Appropriation of the maternal function

I have yet to explore the other line I noted above - the blast out of history. And rather than take the well-known text out of the theses 'On the Philosophy of History', I want to focus on the variations of this statement that appear in the Passagenarbeit. Concerned to develop his own revolutionary aesthetics and philosophy, Benjamin resorts to the terminology of armed conflict - blast, explode, ruin.90 He does so in order to be rid of the homogenous in history. But the source of the blast is the monad, bursting forth to break open history and offer something new.

If the object of history is to be blasted out of the continuum of historical succession, that is because its monadological structure demands it. This structure first comes to light in the extracted object itself. And it does so in the form of the historical confrontation that makes up the interior (and, as it

87 Benjamin 1999a, p. 462; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 576.

89 A comparable notion is, of course, that of waking from a dream - Benjamin's answer to the surrealists: 'Accordingly, we present the new, the dialectical method of doing history: with the intensity of a dream, to pass through what has been, in order to experience the present as the waking world to which the dream refers!'. Benjamin 1999a, p. 838; see also pp. 845, 854-5, 863, 883; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, pp. 1006, 1012, 1023, 1033, 1057-8. See also Leslie 2000, pp. 20-1; Buck-Morss 1989, pp. 253-86. Buck-Morss develops a fascinating Benjaminian reading of the end of the Cold War that relies heavily of Benjamin's more surrealistic side; see Cohen 1993; 1995. For Margaret Cohen, it is surrealism itself that provides the key, rather than one element among many, to Benjamin's fantastic and gothic Marxism. See also Pensky 1996, pp. 164-89, and McCole 1993, pp. 206-52.

90 See also Benjamin 1999a, pp. 857, 862, 863; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, pp. 1026-7, 1032, 1033.

were, the bowels) of the historical object, and into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale. It is owing to this monadological structure that the historical object finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history.91

Benjamin seems to have passed well beyond theology in his search for a new way of conceptualising the revolution out of capitalism, but what is noticeable about the text I have quoted and others like it is the highly sexualised and maternal language when he begins to speak of that break. All that is missing is the phrase 'pregnant with tensions', but that comes in the theses 'On the Philosophy of History'.

Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fi ght for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history - blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of a lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time cancelled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.92

In both quotations, he conflates male insemination and female birth-giving. Thus, when the 'object of history' is blasted out both male ejaculation and female birth-giving are evoked; thoughts 'fl ow' and 'arrest', stopping suddenly in a moment 'pregant with tensions', a 'shock' that miraculously produces the 'monad'. Characteristic of such appropriations is the immediate production of an object, a child, without any recognition of the long process of gestation: the man ejaculates and lo, a child is born. While the second quotation turns around the blast and shock and its historical implications,

91 Benjamin 1999a, p. 475; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 594.

92 Benjamin 1992, p. 254; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 703.

the first is obsessed with what may as well be called the womb of history, the 'interior' and the 'bowels' of the historical object, 'into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale'.

From here, the object of history is to be blasted out and extracted, the 'violent expulsion from the continuum of historical process'.93 But there is a curious doubling over in which inseminator, mother of history and their progeny become one: the object of history is blasted out of its own womb. If this seems a little odd, then it is very much part of the way in which the maternal function is appropriated by those who cannot give birth: not only is there a conflation of insemination and birth, but the male body becomes a site of its own autogeneration: hence the final oral image of the 'precious but tasteless seed', for the only mode of auto-generation open to man is to come in his own mouth.

In the theses 'On the Philosophy of History' the appropriation of the maternal body to speak of history becomes even more overt, both in the revision of the quotation I have cited above and in the first thesis of the wizened dwarf of theology, the little hunchback who is an expert chess player and sits inside and guides the puppet.94 Although the child appears old and in control it still sits within the womb of history. I must admit that I am less interested in the immediate content of Benjamin's famous images - the first thesis has been used time and again to characterise the relation between theology and historical materialism in his thought - than in the repetitive and overlaid patterns such images follow. And one of those patterns is that of conception, pregnancy, giving birth - in short, of the maternal body.

If we thought that this appropriation of the maternal body was a late development in Benjamin's eschatological thought, then we need only to look at 'The Task of the Translator'95 from 1916 to see that this was a consistent element.96 Here, Benjamin suggests that one path to the Eschaton - or, as he and his host of followers prefer, the messianic era - is that of translation. Over against the many different and partial languages that translation seems to throw up in sharp relief, the task of translation actually allows us to glimpse,

93 Benjamin 1999a, p. 475; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 594.

94 Benjamin 1992, p. 245; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 693.

95 Benjamin 1996, pp. 253-63; Benjamin 1972, Volume 4, pp. 9-21.

96 Even though the direction of my argument is quite different, I still find Paul de Man's reading ('"Conclusions"') the most engaging and intriguing, precisely because of its careful misreading.

however momentarily, pure language. Only now, instead of being a prelapsar-ian language, it is one that awaits fulfilment. Translation shows forth, if you will, 'language-in-the-making':97

If, however, these languages continue to grow in this way until the messianic end of their history, it is translation that catches fire from the eternal life of the works and the perpetually renewed life of language; for it is translation that keeps putting the hallowed growth of languages to the test: How far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation? How close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness?98

This is where a sacred history underlies the translation essay: the 'hallowed growth of languages'99 contained in profane translations would last until the messianic end. And how does this take place in translation? Only when translation makes 'both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel'.100

Tempting as it is to delve into the complexities of his thoughts on translation, and especially my favourite final line - 'The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation'101 - I will resist that temptation here. Rather, what intrigues me is the way the language of birthing appears precisely the same point, namely at the Eschaton. But now the talk is of the relationship between the original text and its translation, the mechanism for glimpsing the Eschaton. And, not unexpectedly, a range of mythical, sexu-alised and birthing metaphors appear that attempt to circumvent the notion of an original and its copy: the afterlife of a text, the creation of a new language, the translatability or fertility of the original, the play between fidelity and license - all of which are indebted to mythical biblical motifs. If we harboured any doubts that Benjamin is buried in such language, then his reference to the 'problem of ripening the seed of pure language in a translation'102 should dispel those doubts.

It seems to me that this metaphorical appropriation of the maternal function acts as a profound signal of theological commentary in Benjamin's writing,

97 Benjamin 1996, p. 294; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 243,

98 Benjamin 1996, p. 257; Benjamin 1972, Volume 4, p. 14.

99 Ibid.

100 Benjamin 1996, p. 260; Benjamin 1972, Volume 4, p. 18.

101 Benjamin 1996, p. 263; Benjamin 1972, Volume 4, p. 21.

102 Benjamin 1996, p. 259; Benjamin 1972, Volume 4, p. 17.

for the language and images of birthing to which he resorts are central to the myths of Creation and Eschaton in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Where the maternal body appears in Benjamin's reflections on the future (and also origin), the Bible seeps and spreads through his language and thought. But it is a Bible absorbed in terms of the two great poles of Creation and Eschaton -that is, a theological schema of history that derives from the anagogic level of allegorical exegesis.

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