I discovered Benjamin in college more than thirty years ago, lost my copy of Illuminations, and then rediscovered it recently on Amazon. His essay, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ I found riveting. Only recently have I learned of Hannah Arendt’s heroic escape with his manuscripts, his death on the Spanish border.
I inadvertently cut off the bottom in this scan, it says ‘Edited by Hannah Arendt’.
When France was taken over by the Nazis, Benjamin made it to the southern ‘safe zone’, along with other Jews, but the Nazis were soon closing in. Hannah Arendt and her husband got passports and managed to get across the border into Spain, and Benjamin sent his manuscripts along with her in case he didn’t make it. He was actually at the border there in the Pyrenees, with a proper passport, when some obscure rule changed and the Spanish would not let him through, nor any of the group of four he was traveling with.
He would have been turned over to the Nazis the next day. He committed suicide that night. The Spanish official was so shaken and moved by Benjamin’s suicide that he broke his own (brand-new) rules and let the other four through into Spain.
That’s why these essays are such treasures, aside from their wonderful insights. They were rescued at a great and terrible price.
I re-read ‘Art in the Age…’ again, but this has repeatedly been addressed, recently, and all his doubts have been shown to be very prescient.
What now interests me is ‘The Storyteller’, which I find I did not read with enough attention at the time and it bears re-reading and quoting which I will do tomorrow.
Benjamin paid little attention to the intellectual fashions of his time, either in phrasing or concerns, which is why he seems ever fresh and new. Here’s to his courage and his memory.