Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Thorns, Bees & Benjamin: my treacherous trip to Berlin, Paris & Port Bou

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I have certainly been tossed into my share of rosebushes. Most have been allegorical, not actual thorn bushes. Actual ones have included exile and rewriting The Drifts, but now, ouch, thorns. None of them have cut up my legs quite as badly as the bushes in the South of France. For the record, I take Lawrence Olivier’s side in his dispute with Dustin Hoffman about the need for lived authenticity. To write about terror, we can use our imaginations. We don’t have to live it. Authenticity includes lived experience but one can live some and imagine the rest. I got lost, utterly and hopelessly stuck in a hectare of thorn and vines, with the ground collapsing under me, which, when I pulled myself up landed me in even deeper trouble. The first time I fell into the thorns I cussed and was surprised at the pain. The third time, I howled and yelled in frustration and anger. The fifteenth, I just fell and ripped my arms and legs free as best I could. Although pricks and stabs are painful, they do lend a sensuality to the writing. It is important that this kind of artistic exploration is supported by public funds. Odds are, given the research, we will be better for it. The bet is that my poking around will contribute. I hope so. But, let’s park the hopes and get on with what I’m up to here.

What I’m up to here is a brief article about the partly Ontario Arts Council-funded research trip I have been on since early March. I have been abroad exploring the years of exile of literary critic and theorist, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, a Jewish Berliner, fled to Paris when the National Socialists came to power in 1933. In 1940, with a US visa in hand, Benjamin climbed the haute Pyrenees up to the Spanish border at Port Bou. The plan was to get out of France, cross Spain and take a ship to New York from Lisbon. Dragging a heavy suitcase, he climbed up the mountains to Port Bou. On the trail, Benjamin said the valise was more important than his own life. Benjamin made it but they found him dead in Port Bou the next morning under cloudy circumstances. I wanted to hike that same trail. I didn’t make Port Bou but did make Toronto.

I’m in Canada as a queer American exile, thank you very much. Glad to be here and glad to contribute. Being unceremoniously booted from your own country because you happen to fall in love with a dude is, shall we say, disorienting. Walter Benjamin had a similar experience in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Though accused of barely being able to brew a cup of tea, Benjamin was a scholar, critic and writer (not to mention hashish smoker) par excellence. In spite of the National Socialists, his bitter humour never failed him. The air is growing thick and bitter in Berlin, he said in 1932. But, he added, this hardly matters when one is being strangled.

Now that I am extracted from les herbes sauvage, and writing this from le niveau 6 du Centre Pompidou on Paris’ most blisteringly hot day yet, after running into Calgary spoken word artist Sheri-D in the elevator on four, it occurs to me that I don’t personally know any other writers who, as part of their process, run off to make sensual and visceral contact with their subject. But, then again, I don’t get out much. I’m not talking journalism per se but rather geography, objects, smells, tastes and sounds. The way it works is that these sensory perceptions enter my imagination, are organized by my emotional attachments and then find their way out as trace in my authoring.

When I was writing the screenplay Alice Mitchell, I went to Memphis and smelled it, got into the documents and watched the people there. I smelled the river and the dirt. I now know, viscerally, Memphis. For The Drifts, I crossed the Mississippi at Memphis and over to Arkansas where my people come from and hung out there. There was something about opening doors to meet person after person in that little town that looked like me that governed the structure of the novel. The stories, like the people in Bay and me, are separate but inter-related. I knew nothing of Berlin, sensually. I have studied Benjamin’s oeuvre for two years, the history of National Socialism for one but Google could never lead me down paths in Benjamin’s childhood neighbourhood or provide the experience of bees not stinging me.

My methodology, such as it is, is straight-forward. I do all sorts of "book-learning," film watching and art viewing. Then I use the texts, images, recordings, films and songs to go on-site. It is a research that involves my body and imagination. The senses and my emotional attachment to this or that incident, sound, object, etc. then transforms the sensual perception into something I might be able to use when composing.

