Thursday, September 2, 2021

Walter Benjamin and the Oppressive Rubble of History

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a fascinating character who managed to be both a revolutionary Marxist and a Jewish mystic. He was the sort of modernist who found life so chaotic and fragmentary that he never really wrote a book, having nothing that extensive to say. Instead he authored brief commentaries on other people's ideas, or little pieces on topics like the history of toys. Anyway what I wanted to write about was this summary, by Terry Eagleton, of Benjamin's view of history. 

We have been discussing here what a history without heroes would be like, and it seems Benjamin got there long before any of the woke:

The Messiah, he argues, will not arrive as the fulfilment of history but will reveal a constellation of moments woven into historical time, periods of political emergency in which there is a chance of justice for those whom the ruling powers hope to erase from the historical record. This montage of moments represents the history of the oppressed, which is as diffuse and discontinuous as a modernist work of art. Only with the coming of the Messiah can this history be recounted as a coherent narrative, as the secret affinities between particular acts of resistance are laid bare. What seemed futile and meaningless at the time will then become readable, like an encrypted text we can finally decipher.

Benjamin’s own dark political age is precisely such a moment of danger, one in which the continuity of history is violently ruptured; this opens up a space in which images of past struggles for emancipation can come flooding in. There is a trade-off between past and present: the present can rescue the past from oblivion, while the dead can be summoned to the aid of the living. Time can be looped on itself, as in Proust’s great narrative, to reveal a solidarity of the dispossessed across the centuries. It is the grandest narrative of all, though one that deflates the dream of inevitable progress for which most such tales are notorious. It is certain that the Messiah will come, but he will not arrive like the final note of a triumphal tune. On the contrary, he is the friend of all those who have been crushed and defeated in their day by such triumphalism, and his coming to power will be their victory too.

Memory, for Benjamin as for Freud, can be an emancipating force, since those who wish to move forward must do so by turning back. In the hands of this most idiosyncratic of Marxists, even nostalgia can become a revolutionary concept. It is tradition that is subversive, not the act of abolishing it. What inspires men and women to revolt, Benjamin remarks, isn’t dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. His Angel of History turns his back on the future, and hence on all false utopias, gazing with horror at the mounting pile of rubble that is the past. It is not because history is valueless that the angel wants to end it; it is because much of its value springs from exploitation, and the latter weighs more heavily than the former. Hence Benjamin’s much quoted comment that every document of civilisation is also a record of barbarism.

Abstracted from the narrative of a redeeming Messiah, this strikes me as a great description of how some of my contemporaries see history: as a "mounting pile of rubble", in which oppression weighs more heavily than achievement, and the only redemption comes from the fleeting solidarity of the oppressed across the centuries.

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