin wrote was a postcard. As Henny Gurland remembered it many months later in America, the five lines on the postcard read: “In a situation with no way out, I have no choice but to end it. My life will finish in a little village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me. Please pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and explain to him the situation in which I find myself. There is not enough time to write all the letters I had wanted to write” (Brodersen 1996:245).


These were the details I had gleaned from my reading. But as with so many written sources, it is often impossible to get a sense of the life that lies behind the language, or to lift the veil with which memory screens out the landscapes, faces, voices, not to mention the physical and emotional experiences, that might tell us what it was like to undergo the events that are so summarily recounted. So it was that with a faxed copy of an old map that I had been given at the tourist information office at Banyuls (I was evidently not the first foreigner to ask about the route that Walter Benjamin took across the Pyrenees), and a hastily packed lunch in my rucksack, I set out at first light along the road that led up into the hills behind the town.

Once past Puig del Mas, and climbing the narrow winding road that was marked on my map simply as Vers Mas Guillaume (“Toward Guillaume’s Farmstead”), I began to feel less and less certain that I was on the right track. The steep slopes above and below the road were covered in gnarled and stunted Grenache vines that miraculously found some purchase in the dark-brown schist, and whose tendrils and leaves were splayed, unsupported, over the seemingly barren ground. All this was undoubtedly the same as it had been in 1940. The workers, for example, bent over the vines, snipping bunches of grapes and placing them in panniers on their backs, which they up-ended from time to time in rectangular plastic bins along the roadside. But whereas, in 1940, the vigneroles walked up to the vineyards, today they came in cars or small trucks. And back then the men carried spades over their shoulders, from which hung cabecs—baskets for toting the stones for repairing terrace walls and storm-water ditches. Moreover, the narrow, tortuous road was probably not tar-sealed. So when I stopped to scan the slopes above me for signs of a “clearing” or for “the seven pines on the plateau” that, according to Lisa Fittko, always indicated the right direction (Fittko 2000:124), I was lost.

Benjamin must have been haunted by the realization that he had long passed the point of no return.

Well past Puig del Mas now, I asked an old man, working alone among his vines, if I could get to Spain if I continued walking up this road. He thought I was crazy. You get to Spain along the coast road, he said. This road goes nowhere. I explained that I was looking for the smugglers’ track that Jewish refugees used in 1940 to avoid the frontier posts. Could he perhaps take a look at my map and set me straight? The old man appeared to have considerable trouble reading the map, or making sense of the penciled line that marked the ruta realitzada per Walter Benjamin en el seu èxode, and kept insisting that one could only reach Portbou via the coast road. From the way he turned the map this way and that, I concluded that he was trying to see the map as a picture that bore some natural resemblance to the landscape with which he was so familiar, and was baffled by the abstractions of cartography. This road goes nowhere, he repeated. It goes up the valley, then comes to a dead end.

I decided to retrace my steps to Puig del Mas. There, I asked another old man, walking his Labrador dog along a narrow street, if he could decipher my map and tell me how I could find the old route over the mountains. “In 1940 it was called la route Lister,” I explained (General Enrique Lister, a commander in the Republican Army, had used it when escaping into France with his troops in 1939, after the fall of Barcelona). But though the dog owner had a dim memory of such a path, he had no knowledge of it, and knew of no one I might ask for information. So I returned, reluctantly, to the Syndicat des Initiatives in Banyuls, only to be assured that I had been on the right road after all. Just keep on going, I was told. You have to climb to the Col de Cerbère. Spain is beyond.

Two hours later I trudged past the old man who had told me that the road led nowhere. He was lugging a pail of grapes down through his vines to the roadside. Upon seeing me, he shrugged his shoulders in disbelief. “Ô non!”

