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from the May 2008 issue

from “In Ben’s Footsteps”

For Tim Peltason, Debra Carbares, Anjali Prabhu, and the Newhouse Humanities Center, Wellesley College

Ben, do you know why the dreams of children are always corrupted in the mouths of adults? Why must we lose the gift of wonder and the faculty of indignation? And why do so few of us become ice-breakers or fire alarms? And yet, Ben, you gave us markers, signposts, beginnings . . . Of thought, dreams and meditation, to take away and sustain us for the rest of our lives.

We were only a group of young Berliners eager to live out in the open. For that, no need to respect bourgeois conventions. Instead, we had to swear and spit into the street, bellow in the greasy spoons and whorehouses of Old Berlin, be on the same wavelength as Paris poets and London bohemians, promise ourselves we'd pack up and leave the rotten Weimar Republic that produced more missionaries and lawyers than acrobats. We had to go, not to France where the bourgeoisie we reviled had ruled the roost since Napoleon's defeat in 1815, but to Paris—I mean the Paris of Rimbaud and Laforgue, the Paris of inner earthquakes and bohemian years, the Paris of Montparnasse where debates fly high in the Rotonde, the Dôme, the Coupole and even the Jockey Club. No sooner had we arrived than we had to shout with Flaubert that hatred for the bourgeoisie is the beginning of wisdom, turn our backs on their cynical, prudish professors, with their monocles and shiny black shoes polished like mirrors; encased in vulgar materialism, they spend their time trying to determine whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, if it should be eaten as a starter or dessert, raw or boiled, etc. Our only rule: an intense life of the mind, no matter how indolent or dissolute our real lives might turn out to be. Keep sight and hearing sharp. Keep ears whipped up by jazz and Mozart operas—music that irritates stay-at-homes with bad breath and fat bellies, not to mention businessmen who hire and fire with a vengeance. In short, live like those desert plants that have to grow in a hostile environment and need to thrust their roots deep into the clay for nourishment. Swap the patina of habit for the intoxication of novelty. Ask oneself what finally counts in a life: owning a small private house in the Marais or going on a trip to the East like Flaubert with his friend Maxime du Camp, or just running away out of erotic passion and mystic quest? A fortune from exotic wood in Gabon, or poetic fever in a garret on Rue Quincampoix, scribbling out page after page while looking lovingly at the skull inevitably wedged between the fat volumes of Dante, Rabelais and Don Quixote? Ah, the bohemian life!

Ben, isn't your whole life a floating balloon hanging just over the bushes, waiting for the helium that would surely send it up to the star-drenched sky—the light gas of love, no doubt? I know how good you feel in Paris, especially at this time of your life; you hang out with prostitutes, stateless people and immigrants. There are loads of them. The Paris of covered passages, vanishing points and your beloved Baudelaire. The Paris of the Bibliothèque Nationale, the old library where Maurice Blanchot always has some kind words and a warm cup for you. You would sometimes meet him in a little café on Rue Mazarine. The two of you talked about Paris and architecture. "Here, architecture is not a set," you would say, "It's an essential character, rooted in its history, never out of the frame, nor out of danger, nor out of the reach of cannons. No matter how hard it tries to fool us, how much it melts into the landscape, welcoming and being welcomed by the Seine, mistress of the city. Moreover, it makes a point of using the dialect of the river's gentle meanders, speaking the patois of the four seasons, resisting the fury of atmospheric pressure, arching its back under the cold of dawn and suffering under the whip of lightning." Blanchot would nod, his mind half elsewhere.

Like that landscape, you were always guided by the mobile intuition of daydreaming, the alchemy of dreams; you even turned the cheap paper of rumor into the silk of reason. Ah Ben, you're probably hiding it from yourself but you truly are part of that lost group, I mean those all-too-Germanized Jews who can find themselves only by going back to the deep roots of their people and returning to the land of Israel to join the masses flocking from all over to make the deserts of Palestine turn green. Haven't you remained the German petty-bourgeois, Dr. Walter Benjamin, sometime journalist and unemployed professor, unable to write a novel about his predicament because you yourself are a character from a novel? A dull life without the novelty of springs or the adventure of waves.

If you don't know whose brother you are, Ben, blood brother or ink brother, you do know where you come from and who your parents are. A very old European family: work and education come first. The two trays of the scale often freeze in equilibrium in their daily lives. Not in yours, ever since you set out on the quest for your own Grail—for what you call "the masterful work of art and its magical aura." Make of it what you will. There's nothing like going through your correspondence to get to know you. Ben, admit it: your letters and travel writings are where you reveal your whole being. There, your deepest self rises to the surface—the one you hide, erase, and sometimes persecute.

Your fleshly self, too. Receptive to the magic of the feminine continent no man can ever escape, especially if that magic is decked out in gypsy dresses, walks barefoot through the narrow streets with desire slung over its chest, subtly revealing the erogenous zones. Ah Ben, look at yourself: you should see your face! You're experiencing a very strange sensation, a lack of something or other. A tickling in your ticker, affect rising up in you, you feel like bursting into sobs. You are flooded with pleasure, swooning before the gypsy woman. You look at her sheepishly, in silence. Like a cat contemplating a goldfish. And now you're taking it all in: you're recording the ample hips, the pretty curve of her thighs, the plumpness of her breasts, the flaming triangle of her fleece. You're hallucinating in this Parisian park. You feel the power of her breasts. You size up the vigor of her loins. This girl lacks the affectations of beauty that the cosmetic industry tries to sell all over the world. She does not have a sagging neck hidden by a chic little scarf from Hermès. She lives in your hands. Her Amazon strength surprises you. Her round breasts, two balls almost, or rather, two divine artichokes. You imagine that she keeps two little humming birds warm between her legs; they will soon fly off over the Luxembourg Gardens into its apricot-colored sky, indifferent and listless. Her laugh is simple and clear as a child's with an insolent timbre, a child utterly absorbed in her games. A laugh punctuated by the dance of the bracelets around her wrist. It would give boys sweaty hands, not to mention a singing heart.

Don't you think, Ben, that one must say or write everything in the blunt terms our times demand? That our life expectancy must be extended by smiles or laughter? But first, this: who brought you all together on that gloomy afternoon? Who's in charge of the warp and woof of this story? You would look for a scientific, even a sensual explanation for the intrinsic nature of love. Rumor has it you are searching for its curative properties. And you would go all the way, even if you burned your wings. Even if you consumed yourself in melancholy, or got drunk beyond all reason. Giving in to a wave of depression. Drowning in the recurrent tides of night like Vincent Van Gogh, lying for all eternity in a wheat field, and—the height of happiness—next to his brother Theo. In the little cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise, their gravestones are huddled together, mutually protecting each other from the wind. Against the wind and against all odds, you will set out to solve the enigma in which love takes its source. Through what detours and side roads do we sometimes happen upon that source, if we're lucky? On the way, you get wounded enough to learn the price of blood. Sorrow is a piece of luggage that you weigh as you go, liberated water overflowing its bed. So what is the meaning of our coming into the world, our existence in this world and the necessity of leaving it some day?

Translation of Sur la piste de Ben. Copyright 2008 by Abdourahman A. Waberi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.

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