Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

On getting lost

24 Aug

wandering

‘For [Virginia] Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.’

Having finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s fine book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I am left wondering how come it took me so long. Not only to find the book, but to find a writer who has reached conclusions – or striven towards them, because a conclusion closes things off and Solnit likes to leave things open to mutation and redirection – that are so much in harmony with my own. I am reminded of that sense of excitement described (in an earlier post) by Patrick Leigh Fermor of ‘realising that nobody in the world knew where he was’, echoed in Solnit’s words: ‘Nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am’. This is not solipsism, nor even a desire to escape; it is, properly speaking, a contentment merely to be where one is, when one is, without roots, without identity, without destination. Something very attractive to anyone who has ever suffered inclinations for the state that Buddhism calls unbeing, but wants to get there without putting in the long hours of back-straining, balls-breaking meditation.

Wandering, being lost, is a way of losing yourself. As Solnit reminds us, it’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself:

‘“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says . . . Walter Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose oneself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.’

 

 

 

 

Something we cannot see

20 Apr

Two men and mountain

I have never been a great rummager, but perhaps that is changing. Last Sunday I was passing a second-hand bookshop in a quiet corner of Dorsoduro, Venice. In among the boxes of old photographs, no doubt excavated from house clearances, I come across this image. Among hundreds of pictures of Venetian wedding parties, fisherwomen on the Lido, grandees posing before their canal palaces, and ordinary family snaps of forgotten events, my eye selects this one, and for some reason I have to have it. Why has this photograph found its way into a box outside this rundown emporium of old books and discarded objects on the Fondamenta Briati?

Who are these men and what are they doing? Both are looking down, perhaps at a long trench that has been dug out of the hillside, or at something on the ground that we cannot see. A stick or branch protrudes from the ground beneath them at an angle of 45 degrees, but the men’s gaze appears to be fixed on something just the other side of this. Behind them stretches a line of buildings, and a church suggestive to me of the South Tyrol or Alto Adige. The man on the left carries a cane or walking stick, but he is not leaning on it. His companion, who wears a hat, is entirely occupied by the sight beneath him. His posture suggests a slight buckling or sagging, as though in reaction to the thing he has identified that cannot ever be communicated beyond this stolen moment in time. Perhaps it is the future he sees, emerging from beneath him like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, back turned towards the future. Perhaps it is an aleph, hidden among the shards and pebbles. Perhaps it is nothing of the kind, just a few bones, or a piece of broken mirror reflecting light. Behind them the mountains rise like a tsunami.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing in bed

7 Oct

Mark Twain writing in bed

 

I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.

Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.

Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.

Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.

The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”

“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”

But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.

No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:

“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”

Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.

If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-canícula promenade

28 Aug

 

The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.

So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.

We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.

Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).

It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.

I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?

 

Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.

The Black Lake of Antonio Machado

12 Aug

Laguna Negra, Vinuesa, Spain

 

El ojo que ves no es

ojo porqué tú le veas

 es ojo porqué te ve.

 

The eye you see is not

an eye because you see it

but because it sees you.

 

This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.

We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.

Antonio Machado 1875-1939

Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.

It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.

Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made  the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).

 

Synchronicity

Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.

The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.

Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.

 

From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)

 

If you would like to read more on Machado, there is a useful article by Derek Walcott in the New Yorker, although you may have to pay, depending, like so many things, on who or where you are.

 

 

 

Walter Benjamin at Portbou

7 Aug

Portbou, with its cavernous and now largely useless station

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars  unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.

I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.

We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.

The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.

Portbou 1939, after the final battle of the Spanish Civil War

But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.

I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.

The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:

‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.

Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .

. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’

The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.

 

 

 

In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History': ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.

 

 

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