October 24, 2020

The constellation Benjamin

In Portbou 80 years ago, in search of freedom, the light of one of the fundamental figures of 20th century thought against intolerance was turned off. Walter Benjamin’s death on the night of September 26, 1940 left a lost suitcase, a myth about his suicide and the disappearance of one of the most illustrious minds in the fight against totalitarianism. In times of gloom with similarities to those that ended his life, it is necessary to recover, admire and place as a necessary reference, on the same level as his friends and compatriots Bertolt Brecht and Theodore Adorno. Benjamin guided his pen with a blurred and ethereal thought through all areas of thought, with a capacity for subtle evocation that distances him from Marxist intellectuals and that disappoints those who come to him looking for a soldier of the word. Because Benjamin was delicate, nuanced and deep. Nothing dogmatic and no incendiary slogans. A goldsmith of socialist thought closer to the utopians than to those who in his time would belong to him.

Benji, as his friend Hanna Arendt called him, was a man with fear, with great fear, despite having given his life to fight against Nazism that had taken the life of his family, bourgeois and Jewish and raised in Berlin. He was terrified of war, he fled from it terrified, his soul constricted. But his fear did not prevent him from fighting with his pen, word and deed against Nazi totalitarianism, defending social justice and the importance of socialism as a corpus that upheld the trilemma of freedom, equality and fraternity. The 20s of the last century occupied them alerting to the performative capacity of hatred that the Nazi wolf built first with phrases and speeches and later with laws and sentences because, as he wrote in his last days with his clear lucidity, “there is no document of culture that is not at the time of barbarism ”. Jewish, socialist and defender of humanism as a key to the fundamental vault. It was the perfect totem for Nazi hatred.

Walter Benjamin was a wandering star, in life and in his work. A humanist who without specializing drew a pleiad of thought wandering from one discipline to another as he did with his own existence. Knowledge passed through its multiple and diverse doctrines: sociology, philosophy, communication, aesthetics, culture and politics. Shining in every area it occupied, leaving a lingering glow that outlined the constellation Benjamin. A humanist in times of barbarism who was born in a time that was not his and who died wanting to cross Spain fleeing from that time that deprived him of being one of the great contemporary intellectuals. The German philosopher committed suicide with the morphine he was carrying in his attempted escape to the United States through Spain and Portugal, trying to escape from Nazi-occupied France. A suicide mythologized by the presence of the Gestapo on the Franco-Hispanic border and that history wrapped in a halo of mystery to accuse the Falangist doctors of the Girona population and the fearsome German secret police of a never proven murder.

Benjamin’s suicide was the culmination of a hazardous fugitive life without crime. A prisoner imprisoned in his own existence, aware of his cage. In his writings he showed a kind of regret for his own privileged cradle condition that only knew poverty in the form of a beggar. His wealthy origin did not prevent him from defending a more just and egalitarian society and directly opposing the theories of Nazism and Adolf Hitler, which made him have to leave his country and wander for seven years through European countries until he ended up in France, where grief and a life of torment led him to try to escape to the United States to finally have peace and rest. The flight would end in Portbou, in the town of Girona on the border with Spain at the Hotel Francia, which is now called Casa Alejandro and offers paellas to tourists.

Walter Benjamin left France together with several other exiles. Exhausted after a hike up the mountain of more than seven hours, they reached Portbou. According to Hanna Arendt, all of them burned their French residence documents, which would prevent them from returning if they failed in their attempt to cross into Spain. The border was closed and Walter Benjamin was waiting for a document that would allow him to continue on his way to Portugal. The fragility that the philosopher had already shown before the last stage of his journey did not suggest more than a dramatic end. In his hotel bed he could no longer bear to keep running and the morphine sweetened his last breath. If he had only waited one more night, those American consulate papers he needed would have arrived. But the tragic fate of a thinker like Benjamin was sealed before his passport.

In the room where he committed suicide, he left a suitcase that the authorities consigned to the court after certifying his death. The last scrap of Benjamin’s life was left with a gold watch, some letters, a pipe, glasses, an X-ray and some money with which he paid for his burial in the terraced cemetery of Portbou next to the Mediterranean, to which his friend Hanna Arendt called it the “most beautiful place in the world”. Among those belongings left by Benjamin in Portbou’s suitcase would be the manuscript of the last work of the Berlin philosopher. Or perhaps, like his life, it was just the last missing shooting star that left the constellation Benjamin inert.


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