Traveling light: Remembering Antonio Machado and Walter Benjamin

As the tourist season winds down, few people stop to lunch at the terrace restaurants of Portbou in Catalonia or Collioure in France. The Mistral is sometimes so fierce that it  halts train service along this stretch of the Mediterranean coast.

In mid-October I made an excursion to both towns to visit sites related to the Spanish poet Antonio Machado and the German writer Walter Benjamin.  Machado died in Collioure in late February 1939, only a month after undertaking a harrowing journey across the Pyrenees into exile. A year and half later, in September 1940, Benjamin would commit suicide in Portbou after a frustrated attempt to enter Spain from France.

My first stop was Portbou. Perched on a steep cliff overlooking the sea, at the entry of the town’s cemetery, there is a monument dedicated to Walter Benjamin designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan.  It is a long corten metal shaft enclosing a staircase that ends abruptly in a glass panel etched with a poignant quote from one of Benjamin’s works: “Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen zu ehren als das Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht” (It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless).  Beyond this glass barrier, the path ends in a precipice and the visitor is left contemplating the waves crashing against the rocks below.

The story of Benjamin’s death, burial, exhumation and transfer to a common grave may have influenced the artist’s choice of quotes for the monument. Although identified as a Marxist intellectual by the Gestapo in France, no one among the petty officials in Portbou seemed to regard him as a particularly important person. It appears that they were simply enforcing a new regulation requiring travelers entering Spain to have a French exit visa and were more interested in complying with orders from Madrid and accommodating the Gestapo in Vichy France than   showing pity towards a refugee on the run. Article XIX of the humiliating armistice signed by France and Germany in 1940 required the French government to surrender anyone the Third Reich sought to extradite to Germany, making it impossible for German refugees trapped in France at the time of invasion to obtain this critical document. Benjamin entered without it. He was allowed to spend the night in a modest hotel in Portbou but was advised that he would be forcibly returned to France the following morning. Knowing that he would be handed over to Gestapo at the border, Benjamin committed suicide.

Considering the strictly enforced prohibition against the burial of non-Catholics in Spanish cemeteries during that period, it is surprising that Benjamin’s travelling companions were able to negotiate a niche in the Portbou Cemetery. Somewhat curiously, his first and surnames were reversed on the death records, an error that would have occulted his Jewish identity or at least made it ambiguous.  Although everything pointed to a suicide, the autopsy stated that “Mr. Walter” had died of cerebral hemorrhage. As is the practice in much of Spain, burial niches are rental properties in Portbou and by the time Benjamin’s friends were able to make enquiries at the end of the war, Benjamin’s “lease” had run out and his body had been transferred to a common grave. Scans of of the historic documents related to Benjamin’s death and burial can be seen in the website Passatges de cultura contemporània, which offers in-depth information about Benjamin in Catalan, Spanish and English.

Since Spain’s transition to democracy, Benjamin has put Portbou on the literary map of Europe and Karavan’s monument has become minor tourist attraction. In what appears to be a mixture of remorse for one of the darkest periods of European history and a tip of the hat to the current policy of free movement within the European Union, international organizations working with local and regional authorities have placed markers honoring the writer in several languages throughout the town. While I found the information provided on the markers interesting, I ruefully observed that there were  more spelling and punctuation errors in the Spanish texts than in the English ones.

Cerbère was Antonio Machado’s first stop in France. No one there would accept banknotes issued by the Republican government and the family realized that they were utterly destitute. An acquaintance recognized Machado in the crowded train station and negotiated overnight shelter for them in an abandoned train car. The following afternoon, Corpus Barga, a companion on the road to exile, transported them to the Hotel Bougnol -Quintana in Collioure.

Today Collioure is less than an hour’s drive from Cerbère via a curving two-lane highway that offers spectacular views of the sea. The Mistral that had swept the coast for several days before my visit had left the air fresh and clear and the small French coastal towns were bathed in the special light that has attracted so many painters to the zone.  After taking a look at the shuttered hotel where Machado, his brother José and his elderly mother took refuge in late January 1939, we visited the cemetery. The gravestone that marks the final resting place of the poet and his mother is a large flat block covered with flowers, plaques left by visiting groups of Spanish school children and one or two tiny Republican flags. At one side there is a metal mailbox for leaving messages, making one wonder who reads these missives   and what is later done with them.  At some point Machado’s remains were transferred from the original plot  provided by Juliette Figuères, a neighbor and friend of innkeeper Pauline Quintana, to a site nearer the entrance of the cemetery. There have been numerous attempts to relocate his remains to Spain but his descendants have repeatedly rejected the idea. The poet himself seemed to presage his fate in his poem that begins “Todo pasa y todo queda” (All goes but all remains):

