Thus far, I have argued that Benjamin at first describes and then adapts for his own use allegorical interpretation, a very theological form of biblical interpretation. He then goes on, in the Passagenarbeit, to seek an alternative mode of breaking out of the nightmare myth of capitalism. But it is one that
137 Benjamin 1999a, p. 462; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 577.
makes use of the language of sex and maternal functions. At first, it seemed as though this was a feature of his concern with the end of history, whether in the Passagenarbeit, the theses 'On History' or the translation essay. But then I also traced a very similar language in his obsession with Genesis, particularly in his essay 'On Language' and the Trauerspiel book.
As the final step of my argument, I want to suggest that, at various points, the fragments of a theory of history show up in these texts, a theory that is both indebted to the final or anagogic level of allegorical interpretation and the notion of Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history, that is steeped in the history of German theology and philosophy. But let me track how such a theory emerges more explicitly in his thought. The key is his notion of fulfilled time [der erfüllten Zeit] or historical time [Die Zeit der Geschichte, historischen Zeit], for which a number of other crucial adjectives appear: 'The idea of fulfilled time is the dominant historical idea of the Bible: it is the idea of messianic time'.138
Here, we fi nd a remarkable continuity from his early work to his latest. Thus, in the early essay, 'Trauerspiel and Tragedy',139 Benjamin characterises the Trauerspiel by the emergence of mechanical time. The terminology varies but the argument is the same: mechanical (or natural) time is concerned with empirical events; it is measurable, spatial, concerned with magnitude and regularity.140 He will call this 'natural history' in the Trauerspeil book, marked by profound spatialisation in which classifi cation, taxonomy and topology dominate. The outcome of such a shift is that time becomes an endless, natural process that may manifest itself as the eternal repetition that fascinates him in the Passagenarbeit or as the schema of decline and restoration. In the final theses 'On the Philosophy of History' the terminology shifts again: now he writes of 'homogeneous, empty time'.141 But it is the same as natural or mechanical time: what we get is historicism and universal history, 'the sequence of events
138 Benjamin 1996, pp. 55-6; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 134.
139 Benjamin 1996, pp. 55-7; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, pp. 133-7.
140 Three inauthentic temporalities were the result of the spatialisation of historical time into 'natural history' in baroque drama: chronological time, its inversion or acme, and the eternal return of the same (see Hanssen 1998, pp. 9-65). Hanssen 1998, pp. 59-65.
141 Benjamin 1992, p. 255; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 702.
like the beads of a rosary',142 and, above all, the faith in progress, as something boundless, irresistible and for all 'mankind'.
Yet this shift to natural history, to a spatialised, mechanical time, with its great concern over decline, restoration and the perpetual repetition of history provides the possibility for allegory. Thus, during the baroque, and then in much fuller form in nineteenth-century capitalism, allegory emerges from such a shift, appearing in the Trauerspiele, for here 'history merges into the setting';143 'natural setting increasingly intrudes into the dramatic action'.144 Later, Benjamin wants to carry this argument into the Arcades of the nineteenth century: 'Pursue the question of whether a connection exists between the secularization of time in space and the allegorical mode of perception'.145 By the Passagenarbeit, he extends the analysis to argue that natural history was not only the form of history in capitalism but also enabled the connection with myth or ur-history.146 Capitalism, therefore, does not merely draw upon ur-history in order to generate its own myths: capitalism, as the realm of natural history, is itself the realm of nature, of barbarism, myth and ur-history, raised to a new height. This means that capitalism not so much creates out of whole cloth, but it takes up various elements from previous modes of production and raises them to new intensity and transparency.
In response to such natural history or mechanical time, Benjamin speaks of both 'historical time' and 'fulfilled time'. Historical time may be 'infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment'.147 Apparently endless, like natural history, it is distinguished from natural history through its non-empirical status. The key difference, however, is that historical time may become complete, fulfilled time, a 'process that is perfect in historical terms'.148 Refusing concepts of both objective and subjective time, historical time is none other than theological, or more strictly biblical time. 'The idea of fulfilled time
142 Benjamin 1992, p. 255; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 702. For a more detailed discussion of 'historicism' and its connection with the universal history of the victors over against Benjamin's own kairological notion of history, see Müller 1996.
143 Benjamin 1998, p. 92; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 271; see also Benjamin 1998, p. 177; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 353.
