Walter Benjamin is a renowned philosopher, essayist and early Western experimenter in hallucinatory drugs.
He spent time in Ibiza in the 1930s, and some of his most famous work is accredited with either or both being written while on the island or inspired by it.
This account of his time and association with Ibiza includes links for further reading. Our thanks to Arwyn Kenneth Hughes for drawing our attention to Benjamin’s Ibiza connection.
- Text: Nick Gibbs
- Image: Public Domain – Benjamin is the figure seated in the deck chair
Benjamin was born on 15 July 1892 and died age 48 on 26 September 1940.
His Wikipedia entry describes him as a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism, and Jewish mysticism. Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism.
In the face of an ever worsening situation in Germany, by then under the wrath of Nazi oppression, he fled Berlin in 1932, accepting his fellow countryman and friend Felix Noeggerath’s invitation to join him in Ibiza.
Noeggerath’s son was already in Ibiza having settled in the then sleepy port of San Antonio from where he was writing a study of the island and its inhabitants.
In reviewing various articles pertaining to Benjamin’s Ibiza connection, it seems we may have discovered the earliest recorded example of a particular Ibiza scam that is prevalent today. The Paris Review (cited and linked as source) said that Noeggerath and Benjamin “discovered that the same crook had swindled them both—by renting a house on Ibiza that he did not own”.
“Island of Forgetfulness”
This unfortunate introduction had no negative effect on Benjamin’s love of Ibiza. Paris Review says “On this ‘island of forgetfulness’ the inhabitants themselves conceived and built their dwellings as ‘peasant palaces’, the legacy of an ancient Egyptian architecture. Benjamin was entranced by this architecture sans architects, by its sobriety, and by the way it bore witness to the relationship between the Ibicencos and their landscape. It was a vernacular style in which, “defying the shadows, the gleaming white of the walls dazzles you.”
Landscape “Most Untouched”
Unchanged for centuries, ignored by the rest of Europe, Ibiza began in the thirties to become a focus of interest for travelers and a place of refuge for others. In 1932, however, it was still bypassed by international trade and modernity in general, whose conveniences simply did not exist there. Benjamin had no complaints. For the time being, he enjoyed a kind of contentment enhanced by the splendor of the landscape—the “most untouched” he had ever seen.
Farming and animal husbandry were still “carried on in an archaic manner—there are not more than four cows on the whole island, as the peasants keep to their traditional goats; no agricultural machinery is to be seen and the irrigation of the fields is effected, as it was centuries ago, by means of water scooped up by bucket wheels drawn by mules.”
Regardless of any opinion over his philosophical works, there can be little doubt that Benjamin was right in his assessment of the way the wind was blowing in so far as Ibiza’s unspoilt isolation was concerned. The Paris Review states “From his room Benjamin had a view of the sea and of a rocky island illuminated at night by a lighthouse. ‘It is unfortunately to be feared,’ noted Benjamin, ‘that the construction of a hotel at the port signals the end of all this.’ We know that view to be one looking out over Sa Conillera, ‘Rabbit Island’ off the bay of San Antonio, and the newly formed Hotel as that of Hotel Portmany, which still trades today and has just undergone a major refurbishment in 2019.
It is known that Benjamin’s interest in drugs and their mind expanding effects continued during his time in Ibiza.
Cabinet Magazine says “Ibizan poet Vicente Valero has titled his as-yet-untranslated book on Benjamin in Ibiza Experiencia y Probreza (Experience and Poverty), after the title of a little-known essay Benjamin wrote under the spell of the island. In the hallucinatory splendor of Ibiza, with his future cast to the winds, Benjamin formulated what I would count as his major texts—on the storyteller and on the mimetic faculty—as well as inventing new forms for the essay as a crossover genre that linked dreams, ethnography, thought-figures, and storytelling.”
Their article ‘Getting high with Benjamin and Burroughs‘ talks of nights spent taking Opium looking down over Ibiza Town, and details numerous texts as relevant to his Ibiza stay.
Despite what Benjamin noted as a remarkably cheap cost of living in Ibiza, he had been stripped of all his assets in Germany and when his paltry funds ran out he went to Paris to join other intellectuals.
Again on the run from Nazi oppression following France’s fall to the Germans, he reached the Catalonian port of Portbou in September 1940. However, his passage was blocked by Spain’s Franco authorities and faced with deportation back into the hands of the Nazis he took his own life with an overdose of morphine on the night of 25th September.