In the spring of 1932, Walter Benjamin bumped into his old friend Felix Noeggerath in Berlin. Noeggerath was packing to go to Ibiza to join his only son, Hans Jakob, who was studying the language and stories of the island, and invited Benjamin to join him. Ibiza was not only beautiful, unknown, and far from Berlin, but extremely cheap—welcome news for Benjamin, who had by then been reduced to abject poverty despite having been born into a rich Jewish family in Berlin in 1892. Thanks to Nazification, he would lose his apartment in Berlin in three months’ time for “code violations,” and his work for German newspapers, as well as his radio stories for children, would be terminated. His brother Georg, an ardent communist, would be placed in a concentration camp in 1933. Without hesitation, Benjamin accepted Noeggerath’s invitation, thus beginning an exile that lasted until his death from what appears to have been a self-administered overdose of morphine on the Spanish-French border in 1940 as he fled the Gestapo.
Drugs were doubtless important to Benjamin, who had first smoked hashish in Berlin in 1927. They confirmed his approach to reality and revolution, to art and politics—an approach shaped and sharpened by his experience of Ibiza. He stayed on the island two months, returning for another six in the summer of 1933. Wretchedly sad, he buried himself in his remote past, writing of his Berlin childhood. Yet he also wrote in lascivious detail of his surroundings, that other “remote past,” or so it seemed to him, this “outpost of Europe” apparently untouched by modernity. Here, he could face head-on his central idea that modernity atrophied the capacity to experience the world and tell stories. This is why the Ibizan poet Vicente Valero has titled his as-yet-untranslated book on Benjamin in Ibiza Experiencia y probreza (Experience and Poverty), after the title of a little-known essay Benjamin wrote under the spell of the island. In the hallucinatory splendor of Ibiza, with his future cast to the winds, Benjamin formulated what I would count as his major texts—on the storyteller and on the mimetic faculty—as well as inventing new forms for the essay as a crossover genre that linked dreams, ethnography, thought-figures, and story-telling.
Indeed, it is when one turns to this crossover genre that Benjamin’s better-known writings lose much of their obscurity. To read his famous essay “The Storyteller,” for example, is to experience what literary theorist Ross Chambers once confessed to me: “When I read Benjamin I think it is the most brilliant stuff I have ever read. When I finish reading, I can’t remember a thing.” But if you read Benjamin’s own stories, like “The Handkerchief” or his fictionalized account of taking hashish in Marseilles, then in a flash we understand “The Storyteller.”
Let me know if your more interested in this...