It was windy now—the tramontane blustering out of a clear blue sky. Behind me, in full sunlight, were the terracotta roofs and pale ocher walls of Puig del Mas, and ahead, in the distance, was the sea, scoured and flecked by the unrelenting wind. In the lee of a roadside wall, and shaded by cedars, I sat down, drank from the bottle of water I had brought with me, and scribbled some notes. I could hear men’s voices in the vineyards below me, borne on the wind, and I caught a whiff of burning cigarettes and the stale fermented smell of grapes. Looking up at the range, I could see where the highest and steepest vineyards gave way to a wilderness of pinewoods, evergreen oaks, and scrub. I wondered where Benjamin had passed the night, and whether he might have found sanctuary in one of the many small, conical huts made of schist—called boris—where vineyard workers took shelter from the wind, prepared coffee or food, and sometimes slept overnight. I also found myself reflecting on his unbroken resolve to press on. Not to retrace a single step. Certainly, as he told Lisa Fittko, his weak heart and lack of fitness made it impossible for him to even contemplate the effort of making this journey more than once, and he must have been haunted not only by the degradation of internment and the disorienting weeks of flight, but also by the realization that he had long passed the point of no return, and that his whole life—apart from those remnants contained in the briefcase he would not be parted from—was irretrievably lost. As Hannah Arendt observed, this was a man who could not imagine living without his library or his vast collection of quotations, and for whom America offered no other prospect, as he confided to her in Paris, than of being carted up and down the country and exhibited as the “last European” (Arendt 1973:168).


By mid-morning I had reached a fork in the road—perhaps the “junction” that Lisa Fittko refers to in her memoir. The road to my left appeared to lead toward the head of a deep valley, directly under the steep and overgrown slopes of the mountain. The other road led straight on, going east and inland; a sign indicated that it was one of the circuits du vignoble de Banyuls. I asked a man and a woman, hard at work among the vines, if they could tell me which route would take me up to the col. They pointed to a stony track that began where the road divided and quickly disappeared into the broom, grass, and scrub.

It was hard going. Within minutes my heart was pounding and I was out of breath, but I was confident now that this track would lead along the spur and thence to the col. But the track soon petered out, and I found myself standing on the terrace of a vineyard, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. Rather than turn back, I decided to take a shortcut down through the vineyard to the road below in the hope that it would take me toward the head of the valley from where I might find a path up onto the range. But all my efforts to find a path or force my way through the dense scrub were unavailing, and realizing that the sealed road I had taken simply looped back toward Banyuls, I asked a man who was dumping grapes into his truck by the roadside whether he could point out to me the path that led up to the col. Without hesitation he directed my attention back to the spur I had first followed, and the highest vineyard on the western side, where a white truck was parked beneath some pines. That was the way.

Confident now of my direction, I walked quickly back along the valley road, then took a dirt track up through a stand of parasol pines, resinous in the wind, until I was once more on the path along the spur. Now, rather than forge straight ahead as I had done before, I took a turning to my right that I had ignored earlier because it seemed to be bearing west rather than south toward Spain. This path, I now discovered, turned sharply left and led along the spur toward the summit road that was now visible, cut into the side of the mountain, and heading toward the col.

With my goal in sight, I decided to stop for lunch, enjoy the view, and write some notes. From Lisa Fittko’s descriptions, I could well have been sitting where Benjamin and the others rested from their exertions, four or five hours into their ascent. She describes how they had to clamber up through a vineyard to the ridge, and how this climb defeated Benjamin, who had to be half-carried up the steep rubble slope, one arm around José’s shoulder, the other around Fittko’s, the black briefcase presumably in Frau Gurmand’s hands. When they stopped, Fittko ate a piece of bread she had bought with bogus food stamps, and offered some tomatoes to the famished Benjamin, who, with his inimitable courtesy, said, “By your leave, gnädige Frau, may I serve myself?” I sat under a gnarled cork oak, out of the wind, and laid out my own lunch—some sachets of honey, bread rolls, and an apple that I had taken from the breakfast buffet at my hotel, plus a couple of bananas, a bottle of Evian water, and a cellophane bags of walnuts I had bought at a tabac on my second trip from Banyuls. In the distance, the Pyrenees were lost in a blue haze. Below me, the wind riffled and battered the maquis. Grasshoppers flickered among the stones.

