Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Portbou on 26 September 1940. With the recent publication of The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness, for the last two weeks Portbou’s cemetery has witnessed a pilgrimage of people from all over the world, many of them scholars, seeking to pay their respects to this philosopher and social scientist who tragically died the death of a refugee who could not reach a safe harbour. The current relevance of this tragic type of death should make us that bit more sensitive to Benjamin’s story. It bridges the time gap separating us from the beginning of WWII and reminds us how many people have endured destinies such as Benjamin’s and, unfortunately, how many are still enduring it today. It brings it home to us that for millions of human beings, our world today, despite so many distractions and brief moments of hope for better lives, still resembles the world of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Georg Simmel described boundaries as relationships projected upon space, thus turning space into ‘a place’ which shapes us. Portbou’s cemetery and Walter Benjamin’s Memorial are becoming ‘a place’ in this Simmelian sense: a physical space, in which many relations are condensed, which condenses many relations. This place – a random place really, which had nothing to do with Benjamin’s life, which he should have just passed through before finding a safe passage to the United States, having already acquired his American Visa – is becoming a place of memory and meeting for many people who seek to answer the same questions Benjamin was pursuing, who seek to connect to his memory, who relate to what he said for many reasons, and, of course – but this would be a topic for another post – those who seek to benefit from being linked to him.
Benjamin is one of those giants on whose shoulders a journal like ours stands, on whose shoulders I try to stand, shy and sometimes worried and concerned, asking myself whether what I shall see will be good enough, valuable enough for my peers, and beyond. It is also in Benjamin’s writings that I find peace in these moments of doubt, for he teaches us to find what we could call ‘truth’ in the smallest details, in fleeting images, in the momentary or durable relations he could observe and depict, often from the distance of a wanderer watching from the corner of their eye, yet just as often from the distance of someone following the invisible threads of memory, back to childhood, for instance, someone able to teach us the most valuable (relational!) lessons by linking the most complex contents to a fleeting image from the past, from his past, from my past, or from my everyday life or the present moment.
In this sense Benjamin will be a thinker we will regularly return to, hoping to engage in a dialogue with you, thus engaging in one of the most beautiful forms of relation.
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain