Of Oil Paintings and Oceans

Philip Kobylarz

"Death is the sanction of everything the story-teller can tell."
          —Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin killed himself in Portbou, Spain and I know why. Everything was perfect: the beaches anyone could claim as their own, the Spanish alcohol, tobacco, clothes so much cheaper than in France, the setting of a fishing village, unspoiled alone, remote, essentially what the world should be which is mountains colored in a vegetation you'll never really understand and a sea so pure that it is as clear as store bought drinking water and buildings naturally white-washed in the purity only boredom and ritual have to offer and the hot sand that promises a nice cold hotel room floor but it can never be, so the sun shines on so tempting and eternal.
          The view is full frontal, the observer is casual, and there they are the super beautiful women who smoke at cafés and they sit in waves as women should, pair after pair and the sea ripples the shore. Desolate and lonely.
          Here is the biggest selling point: these sirens of classical beauty to which you and Walter Benjamin have been trained to worship could care less about your existence and that your summing them up will lead to the math of nothing plus nothing equaling something. They sit, wait, drink, and talk about better things than what you could ever evolve into. File this under the irony of travel. Type this under the madness of beauty.
          Only the truest of realities essentially matter. That I will stay in this place for hours alone because for the first time in a life I am without hunger, without desire, except for the desire to see so that I can watch and sketch the beauty that Walter Benjamin watched that made him kill himself in a less than spotless hotel on the coast of Spain. Apparently, the view couldn't save him but I will not bend its horizontal will.
          If anyone could figure out Mediterranean culture, this society of love and pleasure, this happenstance of sun and luck, then please refer this writer to such a text. Sometimes even the men seem to be women because they're so skinny and refined. The blackness of their hair and eyebrows remind us what make-up is for. Everything on the ancient coast is only meant to be sipped and not consumed with the greed of wanting more. Satiation is always a let down.
          Whereas Cezanne needed to capture the outward beauty of place and topography, there should be a means of capturing, stopping, trapping this intense flow of life, the colorful shirts and dresses, the smell of food always being made, always hanging in the air soliciting mouths to water, the trickle of water running down the curb washing away the day's cigarette butts. Painting cannot capture the essence. Painters, lined up on the causeways try. It's a type of fishing.
          These others like me and Walter, mostly men, sitting alone, reading a paper, talking on a phone and staring into the crowds of distance make us wonder what is the spiritual distance between us and why it will not allow conversation. But as a dumb friendly puppy of an American, this is only a one-sided aspiration. These men and me are wondering what their options are, for the day, or the eternity of life, for what might happen in the street so we'll have a story to tell to our meal-cooking wives and attentive children sitting at a tiny table in a tiny kitchen that is mostly their Euro-reality. Walter probably wasn't bothered by such a thought. Or he was and it both does and doesn't matter. For an ever.
          The really hip smooth Eastern European jazz of the café/bar plays and it's remembered that the well-dressed guy who begs for money was seen walking down the street listening to an MP3 player. Guys here in this coastal version of civilization look at each other as men survey women in almost every country of the world with an interest bordering on intensity. Rather than confusing, it is the way it should be. The libido doesn't discriminate. The libido is king and even sometimes queen.
          This is the moral of the story: there is no moral. At some point of life we are going to do whatever we want to do and it will provide no definitions and it will invoke no consequences and the big picture will remain the same, big, somewhat far in perspective, soft-focus, but always hanging. Done and over with it is the motto and it'll cause a sensation like that of lovers looking at the white cliffs of Dover over and over again—there must be something more.
          The there that isn't there.
          And that is why Walter Benjamin killed himself surrounded by Western culture's version of paradise and really incredible salty food we now know better than his name. Tapas.
          Because we, and what the people at cafés were and are talking about is how a single place can ruin a life, Walter would never know how years later in a Euro culture that reveres most things American that a person can go to a diametrically opposed locale such as the Arcade restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee and accidentally sit where, and history won't judge because it never does, the b-movie stars sat and ordered a breakfast that had no place on the tiny table for it to be put. Beniets and black coffee. This is also why he killed himself—no possibility of an other to share a moment with, a lover with beautiful Spanish hair who could make him forget his worries by replacing them with the adrenaline fuel of lust.
          He could have tried an even more civilized place. Sometimes leagues of unknown people in random orders appearing on a boulevard is just the cure for insomnia and angst. Sometimes even a bar in Marseille, France on the other side of a place locked in eternity called au petite Nice that is stuck in time off an inner city square littered with used vegetable boxes and mounds of garbage all brightly colored. Where there is a triangular lot surrounded by plants and barrels and populated with good looking locals. This would have been more therapeutic than laying on a bed in a room like Van Gogh once did to muse at the sour reality of a world continually at war while Walter measured with his eyes the length of a crack in the ceiling.


If he could have taken portraits of the people of Portbou, he would have. Beautiful fake blonde highlighted hair in a black and white striped shirts, giant bug-like sunglasses. Women with hair as curly as Medusa's, twirling it in their fingers as if in a bad European film that we all love watching anyway. It's impossible to break into such an aura of beauty for even a simple lyric of conversation. Yet such a barrier is one of personal isolation that must be less threatening than that of racial extinction, of purposeless in life, like a boulevard we must cross when there are cars coming or not. They will stop or they will not.
          The crossover to the realm of the flesh is an illusion that any place promises, that of sex or great sex that has never been had before. Garbage cans fill and we pretend to not see them.
          This Mediterranean life has so many American dreams to offer that only someone who has contact with mythological possibility can grasp. It's something resolutely unspeakable. Walter knew this. And he knew that it was time.
          And this is why he did it. He could not subtract himself from history, from what was happening mountains away, from what this perceived destiny turned out to be. This limitation, self-imposed and destructive is a disease that doesn't take into account the wind pushing the waves into origami wood block prints, the Spanish coast so rugged and unknown that it could be of anywhere and simultaneously only here, the tiny town limited in its own desire to be eternal, and one pension owner knowing and not caring who made more money this summer. If anyone could see what the sea looks like from here, they would register a desert of blue that will never desire itself to disappear. Walter Benjamin killed himself in Portbou, Spain because it was the only thing he could ever get away with.