Walter Benjamin's Grave [NOOK Book]


In September 1940, Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Port Bou on the Spanish-French border when it appeared that he and his travelling partners would be denied passage into Spain in their attempt to escape the Nazis. In 2002, one of anthropology’s—and indeed today’s—most distinctive writers, Michael Taussig, visited Benjamin’s grave in Port Bou. The result is “Walter Benjamin’s Grave,” a moving essay about the cemetery, eyewitness accounts of Benjamin’s border travails, and the circumstances of his demise. It ...
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Walter Benjamin's Grave

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In September 1940, Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Port Bou on the Spanish-French border when it appeared that he and his travelling partners would be denied passage into Spain in their attempt to escape the Nazis. In 2002, one of anthropology’s—and indeed today’s—most distinctive writers, Michael Taussig, visited Benjamin’s grave in Port Bou. The result is “Walter Benjamin’s Grave,” a moving essay about the cemetery, eyewitness accounts of Benjamin’s border travails, and the circumstances of his demise. It is the most recent of eight revelatory essays collected in this volume of the same name.

“Looking over these essays written over the past decade,” writes Taussig, “I think what they share is a love of muted and defective storytelling as a form of analysis. Strange love indeed; love of the wound, love of the last gasp.” Although thematically these essays run the gamut—covering the monument and graveyard at Port Bou, discussions of peasant poetry in Colombia, a pact with the devil, the peculiarities of a shaman’s body, transgression, the disappearance of the sea, New York City cops, and the relationship between flowers and violence—each shares Taussig’s highly individual brand of storytelling, one that depends on a deep appreciation of objects and things as a way to retrieve even deeper philosophical and anthropological meanings. Whether he finds himself in Australia, Colombia, Manhattan, or Spain, in the midst of a book or a beach, whether talking to friends or staring at a monument, Taussig makes clear through these marvelous essays that materialist knowledge offers a crucial alternative to the increasingly abstract, globalized, homogenized, and digitized world we inhabit.

Pursuing an adventure that is part ethnography, part autobiography, and part cultural criticism refracted through the object that is Walter Benjamin’s grave, Taussig, with this collection, provides his own literary memorial to the twentieth century’s greatest cultural critic.
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Editorial Reviews

Anthropological Quarterly
A challenging but enjoyable read thanks to Professor Taussig's virtuoso style of writing. By reviving the idea of  a sociology of the sacred . . . he shocks us out of our everyday mindsets and points to exciting possibilities for the critique of modernity. By bringing to our attention Benjamin, Bataille, and Nietzsche, writers who have been neglected by the mainstream of anthropologists, Taussig has done the discipline a great service.

— Colin Smith

Mark C. Taylor

“From Walter Benjamin’s grave on the coastal border between France and Spain and the serpentine canals of Venice to the rain forests of Colombia, beaches of his native Australia and streets of New York, Michael Taussig transports the reader into new worlds where the strange draws near but never becomes familiar. A master storyteller with an ear for nuance, Taussig finds in the tales of lives that are usually overlooked important lessons for our era in which reason seems to have lost its way and violence threatens to spin out of control. This timely book is cultural analysis and, more important, social criticism at its best.”--Mark C. Taylor, author of Confidence Games
Alphonso Lingis

“With Walter Benjamin’s Grave, Michael Taussig seeks out phenomena that defy anthropology’s explanatory paradigms—a pact with the devil, yage-inspired visions, and ritual body mutilation. He entangles himself in the beliefs and shams of shamans, and those of the anthropologists who studied them. Taussig’s ‘storytelling as a form of analysis’ streams with vibrant and provocative insights, and written out here in a captivating prose that mirrors the color and music of events. ‘I’m off to the Pacific Coast,’ Taussig tells us, or to the Australian beaches, or New York City’s courts, and brings readers along with him. The force and joy of his rapt curiosity and luminous intelligence is intoxicating.”--Alphonso Lingis, author of Body Transformations
Anthropological Quarterly - Colin Smith

"A challenging but enjoyable read thanks to Professor Taussig's virtuoso style of writing. By reviving the idea of  a sociology of the sacred . . . he shocks us out of our everyday mindsets and points to exciting possibilities for the critique of modernity. By bringing to our attention Benjamin, Bataille, and Nietzsche, writers who have been neglected by the mainstream of anthropologists, Taussig has done the discipline a great service."
South Atlantic Review - David Garrison

"Taussig's particular critique is informed by decades of trying to follow the tension between our ways of imagining the world and the world's ways, so imaginged, of presenting itself to us, and by his relentless awareness of the fragility of interpertation."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226790008
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/13/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 258
  • File size: 9 MB

