Elliott Sharp comments on Port Bou

This picture shows the Spanish town of Port Bou in 1935, at which time it had about 3,000 inhabitants. Between 1936 to 1939, because Port Bou was close to the border between Spain and France, more than 300,000 people passed through as refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
Walter Benjamin, well known and widely respected German Jewish philosopher, was a refugee from the occupation of France at the beginning of the Second World War. With a plan to reach the United States from Portugal, he had passed through Marseilles, then the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, then on foot through the mountains to Port Bou. Ill with heart disease, exhausted, and despondent, he arrived at Port Bou on September 24, 1940. On September 25, he committed suicide by swallowing a handful of morphine pills. What were his final hours like?

For information about Elliott Sharp's opera Port Bou, go here.

What might we surmise about the internal state of a man deciding that life is no longer liveable, especially when that man is Walter Benjamin in 1940 in Port Bou? As the Second World War was increasing in magnitude, it was not uncommon for Jewish writers, artists, and professionals to carry the means of suicide with them, believing it to be preferable to internment and torture at the hands of the Nazis. This was a time of desperation, of impending götterdämmerung, whether global or personal.

Benjamin was unafraid to delve into the various philosophies and modes of living presented to him but never would fully give himself to any of them. Whether it was domestic tranquility, mysteries of the Kabbala, political Zionism, an eroticized Communism, or academic abstraction, these all offered seductions and enticements but never enough for complete commitment.

Benjamin was solipsistic and sybaritic, sufficently fulfilled by his solitary obsessions and interests to attempt to remain an autonomous free-agent. His strengths were of the esthetic, the cerebral, not those of a man who might fight or suffer for his ideals.

While attempting to reach Lisbon and from there, ship's passage to America, Benjamin was presented in Port Bou with the notion that the obstacles to his salvation were insurmountable. Then and there, he chose to submit by the obvious means at hand to remove himself from conflicts both internal and external. We might see this as an act of exhaustion, not a willful exit but a collapse of will. It was the loss of inner reserve.

In Port Bou, I attempt to recreate this state, all taking place in the last few minutes of real time for Benjamin. As composer and author, I offer no judgement. I try to act as an antenna for the imagined emanations of his distress and translate them to the frequencies of music and drama. Benjamin was heroic in his thoughts. But I do not attempt to make a hero of the man. He is yet another innocent casualty of a great tragedy, one in which he might never have imagined himself a protagonist.

Elliott Sharp
October 9, 2014