144 Benjamin 1998, p. 93; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 272.
145 Benjamin 1999a, p. 472; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 590.
146 See Buck-Morss 1989, p. 64.
147 Benjamin 1996, p. 55; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 134.
is the dominant historical idea of the Bible: it is the idea of messianic time'.149 And messianic time is none other than 'divinely fulfilled time'.150
Here, of course, we enter one of the most enduring features of Benjamin's thought, one that has influenced Derrida, Agamben and Butler, among others. It is a notion of the messianic without the Messiah - his use of the adjective rather than the substantive is telling, as is his notion of a 'weak messianic time'. Indeed, the messianic appears in Benjamin's thought when he begins to reflect about history, particularly the future and what that holds. But the appeal of the messianic is that it embodies a paradox, simultaneously currently effective and retarding elements, moving both towards us and allowing us to approach it.151 It is, if you like, a proleptic idea, in which the time of the future has already begun and yet we await its fulfilment.
The messianic is one of the most contested sites in Benjamin's work, for Marxists uneasy with this material have argued that it is merely an image, a cipher, for the philosophy of history. Others have used it to point to the inherently religious nature of Marxism itself, given to an eschatological form of politics. Others again take them as figures for each other without giving priority to either.152 The problems, however, lie elsewhere.
Firstly, the messianic really is a misnomer for eschatology. It is worth insisting on this point: eschatology is the broadest and probably earliest biblical category. Its concern is with the transition from the present somewhat undesirable age to another that is qualitatively better, a shift from hardship to peace and plenty. In all cases, it is Yahweh, the main god of the Hebrew Bible, who brings in the better world. It is only with the prophetic literature that eschatology emerges as a distinct genre. The generic markers are quite clear: Yahweh's agency, an end to social, economic and bodily ills, a new age of freedom and plenty, and an unavoidable use of figurative language.
Messianism, too often regarded as a defining feature of eschatology, is usually assumed by biblical scholars to be a subset of eschatology. In this case, a particular individual, divinely appointed and directed, effects the transition from old to new. The Messiah, or 'the anointed one', is in the earlier material
149 Benjamin 1996, pp. 55-6; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 134.
150 Benjamin 1996, p. 56; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 134.
151 See Benjamin 1996, p. 213; Benjamin 1972, Volume 6, p. 126.
152 So Balfour 1991, pp. 622-47. He argues that the 'anders gesagt' of the Theses points to this figural double-take.
mostly a royal figure based around the figure of King David, but then later, especially at Qumran in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find royal, priestly and possibly a prophetic messiah for whom Moses, Aaron and Elijah become the models. Of course, the Christians will claim Jesus as Messiah as well, but, by this stage, messianic eschatology is much more highly developed and depends very much on the saviour figure. There is a distinct logic to the connection between eschatology and messianism, for, if God brings about the Eschaton, then he may as well delegate the task to a chosen individual. Indeed, the edges become fuzzy, for it can be a small step from the prophet who announces Yahweh's eschatological word to the Messiah himself.
The third and latest category is the genre of apocalyptic. Although it also has at base the move from old to new, here we have a body of revealed knowledge (apokaluptein in Greek) about the end times, efforts at very specific calculations of the end usually through calendars and numerology, a dualism between Good and Evil, between God and the Devil and a host of angels and demons, an esoteric method of interpreting the sacred scriptures to find hidden messages, and an overly metaphoric language that provides a coded narrative of the end times. I am as sceptical about its benefits as I am concerning messianism, if only because of the reactionary crackpots who engage in apocalyptic speculation today. A deeper reason lies in the radical dependence of apocalyptic on divine intervention and the absolute necessity of the saviour or redeemer figure. All the same, apocalyptic is not completely without virtue, for it cranks up the expectation of the end, rendering it imminent rather than off in a somewhat distant future. Yet, while such fervour for the end means you cannot get comfortable in the present age, it is also notorious for failed predictions and futile political action that expects God to arrive with his chariots and horsemen.
Unfortunately, eschatology becomes entangled all too quickly with the closely related messianism and apocalyptic, so that eschatology becomes an all-bracing term that includes the other two. Often, the three terms are confused with each other, taken as alternatives for the same phenomenon, namely the destruction of this age and the inauguration of a new one under some form of divine directive. But I need to insist that they are distinct categories, seeping into each other at the edges, with their own characteristics. And I should stress that although they are taken as religious and social phenomena, eschatology, apocalyptic and messianism are primarily literary categories, genres of biblical and extra-biblical literature in their own right. For these reasons, I would prefer to speak of the eschatological rather than the messianic in Benjamin's thought.