Meet the Author

Michael Taussig is professor of anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, including, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man;Law in a LawlessLand; and My Cocaine Museum, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

By Michael Taussig The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-79004-6

Chapter One

Walter Benjamin's Grave


When she came looking for Walter Benjamin's grave a few months after he died in the Hotel de Francia in Port Bou on the border between Spain and France, Hannah Arendt found nothing. Nothing, that is, other than one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen. "It was not to be found," she wrote Gershom Scholem shortly afterwards, "his name was not written anywhere." Yet according to the records provided by the town hall of Port Bou, one of Benjamin's traveling companions, Frau Gurland, had paid out seventy-five pesetas for the rental of a "niche" for five years on September 28, 1940, two days after Benjamin died from what was diagnosed by the local doctor, Ramón Vila Moreno, as cerebral apoplexy, but is generally understood to have been suicide by a massive overdose of morphine tablets. "He had enough morphine on him to take his life several times over," writes Lisa Fittko, who took him over the mountains into Spain.

Yet name or no name, the place was overwhelming.

"The cemetery faces a small bay directly looking over the Mediterranean," wrote Arendt. "It is carved in stone interraces; the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls. It is by far one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have ever seen in my life."

Scholem was not impressed. Years later he seemed downright dismissive, bringing his book-length memoir of Benjamin to an end with these words: "Certainly the spot is beautiful, but the grave is apocryphal." It was an abrupt and sour note on which to end the story of a life, as if the dead man and therefore we, too, had been cheated of an ending, and what we had gotten instead was a suspension, a book whose last page was missing. For not only was there no name, as Arendt had discovered, but worse still there was a fake name or, depending on your point of view, something even worse, namely, a fake grave. Photographs clearly indicated, to Scholem at least, that a wooden enclosure with Benjamin's name scrawled on it was nothing more than what he called "an invention of the cemetery attendants, whom in consideration of the number of inquiries wanted to assure themselves of a tip." Thus ended the life of the person who would be acclaimed, by George Steiner, for example, as the greatest critic of the twentieth century. And thus ends Scholem's memoir. Even in death, Benjamin was a loser, his grave the plaything of men seeking a tip. In lieu of a real grave, we might say, Scholem buries his subject under charges of profanity.

It is as if he deliberately strives to avoid monumentalizing Benjamin, choosing instead to end on the most prosaic of notes; skullduggery in the graveyard-reminiscent of what Benjamin in his 1929 essay on surrealism called a "profane illumination." But what exactly is illuminated? In Benjamin's coining of the phrase, the illumination in a "profane illumination" bears the emphatic trace of a religious illumination it has surpassed. Furthermore, in the famous "Theses on the Philosophy of History," written shortly before his death, Benjamin had stated that "only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins." What impact does Scholem's assessment of his grave have on that spark of hope?

How can Scholem state that the photographs "clearly indicate" that the grave is fake? How could any photograph clearly show such? And if the photographs do this, then why have the cemetery attendants created such a blatant fake when their machinations would surely be as obvious to visitors to the site as to Scholem studying the photographs? Surely it was not beyond the skill of these grave diggers to manufacture a wholesome replica of the real thing?

When we get right down to it, why trust that any grave contains what it's supposed to? One of the most important events in life, namely, death, is so shrouded in secrecy and fear that most of us would never dare to check. Who knows what goes on up there in the graveyard of Port Bou? Maybe none of the graves have the right body, or any at all? After all, there is a lot of movement of bodies and bones in this system: you rent a "niche" for a few years and if you fail to renew it, then the bones are disinterred and placed in the fosa común-the "common grave"-in which they lie alongside and eventually mingle and merge with who knows how many others to lose all trace of their individuality. Here they rest united in the unseemly melee that is death; friends and enemies, natives and foreigners, Republicans and franquistas (the followers of Franco), femurs and scapulae, jumbled together to create and recreate what Elias Canetti conceived of as the "invisible crowd of the dead" which, in his opinion, was a privileged source of religious sentiment. For if everything went according to routine then Benjamin's remains would have been removed in 1945, five years after Frau Gurland's payment of seventy-five pesetas, and placed in the fosa común.

But what then to make of Arendt not being able to locate his niche a few months after his death? Scholem makes sure to tell us this as it serves as a dramatic prelude to his 1975 allegation of a fake grave. "His name was not written anywhere," she said. But there is one detail that might be helpful here and that has everything to do with naming: upon his death Walter Benjamin entered the official records (supplied by the recently established Walter Benjamin Museum in Port Bou) not as a Jew but as a Roman Catholic with the name of Benjamin Walter. Doctor Benjamin Walter, to be precise. Hence he was buried in the cemetery reserved for Catholics and far from being nameless, he became a fake just like his grave, a fake Christian and a body with a fake name.

