A conversation of Walter Benjamin with Theodor W.Adorno, Gershom Scholem, and Arnold Schönberg

  1. Four Men

  2. Four Wives

  3. One Angel (by Paul Klee)

  4. Four Jews

  5. Benjamin’s Grip


I have chosen the format of direct speech to present an easily grasped and humanizing view of four extraordinary intellectuals of the 20th century: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Arnold Schönberg. From youth, these men seemed convinced that they were destined for Parnassus; none of them ever discarded a scrap of writing, and if he did, one of his friends picked it up and preserved it. As a consequence, the literature on these men—biographical, critical, interpretative, or revisionist—is enormous. And since they lived in the pre-computer, faxless age of letter writers, a great deal of their professional and personal correspondence is extant, with much of it published in book form. Furthermore, each of them is the focus of an active archival site: Adorno’s in Frankfurt, Benjamin’s in Berlin, Scholem’s in Jerusalem, and Schönberg’s in Vienna. Especially voluminous has been the writing about their personal and cerebral interaction, as well as the manner in which Adorno and Scholem posthumously canonized Benjamin after his tragic suicide, thus precipitating the formation of an entire subdiscipline of Benjaminology.

Why did I pick this particular foursome? Because all four belonged to the peculiar subset of German and Austrian bourgeois Jews of the pre-World War II generation who often were more Berlinish or Viennese than their non-Jewish compatriots. None was deeply religious; some of them were essentially secular. This is also the generation and social subset to which I belong, and my personal experience with the indelible effects of growing up as a secular Jew in Vienna in the 1930s made me want to examine the range of the meaning of “Jew” through four individuals who responded so differently to that label. Sometimes even non-Jews such as Paul Klee—an important though silent character in my book—fell under suspicion in that era of vicious anti-Semitism, and were branded: it was enough that their vocation or creative output resembled that of their secular Jewish counterparts.

Until recently, my own biographical writing was limited to autobiography, indeed an autobiographical explosion. In 1990, I wrote an autobiography1 addressed to my fellow chemists, which made heavy use of chemical pictography barely intelligible to a general audience. Having been bitten by this bug of self-disclosure, two years later I published an autobiography2 meant for a general readership, but presented in the somewhat non-conventional style of 20 non-chronologically arranged, self-contained chapters. This autobiography marked my literary maturation beyond standard scientific information-laden prose, and was followed a decade later by a slim memoir3 that described my full metamorphosis from scientist to late-blooming novelist and playwright. In the process, I learned an important lesson: autobiography contains a huge component of automythology, since the words set on paper have to pass through the personal psychic filter of an exhibitionist, which every autobiographer is. Only an utter masochist is capable of undressing completely before the voyeuristic reader to display every blemish, infirmity, or misdeed. Not so with biography, where the author deals with another person, frequently a deceased stranger, with most evidence based on written or photographic documentation.

1 C. Djerassi, Steroids made it possible, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, 1990. 2 C. Djerassi, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse, Basic Books, New York, 1992. 3 C. Djerassi, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th birthday of the Pill, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

The biographical sketches in my Four Jews on Parnassus arose from a blend of autobiographical and biographical impulses. I wished to write about four European intellectuals of the 20th century—for me, my century, given that I was born in 1923. This was also a spectacularly important year for the four subjects I picked: Adorno and Benjamin first met in 1923, the year in which Adorno also first met his future wife Gretel as well as the year in which Scholem emigrated to Palestine and married; and also the year in which Schönberg became a widower and first released his “Komposition mit 12 Tönen.” But there is more to my choice of these four European Jews: I recognized themes in their lives that I also wanted to examine in my own as I approach its end. Just as in my own autobiography, I decided to deal with my four subjects through selected sketches, which are not necessarily chronologically connected. In this instance, my choice was based on themes that in my opinion have hitherto either been largely underrepresented or even misrepresented in their otherwise overdocumented biographical records. And even more importantly, I have chosen to characterize my subjects by writing dialogue for them. The five episodes could, therefore, be categorized as scenes in a prose Docudrama, because (with two stipulated exceptions) every nugget of biographical information I disclose is based on historical documentation, at times even on direct quotation, derived from the bibliography or the personal interviews that are I chose to present this biographical material exclusively in dialogue, with the exception of the prefatory sections to each sketch. One reason lies in my own biography. In my former incarnation as a scientist over a period of half a century, I was never permitted, nor did I allow myself, to use direct speech in my written discourse. With very rare exceptions, scientists have completely departed from written dialogue since the Renaissance, when especially in Italy some of the most important literary texts were written in dialogue—ranging from expository or even didactic to conversational or satirical—that attracted both readers and authors. Galileo is an outstanding example. And not just in Italy. Take Erasmus of Rotterdam: his “Colloquies” are a marvelous example how one of the Renaissance’s greatest minds managed to cover in purely dialogic form topics ranging from “Military Affairs (Militaria)“ or “Sport (De lusu)“ to “Courtship (Proci et puellae)“ or “The young Man and the Harlot (Adolescentis et scorti)”. This explosion of dialogic writing even stimulated literary theoretical studies. From the 16th century on, critics have attempted to exalt, defend, regulate, or—alas—abolish this genre of writing.


