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.

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