Half an hour later, as I was hoisting myself up over the limestone boulders that interrupted the upward path, I marveled at the determination and patience that had enabled Benjamin to accomplish what would have been ordinarily inconceivable and impossible. Lisa Fittko was struck by what she called his “crystal-clear thinking and unfaltering inner strength,” and she recalls how, during his night alone on the mountainside, he had worked out a plan of action in which he would harbor his resources by walking for 10 minutes and resting for one. Hans Fittko, who had met Benjamin during their internment at Vernuche, remembered how the older man had quit smoking the better to survive his ordeal. Yet it wasn’t because this might improve his physical fitness, nor even because tobacco was hard to come by; it was, Benjamin explained, because concentrating his mind on not smoking helped him distract himself from the hardships of the camp—evidence, perhaps, of his Taoist commitment to that eternal patience whereby running water finally “gets the better of granite and porphyry,” wearing away stone.6

The track passed under a pylon, and a few minutes later I was on the old unpaved road that zigzagged up toward the crest. I stopped only to eat some wild blackberries, and to get my bearings for the return trip. Then I was on the col, and looking down over windswept rocky slopes to the marshaling yards at Cerbère. Portbou, I guessed, lay just over the ridge from there.

I had mistakenly made my trip a day earlier than the anniversary as if I had unconsciously sought to prevent his fate.

The road toward Spain, cut into the side of a hill, descended gradually above a valley in which I could make out farmhouses among plantations of pines and cedars. I sat in the long grass, and watched the wind raking the heather and brushwood on the exposed upper slopes of the range. The only sounds were the distant barking of a dog and the wind howling in the girders of a nearby watchtower. How could one not remark the grim irony of this place, named for the three-headed dog who guards the opposite shore of the Styx, “ready to devour living intruders or ghostly fugitives” (Graves 1955:120)? Far beyond Cerbère lay the wind-whipped sea, with cape after cape vanishing into the haze of Spanish Catalonia. I felt exhilarated to have made it, because I had slept badly the night before, filled with trepidation about setting off into an unknown region without a guide. And all that morning, as I stumbled along paths that led nowhere, missed critical turnoffs, and failed to reconcile my map with the terrain around me, I had felt tense with anxiety and doubt. There was, of course, no more certainty that I had taken exactly the same route Benjamin took than that my experiences bore any relationship with his, let alone afforded me any insights into his work. But perhaps such certainties are beside the point, since our relationships with even those closest to us are not necessarily founded on knowledge in the intellectual sense of the word, but rather on a sense of a natural affinity or fellow-feeling that cannot be explained.

Perhaps this is why I had mistakenly made my trip a day earlier than the actual anniversary of his own, as if I had unconsciously, magically and belatedly sought to prevent his fate, much as some people—including Heinrich Mann’s wife Nelly, when the day came for her to cross the frontier from Cerbère to Portbou—did everything in their power to avoid traveling on Friday the 13th. In any event, I came back to Banyuls, where I had left my things at the hotel, and the following morning packed my rucksack, paid my bill, and set out for Portbou. My plan was to take the morning train and spend the day exploring the town where Benjamin had died, but at Banyuls railway station I checked the timetable only to discover that the 9:10 train to Portbou had stopped running a week ago, and since it was Sunday I would have to wait until 2:20 for the only train that day. It did not take me more than a few seconds to decide that I would sooner be on the move than standing still, stuck in Banyuls and waiting for a train that might never come. So I retraced my steps through the old town and back along the seafront road, heading south.