You see this name in the receipt made out to the dead man, the difunto Benjamin Walter, by the Hotel de Francia, for the four-day stay that includes five sodas with lemon, four telephone calls, dressing of the corpse, plus disinfection of his room and the washing and whitening of the mattress. You see it in the receipt made out by the physician for seventy-five pesetas for his injections and taking the blood pressure of the traveler, el viajero, Benjamin Walter. You see it in the death certificate-number 25-made out on September 27, 1940, for Benjamin Walter, forty-eight years old, of Berlin (Germany-as noted). You see it in the receipt tendered by the carpenter to the judge in Port Bou for making a cloth-lined coffin for the dead man, el difunto, Señor Benjamin Walter, a receipt that includes eight pesetas for the work of a bricklayer closing a niche in the cemetery for Benjamin Walter. And you can see it in the receipt made out by the priest dated October 1, 1940, for ninety-six pesetas, six of which were for a mass for the dead man and seventy-five for "five years' rent of a niche in the Catholic cemetery of this town in which the cadaver of B. Walter lies buried."

"Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins," wrote Benjamin shortly before his death. This was of a piece with his philosophy of history as something in which every detail of a life counted, nothing was to be forgotten, the present had an ironclad obligation to the past, and running as a slender thread through all of this was the ever-so-faint possibility of redemption. "Even the dead." It is italicized in the original to give it emphasis. Even the dead ... This recalls his early work on baroque drama in which, focusing on his idiosyncratic concept of allegory, he wrote that the allegorist drains objects of their life so they become his to play with, to set into new designs and thus speak to fate. His friend Theodor Adorno had this in mind when he wrote a decade after his death that the gaze of Benjamin's philosophy was Medusan, meaning it turned to stone whatever it looked at. But, added Adorno, this was part of a larger strategy, namely, the need to become a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things.

It is important to recall such ideas here because with Benjamin's own death strong narratives assert themselves to wrest control of that death, narratives that have little to do with the ideas he laid down in his life's work or that subtly contradict it. Didn't Benjamin himself in his famous essay on the storyteller spend a good deal of time propounding the thesis that it is death that gives authority to the storyteller? In the shadow of 9/11 none of us need to be reminded on that score. Taken a step further we might even assert that this is what scares us about death yet tempts us as well, as if the story can be completed yet also amputated by the absence that is death, forever postponing the end to the story that was a life. We want that authority for our own story, nowhere more so than when interpreting a death and, of course, its body. A gravestone or a monument-especially the accusation of a fake one-is just such a story, just such an attempt.

"I am not making a pilgrimage," I said to myself when I visited the graveyard at Port Bou in the spring of 2002. Indeed I was not even sure I wanted to visit the graveyard. I do not think this was entirely due to fear of cemeteries on my part. Nor was it because I am also attracted to them. It was more because I feel uncomfortable about what I discern as an incipient cult around the site of Benjamin's grave, as if the drama of his death, and of the holocaust, in general, is allowed to appropriate and overshadow the enigmatic power of his writing and the meaning of his life. Put bluntly, the death comes to mean more than the life. This cult is at once too sad and too sentimental, too overdetermined an event-the border crossing that failed, the beauty of the place, the horror of the epoch. It really amounts to a type of gawking, I thought to myself, in place of informed respect, a cheap thrill with the frisson of tragedy further enlivened by the calm and stupendous beauty of the landscape. In any event, one does not worship at the grave of great thinkers. But what then is the appropriate gesture? Death is an awkward business. And so is remembrance.

There must be rules for the management of death, yet death tests the rule as well. With each death, society itself dies a little, said the anthropologist Robert Hertz in his now classic 1907 study of the collective representations of death. But what is it about society that dies? Death is especially awkward for modern intellectuals who are likely to find themselves swept over by traditions they fought and measured themselves against. To visit Benjamin's grave or even just timidly approach its outermost waves of force in the periphery of Port Bou, at the massive railway station and shunting yards surrounded by tunnels opening onto the looming mountains, to stop there and hesitate to go further, as I did, to wonder how to proceed-all this suggests a fundamental inability to deal with death and the need to reinvent procedures acknowledging it. Nietzsche pleads in vain for historians who can write histories equal to the events they relate. We need to do the same with our dead. Benjamin says something similar where he cautions that truth is not a matter of exposure that destroys the secret but a revelation that does justice to it. He was referring to the work of truth in the passage of love from the body to the soul in Plato's Symposium. Death poses the same issue. Exactly.

