#4, September 16, 2003


Traversing Clio (2)

Theses on the Philosophy of History


Walter Benjamin wrote his Theses on the Philosophy of History soon after the outbreak of the Second World War.  He was in Paris just before the German onslaught, and so was not yet on the run from the Nazis. In subsequent months he would escape to Spain, and wait there in the hopes of being allowed to make the journey to safety in the United States.  His thoughts on the philosophy of history, therefore, can be considered to have come at a time when things looked extremely bleak, with fascists dominant in Spain and Italy, and the Soviets making an agreement with the Nazis to carve up Poland, bringing on the war. Everything would become so bleak, in fact, that before Benjamin received news that he had been given permission to leave for the United States, he would give up and end his own life. 

Given the time at which they were written, then, it is not surprising that these theses on history should resonate for people living today, in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the face of conflicts that promise to recreate or cement global polarities between East and West, North and South, Muslim and non-Muslim, the United States and the rest, and so forth.  A condition of total and unceasing conflict, between those deploying more traditional state mechanisms of war and those using some of the newer methods of insurgency, can be predicted today, more easily than at any time since Hitler marched into Poland.  Indeed, the Cold War, while all enveloping and self-negating in its own way, was at least founded on the assumption that war would lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and so had to be avoided at all cost.  Today we have a situation where we need “to bring it on,” in the belief that this might lead to ultimate victory, even while such victories have never been won in the past.  And we remain in this condition (and will continue to do so) owing to something that Benjamin would have understood well, the current politics of mutually assured distraction!

Benjamin’s Theses, then, speak from a world similar in a way to our own.  While he was a Marxist, his Marxism was not that of a system builder.  He was in many ways closer to Nietzsche than to Marx, particularly in his aphoristic style, and in that regard too he speaks in post-modern tongues.  The following poem is founded in a reading of Benjamin’s text, reading it through the eyes of the present, not necessarily consistently, and not necessarily in a politically correct manner – one that would make Benjamin’s voice comfortable in all ways.  Some of the nuance, the contradictions, and the doubts about the human condition and about History remain in this poetic rendering.


Theses on the Philosophy of History (after Walter Benjamin)




Let me move my pieces,

or let my god do it for me,

a Deep Junior or Kasparov

hidden inside the chess board –

theology and theocracy,

teleology and technocracy,

all in the service of history.


Let the people of the East

see my puppet in Turkish attire

move their pieces towards democracy,

while I lubricate the machinery

of government and prophet

for profit.





Weak Messianism nurtures our love for history;

all paths lead to the present,

and the future will lead there too.


We are the world

of past, present, and future.


The earth waited for our coming,

nurturing meaning;

it waits for our actions,


it sees our becoming,

and our fulfillment;

and whether it survives

or ends its revolving,

burning up amidst greenhouse gasses,

and other human excretions,

it will be fulfilled.


Such at least is the history.


Our image of happiness

is bound up with the image of redemption.

and our past is the path towards that redemption,

our autobiography –

mere hagiography.





A chronicler once foretold

that pigeons would nest in Trafalgar Square.


Amidst the memories of battles won

and the circus of a traffic jam,

the strangled roads of Tottenham’s courts,

and the strands of Victoriana

hanging from a marbled arch,

we will see gray, white, and black pigeons,

leaving their mark on historic pavement.


And on what day will we distinguish

among these things:

Nelson, Victoria, the British Museum

all those past glories –

and these markings of flying rodents.


Assigning meaning is for Judgment Day,

though we will signify meanings

and other bird droppings,

in the meantime.





Seek for food and clothing first, then

the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you.

Hegel , 1807

Gods are born not in empty bellies,

though there they may gain some sustenance;

they are born in the knowledge of the full stomach,

in the satisfaction of material wants.


Gods provide for the starving,

opiates opine for the mind,

but this is all mere chiliasm,

despairing of all hope for material well-being,

unless the gods can make their own marks,

whereby a record or archive is constructed

in their memories.


Such gods are then real;

such gods are meaningful;

such gods are to be listened to,

are to be reckoned with;

in the course of human affairs,

in the house of human conflict.


Courage, humor, cunning and fortitude

will be manifest in their struggle.

Once recognized,

they will question every victory,

past and present,

of the rulers

and their other gods.


As flowers turn towards the sun

by dint of secret heliotropism,

the past strives to turn toward a star

rising in the sky of history.


But which flowers will we see?





True history flits by.


The past can be seized

only as an image

which flashes up at the instant it is seen,

never to be seen again.


It is a photograph

captured on paper

but printed in invisible inks.


The historian opens her mouth

and the meaning of the ages

the preening of the sages

gets lost within her exhalation.


The listener turns back to his morning newspaper,

sips at a cup of coffee

and examines the morning crossword,

the mourning cross words,

and puzzled revelations.





