The Intellectual and Other Wanderings of Walter Benjamin


Peter Gordon in The New Republic:

Walter Benjamin passed some of the happiest moments of his life wandering shirtless in the sun on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In a letter in 1932, he wrote that the little Mediterranean island lacked modern conveniences, such as “electric light and butter, liquor and running water, flirting and newspaper reading.” The nearest village boasted a mere seven hundred inhabitants, who got by without modern farm equipment: the economy ran mostly on goats. During his two stays there, in 1932 and 1933, Benjamin strolled the beaches and explored the island’s interior in the company of his friend Jean Selz, who would recall that “Benjamin’s physical stoutness and the rather Germanic heaviness he presented were in strong contrast to the agility of his mind, which so often made his eyes sparkle behind his glasses.” Together they took long walks through the countryside, but the walks were “made even longer by our conversations, which constantly forced him to stop. He admitted that walking kept him from thinking. Whenever something interested him he would say, ‘Tiens, tiens!’ This was the signal that he was about to think, and therefore stop.” Among the German guests on the island this idiosyncrasy was well-known and they gave the strange apparition a nickname: “Tiens-tiens.” The village locals called him el miserable. It is true that Benjamin was poor and prone to depression. But out of each day he crafted a scholar’s idyll: he rose early and bathed in the ocean, then ascended the hills to his favorite spot, where he retrieved a hidden lounge chair from the bushes. He sat there among the fig trees for the full length of the morning, writing, or reading Lucretius.

We do not imagine Benjamin on the beach. He was a poet of the city, one of the most probing critics of the bourgeois experience. In manifold essays and books, some of them fragmentary and left unpublished until much later, he sought to portray modern life in all its richness and variety—its literature, its dreams, its cultural detritus. Like a ragpicker in the marketplace (this was his own comparison), nothing seemed to him without significance.

More here.