There was no footpath and scarcely any grassy verge along the narrow highway, and after hitching for an hour without success, I yielded to the road, resolved to walk the whole distance. Apart from the belligerence of the wind and the cars that often passed uncomfortably close, I was elated to be on the open road with the sea beside me, wearing its fingers to the bone on the jagged foreshore, and further out its surface annealed by the harsh light and smeared by the same incessant wind that shoved at my back. It is sometimes uncanny, the way unforeseen events turn out to be a blessing in disguise, though this seems never to have been true of Walter Benjamin. His remarks on Marcel Proust could well have been reflections on his own character—”a man in whom ‘weakness and genius coincide’; a man who ‘died of the same inexperience which permitted him to write his works.’ He died of ignorance of the world and because he did not know how to change the conditions of his life which had begun to crush him. He died because he did not know how to make a fire or open a window” (Benjamin 1969:213). Even his dear friend Hannah Arendt confessed that he seemed destined, “with a precision suggesting a sleepwalker, to stumble into catastrophe after catastrophe” (1973:157), and she recalls a succession of Kafkaesque episodes in which, for example, the young literary critic, counting on a promised stipend for reading a manuscript, received nothing because the publisher went bankrupt; and much later, in the winter of 1939-40 when the danger of bombing made him leave Paris for a safer place, Benjamin sought refuge in Meaux, a troop center and probably one of the few places that was in serious danger during this period of the drôle de guerre. Undoubtedly, Arendt also had in mind the tragic irony of September 26, 1940, when Benjamin and his party arrived in Portbou only to be told that Spain had closed its borders that day, and that visas issued in Marseilles would not, in any case, be accepted. Had he attempted the crossing a day earlier, all would have been well; a few weeks later, his visa would have been accepted. “Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible,” Arendt wrote (1973:169).

In the three days Lisa Fittko spent with Walter Benjamin she formed an impression of a man whose intellectuality gave him a certain inner strength but made him “hopelessly awkward and clumsy” (2000:109). From her teenage years, Fittko had been a political activist. A gutsy, no-nonsense young woman who had quit her university studies to fight fascism, Benjamin’s mystical Marxism would have left her cold. Faut se débrouiller! she exclaimed. “One must know how to help oneself, to clear a way out of the debacle,” which in France in 1940 meant knowing 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” (2000:113).

Between May and June 1940, Lisa Fittko was in the concentration camp at Gurs, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The camp had been built in April 1939, to accommodate Republican refugees and members of the International Brigades who were fleeing Spain after the civil war—rows of barracks in a sea of mud, each barracks containing 60 sleeping pads with straw palliasses, 25 barracks to each îlot, or section, each îlot separated from the others by barbed wire. At the end of the camp was the îlot des indésirables—the unwanted ones—known for their opposition to the Nazis and kept under strict surveillance. Among the indésirables at Gurs was Hannah Arendt, and it was through an audacious ruse, in which Lisa Fittko was actively involved (the distraught commissaire spécial de police du Camp de Gurs, panicked by the German advance, agreed in a drunken moment to allow Fittko and others to sort the indésirables into dangerous and less dangerous categories7), that Arendt was released from the îlot des indésirables and able to make good her escape from the camp.8

The light on the sea was like fish scales. The wind-combed grass on the hillside and a grove of cork oaks brought back memories of the East Coast of New Zealand. How strange it is, the way one’s thoughts are set free by walking. I felt that I was writing a poem with my body, not my mind, by moving rather than using words. The poem was myself on the road. The terroir of a piece of writing, I said to myself—the way words soak up the earth and the light.


At Cerbère, footsore and weary, I bought an espresso and sat in a seafront café, watching the traffic wend its way slowly up the steep road that presumably led to the border. Again, I found it difficult to imagine how some of the émigrés who passed this way in 1940 managed to climb the hill. In his memoir of this time, Varian Fry speaks of his concern for the physical resources of many of the political and intellectual refugees he helped. In Marseilles, Alma Mahler Werfel and Franz Werfel “never went around the block without taking a taxi, if they could help it,” and when they did walk anywhere “it was always on the level, never uphill” (1945:57). It was, therefore, touch and go whether the 50-year-old Franz Werfel, who was “large, dumpy and pallid, like a half-filled sack of flour” (Fry 1945:5-6) and had a heart ailment, or the 70-year-old Heinrich Mann, who escaped with his nephew Golo and the Werfels, would be able to make it over the hill. Enervated by the midsummer heat, and often having to crawl up the “sheer slippery terrain . . . bounded by precipices” (Werfel 1959:244), they nevertheless crossed the mountain, and after bribing the soldiers at the Spanish frontier with packets of cigarettes, were waved through.

