Benjamin’s grim writing on Marseille


Walter Benjamin
The street . . . the only valid field of experience.
– Andre Breton

Marseilles-the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth. When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink. This comes from the tartar baking hard on the massive jaws : newspaper kiosks, lavatories, and oyster stalls. The harbour people are a bacillus culture, the porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings. But the palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discoloured women of rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.

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4 Responses to Benjamin’s grim writing on Marseille

  1. Do you know when Benjamin wrote this, please? Did he regularly visit Marseille?
    Thanks for any clues

    • The piece was published in Neue schweizer Rundschau, April 1929. Gesammelte Schriften, IV, 359-364.
      Translated by Edmund Jephcott. It has been collected in English translation in his Selected Writings II (Belknap Press 1999).

      • Thanks so much for speedy reply. I am interested in finding if Benjamin stayed in Marseille and am trying to find if any of the hotels still exist.

      • I am not sure. He seems to have written more than one piece about Marseille, as the same volume of the Selected Writings II contains one other piece which briefly touches on Marseille. In mid-1920s, Benjamin also travelled by freighter, and seems to have loved Genoa and gone onshore elsewhere, so it is possible that he travelled to Marseille then too. I would say check his collected writings in German or English! The piece in the Selected Writings II is actually 3-4 pages long!

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