Walter Benjamin’s Flight through the Pyrenees Up to the Bluffs of Pure Language

by Kaylen Baker

A Little Theory 

Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher concerned with art, arcades, and labyrinths, translator of Baudelaire and Proust, beloved by Susan Sontag, required on PhD reading lists, recommended by a friend of a friend at a party where the music did little to inspire dancing, enamored of a Latvian Marxist who would spend 10 years in a Soviet camp, victim of the Nazis, and soon to be torn from this verbal landscape, shall hereby be dubbed Quotation. 

This landscape may look like words on a page, but look closer: ah—now you see the wild lupine, the sand drifts and dune sedge. 

Quotation collected books, and words he found within them. According to his friend Hannah Arendt, he thought the modern use of quotations was not “to preserve but to cleanse, to tear out of context, to destroy.”

What was this context? 

Picture Hannah typing at her Manhattan desk in 1945, the smell of fresh challah coming from a paper bag in the kitchen. Picture Hannah picturing gas chambers, punching the word “cleanse” onto the page in crisp letters. 

Picture Quotation in a hotel room in Lourdes, France, five years earlier, attempting to pull out his thick hair. But we’re not there yet. And we won’t catch him. 

Conversely, Quotation also believed that “collecting is the redemption of things which is to complement the redemption of man.” 

With delicate precision, Quotation secured his favorite writers’ quotes to the pages of his essays. We have to wonder what he thought of them there, and what they had to do with redemption.  

Mist off the wild lupine. Mist-trampled dune sedge. 

Release the words from the page. Let them scatter like wild cats into the tall brome grass. Close your eyes: see how slippery this landscape becomes. 


Let’s return to Lourdes, where Quotation has just checked into a hotel. The day is June 13th, the year 1940. Quotation is 48 years old. Lourdes is as ugly as ever. 

This pilgrimage town, crouched in a gulch just shy of the Pyrenees mountains, boasts a grotto containing a statue of the Virgin, representing 18 visions witnessed by Marie Bernarde Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl with chronic asthma. Until the last apparition, Marie Bernarde Soubirous refused to identify the lady wearing yellow roses on her feet. She called her “Aquero.” 

But this happened in 1858, nearly a hundred years earlier. Tomorrow, the Nazis take Paris. When they arrive at Quotation’s apartment on 10 rue Dombasle with a warrant for his ideas, they will find him missing, along with half of his rare book collection and a watercolor by Paul Klee. You know this painting: an angel emerges from a veil of natural hues—bone, hide, dust—wings flown up in terror.

Though we don’t find Quotation in his hotel room, we find his round glasses on the nightstand, and a room service bill made in his sister’s name. Dora travelled here with him. 

In a picture dated June 23rd, 1940, ten days now since Quotation settled in Lourdes, Adolf Hitler stands with two men before the Eiffel Tower. He, Hitler, lifts his head toward the camera, revealing the same pointed keenness one remarks in rats when spotted head-on, a rare angle, since they’re usually off scuffling in putrefaction. 

Lift of the head. Smear of mustache. Sniffing. He clasps a limp white glove, good for leaving no prints. Good for cleansing. 

Though Quotation is out again when we return to his hotel, we find traces of his poor health in the morphine tablets on the window sill. Sciatique chronique, his Parisian doctor diagnosed, concerning his back. Une myocardite, concerning his heart. As for his mind, we might look to the king cornered on the chess board from the last match he played against Hannah Arendt when she stopped by several days ago, freshly released from the Gurs internment camp. 

In August, a package arrives at the hotel. “Aquero,” says the receptionist, speaking Occitan. Follow her pointed finger to a walnut table and a jumble of letters. Dora walks on stiff legs, snatches one up. Brown paper tied with a string, addressed to Detlev Holz. Nom de plume. 

In his room she tears off the paper, drops a United States travel visa on the bed. Silently thanks Max Horkheimer. Quotation is out, not in the pastures, not at the market, nowhere to be seen. He might as well be contextless. She pictures him walking along the slumped river, stopping every ten minutes to catch his breath, the church rising like a leg from a puddle.   

(In fact, her brother is enjoying mint ice cream with the glacière, another Marxist in town.)

Dora stands by the window, tapping a stack of envelopes against the sill and watching the heavy clouds. On the back of each envelope are notes which will become Quotation’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in which he quotes, “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” 

Dora shuffles the envelopes of history and waits. She wishes Hannah were here. Hannah, who bluffed during chess and her brother’s talks of suicide. Dora knows Quotation. He likes delicate things. That Goethe story about the pocket-sized wife. New York, the Empire State Building, that swashbuckling attitude, none of it was pocket-sized. 

“Nothing drew him to America,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “where, as he used to say, people would probably find no other use for him than to cart him up and down the country to exhibit him as the ‘last European.’”

When Quotation returns we’ve already left; we don’t see him shaking off droplets as he enters, looking cleansed by the storm, almost happy.

After her visions, Marie Bernarde Soubirous would return to her poor family and remain in ecstasy for hours. So poor, her family, they’d taken up residence in a one-room basement, formerly the town prison. In ecstasy Marie held her palm to a candle tongue and did not feel the burn.  

