Susannah M. Smith on Walter Benjamin

Peering into Walter Benjamin’s Archive

I don’t know you, WB.
I don’t know you at all.

I’m thinking of the way people seem to hear about you serendipitously, repeatedly.
I’m thinking of the leather suitcase that disappeared after you died,
its contents alleged but never located: postcards, a manuscript, a pipe, morphine.
You are gone but you ghost our post-modernity.

I found your Archives in the university library.
Renewed it as many times as I could.
Then the public library.
Finally, I got you for good as a Christmas gift.
Flew you in the belly of a plane across Canada at the end of 2008,
68 years after your death.
Since then, we’ve slept in the same room.
You on the art table
or the floor beside the bed.
Proximate yet private.

Now, I walk towards you through these pages, a fractal of your archive.
You were a collector, an organizer, a preserver.
You constellate in motes, acidic yellowing papers, tiny script.

There is that famous photo of you engrossed in research
taken by Gisèle Freund at the Bibliothèque nationale.

There are well-loved notebooks:

a worn, black leather cover
pages with torn and crumpled edges
paper so thin the handwriting beneath shows through
homemade stamps glued in.

One notebook is filled with your son Stefan’s linguistic evolution:
Moma keet for parakeet
dandals for sandals
little birds for nail clippings when they fall to the ground.

There are crossouts
(like Virginia Woolf and Anne Carson)
and Xs
and small, inked crosses + + +
to inventory and make meaning.

There are sketches for essays.
A drawing of a lullaby.
Notes on Kafka arranged in two columns that could pass for a poem:
<<<<<<<<Forgetting Disfiguration
<<<<<<<<Swamp world

There is marginalia.
There are ink spots, annotations, rusty echoes of paper clips.
Pages sewn together with thread.
Fragments on Proust, Baudelaire.

There are bibliographic notes written on the back of a receipt.
Circles drawn in blue.
Words within boxes.
A manuscript cut into strips.

There are black and white photos of Paris arcades and interiors.
There is the S page from your 1930’s address book.
There are photos of toys from your collection:
<<<<<<<<Bacchus on a billy goat. Music in the casket.

I go back to the photo of you in the Bibliothèque nationale again and again.
Your long fingers against your papers
your curious mind visible.

One could spend years in these pages
returning again to wander, inspect, absorb.
So much residue.
So many glimpses.

Objects look back at you, you once said.

It is true.
I can see you, WB.
You look back through the photos and the notebooks.
You look back through the scraps, the titles, the margins.

I imagine that this gathering together would make you happy.

Knowing that the archives are open
and you are so clearly here.

Susannah M. Smith is the author of the novel How the Blessed Live. She lives, writes and blogs in Vancouver. Visit her online at