155. The Long, Dark Knight of the Soul

Part 6 of the 'Tunnel' series. (Starts here.)

IN JUNE 1940, THE German writer RK Stampflinger fled Paris with his sister Dora. Travelling on foot, they were part of an exodus of two million people fleeing the Nazis, among them Jews, gypsies, stateless émigrés, and - above all - French communists intent on avoiding the clutches of the Gestapo. This tide of refugees was heading south, where, it was rumoured, a French rump state would be formed, out of reach, at least for now, of the boches. Before Stampflinger left his beloved 'city of tunnels' (his nickname for Paris, which he thought truer than 'city of light'), he met with his devoted friends, giving them his books and manuscripts for safekeeping. The manuscript of his magnum opus, the monumental Catacombs Project, which he had worked on throughout much of the previous decade and which had ballooned beyond all reckoning, remained unfinished: too heavy to take with him, he entrusted it to Georges Bataille, who hid it in the Bibliothèque Nationale until after the war, when it was recovered intact. Always a prolific correspondent, the shadow of war didn’t cure the habit of a lifetime – nor did it impede la poste. For most of his last weeks and months, Stampflinger wrote as many as three letters a day, in which his curious combination of intelligence and naivety was on full display. Whether he was unaware that the authorities were opening mail or past the point of caring, he told his friends he was hoping to set sail to America from Marseille. Most of the French communists fleeing the north would soon melt into the countryside and eventually become resistants, but Stampflinger, a German Jew with no papers, had his hopes set on North America, the shore upon which many of his colleagues and friends would eventually be thrown. His list of correspondents form a kind of panthéon of Europe's pre-war intelligentsia: not only Bataille, but also Koestler, Arendt, Adorno and Horkheimer, among many others. To this day, many of Stampflinger’s devotees believe the best of Sampflinger’s writing – known for its obtuseness – is to be found in his correspondence, where theoretical non sequiturs make way for the lucidity and wit that, according to many of his personal acquaintances, also characterised his conversation. By late June, Stampflinger and his sister were in the southern French pilgrimage town of Lourdes. Refugees had flooded the town, presumably because of its many hotels and because the locals were used to the presence of foreigners. It is here that Stampflinger stayed for about two months before making his way to Marseille. Until recently, it was believed he spent much of that time writing increasingly desperate letters to influential friends. But the influence of his friends was already a thing of the past. In late August, Stampflinger travelled on to Marseille, where he was given an American entry visa. By this time, however, all possibilities of a maritime escape had been plugged. His only choice was to flee overland once again, this time to fascist Spain and on to neutral Portugal, from where he could board a ship to America. It was an audacious plan, perhaps even an unlikely one. In Portbou, near the French-Spanish, it came unstuck. After an arduous mountain crossing, Benjamin and his party learned that – only the previous day – Spanish authorities had stopped accepting refugees from France at the urging of the Gestapo. They were refused entry and, rather than be returned to France, Stampflinger swallowed morphine pills he’d bought in Marseille – enough, by his own estimation to kill a horse. He was only 48. Mystery surrounds his death – the identity of the doctor who visited him that same night, the time of death, the details on the death certificate, the circumstances surrounding his burial. Rumours have long abounded that he was murdered by any one of a host of potential killers – the Gestapo, the French, local anti-Semitic fascists, even the KGB. But there is an even greater unsolved mystery: the nature and fate of a manuscript of considerable weight that Stampflinger hauled across the Pyrenees, at great expense to his failing health. According to witnesses, Stampflinger claimed the manuscript was more important than his own life. The circumstances of Stampflinger’s death have transformed it into legend – the subject of several documentaries and untold articles and essays – and now, with the publication of a new book, Stampflinger’s sad story may endure an even unlikelier transformation: into pop culture phenomenon. In RK Stampflinger’s Last Stand (University of St Andrew Press, 391pp, $42.95), historian Gertrude Mountebank claims to tell the story of Stampflinger’s final months, from his flight from Paris to his suicide in Portbou. Alas, rather than clarifying the mysteries surrounding Stampflinger’s death, Mountebank only adds to them. The book contains two sensational reveltaions. The first and smaller of the two is a discovery that, in the small world of Stampflinger studies, would in normal circumstances constitute a sensation in and of itself: a hitherto-unknown letter written by Stampflinger in Lourdes and addressed to Arthur Koestler in Marseille, in which Stampflinger writes about a major new writing project. Mountebank claims to have found the letter in the archive dedicated to the author at the Edinburgh University Library, although it has yet to be independently authenticated. According to the letter, after arriving in Lourdes Stampflinger launched into an entirely new project: a study of the Albigensian crusade so new that it effectively amounted to an historical reinterpretation, wherein Stampflinger used his expertise of the 19th century as a prism through which to view the events of six centuries earlier. On this flimsy evidence, Mountebank builds a Potemkin’s village. She claims that Stampflinger’s essay, ‘On the Concept of History’, demonstrates a late turn in his thinking, a broadening of his historical arch that, had he survived the war, would have continued to take him in a direction that, while superficially entirely new, was thematically consistent with certain lifelong obsessions. Her reading of this impenetrable essay, written during Stampflinger’s last days in Paris, leads her to conclude that his preoccupation, in the time when the fascist victory over Europe seemed assured, was how the injustices of the past impinge upon the present. In his last months, she claims, Stampflinger continued to demonstrate that mix of historical insight and naivety that characterised his death as well as his life: with catastrophe looming, he buried himself in his only refuge – his writing. At this point, her argument veers from historical investigation to outright speculation. She claims the division of France into a Germanic north and a Latin south would have entailed historical implications lost on neither Stampflinger nor, more broadly, on the French. Coincidentally (or not, according to Mountebank), France had traditionally been thus split until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when a crusade was launched by the (northern) French, in alliance with Rome, that was effectively a war of conquest and an ethnic cleansing. It is common knowledge that, over the course of two generations, the extraordinary flowering of Occitan culture, language and religion (which we know as Catharism) that had occurred in the previous two centuries was obliterated in what was, arguably, an act of genocide. In Lourdes, she slaims, Stampflinger had his first serious encounter with the tragic history of southern French culture. He became interested in how the seeds of 19th century Romanticism were sewn in 13th century Occitania, which developed or invented a wide array of notions recognisable to modern sensibilities, including chivalry, romantic love and individualism. If Mountebank had simply stopped there, she would already have had the howls of a pack of rabid critics to contend with, but she goes further, making her second sensational claim, that the legendary lost Stampflinger manuscript didn’t disappear but was rather saved by a sympathetic Spanish customs official in Portbou. According to Mountebank, it was kept in storage during the war and, afterwards, was sold, passing hands several times until it entered the private collection of an Argentinian banker, Italo Moravia. Again, this claim has yet to be independently authenticated. Given the extremely fluid nature of the post-war collectibles market, it would presumably be extremely difficult to do so, although certain evidentiary criteria – such as typewriter and paper stock authentification – are available. Since the publication of Mountebank’s book, rumours have swirled that the manuscript will be published simultaneously in German, Spanish, French and English editions as soon as next year. At the time of writing, there has been no confirmation of the rumours, but if such a publication does transpire, it is likely to be the publishing event of the year, causing countless arguments in scholarly circles. It will change not only current assessments of Stampflinger’s life and work, but how we think about many things, like the Middle Ages, the flow of ideas, and – not least of all – the nature of historical time itself.