January 31, 2009

Remnants and Recastings: Benjamin's Realm

"Only on that particular day was catastrophe possible."

--Hannah Arendt, "Introduction" to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations.

At Passages, J. Bowring, author of A Field Guide to Melancholy, shows a clip of her venture into the Walter Benjamin memorial of Dani Karavan.

The space is a descending slant along, almost hovering above, the rocky shore of Portbou, on the Spanish coast. While Karavan's work is often marked by a false whiteness -- bright paths cut into grass, towers rising from the brownish soil, pillars in a public alley -- the memorial to Benjamin is aptly and strikingly dark. Perhaps this is to echo the title of Benjamin's massive project, Passagen-Werk, and the sense of the dim afterglow he evoked in those Paris arcades. But it must also refer to the passage through the Pyrenees from France, and obviously, in Benjamin's case, to death. Its brick and steel tones speak to both the slow erosion of entropy and the more powerful, unavoidable grind of the sea at the bottom of the memorial's arc.

Because Spain's rail system uses a different track system than the rest of Europe, Portbou has long been a dreary point for arrivals and departure along the coast; those waiting to enter from France, or leave for it, often stacked in the station, dull and tired. Or that is how it was a long time ago, when a great many fewer people would have heard the name -- now with its saint-like aura -- of the writer who committed suicide there in 1940, his attempt to escape Nazified Europe having failed. Today he is more widely recognized, if surely few would have made a pilgrimage to his memorial on a biting January day, and perhaps, though his burial spot was long unmarked and is now expanded to include the sea and earth, the station fills and empties like clockwork, most passers-through oblivious to what occurred so close, where a catastrophe occurred just once, on a certain day, and even then was hardly understood by those who found the body of just another escapee.