But there is a second problem with the debates over the messianic or eschatological in Benjamin's thought: the Bible is no less mythological than other creation narratives (of the world, of the people, of the land) or indeed than hopes for personal and collective redemption. But, here, I return to my criticism of Benjamin, that, despite all his efforts, he replicates the myth he so assiduously seeks to overcome. For some strange reason, Benjamin felt that the biblical material was free of myth. Thus, in his 'Critique of Violence',153 mythic violence, that narrative of the establishment of the law and legal violence, is something that belongs to the Greeks (Benjamin cites the myth of Niobe), whereas pure or divine violence, the arena in which the Messiah was to appear, is somehow free of myth (in this case, Benjamin favours the story of the rebellion of the sons of Korah in Numbers 16). McCole points out that Benjamin was also influenced by Hermann Cohen's argument that Judaism was the religion of reason over against myth, which, for Benjamin, was always irrational and demonic: theology is thereby set over against myth.154 Apart from the obvious point that the Hebrew Bible is as mythical as any other mythology, especially that of Greece, Benjamin cannot avoid, even in this text as Tom McCall argues, keeping myth away from pure, revolutionary and messianic violence.155 Such violence does not break out of myth, it merely uses one myth to counter another.
What then, is historical, messianic and divinely fulfilled time? For Benjamin, it is a narrative of the beginning and end of history, specifically understood in terms of the Fall and Eschaton. 'At the centre of the Trauerspiel book . . . stood a postlapsarian narrative'.156 In other words, he embraces a biblical notion of history as historical or fulfilled time, a history of salvation - Heilsgeschichte -that had its own tradition in German theology and is much more extensive
153 Benjamin 1996, pp. 236-52; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, pp. 179-203.
155 McCall 1996, p. 188.
156 Hanssen 1998, p. 99 See also Mosès 1995, pp. 139-54, as well as Gilloch 2002, pp. 60-2. I have favoured Hanssen's description over that of Helga Geyer-Ryan who emphasises fragmentation and montage over against continuity and progress (GeyerRyan 1988, pp. 66-79).
than a messianic theory of history or even the simple notion of Creation, Fall and Redemption.157 Rather, Heilsgeschichte is God's history, which touches that of the world only tangentially and at significant redemptive moments, running at cross-purposes to human history. It is therefore fragmentary and momentary, leaving behind traces. Yet, this divine history is the truth that can be glimpsed only partially, awaiting the Eschaton.158 It is this notion of Heilsgeschichte upon which Benjamin draws, giving it his own twist. At times, the translations elide his usage of the term. Thus, Osborne's translation of the Trauerspiel book unaccountably glosses Heilsgeschichte as the 'story of the life of Christ', rather than the history of salvation.159
What we have is an underlying biblical schema of history. Yet, a problem emerges, for Benjamin's apparently biblical history is in fact a theological appropriation from a variety of biblical materials. The notion of a salvation history, particularly in the context of German Lutheran scholarship, extrapolates from a text in which various creation stories may be found, notions of an Eschaton sit side by side with those that see none, tensions exist between an individual and collective afterlife and none at all, and patterns of eternal return. In Benjamin's writing, theology dominates the biblical, selecting material from the Bible in order to create the various pieces of an unconventional theory of history with which he would fiddle from time to time.
The question remains as to why Benjamin would make such a move, for he is no theological apologist. Rather, his recourse to a theological schema of history attempts to deal with developments in historiography that could only be seen, from his perspective, as detrimental to the discipline itself: the effects of the natural sciences, natural law and anthropology on historiography. Hence his polemic against what he calls natural or mechanical history. But there is another dimension based on the opposition between nature
157 See McCole 1993, pp. 160-10 on the romaticist influence on Benjamin's thought in this regard. Even Howard Caygill's argument - that Benjamin is more interested, following the image of the rainbow in the story of Noah, in the function of the new covenant after the storm of history - reinforces the eschatological tone of Benjamin's work, however much Caygill may lament the deleterious effect of the eschatological for Benjamin (Caygill 1998, pp. 149-52).
158 Buck-Morss unwittingly provides an excellent description of such a notion of salvation history in her discussion of the revolutionary break via the dialectical image that moves between empirical history and messianic time (Buck-Morss 1989, pp. 242-3).
159 Benjamin 1998, p. 182; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 358.
and history: the sciences mark a return to the dominance of nature, the realm of pagan thought that stands over against the distinctly historical nature of Jewish and Christian thought. On this point, Benjamin takes up, like Bloch, the common but highly problematic assumption that the Hebrew Bible marks a break from such pagan patterns of thought, the emergence of history from myth.160 Finally, through his use of the Hebrew Bible and theological material, Benjamin sought to reconstruct another history of thought itself, an alternative intellectual genealogy that broke with the line that ran from classical Greece, through Rome and early Christianity into medieval and then modern Europe. Although heavily theological, it is a theology that favours the Hebrew Bible, a document that troubles the classicist genealogy and its inherent anti-Semitism. If in his earlier work Benjamin made use of such material to counter problems in German and European thought, in his later material he attempts to rescue Marxism from similar difficulties. Thus, in the most theoretical section of the Passagenarbeit, Konvolut N, he attempts to rescue historical materialism from the temptation of thinking in terms of progress and decline, 'two sides of one and the same thing'.161 This is another version of natural history and is a far cry from Heilsgeschichte with its two markers of Fall and Eschaton, within which we find but fragments and flotsam.