Murió el poeta lejos del hogar.
Le cubre el polvo de un país vecino.
Al alejarse le vieron llorar.
“Caminante no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar…”

Shrouded by dust of a neighbouring land.
At his parting they heard him cry:
“Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…”

………………………………………………..Translated by A. S. Kline

Visiting the grave of Machado and the monument to Benjamin one is left with a feeling of profound pathos.  As I left the cemetery I thought of the long and depressing itineraries that each writer had followed to these final resting places, so far from everything familiar. Machado had travelled the route of the retreating Republican government, abandoning Madrid for Valencia in 1936 and later moving on to Barcelona in 1938 before undertaking the long and desperate trek into exile. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris. Only when the German army invaded France in 1939 and his situation there became untenable did he begin an ill-planned and somewhat chaotic journey south towards the Mediterranean coast in the hope of boarding a ship sailing out of Marseille. I once read somewhere that Benjamin  changed his address no less than 28 times during the period between his flight from Germany and his attempt to cross the border at Portbou. Along these interminable routes of exile both men lost their possessions and their health and watched their familiar landscapes, hopes for the future and their dreams turn to ruin.

Most writers love to retreat to their studies, page through the books they have collected over the years,  meet with their counterparts in bars and cafes, and most of all, feel a part of the society that speaks and reads the language they write in. Benjamin devoted an entire essay to the experience of packing up his books and unpacking them again; a ceremony that for him represented the tension between the chaos of individual memory and the consoling order of neatly arranged points of reference.

In order to make a living, writers need an economic and social framework. War and exile deprive them of these essential structures. The strong, the fortunate and the street-smart often find a haven and forge new lives, but Machado and Benjamin were in poor health and emotionally drained when they set out on what would be their last journeys. In a letter written a few years earlier to the Russian writer David Vigodsky Machado had confided, “The fact is that I’m old and unwell, although you are too kind-hearted to believe it: old because I’m past the age of sixty and that’s a lot of years for a Spaniard.” Although Benjamin was sixteen years younger than Machado when he fled France, he suffered a severe cardiac condition that required him to rest every ten minutes during the arduous mountain crossing.  In a 1980s interview with Australian writer Michael Taussig, Benjamin’s mountain guide Lisa Fittko praised his unfailing, if somewhat antiquated,  courtesy but marveled at his limited ability to cope with the reality of his situation, a trait she claimed was common among the artists and intellectuals that she escorted along the same route.

To Lisa Fittko, it was a matter of “faut se débrouiller…one must know how to help oneself, to clear a way out of the debacle,”as she put it,but for Benjamin, alone and stateless, and Machado, ill and responsible for the support of his elderly mother and several other family members, the options for helping themselves were radically limited.

It is true that Benjamin threw away repeated opportunities to escape his fate. He had repeatedly turned down Gershom Sholem’s offers to help him immigrate to Palestine; one of many decisions that may have haunted him on the final night in Portbou. When Theodor Adorno and his wife advised him to follow them to the United States in early 1938, Benjamin replied, “In Europe there are positions to defend.” Hannah Arendt described him as a man who could not imagine living without his library and to whom America offered the bleak prospect of being nothing more than the European equivalent of the last Mohican. Although aware of his increasingly precarious situation in Paris, Benjamin could not tear himself away from his work, the reassuring refuge of the Bibliotèque nacionale or from Paris itself. When he did leave the city, he headed straight for Meaux, a veritable wasp’s nest of German agents. In a stroke of fatal bad luck and bad timing, he then attempted his border crossing  precisely on the day on which the visa regulation that would block his entry came into force.

Rather than leaving Spain when the tide turned against the Republican army, Machado stayed on until the end of the civil war, although it is almost certain that the Republican government would not have begrudged him a foreign diplomatic assignment. Like Benjamin, he could not bring himself to leave a place that represented everything to him and believed that there were positions that must be defended. He  followed the government through each of its successive retreats.  In exile in Collioure, he spent hours listening to the radio trying to glean an idea of what was happening in Spain after the victory of Franco. He left the hotel only occasionally during this last month of his life. Seated in a boat drawn up on the beach he mused to his brother, “How I would like to stay here in some fisherman’s hut looking out to sea through the window with nothing to concern me other than my art.” However much he might have longed to return to his own writing after years of devoting himself to the Republican cause, Machado was not blind to the precariousness of their situation. He regarded France as incapable of resisting an inevitable German invasion and in a letter sent to fellow poet José Bergamín in early February he mentioned the possibility of leaving France for Russia.