One of these critics was the Earl of Shaftesbury, who in 1710 commented in his “Advice to an Author” that “dialogue is at an end [because] all pretty Amour and Intercourse of Caresses between the Author and Reader” had disappeared. Since my purpose is to present a humanizing view of my four subjects rather than theoretical insight into their work, I feel that dialogic “Intercourse of Caresses” rather than the more dispassionate third person voice may be the most effective way of accomplishing this. I can only hope that the intimacy of my caresses will convince the reader that at least in “Four Jews on Parnassus” I was justified in disregarding the Earl of Shaftesbury’s counsel.

Carl Djerassi, June 2007

Chapter 1. Four Men

Par·nas·sus (pär-năs'әs) also Par·nas·sós (-nä-sôs'): A mountain, about 2,458 m high, in central Greece north of the Gulf of Corinth. In ancient times it was sacred to Apollo, Dionysus, and the Muses. The Delphic Oracle was at the foot of the mountain. Metaphorically, the name "Parnassus" in literature typically refers to its distinction as the home of poetry, literature, and learning.

Parnassus is a commonly accepted metaphor for the ultimate recognition of literary, musical or intellectual achievement. Arrival on this exalted peak demonstrates that the process of canonization is complete. In the final analysis, the underlying theme in the following conversational quintet is an examination of the desire for canonization and the process whereby it is achieved. Among my four protagonists, solely Walter Benjamin— now considered to be one of the most important and influential philosophers and socioliterary critics of the 20th century—ascended Parnassus posthumously. The other three had reached Parnassus while still alive. At the time of his suicide in 1940, only a limited circle of predominantly German intellectuals—among them Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht and Gershom Scholem—considered Benjamin of Parnassian stature. The content and style of his writings was so complicated, even convoluted; the range of his interests so wide; and his publications so fragmented, that only a limited circle of contemporaries and especially recipients of his letters and reprints were able to absorb and appreciate the extraordinary depth and breadth of this powerful thinker. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, “for fame the opinion of a few is not enough.” Only in the 1950s as his writings started to be collected and published under the editorship of Adorno, his wife Gretel, and of Scholem did Benjamin receive recognition in Europe. In America, the pivotal event was the publication of the English translation in 1968 of Hannah Arendt’s collection of Benjamin’s most famous essays under the title Illuminations at which time Walter Benjamin was already ensconced on Parnassus. But as Arendt states in her introduction to Illuminations,” Posthumous fame is too odd a thing to be blamed upon the blindness of the world or the corruption of a literary milieu.” Timing also has to be right and the post-Nazi, Marxist dialectics climate of the 1960s culminating in the student movements of 1968 was ideal.

There are certain rules and conditions that I have invented for the Parnassus where my four protagonists are finally meeting once more. Benjamin had asked his two friends, Adorno and Scholem, to meet him for an elucidation of some missing facts, because in my post-modern Parnassus everything that happened during a person’s life time and since the arrival on Parnassus is known. In fact, internet access or amazon-type ordering of current books is also possible, but no e-mail contact with the outside world nor any new creative work. So what is Benjamin’s problem? Since he alone arrived posthumously on Parnassus, there is a gap in his autobiographical knowledge between his suicide in September 1940 and his arrival on Parnassus some two decades later. Could they help him fill that gap?