On September 20th, Quotation leaves Lourdes and a summer of lupine, travelling east to Marseilles where he picks up a Spanish transit visa and briefly reunites with Hannah Arendt. Chess, they discuss, is something like a labyrinth, straightened out and seen from above. If you know how to move, you can logic your way forward. 

On September 25th, Quotation travels down the coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer. The idea is to steal over the border into Catalonian Spain, take a train to Lisbon and a ship to New York.  Banyuls has a smuggling past: salt, sugar, skins. The mayor is sympathetic to their plight. Beautiful Lisa Fittko will be the guide. She has a face like an open sheet of music. Here comes Henny Gurland with her son José, Quotation’s traveling companions. Smile for the mental snapshot: overexposed refugees, invisible ink. 

On September 26th, Quotation dresses in his traveling coat. He takes a morphine tablet with some fastidiousness, then swallows a tumbler of water. He picks up his leather attaché case containing a manuscript “more important than his life.” Watch this closely. 

Nature, Quotation soon discovers, is nothing like chess. Hedges grow wild, tall as mountains. Paths dig forward into fast streams, or dead-end on sea cliffs. Paths wend backwards, opening into twilight groves, feral dens, déjà vu, hotel lobbies. A two-hour trek becomes twelve. Crawling, Henny Gurland will claim, “on all fours.” Every ten minutes a one-minute break.

By the end of the night of September 26th, Quotation will be dead. No one witnesses the taking of his life. One euphemism is “check mate,” though a traveling companion will rewrite his last words.    


At a party in Paris, your friend introduces you to a blond Pyrenean sporting a paddy cap, named Benjamin. He studies philosophy, and smiles in the angelic way of men who know much about goats. He joins you on the couch, and you leave later with a list of philosophers typed into your phone. Among them is Quotation.  

You read “The Task of the Translator.” You like how Quotation shares your devotion to art. He says that therein lies an “ultimate essence,” which in literature is “pure language.” 

This pure language excites you. From what you understand, it is not the original words of the author, nor the strange valleys between languages a translator delights in. It is not some imagined origin language, nor a dump yard of lexical meanings—forget about meaning. Quotation is so good at describing what pure language is not, that you wonder if it is defined precisely by this mystic quality, the always-out-of-reach. Pure language seems beyond language, the essence of a story itself, as if stories lived on their own. Yet it seems inextricably linked to the poetry of the telling. Perhaps it has to do with beauty. Like the zip of a firefly beyond a copse of trees. It might explain the divinity you glimpse while reading, which has replaced, for you, for a long time now, a need for God. It’s that, there, aquero

But no matter how close you get, it shifts like a shadow, and blinks out of sight. 

Confess: you don’t understand Quotation. Your conception of pure language might be laughably off-course. You fear the map of your mind is not a maze, but a series of tidy cul-de-sacs, returning you to a main road full of mainstream thought patterns. You write fiction to disguise what you don’t know. You don’t even know if Quotation liked ice cream! Your words are impure. If torn from context, you don’t know how they’d find the will to paw at Catalonian wall lizards in the hot shallow below rocks.  

You want to discuss what you read with Benjamin, but your phone falls in a canal. You lose his number and your list of philosophers, and eventually move on. Still, sometimes you spot traces of pure language clinging to the face of things like moss. 


So here we are. Banyuls-sur-Mer. Early morning. Somewhere nearby is the entrance to the labyrinth, the unmarked trail to Spain. South is Franco, up there the Vichy Regime. Here is Quotation, translator of Baudelaire and Proust, unable to read a map. He stands at the corner of a shady avenue that will one day hold a plaque commemorating this journey—a plaque you spot 80 years later. But in 1940, there is only the faint soughing of the sea and Quotation’s bad sense of direction. He walks up and down the street before locating the group. The sun rises. 

Just outside town, grape vines lumber up lumpy, rusted hills. The wind whistles, pleasant and ominous. Quotation is winded with every foothold. Below, the sea, hot green, winking. Under its surface, fish slide about, seabream, stargazers, and the sarpa salpa which, when eaten, gives way to daytime dreams. 

The group eats burlap-packed provisions: bread with sheep cheese, a dented can of sardines, and purple pincushion figs, round and unready, jammed with seeds. In four days these figs should be perfectly ripe. The sun rises higher. 

You are haunted by the idea that the only thing we can count on having in life is time; no one knows how much, and when it runs out, you don’t have a life anymore. 

On the trail the hours stretch and distort. Quotation spent more hours of his life contemplating Proust’s use of the word métempsycose, but oh how they flew! At Les Deux Magots he once doodled a labyrinth on a napkin. Round table, round lip of espresso, the round way things have of recurring. Sweat rolls into his collar. 

Each important person in his life, Quotation wrote, is like “an entrance to the maze.” One by one these entrances have been closed and barred: Gershom Scholem, Bertolt Brecht, Georges Bataille, Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno, Dora his sister, Dora his ex-wife, Asja Lācis his lover. Other doors prove false—Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka. Fiction won’t save him in the labyrinth. 

