I spent today in bed with Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Marx & Engels and a wonderful essay by John Brewer, and discovered that they were all pleasantly related.
Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History were frustratingly tantalizing — in stanzas of aphoristic brevity, they put forward dense, unfleshed ideas that resonate powerfully but resist full and immediate comprehension: they hint at truths like sly icebergs. I understand now why someone once wrote of Benjamin that he did not bequeath to scholars today his “life’s work” so much as “a lifetime of work”. He falls in with a trend I’ve noticed amongst continental philosophers, though, that truths cannot be articulated literally and concretely, only via metaphor, rhetoric, poetics, allegory, art. Cf., Nietzsche.
nonetheless, some thoughts.
III. A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.
this is interesting for the religious imagery — in a sense it equates total, universal history to a redemptive eschatology. It’s like the elusive Final Say to all historiographical debates, footnoted with the Ultimate Bibliography. And one finds this same sense in Nietzsche: “History, conceived as pure knowledge, once it becomes sovereign, would be a kind of conclusion to living and a final reckoning for humanity”, and indeed “A historical phenomenon, purely and completely known and resolved into an object of knowledge, is, for the person who has recognized it, dead.” I suppose in this view, if it did transpire that one historian concluded once and for all the 836 causes of the French Revolution, not only would subsequent study be utterly moot (dead), but said historian would have to be God.
V. The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.
digression: I see why Benjamin so enthusiastically translated Proust — not that I’ve ever totally gotten through La Recherche du Temps Perdu, but it seems sensible that someone so attuned to the fragility of temporal space would just love how Proust tried to catalogue everything, all of it. Eric Auerbach said this too: the best and most plausible versions of the nineteenth and twentieth century worlds are not histories but novels. Proust, Joyce, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy — all of them sought the illumination of quotidian, total reality with imaginative fiction.
Anyway, back to Benjamin. What caught me about this particular extract of the Theses is how beautifully it captures the way our image of the past is inextricably mired in present concerns — it has to concern us today, or it “disappears irretrievably”. And I suppose I mean “concern” in the most literal sense; after all, as Hegel pointed out, “Periods of happiness [i.e. unconcerned times] are empty pages in history, for they are the periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing…what is left is activity without opposition”. And so these periods of happiness, in Benjamin’s view, are the moments when the past is invisible or unrecognizable, I think; they are the empty pages in history.
I’m not sure at all what is meant by “the point where historical materialism cuts through historicism”, largely because I’m extremely unclear on what historical materialism is. I have never been much of a Marxist historian. According to Engels, historical materialism is “the view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate causes and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, with the consequent division of society into distinct classes and the struggles of these classes”; or as Marx said it rather more succinctly, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Broadly speaking I suppose this means that men are shaped by their material environment and must therefore organize themselves thus. But more reading is required.
I feel like Benjamin’s Theses will be one of those things I keep coming back to with new eyes, much like Animal Farm, or poetry. Such literature is incredibly humbling, and all the better for it. More on this at some further point along my mental digestive tract.
PS: thanks go to robin for pointing me in this great direction, btw.