In the many hundreds of books and thousands of articles, the trio Benjamin, Adorno and Scholem frequently occurs together. But what about the presence of the fourth, Arnold Schönberg? There is no evidence that either Benjamin or Scholem ever met the composer. In fact, not even Benjamin’s writing shows any affinity to or interest in Schönberg, although I now describe a hitherto unknown distant factual familial relationship. Adorno, on the other hand, had a life-long connection with Schönberg. Still in his early twenties, after a precocious doctoral thesis in philosophy, Adorno went in 1925 to Vienna to study composition with Schönberg, although his actual teacher was Alban Berg. For years, they had a respectful yet contentious4 relationship, which underwent its severest test when Schönberg blamed Adorno for misrepresenting his persona when advising Thomas Mann for the development of the key figure, the 12-tone composer Adrian Leverkühn, in his novel Dr. Faustus. Eventually, Schönberg forgave Mann, but not Adorno.

But that is not the reason why I have included Schönberg with the other trio. I needed him as an important foil as well as participant in chapters 2, 3 and 4, because the canonization process that reoccurs in all of these chapters does not just refer to persons, but also to works of art, including music. Arnold Schönberg had invented a four-party chess game, coalition chess (Bündnisschach). The basic rules of the game are as follows. Two of the four players have 12 chess figures (yellow and black) at their disposal and are thus considered the two “big” powers, whereas the other two have only six figures (green and red), thus representing the “small” powers. After the first three moves, two “coalitions ensue in that one of the small powers declares itself associated with one of the big ones. Thereafter the play continues until check mate is reached.

Since the conversational confrontations of my protagonists can almost be considered an array of social chess gambits involving both attack-defense as well as collaborative moves, Gabriele Seethaler has introduced visual alterations of Schönberg’s coalition chess as the leitmotiv for the five chapters—itself an attractive photorealistic gambit.

And now, meet my four characters, before we turn to their wives.

4 An early example of their testy relationship in Vienna can be gleaned from two letters written by Adorno to his friend Siegfried Kracauer. In 1925, Adorno wrote that Schönberg “talked to me like Napoleon to a young Adjutant, who had just arrived from a distant battlefield. Naturally Napoleon had to express some interest, even though he had long forgotten its relevance.“ And a year later, Adorno wrote that “he is irritated at me since I have a deep relationship with Berg rather than devoting myself to him [Schönberg]. He seems to have a real Wiesengrund Complex and even quarreled with Berg about me.“

2. Four wives

As Adorno implied in his concluding sentence, readers interested in famous men are invariably interested in their private lives. The correspondence of Adorno, Benjamin, and Scholem with each other or with friends, at times also with parents or lovers, has been published in many volumes. In the case of Schönberg, over 20,000 letters are extant in several repositories. But where is the correspondence with their wives? It isn’t that the spouses did not correspond with each other; most of them were addicted letter writers. Does this mean that the letters were not preserved through mere sloppiness? Destroyed out of embarrassment? Or are they hidden away in archives? Especially puzzling in that regard is the correspondence of Benjamin and Scholem. They wrote to each other for over twenty years, in an intimate and intellectually challenging exchange of letters that was carefully preserved and then published virtually in its entirety; yet they say practically nothing about their wives. Was this topic too intimate? Or did they simply consider it tangential to the weighty issues that concerned them in their letters? Their sheer length is virtually unimaginable in today’s world of pithy e-mail messages or non-recorded mobile phone conversations, compounded by the fact that at times Benjamin did not even have access to a telephone. An equally astonishing epistolary intercourse is that between Adorno and Benjamin, which covers eight years. In once instance, two monumental letters from Adorno to Benjamin alone amount to ca. 50 single-spaced pages—sufficient for a modest masters degree dissertation, but in depth of content exceeding that of many a Ph.D. thesis.

