Sedan Chairs and Turtles

Leland de la Durantaye

On a spring day in 1940 Walter Benjamin gathered together the thousands of pages comprising his work of the last decade and carried them to his favourite place in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale. When he got there he gave them to Georges Bataille, a head librarian there, for safekeeping. Hours before the German army entered Paris with an order to arrest him, Benjamin left the city with ‘nothing but a gas mask and my toiletries’. What happened next – the attempted escape by way of Marseille disguised as a sailor, the exhausting flight over the Pyrenees to Spain, the fatal dose of morphine to avoid capture by the Gestapo, the escape of the rest of his group – is by now well known. After the war Benjamin’s friends went in search of his papers in the library, once Cardinal Richelieu’s palace. During every major conflict, beginning with the one that changed its name from the Bibliothèque royale to the Bibliothèque nationale, the library had taken in the most disparate array of things; it held untold riches in an untold order. It was an ideal place to conceal papers and, consequently, a less than ideal place to find them.

By 1945 Bataille had left Paris and couldn’t entirely remember what he’d done with the pages he’d been given. His uncertain directions led, nevertheless, to the recovery of Benjamin’s papers – or so it seemed. They were sent to New York. As Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno sifted through them he found many things present, and many things absent. Chief among the missing was the book on Baudelaire that had consumed Benjamin during the last three years of his life (and for which he had interrupted his work on the Arcades Project). Rumours about the location of the missing manuscript circulated widely. Some thought it must lie high in the Pyrenees, or languish forgotten in a corner of a Spanish customs office. With the rise of Benjamin’s popularity in the 1960s more and more efforts were undertaken to trace the missing papers, all without success. And then, in 1981, a new detective on the case, Giorgio Agamben, while poring over Bataille’s correspondence, found a clue, and then another. A few months later he held five folders full of typescripts, fair copies, notecards, observations written on café stationery, drafts made on the backs of letters, outlines, schemas, tables and colour-coded indices. It was the lost book, the last work.

In an ideal publishing world Agamben’s discovery would soon have been followed by the book’s appearance in German, Italian, French, English and a host of other languages. But Benjamin’s book was found in this world. The editors of the German edition of Benjamin’s collected works, then in mid-publication, included in their annotations many fragments of the materials Agamben shared with them, but postponed separate publication. Publishing travails beginning with the purchase of Einaudi by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondadori-Mediaset corporation led to the cancellation of the project in Italy. Now, more than thirty years after its rediscovery, it has at last been published in a handsome nine hundred-page Italian edition which painstakingly traces Benjamin’s final work from first intuition to last words. (The German critical edition of the book, originally promised for publication this year, has been delayed until 2016.)

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