I could not help but compare the fate of Walter Benjamin who, a week later would attempt a much longer and more arduous trip across the Pyrenees, clinging to his briefcase full of notes as if it were a lifeline, and the fate of Alma Mahler Werfel, who held on to the scores of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies and Bruckner’s Third with similar tenacity, and whose 12 suitcases were brought by Varian Fry and Dick Ball on the train from Cerbère to Portbou, or her husband, whose period of limbo in Lourdes had inspired him to write what would become one the most celebrated pieces of émigré writing in wartime America, The Song of Bernadette.

And so I began the hardest part of my journey. The wind was now so strong that at times I was almost knocked off my feet or could make little headway walking into it. I chose to hug the rockface rather than walk along the outer edge of the road, even though there were few places where I could safely step aside while cars passed. But as I approached the ridge, I could see that the road doubled back, presumably descending from that point on into Spain. I passed a sign warning of Paravent Violent, cut across the corner of the road, and was immediately in sight of the Douane—a narrow building around which the downhill road flowed like a stream. Its offices were devoid of furniture; there was no indication that it was still in use; and I felt a momentary pang of disappointment that I could simply walk past this point where the fate of so many desperate travelers had been decided by the caprice or greed of a frontier guard, a cable from Madrid, or even the hour of the day. Perhaps nothing defines the plight of the refugee more than this overwhelming sense that one’s life is no longer in one’s own hands, that one is totally dependent on the goodwill of others, and yet utterly ignorant of what the future holds. I therefore found it poignant to recall that one of Benjamin’s last published essays had been a commentary on Bertold Brecht’s great poem Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu’s Way into Exile,9 in which he pointed out that an act of pure friendship between a customs officer and the 70-year-old sage, going into exile on an ox, was the only reason that Lao Tzu’s inimitable work survived, to be passed down through the centuries to us. It is thus a reminder that the one hope we have in this world is that compassion will triumph over indifference.

As I walked quickly down the winding road I could see Portbou below me, dominated by the great barn of its railway station and its church, but with a white-walled cemetery and cypresses conspicuous above the bay. I reached the town at 11:45, having covered the 18 kilometers from Banyuls in under four hours. But before exploring the town I decided to make sure I could get a train to Perpignan that afternoon and thereby catch my flight to Paris early the next morning. After buying a ticket for the 1:56 train I stowed my rucksack in a station locker, grateful to be rid of its weight on my back, and descended a flight of stone steps into the town. I did not have to hunt about for my destination; the “Memorial W. Benjamin” was clearly marked, and within minutes I had located the cemetery where, among the tiered white tombs, some of which had hinged windows to protect the flowers and photographs that had been placed in front of the niches, I found myself standing in front of the brown schist boulder that commemorated Benjamin’s death in Portbou on September 27, 1940. Where he was actually buried no one had yet discovered. Although Henny Gurland had supposedly paid the town authorities to have Benjamin buried in the cemetery, Hannah Arendt passed through Portbou in January 1941 and found no trace of his grave. “It was not to be found,” she wrote Gershom Scholem. “His name was not written anywhere.” And she described the cemetery above the blue waters of the bay as “one of the most fantastic and beautiful spots I have seen in my life” (Scholem 1982:226).

Someone had inserted a rock rose between the boulder and the marble plaque in front of it, and on the boulder various visitors had placed small stones or white polished pebbles from the nearby path. I sat against a concrete wall, out of the wind, and copied into my notebook the words on the plaque:

Walter Benjamin
Berlin, 1892—Portbou, 1940

“Es ist niemals ein dokument der kultur,
ohne zugleich ein solcheb der baberi zusein”

Geschichtsphilosophische thesen, VII

The German phrase had also been translated into Spanish.