Yet each of these four wives was an accomplished and energetic woman, well educated and deeply familiar with her husbands’ intellectual spheres. All but one (Mathilde Schönberg) contributed to her husband’s creative output. In spite of their substantial intellectual and emotional contributions, the wives have received minimal exposure in the voluminous biographical or autobiographical literature of these four intellectual giants. For instance, given the almost unbelievable minutiae that have been documented in Benjamin’s life, relatively little is known from his own pen about his wife, Dora Sophie. In fact, after Benjamin’s suicide at age 48, her subsequent 24 years in London are shrouded in obscurity.

Who was Dora Sophie Benjamin?

Dora Sophie (to differentiate her from Benjamin’s sister, Dora Benjamin) was born in 1890 in Vienna as the daughter of the Jewish Viennese Professor of English, Leon Kellner. Family life endowed her with a knowledge of English, which subsequently served her well; and she developed a passion for music while growing up. (Benjamin, in contrast, had only a rudimentary knowledge of the English language and almost none at all of music). At age 21, she married an affluent journalist and philosophical pedagogue, Max Pollack, who was a member of Benjamin’s circle in Berlin at the outbreak of World War I. Dora Sophie Pollack was so smitten by 22-year old Walter Benjamin’s inaugural speech as Chairman of the Free Students Union that she presented him with roses. A year later, they were traveling together, and after her divorce from Max Pollack, they married in 1917. During their marriage, Dora Sophie provided the bulk of their income, first as bilingual secretary, subsequently through journalistic work, later through editorship of the magazine Die praktische Berlinerin, and finally through fiction writing; her novel Gas gegen Gas appeared in 1930. Their only son, Stefan, was born in 1918, while Benjamin studied for his doctorate in Bern, a period during which Dora Sophie also met Scholem and his future wife Escha and the latter’s second husband, Hugo Bergman—persons that the readers will encounter shortly. As Dora Sophie wrote in a letter to Scholem, she wanted a partner who could give meaning to her life, while Walter needed protection from suicide. Neither motivation preserved their rocky marital relationship, which ended in 1930. The judicial record of their divorce proceeding presents a sordid melodrama full of sexual infidelities and quarrels over money. After Hitler’s rise to power, Dora Sophie Benjamin moved to Italy, where she first served as cook and later owner of the Hotel Miramare in San Remo. On several occasions she provided refuge to her penniless former husband at the hotel. In 1938, she undertook a marriage of convenience with a South African businessman, which enabled her to move in 1938 to London with her son Stefan. She died there in 1964.

Two other points merit mention. Rumors, allusions, and even some documentary evidence suggest that Dora Sophie disliked—perhaps even despised—both Scholem and Adorno. (Interestingly, Scholem’s second wife, Fania, had equally negative feelings about Benjamin: according to an interview in Haaretz in 1987, she thought Benjamin dishonest and selfish in that he would never do anything to help Scholem if Scholem was in need. Yet she admitted that Scholem truly loved Benjamin, probably more than any other person in the world). More pertinent to later sections in my book is the total absence of Judaism in the upbringing of Stefan Benjamin, who died in London at age 54. His third wife was a Chinese Buddhist, and neither one of the daughters from that marriage had ever set foot in a synagogue.

But these are not the sort of biographical details that Dora Sophie Benjamin would have recapitulated during a final, posthumous visit to Parnassus. More likely topics would have been her grudges about their early adulteries, and her questions about the fate of the gift she had made to Benjamin on his birthday in 1920: a water color by Paul Klee titled Presentation of the miracle. A second work by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, acquired by Benjamin the following year, played such an important emotional and intellectual role in his life--and later in the lives of Adorno and Scholem—that it has been anointed as Benjamin’s logo. Why has nothing been written by Benjamin or his friends about that Presentation of the miracle? It is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But how did it get there? The answer to this hitherto puzzling question regarding provenance is offered below.

3. One Angel (by Paul Klee)

An important thread that ran for many years through the friendship of Benjamin, Scholem and Adorno was a preoccupation with a drawing by Paul Klee, the Angelus Novus of 1920. Benjamin owned this drawing, and after his death it passed to Adorno and then to Scholem. Klee, who died in the same year (1940) as Benjamin, created over 9000 works in his lifetime, but while the Angelus Novus is both aesthetically appealing and conceptually intriguing, artistically it is by no means one of Klee’s major works. Yet the Angelus Novus is among Klee’s most famous works, because Benjamin featured it in an influential essay on the philosophy of history, where he attributed to the drawing a host of metaphorical meanings.

