By: Teju Cole
This stirring and thought-provoking reflection from writer and photographer Teju Cole sets today’s immigration crisis in a broader context, connecting the dots across the world and through history. By relating the story of philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s attempted flight from Nazi-occupied France, Cole reminds us that migration, migrants and refugees have always been part of our collective history, and that what is happening in Europe and elsewhere is related to what is happening at the U.S.–Mexico border. Our thanks to Teju Cole for granting permission to reprint this piece. –KBI
One thing pretty much leads to another. For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, a useful rubric with which to think through my photography. The uncanny leads me to revisit surrealism, hence Breton.* Then from Breton to Benjamin, though one never really leaves Benjamin anyway. But not so much Benjamin the scholar of surrealism as Benjamin the despairing refugee. The Benjamin who fled, like millions of others, for fear of his life.
June 1940. Europe, again. The Wehrmacht closes in on Paris. Benjamin leaves Paris for Lourdes. Then follows all the complicated moving from one place to another that is the refugee’s fate. He has a U.S. visa. He crosses the Spanish border. The plan: to cross Catalonia, to cross fascist Spain, and on to Portugal, and on to America. He is still in Catalonia, at a hotel in Portbou. He is with a group of Jewish refugees now. Will they be let through? Will they be sent back?
The order comes that they are to be deported to France, into Nazi hands. And so, Walter Benjamin, our friend and helper, kills himself with an overdose of morphine. He is 48. What a waste. Worse than a waste: the order is evaded, and the rest of the party successfully moves on to Portugal.
Michael Taussig writes: “The receipt made out to the dead man, the difunto Benjamin Walter, by the Hotel de Francia, for the four-day stay…includes five sodas with lemon, four telephone calls, dressing of the corpse, plus disinfection of his room and the washing and whitening of the mattress.”
The itemization reminds me of two things. Less, of the usual little list of what I drank or ate (mineral water, Toblerone), what I spent, when I check out of these frequent hotels of my life. More, of the little plastic bags I saw at the public morgue in Tucson, containing the last few personal effects of unknown travelers recovered from the Sonora desert in Arizona. A few dollars, a few pesos, photograph of a family, a mother’s passport to remember her by.
How many Benjamins died today? (It would sting if this were the news: Walter Benjamin died today! But this, indeed, is the news.) How many will die tomorrow? Remember all those who turned away the Jews, the Roma, the homosexuals, and the communists in the 1940s, and consigned them to horrible death. We are certain that we, with our contemporary wisdom, are not so monstrous as to turn away those at death’s door, the inconvenience to us be damned. Of course we aren’t. Of course. But let’s say we were. What would that look like?
Five sodas, four telephone calls. “I can’t talk for long, but I’m sure we’ll meet again.” The trains are moving across Europe. The trains are being stopped. Men in uniform come on and begin searching. The passenger looks straight ahead, but her heart pounds like a bass drum.
Every refugee is alike, but each generation fails refugees in its own special way.
Only one person dies at a time.
* In his 1919 essay, Freud defined the Uncanny as that which is familiar, yet also strangely peculiar or mysterious. André Breton founded Surrealism, a movement that relied on unexpected juxtapositions and incongruous imagery, in 1924.
Note: This piece appeared on Teju Cole’s Facebook page on September 1, 2015: www.facebook.com/Teju-Cole-200401352198/?fref=ts. For more information about his novels, criticism and photography, please go to: http://www.tejucole.com/.