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Benjamin at the Border

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Walter Benjamin's suicide in Port Bou is seen as a refusal to move across a border; it is tied to a history that allows no space in which to turn.
Benjamin at the Border
Anthony Pym
Quite fortuitously I had to change trains there, leaving two and half hours free on a fresh
September morning. I was returning from Australia, in 1996, carrying the one small case that now
serves for all seasons. I had read about Port Bou and Walter Benjamin’s suicide in the ‘Hotel
Francia’ in the night of 26-27 September 1940. Not that the suicide was of much interest; I
wanted to see the border. Is that what Benjamin went there to see?
The story is roughly as follo ws: A small party of Jewish refugees was fleeing Vichy, entering
Spain to make their way to the United States. They had visas for Spain and the United States;
they did not have exit visas for France; so they made their way through the relatively unguarded
Pyrenees border. Having reached Port Bou they were technically in Spain and on their way to
freedom. But the mayor of the town asked for their papers, saying that refugees sans nationalité
could not enter Spain and would be deported. At night, while they waited, Benjamin probably
took the 14 morphine tablets he carried with him ‘enough to kill a horse’, comments Koestler.
In the morning he died, reportedly having refused a stomach pump. The rest of the group made
their way to Spain.
The stigma of suicide is excused in various ways. His friend Scholem suggests Benjamin merely
wanted to make himself ill so the group would necessarily be allowed through, at least so as to
seek medical attention away from the border. Podszus, among others, makes much of the fact that
Benjamin’s death actually did allow the rest of the group to continue: ‘he saved them through his
sacrifice’. Everyone needs a hero. But I suspect Benjamin was simply not willing, intellectually or
emotionally, to cross that border.
Benjamin was deeply troubled by the outbreak of war; this was a period of serious nervous
disorders. Adorno and his wife urged him to seek refuge in the United States, or at least in
England, where his family was then living. Yet Benjamin resisted the path of exile: ‘In Europe there
are positions to defend.’ In 1940 Horkheimer secured him a visa for the United States. He left
Paris in June and made his way to Lourdes, then to Marseilles for the visas, then the march
through the Pyrenees to Port Bou, a 48-year-old man carrying a heavy black suitcase. Some say
the case contained the manuscript of Passagenwerk ; which would be appropriate; others, more
probably correct, opt for a draft of ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’. We will never know: the
case, along with the man, was lost in the crossing. Why should he not have wanted to cross that
Port Bou is now one of those European border towns that has as good as lost its former
function. It once lived on customs officers, police, and the international train station. It must now
attempt to survive on its own intrinsic merits, on tourism, on any little thing that can attract a casual
passer-by. The death of Benjamin, remarkably, is one such attraction. The town’s frontier status
of the past is now sublimated into glossy brochures, commemorative acts, and a superb monument
of ‘remembrance’ dedicated to Benjamin and to the ‘European exiles of 1933 to 1945’. If we
remember Spain’s Civil War, we see the exiles moving both ways.
The ‘place of remembrance’ is called Passages, by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan. It
comprises several elements half concealed around the cemetery at Port Bou, a true cimitière
marin, overlooking the sea. Not that they have much reason to use the cemetery: Benjamin’s
body was lost, presumably in a common grave, and the niche that now bears his name, next to the
unwittingly self-referential plaque that reminds us that a ‘document of culture is always also a
document of barbarism’, is little more than a cheap tourist trick. Yet we need not enter the
cemetery. As I approached, there opened, as if unseen, to the left, a long rectangular shaft, in iron
rusted to the modes of postmodernism, leading diagonally from the level of the path down to the
level of the sea, cutting through the slope of the cliff. This is a large and long shaft. And when you
look, it has steps. So you start walking down. And down. You are quickly enclosed in a dark
rectangular space, a tomb, of course. Close, dark. And as you walk downward, step by hesitant
step, the sound of the wind dies behind you and there, inside, the sound of your walking grows
around you, and there in front, at the bottom, is the black-framed image of tumultuous waves
crashing on rocks, in all the light and trouble of white on deep blue. So you approach that distant
image, step by step, as you now hear yourself breathe and it seems surely not true that one could
continue all the way, truly right down to the sea and a violent death. The anxiety of enclosure is
real. Yet misfounded. About halfway down a glass barrier now shows itself as your reflection. The
dark silhouette of a traveler, from Australia, with a small suitcase, framed against the blue and
white of the sky, walking down to the white and blue of the sea. So you advance to the glass, to
look for a sign, and sure enough there is one: in the bottom left corner: ‘Generalitat de Catalunya’,
lest we forget who is paying for the experience. After which, there is nothing for it but to turn
around and walk up, step by now quickening step, up to the light of day, and you hurry to escape
oppressive tunnels and damn participative art, marching quickly uphill, to the Spanish side of the
border and fresh rebirth in the wind and light of the clouds and sky.