I have been an avid collector of Klee’s works for over forty years and have seen and studied hundreds upon hundreds of examples of his artistic output. As a collector of art, the process of canonization of works of art has long intrigued me, so much so that in 2004, I have even written an entire play on that subject, entitled “Phallacy.5 My interpretation of the manner in which first Walter Benjamin and then Gershom Scholem promoted Klee’s Angelus Novus led me to a totally revisionist view of this famous drawing. I put in Arnold Schönberg’s mouth my view that Benjamin’s success in appropriating the meaning of Klee’s image represents an inapt canonization in art. But why use a surrogate rather than express these opinions directly in my words?

First, only Schönberg among the four could claim some competence as a visual artist with an output of over 200 paintings and drawings. Although an autodidact (“I had no theoretical and very little esthetic training”), Schönberg in his early thirties benefited greatly from his intimate contact with the painter Richard Gerstl—next to Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka among the most important Austrian painters of the early 20th century—which ended only when the intimacy with Schönberg turned into an adulterous relationship with Schönberg’s wife Mathilde. Schönberg’s first public exhibition in 1910 in Vienna was panned by the critics— as much of his music had been—yet the following year he was prepared to paint portraits for a living. His rationale was expressed with real chutzpa in a letter to his publisher: “Don’t tell people that they will like my paintings. Instead, make it clear that my pictures must appeal to them because they have been praised by experts and especially because it is much more interesting that they are painted by a composer of my reputation…” After listing his prices, he concluded: “This is really a bargain if one considers that in 20 years these pictures will be worth 10times and in 40-years 100 times that sum.” One of the experts praising Schönberg was Wassily Kandinsky, who strongly encouraged Schönberg and saw in him a raw talent that merited inclusion in a Blaue Reiter exhibition in

5 The play has already been staged in London (New End Theatre and King’s Head Theatre, 2005) and New York City (Cherry Lane Theatre, 2007) and published in German translation: C. Djerassi, “Phallstricke/Tabus: Zwei Theaterstücke aus den Welten der Naturwissenschaft und der Kunst,” Haymon Verlag, Innsbruck, 2005.

Munich in 1911. The following year, Paul Klee joined the Blaue Reiter and while Schönberg was no particular fan of Klee’s—perhaps because Klee, a superb classical musician, had been very critical in reviewing the first performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire—he clearly was familiar with his work.

Second, in the context of Klee’s Angelus Novus, I also wished to discuss the way musical works are subject to canonization, and are also exploited as sources of metaphors. In that regard, Schönberg’s figure fitted ideally, since his master-disciple connection with Adorno, an important musicologist for much of his life, was real and required no deus ex machina manipulation on my part; nor did the hitherto unknown familial connection between Schönberg and Benjamin, which I disclosed in the first chapter.

Third, I have Schönberg, the painter, make the case regarding how inappropriate the canonization of Klee’s Angelus Novus was, because in the final analysis, a work of art should only be canonized on the basis of its aesthetic and artistic merits, and not because a famous owner happened to have written about it. Through Schönberg’s words I speculate what Klee actually might have had in mind when he created the work twenty years earlier. In that connection, I address the point first raised independently by Konrad Eberlein (University of Graz) and Geoffrey H. Hartman (Yale University) that Paul Klee may well have thought of Adolf Hitler as the Angelus Novus—the ultimate irony for a work so loved by the three sequential Jewish owners, that now resides in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. As a consequence and as a challenge to Benjamin, I have Schönberg support my revisionist arguments about what Klee might have painted, had he wished to illustrate Benjamin’s essay, through specially created “Pseudo-Klee” images by Gabriele Seethaler.