But if I had been able to choose, from Benjamin’s work, an epitaph, it would have been the lines that preface the eighth thesis: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” For as I sat there, my journey at an end, I was thinking how, as Benjamin observed so often, the presence of the now (jetzheit), makes it inevitable that thoughts of any one tragic death give rise to thoughts of all wrongful death. And so I thought of the nameless individuals who at that very moment were held in limbo and incommunicado, stripped of their rights, subject to torture or the degradation of interminable waiting, in places as far afield as Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, and the numerous “immigration camps” and “detention centers” around the world where asylum-seekers, driven from their homelands by persecution or want, were excluded not only from the protection of our laws, but ostracized from our definition of humanity.

For a moment, as I gazed at the boulder, and the plaque bearing Walter Benjamin’s name, I was fighting back tears. Then, bending down, I took a white stone from the path and placed it on the boulder, taking superstitious care not to dislodge any of the others that had been put there—possibly 50, possibly 100—one for each of the pilgrims who had found his or her way to this place, half-hoping, perhaps, for a moment of truth, or even a sign of redemption. I then broke off a leaf from the small variegated coprosma bush growing by the boulder, and put it in my wallet.

Why was I so moved by this place? Cemeteries are for families. The living come to cemeteries to reconnect with kith and kin, to keep alive—with flowers, prayers, thoughts, and the small rituals of cleaning or tending a grave—the presence of those who have passed away. But what kinship brought me here? What affinity drew me to Benjamin?

Experience has taught me not to think of intellectuals as groups, but to celebrate originality of thought.

And then it occurred to me that this affinity had less to do with the inspiration I had drawn from Benjamin’s ideas of allegory and narratively coherent experience (erfahrung), or from the notion that the form of our writing may imitate the “natural” or spontaneous forms in which the world appears to us; it came mostly from the way I have taken heart, for many years, from his example, and come to see that the maverick life of a thinker, arcane and obsolete though it is nowadays seen to be, is as legitimate as any other vocation. Although our backgrounds and upbringing were utterly unlike, and he died the year I was born, had I not, from the beginning, been attracted to the life of the mind, only to find that such an existence had little value in the country where I was raised? But in contrast to Benjamin, I did not aspire to intellectual greatness. This was not because I embraced the anti-intellectualism of my native culture, or, like Pierre Bourdieu, felt ashamed of thought; it was because I had always been convinced that thought and language were profoundly inadequate to the world, and could neither save nor redeem us. It may not have been Benjamin’s intellectuality that made him so maladroit. But it did offer him a kind of magical bolthole where he could avoid taking action, and console himself that the world was safe and secure as long as he could make it appear so in what he thought and wrote.

Perhaps we should learn to judge the intellectual life not in terms of its practical capacity to improve the material conditions of our lives, but in terms of whether it enlarges our capacity of seeing the world in new ways. In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci asked: “Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent group, or does every social group have its own particular specialised category of intellectuals?” Experience has taught me not to think of intellectuals as groups, but to celebrate originality of thought, wherever and whenever it occurs, for it is as likely to make its appearance in an African village as in a European university. And this faculty of seeing the world in a new way, of seeing through customary jargons and received opinions, has a lot to do with living in what Karl Jaspers called “border situations,” or “training one’s imagination to go visiting” (Arendt 1982:43), which is to say making a conscious virtue out of the pariah status that, for example, Jews had thrust upon them in Nazi Germany and Vichy France (Arendt 1978, original 1944). Yet for all the insights they might yield, such indeterminate situations, in which one’s very identity is in doubt, are at once nightmarish and farcical. Writing in 1943, Arendt observed of “we refugees” that “the less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles” (1978:61), and went on:

We were expelled from Germany because we were Jews. But having hardly crossed the French borderline, we were changed into “boches.” We were even told that we had to accept this designation if we were really against Hitler’s racial theories. During seven years we played the ridiculous role of trying to be Frenchmen—at least, prospective citizens; but at the beginning of the war we were interned as “boches” all the same. In the meantime, however, most of us had indeed become such loyal Frenchmen that we could not even criticize a French governmental order; thus we declared it was all right to be interned. We were the first “prisonniers volontaires” history has ever seen. After the Germans invaded the country, the French government had only to change the name of the firm; having been jailed because we were Germans, we were not freed because we were Jews (61).

