In the footsteps of Walter Benjamin

Jon Stevens (MRes student, History of Art)

In mid-December, I visited Paris. On my first evening, I wandered through the lanes and alleyways of the Marais. Returning to my room, I looked up and saw a street sign illuminated by a single lamp. It read: Passage Walter Benjamin (1892-1940); German art historian and philosopher.

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I knew that Benjamin had written extensively about Paris and that he had lived there towards the end of his turbulent and tragic life. But I was surprised and moved to find him remembered in this way. The passage was very short, perhaps 20 metres, running between the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue de Roi de Sicile. Back in my room, on a website called Les Rues de Paris, I found that Passage Walter Benjamin had only been there since March 2017, when it was renamed by the City of Paris. I also discovered that there was plaque to Benjamin, placed ten years earlier, at 10 Rue Dombasle in the 15th Arondissment, where Benjamin spent what were to be his final years.

All of this set me pondering. I was in Paris to attend an exhibition of the works of Fernand Khnopff and I had allowed a full day for this, including a literary study tour. On my final day, I had been planning to revisit the Musée D’Orsay. Now, I wondered if I might visit Rue Dombasle instead and see where that led me?

On the morning concerned, I looked up Rue Dombasle on Google Maps. It was close to the Convention metro station, so it would be easy to reach. But another destination a few streets away appeared on my screen: this was the intriguingly named Musée de Service des Objets Trouvés. A short Wikipedia piece about it revealed:

(this is) a small museum of articles maintained by the Lost and Found Department of the Paris Police…it contains a number of unusual items that have not (yet) been claimed by their owners…including a lobster found at Paris-Orly Airport…a funerary urn lost in the subway station near Père Lachaise Cemetery…(several) skulls…and a wooden leg.

Surely I had to seek out this strange museum and its bizarre contents. The idea of the lobster, in particular, appealed to me… Could by any chance the lobster still be in residence…Even more absurdly, could it be the very lobster that the mystic poet Gérard de Nerval, who inspired Baudelaire, used to take for a walk on blue ribbon around the gardens of the Palais-Royal in the mid-nineteenth century?

The Rue Dombasle proved to be an unassuming residential street and I soon found the apartment block at number 10. It was six stories high, in a vaguely Art Deco style. The plaque read: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German philosopher and writer, translator of Proust and Baudelaire, lived in this building from 1938 to 1940.

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Benjamin came to Rue Dombasle in early 1938. He had left Berlin in 1933, no longer able to live there safely following the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. He led a peripatetic existence for several years but he now decided to settle in Paris, even though many of his friends were urging him to escape to America. He resumed work on his magnum opus, the Passengenarbeit, which he had been wrestling with for over a decade. (I knew it as The Arcades Project but the reference to ‘passages’ in the German title seemed particularly apt). I stood outside the entrance and I imagined Benjamin setting out each day to work at the Bibliothequé Nationale or to visit friends and colleagues or to attend exhibitions. Then I thought of his belated flight from Paris in June 1940, as millions of refugees fled south before the Nazi invasion of France. Eventually he reached Marseille and, in late September, he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain but, on being told the border was now closed, he was stranded. A day or so later, in despair, he committed suicide.*

On that sombre thought, I left the Rue Dombasle and walked to the nearby Rue des Morillons, where the Musée de Service des Objets Trouvés was officially located. However, when I arrived at the given address there was no museum to be seen. Perhaps the museum of lost objects had itself been lost? I imagined that Benjamin would have enjoyed the irony of this! Then I saw a small notice posted on a door opposite; this informed me that the entrance to the Bureau des Objets Trouvés was in an adjoining street. Round the corner, I joined a group of people seeking to collect their lost or stolen belongings. Having filed past security, I climbed to the first floor of a shabby building: over some double doors was a time-worn sign:

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I entered a large waiting room. At the far end was a queue of people in front of a desk, behind which was a kind of conveyor belt that contained hundreds of sets of keys. I joined the queue, which moved quickly. When I got to the front, I asked the young woman behind the desk if I could visit the ‘museum of lost objects’, which I understood was open to the public by appointment. She looked a bit flustered but she appeared to know what I was talking about. She picked up a phone and rang another member of staff. She talked for some time but, when she returned to me, she said, “Hélas monsieur…the museum is no longer open to the public”.

Later in the day, I returned to the centre of Paris and I decided to have a final look at Passage Walter Benjamin and to follow it into the old Jewish Ghetto in the heart of the Marais. Benjamin’s ‘passage’ leads directly onto Rues des Ecouffes (of which it was originally an extension). At the end, it strikes the main thoroughfare through the Ghetto, Rue des Rosiers. Edmund White, in his enchanting book, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (which I had to hand) writes that in this neighbourhood can be still be found:

shops selling the Torah and Hannukah candelabra, kosher delicatessens, the remains of an old ritual bathhouse and two synagogues… (it is) a gathering place for eastern European Jews with their poppy seed cakes and strudels as well as North African Jews with their gooey baklavas and charred falavel…on a warm day the Rue des Rosiers is so crowded with flâneurs that cars can barely push their way through.

And so it was at lunchtime when I visited.

But when I doubled back I found myself in a quiet square, with a school on one side. On the far side I saw a street sign: Parvis des 260 Enfants; pupils of L’École des Hospitalièrs Saint-Gervais deported and murdered because they were born Jewish.

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The harsh reality of the Paris Ghetto and of Walter Benjamin’s fateful flight from the city came sharply back to me. According to a press cutting I accessed, 260 Jewish children had been deported from the school in two raids in July 1942. Of those 260 children only four survived. One of whom, Samuel-Milo Adoner aged 93, had been present at the dedication of the courtyard by the Mayor of Paris, which had taken place a few weeks before my visit.

On my return from Paris, I decided to capture my modest experiences following ‘in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin’; hence this account. It has also stimulated me into to delving further into Benjamin’s work and, in particular, his writings on the city. Graeme Gilloch, in his book, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, which I have just started to read, writes:

For Benjamin, the great cities of modern European culture were both beautiful and bestial, a source of exhilaration and hope on the one hand and of revulsion and despair on the other…the city for Benjamin was magnetic: it attracted and repelled him.

In a small way, my expedition across Paris (with a detour of my own) gave me an insight into both Benjamin’s ‘exhilaration’, as he wandered the streets of the city, and into the profound ‘despair’ he felt as darkness enveloped Europe leading to his suicide and to the slaughter of the children from L’École des Hospitalièrs Saint-Gervais.

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*The details in this section have been supplemented by information from Chapters 10 and 11 of Howard Elland and Michael Jenning’s, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

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