Benjamin’s Footsteps

Michael D. Jackson reflects on the life of Walter Benjamin, while tracing his footsteps, in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

[I]f I had been able to choose, from Benjamin’s work, an epitaph, it would have been the lines that preface the eighth thesis: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” For as I sat there, my journey at an end, I was thinking how, as Benjamin observed so often, the presence of the now (jetzheit), makes it inevitable that thoughts of any one tragic death give rise to thoughts of all wrongful death. And so I thought of the nameless individuals who at that very moment were held in limbo and incommunicado, stripped of their rights, subject to torture or the degradation of interminable waiting, in places as far afield as Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, and the numerous “immigration camps” and “detention centers” around the world where asylum-seekers, driven from their homelands by persecution or want, were excluded not only from the protection of our laws, but ostracized from our definition of humanity.

For a moment, as I gazed at the boulder, and the plaque bearing Walter Benjamin’s name, I was fighting back tears. Then, bending down, I took a white stone from the path and placed it on the boulder, taking superstitious care not to dislodge any of the others that had been put there—possibly 50, possibly 100—one for each of the pilgrims who had found his or her way to this place, half-hoping, perhaps, for a moment of truth, or even a sign of redemption. I then broke off a leaf from the small variegated coprosma bush growing by the boulder, and put it in my wallet.

Why was I so moved by this place? Cemeteries are for families. The living come to cemeteries to reconnect with kith and kin, to keep alive—with flowers, prayers, thoughts, and the small rituals of cleaning or tending a grave—the presence of those who have passed away. But what kinship brought me here? What affinity drew me to Benjamin?