Both writers crossed the frontier traveling light, a sad and ironic example of life imitating art. There has been endless speculation concerning what happened to the manuscript that Benjamin supposedly carried with him in a leather briefcase. Lisa Fittko claims that he mentioned the importance of such a manuscript repeatedly along the route, but the official documents in Portbou that record Benjamin ‘s possessions  only note such innocuous items as a pair of glasses, a pipe, banknotes in several currencies, a passport issued by the American Foreign Service and a few letters and photographs.Machado and his family lost the few belongings they had with them during the last desperate journey through Catalonia.  His brother José later wrote, “Thinking only of saving our persons, we were forced to leave behind forever the suitcases which contained the books and the final papers of the poet. There was nothing else we could do.”

According to one of Benjamin’s biographers, Bruno Tackels, the writer left a note addressed to his traveling companion Henny Gurland explaining his motives for suicide:

In a situation with no way out, I have no choice but to end it. My life will finish in a little village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me. Please pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and explain to him the situation in which I find myself. There is not enough time to write all the letters I had wanted to write.

In his memories written in exile in Santiago de Chile, José recalls finding a scrap of paper with three notations in his brother’s overcoat in Collioure: the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To be or not be…”, another that appears to be an attempt to write a last poem consisting only of the phrase “Estos días azules y este sol de infancia” (These azure days and this sun of childhood) and a third revising one word of a verse from “Other Songs to Guiomar”:

Y te daré mi canción:                                    And I will give you my song:

Se canta lo que se pierde                            “One sings what one loses”

Con un papagayo verde                               and a green parakeet

Que la diga en tu balcón                               for your balcony, to say it.

…………………………………………………………..Translated by A. S. Kline

The lack of a French exit visa on a particular day in 1940 prevented Benjamin from making his way to Lisbon and on to New York where Theodor Adorno might have been able to arrange a teaching position for him at Columbia University. If he had arrived a day earlier, or a few days later when the Spanish government mysteriously relaxed its enforcement of the exit visa requirement, he most likely would have been allowed entry into Spain  and have traveled on to Lisbon.  Machado formed part of a human exodus of an estimated 400,000 refugees that poured over the French border in February 1939. It has recently come to light that a letter offering him a teaching position at Oxford University was delivered to the Hotel Bougnol- Quintana the day after he died.

Neither man had held a university teaching position in Europe. Benjamin had eked out a living in Germany and France translating and writing radio scripts, essays and literary criticism and Machado had spent the greater part of his adult life teaching French to secondary school students in backward and remote provinces in Spain.   “Faut se débrouiller” as the practical Lisa Fittko told Michael Taussig in the 1980s. If Benjamin and Machado were somewhat inept at forging lucrative literary careers in the 1920s and 30s, they both thoroughly understood what Machado referred to as “the word in time.”  Their ideas and the language they used to express them are as fresh and stimulating  to the reader today as they were more than seventy years ago.  In his poem “Retrato” (Portrait), Machado offered what could be considered a defense of how both writers lived their lives. The most quoted line of this poem is that which describes the poet as “ligero de equipaje” on his final voyage, but I have always found the frankness of the opening lines particularly striking:

Y al cabo, nada os debo; debéisme cuanto he escrito.
A mi trabajo acudo, con mi dinero pago
el traje que me cubre y la mansión que habito,
el pan que me alimenta y el lecho en donde yago.

In the end I owe you nothing; you owe me all I’ve written.
I work, paying with what I’ve earned
for the clothes on my back, the house I live in,
the bread that sustains me and the bed where I lie.
…………………………………………………………..translation by Robert Bly

Primary Sources for Information used in this post:

Gibson, Ian. Ligero de Equipaje La vida de Antonio Machado. Santillana Ediciones Madrid 2006

Jackson, Michael D. ‘In the Footsteps of Walter Benjamin’. Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Vol. 34, No. 2 (Spring 2006)

Machado, José Últimas soledades del poeta Antonio Machado (Recuerdos de su hermano José). Santiago de Chile 1958. limited mimeographed edition. English transcription by Armand F. Baker

Scholem, Gershom. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940.  Schoken Books. 1989

Taussig, Michael. “Walter Benjamin’s Grave: A Profane Illumination”. An excerpt from the book Walter Benjamin’s Grave. Univesity of Chicago press. 2006.

website: Passatges de cultura contemporània (Catalan, Spanish and English). City of Portbou, Spain

website: Guía Antonio Machado para estudiantes

website: translations by A.S. Kline