The entire scene takes place within the border, perhaps within the imaginary border that was
Benjamin’s space that night in Port Bou.
As the day began I found information on the work, collected a handful of brochures, and
chatted with the local tourism officer, born and condemned to the border town. He insisted that
the anxiety of descent was a common experience, in fact the whole point of the remembrance. I
tried to argue that no, the point was the ascent, the rise into rebirth once the border had been
crossed. But he couldn’t see my point. He asked if I was a philosopher. I replied that I just taught
There is no reason to celebrate suicide, nor to dwell excessively on the blacker moments of
our collective history. Nor do I really have much reason to venerate Benjamin’s role in all of this,
since it seems to me that his thinking was profoundly ill-equipped for any kind of border identity.
Travel itself was not the problem: Benjamin had sojourned in Bern, San Remo, Capri, Moscow,
Ibiza, Svendborg in Denmark, and had had a base in Paris since 1933. The problem, I suspect,
was the passage to America, which implied a degree of extra-European exteriority for which there
is little place in his writings. The text Benjamin worked on that year, 1940, before leaving Paris,
was the series of imaginings and comments known as ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’. It offers
as much stimulating thought as you seek. Yet its history is exclusively of time, of a non-spatial axis
where the past rushes forward and the subject passively awaits a Messiah. There is only one place
here, one tradition, that is, no place and an unelaborated, hidden epistemology of tradition. Europe
rushes through, as in the oft-cited fragment (to which we add the watercolour in question):
One of Klee’s watercolours is called Angelus Novus. The angel appears to be
trying to move away from something, something that he is staring at. His eyes
stand out, his mouth agape, his wings outstretched. Thus must appear the angel
of history. His gaze is turned to the past. Where a chain of occurrences appears
to us, he sees just one catastrophe, which unrelentingly lays ruin upon ruin and
flings them before his feet. He would like to stay there a while, to awaken the
dead and piece together the broken parts. But a storm is sweeping in from
paradise. It has caught his wings and is so strong that the angel can no longer
close them. This storm carries him remorselessly into the future, to which he turns
his back, while in front of him the ruins are piled to the heavens. That storm is
what we call progress. (‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, IX)
It is an imaginative and much-fêted piece; Terry Eagleton even wrote a poem on it; it might be a
useful figuration for all historical marxists. But it is foreshortened and shortsighted: if there is no
space, and only time, then it is technically impossible to turn around. And in the diagonal
timespace of the border, turning around is perhaps all that Benjamin and his angel really had to do.
[More recently, Eduardo Arroyo’s painting En el país de las moscas depicts the moment of
Benjamin’s death in Port Bou not in terms of the Angel but in connection with an upturned
perambulator, one of the philosopher’s earliest memories, which supposedly rushed forward and
inverted in the morpheme-blissed agony. Once again, time not space is the reductive dimension of
In the seven or so years that I lived illegally between France and Spain, I was twice refused
passage on the French-Spanish border near Port Bou, once for lack of an exit visa from France.
So twice I crossed illegally, first by simply trying an alternative point, and second by walking along
smugglers’ tracks over the hills. If you look in the right direction, there is always a way. No spatial
border is impervious. And always, crossing to Spain, there was an inevitable sense of freedom
since, in this country more than to the north, you can generally talk your way around a rule.