The various steps of my argument, from the description and then appropriation of allegory to a theory of history that has Creation, Fall and Eschaton as its markers, have highlighted a distinct problem: Benjamin's efforts to overcome myth, especially the hellish myth of capitalism, makes use of another myth to do so. And that myth is biblical myth, or rather a theological appropriation of certain elements from the Bible that could only exacerbate its mythical dimensions.162
160 See the representative collection edited by Anderson 1984.
161 Benjamin 1999a, p. 460; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 575.
162 Contra Graeme Gilloch (Gilloch 1997, pp. 9-13, 174-7), who argues that in a fourth sense of myth - its use as trope or metaphor - Benjamin wants dialectically to preserve that which is good about myth, namely that contained in mimesis, play, intoxication and intuition. The other three senses - error, creaturely compulsion and the inversion of submission to nature in modernity - must be read alongside Winfried Menninghaus's detailed essay that traces myth in relation to space, language, beauty
Yet it seems to me that something may be retrieved from Benjamin's failure, an insight into the possibilities of myth despite himself.163 Let me take a move out of Benjamin's own pages, specifically a dialectical one that has its own history within theology. Not only are the various terms from the present used in their imperfect way - contradictions of capitalism, the dialectical image, the blast out of history - to give us a fleeting glimpse of that other future: the communist future in fact provides the terms with which we might understand our present, although those terms are but very imperfect derivatives of what that future contains. In other words, rather than taking terms from our present and projecting them into the future, Benjamin seeks to work in reverse: the terms and concepts of a communist future, however degraded and partial they might be in our present perception and use of them, provide the way to think about that future itself.
The problem, of course, is that, if the future is as radically distinct - however gradual or sudden a transition might be - as Marxists like to think, then the very ways of thinking and arguing will also be qualitatively different. Here lies the reason for the unwitting insight that Benjamin's use of an allegorical method, in itself a theological mode of biblical interpretation, provides. It is not that such a method provides the resources for conceiving the transformation out of the mythic hell of capitalism: rather, the inescapably mythic nature of the material with which Benjamin works - the narratives of Creation and Eschaton - suggest that the language of myth, with all its promises and dangers, provides one way of imagining a very different future. What Benjamin needs, in other words, is Bloch's practice of the discernment of myth. It is here that notions like pure language, the eschatology of translation, and the reflections on creation, take on a different hue. The danger is that such and time (Menninghaus 1991, pp. 292-325). Via Benjamin's connection between dream and myth, Menninghaus argues that, in the final stage of his thought, the positive and negative dimensions of myth achieve equilibrium so that the blasting out of myth becomes a dialectical escape and rescue of myth. I am less optimistic about this possibility, for, although I agree with Menninghaus that myth continues in Benjamin's thought, it appears despite his best efforts to overcome it.
163 Habermas (Habermas 1979) also wants to retrieve something from Benjamin's failure, although, in this case, it is a theory of language and communication that can be retrieved and reworked from the detritus of a failed effort to break through myth while 'preserving and liberating its wealth', specifically in terms of its semantic potential (p. 50). By contrast, I want to suggest that the failure itself is the important feature of Benjamin's work.
mythological material will replicate the patterns of oppression and appropriation of the myths from which they draw, in Benjamin's case specifically with regard to women. However, it is not merely that myth provides one option, an alternative language that falls into all of the patterns of previous and current myths: Benjamin's promising failure is that the use of such curiously mythical ideas and terms from the Bible raises the possibility of conjuring up an alternative language and the ability to imagine a very different future.
This means that Benjamin's allegorical method not only generates the failure of his overt proposal but also becomes an appropriate method for what I am suggesting. It is not, as the anti-allegorical polemic of biblical criticism has argued for so long, that allegory seeks a wooden one-to-one correspondence to various items in the text. On the contrary, allegory, particularly in Benjamin's hands, might be seen to reach across the divide between a capitalist present and a communist future to draw terms from that future itself, however imperfect they might be. The question remains as to whether the mythological material that runs through Benjamin's writing is able to do the job. In terms of specific content, no, but in terms of the effort to think differently, then myth provides one way of doing so.
Was this article helpful?