For instance, I had read in Benjamin’s "A Berlin Childhood Around 1900" about his very young years in western Berlin, Charlottenburg. I found the address of his childhood home, climbed on a bike and started out to find it. Way, way out past the end of the Ku’damm, where there are actual houses, I was getting close. I saw a canal which ran just behind his street. I ducked off the road. Quiet, serene, sleepy in that early May heat. Insects buzzing. Two paths led along the banks. I took one for a bit and turned back. As I came out, a black bee as big as a small helicopter hovered. It was hot at that moment and it seemed like he’d just tired out there, mid-air. Then, he dropped straight into the dirt. He crawled a bit but then burrowed into the ground leaving his bright orange/red tail sticking out. And there he stayed.

Later, at the Jewish Museum, I was listening to audio reenactments of anti-semitic rants. One compared German society to the finely tuned organizational structure of a bee-hive. Jews were the wasps and worms (Kant said vampires) that threaten a bee-hive and so German society. When I was stuck and lost in that hectare of thorn bushes and vines in the South of France, there were thousands of bees. Thousands. Everywhere. I kept falling in and on them (and the thorns, of course.). Not one stung me. They certainly had good reason to. I do not know the role that bees, for instance, will play in the writing of the book. But because that black-orange-red bee, the bee-hive of German society and those bees au Sud have such personal emotion attached to them now, they must play a role.

From Benjamin’s Arcades Project and collected essays plus other commentaries, I found the special power of entrances and exits at the tors and portes (city gates) in Berlin and Paris. As an exile, what it costs to enter and exit boundaries and borders was not lost on Benjamin. Or, me. One can feel that risk, threat and trepidation of being allowed in or out, at the Anhalter Tor, Brandenburg Tor, Hallesches Tor; if one opens herself to it, she can feel it at the Peripherique in Paris and the Porte d’Orleans. Will I make it or not? It is exactly what I felt coming up to the Canadian Border patrol when we asked for protection. What if they say no?

Sitting in the Gare du Nord, one can imagine the dreams that Benjamin says inspire our technological and industrial forms. In the catacombs, one imagines the lives, hopes and aspirations of the six million people there. One sees the montage forms in the bones become the iron and glass forms of the passages, the gares and the Eiffel Tower. In those cubist walls and ceilings one sees Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon emerging before he painted it at number 13 Place Emile Goudeau (prés du Bateau Lavoir) in Montmartre. Did de la Fontaine or Robespierre ever imagine that their bones would be unceremoniously dumped into a mass ossuary cum tourist trap? What Benjamin’s writings nor Google, nor even his Archives notice is that three of Benjamin’s Paris residences were within spitting distance of the catacombs and Denfert-Rochefouart. "Denfert" was originally called d’enfer (of Hell). This is the intersection where the streets opened, cracked and fell into the limestone quarries around the time of great social upheaval and the Revolution. Houses, people, horses and whole neighbourhoods fell into these holes. At the same time, Paris cemeteries were overflowing and disease was running rampant nurtured by rank and decay. Hence the order to move 13 centuries of human remains into the vast crevasses opened at Denfert and elsewhere. This could not have been lost on Benjamin. This sort of on-site research adds a level of resonance, originality and authenticity that the Internet, for all its majesty, just can’t offer.

Someday, I do hope that a potent and entertaining novel (and some critical work) will emerge from this research trip. It has already influenced the novel I am currently working on. It is so important that public funds support research trips and explorations such as this. Empathy, trust and authenticity surface. All of this poking around has direct consequences for our artistic, cultural and economic lives. There is now a great deal of proof of this done by the OAC, Hills Strategies Research, the Conference Board of Canada and many others. I have made the argument, too (see "Selling It: Creative Writing, Neo-liberalism & the Public Good" in The Creativity Market: Trends in Creative Writing in the 21st Century, Taylor &Francis Group/UK, 2011). Here though, for Open Book, I have hoped to give a little glimpse into what I have been up to and let readers in on why I think it is so important.

thom vernon is a Toronto-based novelist and educator. He is the author of The Drifts (Coach House Books, 2010), “Selling It: Creative Writing, Neo-liberalism & The Public Good” (Taylor/Francis Group/UK) and "The Angel at Our Table: Walter Benjamin, Angelus Novus and Where Art Comes From” (Cambridge Scholars Press).

Thom was Open Book's July 2010 writer in residence. Visit his .

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