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Friday 30 May 2014

Walter Benjamin: Theological-Political Fragment (the rhythm of messianic nature is happiness)


Skeleton (female), Leinster Medical School, Dublin (photographer at left?): photo by John Joseph Clarke, c. 1897-1904 (Clarke Collection, National Library of Ireland)

Only the Messiah himself completes all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes and creates its relation to the messianic. For this reason, nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic; it cannot be established as a goal. From the standpoint of history, it is not the goal but the terminus [Ende]. Therefore, the secular order cannot be built on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and theocracy has no political but only a religious meaning.  To have repudiated with utmost vehemence the political significance of theocracy is the cardinal merit of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia.

The secular order should be erected on the idea of happiness. The relation of this order to the messianic is one of the essential teachings of the philosophy of history. It is the precondition of a mystical conception of history, encompassing a problem that can be represented figuratively. If one arrow points to the goal toward which the secular dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of messianic intensity, then certainly the quest of free humanity for happiness runs counter to the messianic direction. But just as a force, by virtue of the path it is moving along, can augment another force on the opposite path, so the secular order -- because of its nature as secular -- promotes the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. The secular, therefore, though not itself a category of this kingdom, is a decisive category of its most unobtrusive approach. For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in happiness is its downfall destined to find it. -- Whereas admittedly the immediate messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through misfortune, as suffering. The spiritual restitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds to a worldly restitution that leads to an eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.
To strive for such a passing away -- even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature -- is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): Theological-Political Fragment, date uncertain (probably either 1920-1921 or 1937-1938), unpublished in Benjamin's lifetime, translated by Edmund Jephcott in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (1999)

Portrait of an articulated skeleton (male) on a hardwood chair
: photographer unknown, c. 1900 (Powerhouse Museum, Gift of the Estate of Raymond W. Phillips)

All of early 20th century transport is here… well, with the possible exception of an early bi-plane spluttering across the façade of Trinity College, but we can't have everything! A lovely high angle view of the junction of Dame Street with College Green in Dublin: photographer unknown, 1930s (?) (Eason Collection, National Library of Ireland)


Lord Charlie said...

Terrific photos. I love Benjamin's essays. Thank you, Tom. -- DL

TC said...

And thank you, David.

This piece functions more like poem than philosophical or political "statement", for me, in the way it swallows the tail of its own paradox with a serene Cheshire cat smile.

And I love the dating mystery, which has stood the industrious scholars on their little spinning pin heads in a way that it's hard not to see as kind of funny.

One droning "expert" has lately deployed the piece as a platform for a presentation in which the word "ummm" (is that a word, or just a nasal sound made by academic ward-heelers from Cleveland, to buy time during the foot-shuffling stages of settling-in-for-a-snooze in the conference room?) occurs no fewer than 24 times in the first 7 seconds.

Walter would one hopes be amused to know his fertile mind had provided a growth medium for so much helmet-headed nodding-in-place.

TC said...

(By the by, about the photos -- I had an inkling that astonishing bottom shot might offer a sort of synoptic view of "the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of messianic nature..." Whereas, however demonstratively articulated, the two dancing skeletons seem terribly deprived of something -- a thing which, after some consideration, would probably best be described as... how to say it... that rhythm?)

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

That skeletal rhythm of messianic nature is missing a flesh-and-blood piano player.

TC said...

That John Joseph Clarke not only was responsible for the top photo, in which he is to be seen with that formidable set of female bones perched on his knee, but actually lived as a flesh and blood person (as vs a theoretical construct), is proved by the Irish census records of 1911, in which we find him as a 30-year-old general practitioner, living in a boarding house, unmarried, and seemingly thus far as yet still loyal to that skeletal conception of happiness propped somewhat tenuously on his lap.

Aram Saroyan sends along a bit of meta-Benjaminian lore.

"A skeleton walks up to a bar and says, 'I’d like a beer and a mop.'

"[Al Pacino’s favorite joke which he told over and over again to Johnny Depp when they were making 'Donnie Brasco.]"

Vassilis, that Little Richard fellow does indeed look to have a bit of the old rhythmic happiness up his sleeve.

Ok, not so hot having to dance when your strings are being pulled... still, having the right keys to happiness... even if you can't find the keys to the family plot... a little bit of rhythm, a few words... ideal for family singalongs...

TC said...

(Talking of forms of transport.)

TC said...

A skeleton walks up to a bar and says, Is this bar tender? -- because I'm feeling kind of brittle tonight.

TC said...

“Among the most noteworthy characteristics of human beings,” says Lotze, “belongs... next to so much self-seeking in individuals, the general absence of envy of each present in relation to the future.” This reflection shows us that the picture of happiness which we harbor is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection [Erloesung: transfiguration, redemption]. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol [Verabredung: also appointment] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly. The historical materialist knows why.

Walter Benjamin: from Theses on History, 1940

TC said...

"...with women who might have been able to give themselves to us..."

Ah, had they but known. Their big chance. Gone.

And who remembers them now?

TC said...

From the quality of these lively exchanges between the dancing skeleton and itself there can be no doubt the Benjamin essay has sparked a flame of excited interest here, as well it should. Like so many of yours, this skeleton has spent the night atruggling to grasp the full significance of the essay, in light of the development of Benjamin's thought and of the course of history to which it is a response.

The speculation as to dating has allowed considerable freedom to those who would wish to position the essay with Benjamin's late Theses on History. Doubts on this score definitely linger here, but there's no question that in both sets of writings, it is a paramount concern for Benjamin to establish, as he put it, a central paradox, "the presence of the past, now". His call, in the 1940 Theses on History, for vigilance to protect the past against the barbaric triumphalism of the present "now" ("the enemy") -- a gesture of fidelity to the Brechtian insistence on the Jetztzeit ("the presence of the now") -- is probably responsible for the tendency to date the "Fragment" with the "Theses". But in tone and approach the works differ notably. This dissonance has caused Benjaminian interpreters some discomfort.

For example:

"However, Benjamin is inconsistent regarding the extent to which messianism is realisable. In the ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’, Benjamin argues that the messianic moment consummates history, and is therefore necessarily incommensurable with it. The historical world therefore cannot be built on a divine or messianic model. It should be built on a model of happiness instead. This pursuit of happiness both contradicts and assists the messianic moment. Messianism is also the passing-away of the world. How can this be reconciled with the revolutionary role of messianism? It is possible that Benjamin saw messianism as a means of rupture between two ‘historical’ worlds, or that he simply changed his mind. I wonder, however, if the issue has more to do with how messianism can be used – in particular, an insistence that it must be lived in immediacy, and that politicians must not claim ‘divine’ authority for themselves."

Andrew Robinson: Walter Benjamin: Messianism and Revolution -- Theses on History

That sound of wondering is the sound of not knowing.


TC said...

And meanwhile a few more bits from the Theses on History:



To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.


Think of the darkness and the great cold
In this valley, which resounds with misery.

– Brecht, Threepenny Opera

Fustel de Coulanges recommended to the historian, that if he wished to reexperience an epoch, he should remove everything he knows about the later course of history from his head. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a procedure of empathy. Its origin is the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by. The theologians of the Middle Ages considered it the primary cause of melancholy. Flaubert, who was acquainted with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [Few people can guess how despondent one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.] The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

TC said...



The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.


Walter Benjamin: from Theses on History, 1940