Benjamin’s suicide, his backward vision and refusal of exteriority, looks for no such permeability
and thus offers no positive model for contemporary European identity.
The border towns are dying. That is no great loss. Our frontiers are now in the interfaces of
cities and computer networks; our border workers are mobile multilingual professionals, in virtual
yet still doggedly urbanized societies. The formation of identity myths and consensual ethics for
these new groups is no easy affair. Slick references to generalized intellectual exiles or joyous
hybridity bring little consolation to those who, like most of us, have had to traverse the passages
condensed in Port Bou. The formulation of ideas able to express and guide such identities requires
as much feeling as abstraction; the passage is hard, sometimes painful, and there is not always
another side, since our profit lies within the labyrinths of the crossing itself. A few of the circulated
sayings come close to this. Here, for example, is Tvetzan Todorov taking a far more positive view
of the border:
In our age it is the exile who best typifies, while changing its meaning, the ideal
expressed by Hugh of Saint Victor in the twelfth century: ‘Those who find their
homeland sweet are no more than tender beginners; those who are at home
everywhere are stronger; but the most perfect are those for whom the whole world is
a foreign country’ (I, a Bulgarian living in France, take the citation from Edward
Saïd, a Palestinian living in the United States, who had found it in Erich Auerbach, a
German exiled in Turkey). (La Conquête de l’Amérique, 1982: 253)
Yes, the list of intellectual exiles is impressive, all passing on the phrase as a ticket of mutual
commiseration or even secret pride. (We who work the frontiers are stronger and more perfect;
Benjamin failed the test.) Almost, but not quite. Hugh of St Victor, unfortunately, was referring
most immediately for the need for students to spend time on foreign soil (‘exilium’), according to
the twelfth-century Erasmus programmes avant la lettre; and he was referring more ideologically
to the ascetic retreat of monks, the most perfect of whom should have little contact with the world
in order to focus on heaven. (Didascalicon 3.19). Such is perhaps not the experience of the
modern exile. Yet it is still a risk, perhaps a turning of the back on this Europe of the holocaust
and the first American century, a convenient forgetting of the power than now, in the age of
information, lies precisely along intercultural interfaces. Indeed, if monastic retreat were the only
option in an age of ruins, Benjamin would perhaps have been right to stay in Europe to defend
But no, there is no real need for all three levels of the citation. The second level, that of the
strong, or the strengthened, is perhaps enough. It is easily drawn back to that most classical of
European exiles, Ovid: ‘Omne solum forti patria est’ (Fasti 1.493-4). For the strong, all soil is
home. (I found it at the end of Lluís Marcó i Dachs, a Catalan Republican reflecting on the exile of
Spanish Jews.) And the Loeb translation reads:
Every land is to the brave his country, as to the fish the sea, as to the bird whatever
place stands open in the void world. Nor does the wild tempest rage the whole year
long; for thee, too, trust me, there will be springtime yet.
This is Evander’s mother telling him exile is no sin or crime; exile is merely fate ensuing from an
unwittingly angered god. Valéry: ‘Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre.’ And Ovid: ‘Cheered by
his parent’s words, Evander cleft in his ship the billows and made the Western land.’
January 1999
[Specific character is a necessary point of origin for universal relations: a pure nothing can have no radiation
or scope.... A native country is a sort of second body, another enveloping organism to give the will definition.
A specific inheritance strengthens the soul. Cosmopolitanism has doubtless its place, because a man may well
cultivate in himself, and represent in his nation, affinities to other peoples, and such assimilation to them as is
compatible with personal integrity and clearness of purpose. Plasticity to things foreign need not be
inconsistent with happiness and utility at home. But happiness and utility are possible nowhere to a man who
represents nothing and who looks out on the world without a plot of his own to stand on, either in earth or in
George Santayana, The Life of Reason. III Reason in Religion. ch. x. ‘Piety’ (1905).]
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