Hannah Arendt was an optimist, albeit a cynical one, aware that the intellectual advantages of not being at home in the world were offset by the subterfuge and pretense to which the pariah must have recourse. Every attempt to reinvent oneself, learn a new language, respect the advice of one’s saviors, and pretend to forget that one ever had another life, or that one dreams nightly of those that perished, poems known by heart, places one called home, was in part a carefully managed performance, calculated to appease those in whose homeland one had no option but to make a new beginning and to fool oneself into thinking that new beginnings were possible. That Benjamin was not alone, among these refugees, in refusing the illusion of another life, and in deciding to end his life rather than endure further humiliation and loss, is something for which Arendt felt the greatest sympathy, for behind the compliant and optimistic facade of the grateful migrant is a constant struggle with despair of themselves—since deep down they do not believe that their misfortune is a result of political events outside their control, but the result of some mysterious shortcoming in themselves, a defect in their personalities, an inability to maintain the social appearances to which they have for so long been accustomed. And so they kill themselves, not, as Camus might have said, as a declaration that life is absurd and that the game is not worth the candle, but because, as Arendt puts it, “of a kind of selfishness” (1978:60).

With Benjamin there was, I think, an inability to embrace the illusion of a future. Yet without an investment in what might be, one is doomed to dwell solely on what was, and, in the case of those in extremis, to see the hardships one is presently forced to endure as the only reality. I have always shared Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s view that Benjamin’s social criticism was compromised by his religious idealism, and I have, in particular, never accepted the idea that the present is simply a site of eternal return for all that has gone before, and that the possibility of renewal lies in meditating on a dismembered past.10 In this view, entropy is inescapable (the debris piling up at our feet as the storm of progress hurls us away from paradise), and redemption dependent on the appearance of a savior. But perhaps it was Benjamin’s unworldliness I found so unsettling—the accusation that the intellectual is by definition maladapted to real life, to practical tasks, to marriage, to human relationships, his head in the clouds, his life in an ivory tower, his ideas of no earthly use. Yet I shared the view of Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno that the thinker does not owe it to society to demonstrate how it might be changed for the better. Although Marx had taken exception to the notion that the task of the philosopher was simply to understand the world, not change it, I had a deep aversion to prescriptions and exhortations as to how one should lead one’s life, and was drawn to Anna Akhmatova’s desire to describe, before all else, and to “stand as witness to the common lot.”

And I was mindful, as I left the Portbou cemetery and descended the hill toward the bay, that at the same time Walter Benjamin was being hounded from pillar to post through Vichy France, Anna Akhmatova was waiting in line, as she had done for 17 months, outside the Leningrad prison where her son Lev Gumilev was held without trial, and where, one freezing day a woman recognized her and asked in a hoarse whisper whether she could describe it. Akhmatova later wrote: “I said, ‘I can.’ And something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had been her face.”

After lunch in a seafront café, I returned to the station and retrieved my rucksack. The train took me to Cerbère within minutes, and with an hour and a half to kill before my connection to Perpignan, I wrote up my notes in the station waiting room, before going for a stroll through the streets from where I could see, high on the col, the tower where I rested yesterday after my walk from Banyuls.

On the train to Perpignan, I found myself in a carriage with only two or three other passengers. A young deaf-mute woman was sitting across the aisle and sending text messages on her cell phone. Each time she hit a key the phone beeped loudly, until a young man, perhaps a student, who had kicked his shoes off, and had been lounging sideways in his seat and reading a paperback novel, got up and asked her to turn the phone off. She pointed to her ears, miming that she could not hear him.