Finally, I wanted to illuminate the extraordinary effect Klee has had on other composers. For this purpose I manufacture a professional debate between Adorno and Schönberg and illustrate it with some actual musical compositions inspired by the Angelus Novus, including one especially composed by Erik Weiner for this chapter. In the course of the somewhat contentious exchanges of my four protagonists, I finally document the missing portions in the hitherto incomplete provenance of the Angelus Novus, notably how it finally ended up in Scholem’s hands before passing to its present permanent resting place, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

4. Four Jews

As is already clear from the title of my book, Jewish identity is the key theme. In this chapter, I address the nuanced question of what it means to be a Jew: to the non-Jewish outsider and even more importantly, to the specific Jew under the magnifying glass, where Jewish identity can range from proud acknowledgment or tacit admission to devious denial. The topic is debated from the viewpoints of four very verbal and very different Jews, as well as that of a fifth silent “Jew.” In many respects, it is the meaning of the quotation marks around that last word that forms the crux of their arguments.

It now also becomes clear why I chose these four men to illuminate the issue of Jewish identity in the absence of a common religious label: Theodor W. Adorno as the prototypical German Jewish non-Jew; Walter Benjamin, as a complicated vacillating German Jew; Gershom Scholem, as the committed German Zionist Jew; and Arnold Schönberg, as the Austrian Jew, converting to Protestantism for whatever reasons, who returned to Judaism when he recognized the futility of such all too common conversions. And finally a category of Jew that arose especially around the turn of the last century, the Central-European non-Jewish Jew, of which Paul Klee represents the example par excellence. Discussing him in this context is especially fruitful after having covered in such detail his famous Angelus Novus in the preceding chapter.

There is, of course, another overriding presence, namely that of Carl Djerassi. As I already stated in the book’s foreword, I belong to the same subset of secular, middle class, Austrian and German Jews of the pre-World War II generation as my four protagonists. After my immigration to the USA at age 16 as a fugitive from Nazi Austria, I was totally focused on assimilation. Flaunting or even hinting at my Jewish origin was far from my mind— not unlike Adorno upon his arrival in the USA. Decades passed before I, the typically non-reflective, workaholic scientist, acquired a taste for introspection. With it arose questions about Jewish identity that I am attempting to answer in this chapter through the putative words of Adorno, Benjamin, Scholem and Schönberg. Thus, while the biographical facts attributed to them are rigorously documented, what they say and how they say it had to pass through the very fine mesh of my own psychic filter.

There is one topic in this discussion of secular Jews from Vienna, Berlin and Frankfurt of the earlier half of the 20th century that cannot be swept under the rug, namely their dislike of the “Ostjuden,” the Yiddish-speaking and mostly also religious Jews who had come from Poland and Russia. It is too complicated a topic to discuss fairly within the confines of my rather narrow biographical sketches of Adorno, Benjamin, Scholem, and Schönberg, but I am flagging it at the very end of the book during the appearance of Hannah Arendt, who was equally guilty of this intra-Jewish prejudice.

5. Benjamin’s Grip

Up to this point in “Four Jews on Parnassus,” all exchanges among the Parnassians were based on historically grounded facts—on archival materials, and published documentation that has appeared in a flood that, at least in the case of Benjamin, shows no indication of slackening. But in this final chapter, we are entering the realm of speculation starting with the question of Benjamin’s death. Did he really commit suicide on September 26, 1940 or did something more nefarious occur, possibly murder, as is implied in the oral testimony of some rather aged Spanish contemporaries shown in David Mauas’s documentary film of 2005, Quién mató a Walter Benjamin? The consensus among academic Benjaminologists still favors suicide, and I share that opinion on three grounds.

First, Benjamin was tempted through much of his life by this drastic, irrevocable solution to life’s many problems, of which he certainly bore his share. As we have seen in chapter 2, he was so close to such a final step in 1932 that he composed his last will; it included detailed instructions about the disposal of his meager belongings. Second, his acquaintance and fellow refugee from Vichy France was Arthur Koestler, who later committed suicide himself in London. Koestler disclosed, in one of his autobiographies, the fact that Benjamin had shared with him his supply of pills—an act of bizarre generosity. Third, Benjamin was “small fry” in terms of Gestapo aims. That the Gestapo would chase him to a small Spanish border town and murder him there seems unlikely.

