Today, for no reason I selected Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project from a shelf in the library. Hesitating before the substantial tome, I read what was available to the unsubscribed browser of T.J. Clark’s review of the momentous Harvard University Press translation of 1999, on the LRB website. Clark is evasive but offers enough to give the reader a general sense of the significance of the feat. ‘Now we have the whole gloomy, touching, submarine thing.’ The review, like much else written about Benjamin, becomes lost in the myth of his life and the tragedy of his death, perhaps because it is not easy to write about Benjamin’s writing. I have often wondered why this is. I think it may be because reading his work gives one an overriding sense that the point is perpetually disappearing around the next corner, leaving the reader with the feeling of having glimpsed something, and felt a presence, and what’s more, a conviction that it was the presence of something beautiful that will illuminate and connect everything in the world, but only the sense of the possibility of this revelation, not the revelation itself.
Benjamin comes close to describing the sensation while formally enacting it in his description of the angel of history in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
In Benjamin’s eschatological, analogical imagination, Klee’s angel perceives the futility and anarchy of history in the instant, but all the reader, or the observer of Klee’s painting, has to go by is the expression of horror in the staring eyes and the open mouth, the spread wings of the angel. This expression must not go unnoticed.
Benjamin understood what he could only gesture towards in writing, which is to say: he sensed the necessity of redemption. He knew how much could be lost so easily:
The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
We have a debt to the past and an obligation to the future. Our debt to the past is memory. Our debt to the future is sympathy. Both are impossible and essential, for
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. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour – and that day is Judgment Day.
Termed most simply, the only way to fulfil these impossible debts is love. As Auden wrote, before becoming afraid of his prophecy: We must love one another or die. It remains as true now as it was then, and to believe in another human being as such is love. This applies to the present, the past, and the future. Fascism, as Benjamin rightly saw it, is incapable of this kind of love. It does not believe in the existence of human beings, and accordingly it feels no duty toward the past: ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.’ The dead become tools, and future human beings become leverage, ‘as the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.’
In a world which is becoming more and more frightening, where so many are plunged into darkness and chaos, where innocent people are dying by the hands of those who have become monsters, and monsters are created for the profit of others, what was the point in picking up a copy of Benjamin, who can only gesture to vague truths, and those not even in the book I found today? Placed in juxtaposition, for instance, with the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, who apparently has no commitment even to fact-checking, let alone the thousands of souls he hopes to deprive of sanctuary, and who one cannot go a day without hearing about, Benjamin’s Messianic power serves as a reminder that it is easy, almost pleasurable to demonise a single man: Trump is the totem, the personification of evil which must be destroyed. But it is easy, and sure, protest can be useful, as long as it does not pacify one’s conscience. It is much harder to ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,’ and to translate that into present behaviour. Each moment is and has been and always will be a moment of danger. It is much harder to remember our impossible debts to the past, and by doing so to absolve the present, than it is to condemn the present as a freakishly malign accident. As if it were not a result of our own actions. Perhaps a memory of a moment of tenderness flashes up and reminds us of the humanity of the past. Seize it. Heat it in your cupped palms as if it were the last possible source of heat. Cherish it and use it to light the future. As Benjamin knew, it is by this impulse alone that the dead can be redeemed, the present be saved, and the future preserved.
Featured Image by Ayala Tal