He climbs over fallen trees, treads a slippery bank. Here he is on all fours. Someone holds his attaché case while he crawls under a log, soft with moss. Emerging, his forehead is marked with mud in the spot where he would have been shot at close range by the Gestapo, had he stayed in Paris. They carry on. Forests and streams, hills silver with olive trees. Every ten minutes a one-minute break. Acid reflux laps at his heart. His vision ripples from dehydration. Stabbing pain shoots up his back. He grips his attaché case, trying to get a grip on his mind, which is running ahead, deep in the labyrinth. He hurries to rejoin the group. 

The sun begins to desert them, and dark spaces between trees shift and click. Shaking, Quotation unscrews the morphine cap. 

Up here on the bluff, in tussling brome grass, human threat seems flimsy against the bare wind and bear tracks and steady sink of mud over millennia. Yet in one year’s time, Nazis will fill a ravine in the Ukraine with 33,771 Jewish bodies. And this is just one such pit. 

A century later, human evil will take a new form, one more… banal, we may think—those of us living outside the first geographic danger zones. Those of us living, as forests burn, corals bleach, and bees seek nectar in a barren season. The planet is round. There is nowhere to flee as greenhouse gases trap and choke, sparking a planet-sized holocaust. 

Portbou, Spain. The sun sets, and time ticks out. Below the hills in a crumpled heap, train tracks converge like a blood clot. The group descends, dirty, bedraggled, close to collapse. 

Here come the Portbou authorities. What are they saying?

Catalan accent, burbling like water. They say that Franco’s government cancelled all transit visas. That a new directive will deport all apàtrida. They are saying (not so fast please, we are winded)—that starting today, they cannot let in personnes sans nationalités without exit papers. You people, scratched and filthy, are stateless. No country, entens?

Henny Gurland looks at her fingernails, caked in dirt. José Gurland starts to shriek. Beautiful Lisa Fittko turns to the group, her face like the last sheet of music. 

Three Catalonian police march the refugees to the Hotel de Francia, where they’ll stay the night before returning to French territory and Nazi hands. Quotation lugs his quotations across town.  Warblers make garbled calls from the trees. 

Picture a game in which any forward move will put a bullet in your head, and any backward move will land you in a gas chamber. In this game, not moving is not an option. 

Alone in a hotel room, Quotation throws his useless visas at the wall. He cradles his head in his hands. 

Have you ever felt so much pain your whole body breaks? Heart, stomach, windpipe, skull, knuckles, ragged breath. It stamps and wrings. You barrel sideways. You gasp and burn. 

Susan Sontag reminds us that Quotation saw suicide as “an act which seals a heroic will.” 

He puts pen to paper. Here is the message (destroyed) he scrawled, in which he may (or may not) have told Henny Gurland to read, destroy, and rewrite said message (only she can know). 

Not knowing what he wrote, we quote the poet Anne Carson: “Hesitate, oh hesitate.”

Ten pm. Quotation is poised above the hotel sink, remembering how memory “not only collapses time, but allows us to repeat it.” He smokes hashish in the Tiergarten, kisses Asja in her wide-brimmed hat. 

Here is the empty morphine bottle. 

Here is heroic will. 

Here is the last European, sliding down the side of the hotel sink.  

Here is a curfewed mind, a cache of unspoken quotations. 

Here are brief implosions, like bombs dropped over a sleeping city. 

Here is the heart of the labyrinth.

Henny Gurland claims to quote Quotation in her transcribed message, while his body lay in the adjacent room: “In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice but to end it. It is in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me that my life will be finished. I ask you to transmit my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain to him the position in which I saw myself placed. There is not enough time to write all the letters I would have liked to write.”

Moss on the rocks in the sand drifts. 

Cerebral hemorrhage, the local doctor writes.

Incidentally, Quotation’s manuscript is missing. All those pages, lugged to this edge of the world. In New York, Theodore Adorno assumes himself sole inheritor of Quotation’s literary estate. Hannah Arendt paces, somber as ash, calling Adorno a “bastard.”

On the 27th of September, the new regulation is lifted. The group is permitted entrance into Spain. The refugees reach Lisbon on September 30th. On the boat to America, José Gurland discovers a ripe fig in his pocket. His mother crumples a receipt for a five-year grave. 

In a drawer at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Klee’s angel holds his clustered smile in place. His eyes slide sideways, though there’s nothing to see in the dark.    


Collect Quotation from the page. Tear him out gently, then bind his body in clean quotation marks. Transcendence is the only way to save him. Leave through the trapdoor, the one above your head. Quickly. Hoist yourself up and emerge on the other side of the story, in a meadow overlooking the sea, in the last light of day. Push out blindly into the brome grass, where a dragonfly pedals among blue orchanet, and a scops owl drops from a tree. At the precipice, you find nothing but sea spray. Contemplate your own contextlessness. Consider your faith. 

Down in the tide, Asja Lācis splashes in her wide brimmed hat. An echo emerges, as if in parenthesis (here is the task of the translator): approach, approach. 

Kaylen Baker is a writer and translator living in Paris, and a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program. She has previously published in Defunct Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Asymptote, The Adirondack Review, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, and was the 2019 winner of the Broadsided Press Switcheroo contest.