There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
When I first read this quote, my initial impression was that it came from Freud. If pressed, I would have guessed from his late-life despairing opus, Civilization and Its Discontents.2 But I was wrong. These were among the last words written by Walter Benjamin, months before his suicide in 1940. In fact, these words are engraved on his tombstone. Even more oddly, and perhaps profoundly befitting his somewhat scattered career, this German-Jewish atheist who died by suicide was allowed burial in consecrated Catholic soil in Spain.
Walter Benjamin was one of the founding fathers of the so-called Frankfurt School of Philosophy in the 1920s and 1930s, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, and Herbert Marcuse. The members were German neo-Marxists and psychoanalytically influenced scholars who were openly critical of the German people who allowed the National Socialists to come into power. The group introduced the concept of applying multidisciplinary study and dialectical methods to the bigger questions of history, psychology, economics, philosophy, and art—even to medicine, long before there was any discussion of a “bio-psycho-social” approach. For better or for worse, they developed the increasingly ill-defined “critical theory” that has so pervasively, even fetishistically, enthralled the academic towers in America since the 1960s.
Of all the group, Benjamin, primarily an historian and art critic, struggled most with mood lability. He wrote several suicide notes throughout the course of his brief lifetime, typically addressed to his current female partner, before finally composing his last one—addressed to no one in particular, on the night of September 26th, 1940. He gave the note to one of his fellow German-Jewish refugees, Henny Garland, who took it and did nothing to stop him from overdosing on morphine. She destroyed the note and convinced the authorities that Benjamin’s death was the result of heart failure, concerned that if the authorities discovered Benjamin’s death was a suicide it would weaken the entire group’s chances of obtaining exit visas.
The standard historical interpretation of Benjamin’s death is one of tragic pseudo-irony. Benjamin, with the help of his expatriated colleagues, Adorno and Horkheimer, had undertaken a desperate flight from Marseilles to Port Bou in Spain with several other refugees. Benjamin carried a single attaché case reportedly containing an unknown manuscript, and “enough morphine to kill a horse.” He had already abandoned his brother and sister to their own devices (as German-Jewish exiles with no citizenship; as did Gurland, who abandoned her prisoner-of-war second husband, only to marry Fromm 4 years later, and to commit suicide herself in 1952). Once in Port Bou, the group was told that Spain was no longer issuing exit visas to undocumented French refugees, and this was the pretext for Benjamin’s suicide. The next day, this decision was reversed, and the group was allowed to leave for neutral Portugal, and eventually for New York.
Dr Martin is Director of Consultation Emergency Psychiatric Services at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
1. Benjamin W. Theses on the Philosophy of History. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theses_on_the_Philosophy_of_History. Accessed June 18, 2018.
2. Freud S. Civilization and Its Discontents. Seaside, OR: Rough Draft Printing; 1913.
3. Benjamin W. The Destructive Character. http://www.revistapunkto.com/2011/12/destructive-character-walter-benjamin.html. Accessed June 19, 2018.
4. Schopenhauer A. On the Suffering of the World. London/New York: Penguin; 2004.
5. Sartre J-P. Literary and Philosophical Essays. New York: Collier; 1955.
6. Camus A. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage; 1983.