But for the purposes of my dialogs on Parnassus, it does not matter how Benjamin died, because I represent him as solely preoccupied with what transpired after he died. And this brings us to a dramatic teaser: the unanswered question of what Benjamin was carrying in the travel bag (or “grip”) that accompanied him across the Pyrenees in his flight from France to Spain. Evidence for Benjamin's obsessive attachment to this grip comes solely from Lisa Fittko, Benjamin’s guide across the Pyrenees. The only other potential witnesses, Henny Gurland and her young son, José, who were part of the small group of refugees, proved of no help by the time Fittko’s story was first published in 1982 in the magazine, Merkur, and subsequently more fully in 1985 in her book, Escape through the Pyrenees (Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen). Any honest autobiographer—a group to which I claim membership—is aware of the unreliability of memory, especially when a hitherto untouched veil is lifted some four decades after the actual event.

Be that as it may, the story first captured the attention of Gershom Scholem, whose lengthy conversation with Lisa Fittko in 1980 caused him to ask Rolf Tiedemann—one of Adorno’s most prominent disciples and the person who has published or edited more works on Adorno and Benjamin than any other individual—to visit Port Bou and examine local Spanish archives. Both Scholem and Tiedemann believed that Fittko’s account was fundamentally correct, whereupon Scholem prompted Fittko to set the record—in so far as it could still be called a firm, factual record—on paper. That in turn has given rise during the past 25 years to numerous speculations in the biographical and academic literature as well as in some plays and novels. Benjamin’s grip has never been recovered. So why do I feel it necessary to contribute to this mass of speculation, when the unambiguous answer will almost certainly never be known?

The reason for my interest is that none of the published explanations about the contents of Benjamin’s grip has seemed to me persuasive. All are all based on one single assumption that nobody has questioned: that Benjamin carried with him in his grip manuscripts that he wanted to preserve.

If this were true, why did Benjamin not include one additional single sheet of paper— clearly the emotionally as well as financially most valuable one—the Angelus Novus? Why did he leave that in the suitcase stuffed with other documents in Georges Bataille’s hands at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris—material that survived the Nazi occupation and eventually found its way to Adorno in New York? Since the true answer will never be known, I have felt justified in putting forth a totally different hypothesis from those in circulation, namely that what Benjamin took with him was material he did not want to see preserved if he would die. Once that logical premise is granted, then all kinds of possibilities can be explored, one of which I detail in the last conversation of my four heroes on Parnassus. As I indicate in the introduction to my extensive bibliography, aside from one minor factoid, it is the only part of my biographical sketches that is not based on historically grounded evidence but rather on supposition. But my hypothesis allows me to address one other virtually unknown aspect of Benjamin’s sojourn in Paris before his final flight south and eventual death in Spain: his relationship to Georges Bataille, whom he saw practically daily during his research in the Bibliothèque Nationale and to whom he entrusted his most valuable literary possessions as well as Klee’s

Angelus Novus.

Georges Bataille himself almost falls into the category of a posthumous canonizee—at least in terms of his current reputation as one of the most sophisticated literary pornographers of his time. Virtually all of his pornographic and erotic works were written under pseudonyms and only privately printed during his life time. Surprisingly enough, in spite of the likely daily meetings between Bataille and Benjamin, no correspondence and only trivial written documentation concerning their relationship is extant. But why should such correspondence be expected? If they had anything to say to each other, they clearly would have done so face to face during their frequent encounters in the library or perhaps even in the closed pornographic section—“l’Enfer”—which we know Benjamin frequented and which must have been a key resource to Bataille in his own work. Even if my extrapolations of such tenuous facts should prove to be incorrect, it does illustrate my views of Benjamin’s sexuality, a subject that is often underplayed or ignored in the conventional hagiographic treatment of his persona.

There are two other German intellectuals who greatly influenced Benjamin and also contributed to his ultimate recognition: Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht. While my biographical spotlights barely touched on them in the first four chapters, I felt it indispensable to offer them the last words. And now let us listen to what Walter Benjamin has to say to his friends Gerhard Scholem and Teddie Adorno, and to his new acquaintance Arnold Schönberg, when pressed about the contents of his grip.