I turned to look out my window, peering through my own reflection at the ruined towers of thirteenth-century Cathar castles on the conical hills, relics of yet another epoch of intolerance and violence, and beyond, in the blue sky, a curiously distorted hogsback cloud that resembled a teased-out inverted comma—a portent, perhaps, of a change in the weather; I did not really know. And I fell to wondering why we expend so much effort on interpreting signs, reading the sky, the sea, the faces of those we love, for insights into some inner and normally invisible state, or set such great store by trying to divine or alter the course of the future.


  1. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 1994 and 2004 more than 5,000 asylum-seekers have drowned in the Mediterranean.
  2. Benjamin’s famous Theses on the Philosophy of History were written during this winter of 1939-40—reflections, he noted in a letter to Gretel Adorno, that were part of his “methodological preparation” for the sequel to the Baudelaire book, and not intended for publication.
  3. According to Henny Gurland, they were joined at some stage by “Birmann, her sister Frau Lipmann, and the Freund woman from Das Tagebuch” (Grete Freund) (Scholem 1982:225).
  4. Hannah Arendt writes that the problem was not that the refugees’ transit visas were invalid, but that 1) the Spanish border had been closed that very day, and 2) the border office did not honor visas made out in Marseilles (1973:169).
  5. Benjamin was not the only émigré to take his own life during those dark times. Ernst Weiss, the Czech novelist, took poison in his room in Paris when the Germans entered the city, as did Irmgard Keun, a German novelist. Walter Hasenclever, the German playwright, took an overdose of veronal in the concentration camp at Les Milles, and Karl Einstein, the art critic and specialist on Negro sculpture, hanged himself at the Spanish frontier when he found he couldn’t get across (Fry 1945:31).
  6. See Benjamin’s commentary of Brecht’s poem, Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu’s Way into Exile (1983:70-74), which itself references section 78 of the Tao Te Ching: “In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. This is because nothing can take its place” (Lao Tzu 1963:140).
  7. After interrogating the detainees, they designated the pro-Nazis “dangerous,” and ensured that the others were given clearances.
  8. Arendt escaped with Fittko but chose to make her own way to Montauban where she had friends with whom she could stay, and where, astonishingly, her husband Heinrich Blücher (who had been interned in northern France) found her.
  9. “On the ‘Legend of the Origin of the . . . Tao Te Ching’,” first published in the Schweizer Zeitung am Sonntag, 23 April 1939.
  10. As Martin Jay reminds us, Benjamin never overcame, or wanted to forget, his traumatic loss of his closest friend, Friedrich (Fritz) Heinle, who killed himself in protest of the war in 1914, or the terrible specter of the industrialized war itself (2003:11-24). 


Adorno, Theodor W. 1981. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. MIT  Press.
Akhmatova, Anna. 1974. Poems. Trans. Stanley Kunitz. Collins and Harvill Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 1973. Men in Dark Times. Penguin.
Arendt, Hannah. 1978; 1944. The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. Ed. Ronald H. Feldman. Grove Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 1982. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Ed. Roland Beiner, University of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Schocken.
Benjamin, Walter. 1983. Understanding Brecht. Trans. Anna Bostock. Verso.
Brodersen, Momme. 1996. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Trans. David Koblick. Northwestern University Press.
Fittko, Lisa. 2000. Escape Through the Pyrenees. Trans. David Koblick. Northwestern University Press.
Fry, Varian. 1945. Surrender on Demand. Random House.
Graves, Robert. 1955. The Greek Myths. Vol. 1. Penguin.
Jay, Martin. 2003. Refractions of Violence. Routledge.
Lao Tzu. 1963. Tao Te Ching. Trans. D. C. Lau. Penguin.
Lowry, Malcolm. 1969. Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place & Lunar Caustic. Penguin.
Scholem, Gershom. 1982. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Faber and Faber.
Steiner, George. 1998. Introduction, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, by Walter Benjamin. Verso.
Werfel, Alma Mahler. 1959. And the Bridge Is Love. Hutchinson.

Michael D. Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of many books, including works of anthropology, fiction, and poetry.

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