Was Benjamin the first suicide bomber? The thought crosses my mind as I read the papers in the train heading north to Port Bou with their front-page news of Israeli soldiers with their armored bulldozers and Apache helicopters invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps in response to suicide bombers. Journalists are driven back by the soldiers using stun grenades and tear gas. At least two have been shot by Israeli soldiers. A United Nations-led inquiry into war crimes in Jenin is stillborn on account of Israeli opposition. The president of the United States and the U.S. media insist the Palestinians are to blame for the violence. There is virtually no attempt to even try to understand what it is that motivates the Palestinians, no portrayal of their everyday life in refugee camps and prisons under "administrative detention" imposed without trial. Instead we get lengthy Sunday magazine articles depicting the psychic pain of Israeli elite commando snipers. Yet has there ever been a Sunday magazine devoted to the psychic pain of the apartheid-like pass system that controls the Palestinians' ability to cross the spiderweb of borders balkanizing Palestinian lands into which illegal Israeli settlements daily press? They say history is written by the victors, but this seems unprecedented. It is as if the Palestinians had no voice whatsoever. They are not only unrepresented but are unrepresentable. Or as Golda Meir once put it, they do not exist. Like Benjamin they are fated to lose. Truth itself lies on trial, and it is the border that defines and redefines it as I slowly travel north from Barcelona, north to the border at Port Bou in the local train that stops at all stops to let me down where Benjamin was stopped sixty years ago.

A young man sits on the other side of the compartment a few seats forward. He speaks no Spanish and he is worried, sick with worry. He has a large black bag made of cheap material that he keeps on the seat next to him, preventing anyone from sitting there. He looks around all the time like an animal in a cage. I first spotted him in the gloomy Estacio Sants in Barcelona where I waited for the train. He approached a middle-aged woman and in his gesticulations seemed to be asking her when the train to the border would come and whether the approaching train was the one he needed. In the train he came over to me with his ticket on which was printed Cerbère, the French town just across the border from Port Bou. "Francia? Francia?" he kept saying and at each, and every stop he looked imploringly at me, eyes wide open, asking if this was where he had to get off. I figured he was from North Africa and probably illegal. He smelled as if hadn't washed in a long time. A man on the run. Anti-Semitic and anti-Arab Le Pen running on an anti-immigrant platform has just beaten the socialist Jospin at the polls in France, receiving almost 18 percent of the vote. When I got off the train at Port Bou I waved and made a victory sign to the man with the black bag. He smiled wanly. Benjamin had been stopped at the border coming the other way. But of course things were different then.

You climb the hill towards the graveyard, the hill that falls green and steep into the sea. It is late April and the hillside is ablaze with yellow wildflowers. In the hollow of the deep bay just behind you lies the town. It feels cold and unfriendly. There is something wrong with it. A few tourists from France, day-trippers, walk aimlessly around looking for something to look at. The café won't let you use the bathroom, and the only café open on the waterfront is no less dark and cavernous than the station in Barcelona where I began. It is madly expensive as well. There are few young people in the town; only elderly and a few kids. The supermarket sells mainly low-priced liquor. A border town full of smugglers? But what could they be smuggling now that Spain is part of Europe? Still, why does the town seem so uptight? This is exactly how I remember it driving through from France in 1987 when we stopped for a coffee and drove on. There was no monument to Benjamin then. Just the town. The whole town was his monument as far as I was concerned-cold, nasty, and enigmatic.

I remembered Lisa Fittko in Chicago when I first called her from a public phone in the mid-eighties having just found out from Barbara Sahlins, the wife of my anthropologist friend at the university, that the woman who took Benjamin across the border lived but a few blocks away. "Oh! You're after the briefcase!" were Lisa's first words on the phone. My heart sank. Didn't she realize that one might have perfectly innocent reasons for wanting to talk with her and that lost treasure would only get in the way? The treasure I was after was even less tangible than a missing briefcase. I only felt it dimly at that moment but looking back I'm tempted to say, to wonder, rather, if the treasure I was seeking wasn't in its inchoate way the first step of the pilgrimage that I had unconsciously begun at that very moment standing in a glass and metal phone booth on a street corner on a blustery day in south Chicago? It was the desire to absorb something of the dead man, the holy man, whatever it is that clings as living presence to the person of the woman who took him secretly over the mountain across the border so many years ago. All this flashed through my mind quicker than it takes to tell, a feeling of foreboding that no matter what I said to her I was lost. The briefcase-the idea of the briefcase, the image of the briefcase-had become a stupendous relic made all the more potent by its disappearance.


Excerpted from WALTER BENJAMIN'S GRAVE by Michael Taussig Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Walter Benjamin’s Grave 1

Constructing America

The Sun Gives without Receiving

The Beach (a Fantasy)

Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic


NYPD Blues

The Language of Flowers



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