“What it really was,”

says Ranke,

is the one thing needful.”


“If it really was,”

says the materialist,

is the one thing doubtful.”


Danger will bring forth historic fact;

it will be there,

but invisible

without anxiety.


The need for the fact

will give it life,

and the fact will be needed

when the historian,

lying on an analyst’s chair

reaches for the causes

of his inner concern

his fear of conflict,

his search for community,

his yearning for some continuity.


Historian and historical agents

stand in awe of that danger,

fight for its narrative outlines

while staking claims for objectivity.


And who will win?


The historian will believe in eternal justice,

that he represents a Messiah,

that he is subduing an Antichrist,

and that he is losing.


Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy

if he should lose.


And, with a McCarthyite’s anxious flourish,

he notes that the enemy has never ceased

to be victorious.




Consider the darkness and the great cold

In this vale which resounds with mystery.

                        – Brecht, The Threepenny Opera


Blot out the present

to reach the past,

so sayeth Fustel de Coulanges.


We must be sad

to resuscitate Carthage,

so sayeth Flaubert.


But with whom shall we empathize?


Will it not be the victors,

to whom go all the spoils

of history –

for whom we must spoil history.


Are we not surrounded by the inheritors:

the triumphal procession

of present rulers

stepping over those who are lying prostrate –

not even their victims,

but the unconsidered losers,

the eternally mysterious?


But there is no document of civilization

that is not at the same time

a document of barbarism,

and barbarism will taint,

will have a hold on

the transmitter – the historian.


And to free herself from barbarism

is a task of disassociation,

brushing history against the grain

and not for gain.





We live in a “state of emergency”

and we are taught that this is the exception

not the rule.

We got here through 9/11

when we could have been somewhere else

mere descendants from a Good War,

or a mistaken one,

continuing to live in the lap of luxury

without a care,

lapping up our innocence.


But the innocent sojourning

in the state of emergency

is fearful indeed!


What would a real state of emergency

look like,

when emergency is not considered emergency

but more of the same

in world historical terms?


Would it be the hungry finding food

and the shackled passing into freedom?


For, surely it will not be another despotic act,

another terroristic response?

as these are age old and tired metaphors

for emergency!




My wing is ready for flight,

I would like to turn back,

If I stayed timeless time,

I would have little luck.

                        --Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”


The people look skyward

seeking aid from above,

and the Angel of History

appears on the horizon

his eyes staring, mouth open

and wings spread,

while human catastrophes

are hurled before his feet.


He would stay to help,

but a storm is blowing from paradise

and a violent gust

propels him into the future

while past and present erupt

behind and beneath him.


This is what we call progress.





The themes of monastic discipline,

those vows of chastity and poverty,

on which the monk must ponder for an eternity

in life and death,

are the principles of his disengagement

from the world

in life and death.


So too our politicians’ faith

in our progress

(the movement toward a goal

in life and beyond death),

in their “mass basis”

(the chads falling to the floor

in a pile of unregistered opinion),

and in their servile integration

into an uncontrollable apparatus

(the rampant, warlike state),

shall be our principles of disengagement

in life and others’ death.


There is a much higher price to pay

for a conception of history

that will free us from complicity,





Conformity and Social Democracy

tie worker to the shop-floor

in manufactories of self-exploitation

and self-negation.


Technological developments

bring bounties to mankind,

and these can be consumed

for the benefit of all.


Such at least is the glory

of the Stalinist five year plan.


In such a world the fantastic

becomes the norm

and common sense is subject

to ridicule.


Fourier’s four moons

can illuminate the earthly night;

and cooperation can help nature

to free the human spirit

of its gas guzzling

consumption of mineral deposits.


Exploiting nature

cannot deliver her of the creations

that lie dormant within her womb,

as potential,

when such potential is almost spent.




            We need history, but not the way the spoiled loafer

in the garden of knowledge needs it.

                        – Nietzsche, Of the Use and Abuse of History


Neither man nor men,

woman nor women

can be the depository

of human knowledge.

It is the non-man, non-woman,

the alien, the oppressed.


But the search for respectability,

acceptance as man and woman,

ends the search for knowledge.


We end up nourished by images

of enslaved ancestors,

searching for recourse

in reparations,

rather than those

of liberated grandchildren.


But when the world

is reduced to a pie –


why not demand a bigger slice?


Let freedom become enslavement.




            Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.

                                    – Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion der Socialdemokratie


Smart people,

Smart bombs,

Smarting people.




            Origin is our goal.

                        – Karl Kraus, Worte in Versen, vol. 1


And in our end, our purpose,

We shall find our beginning.


Robespierre’s origin was ancien Rome,

a past charged with the time of the now,

catapulted out of the continuum of history

to have present value, and present tense.


Fashion has a flair for the topical;

no matter where it stirs in the thickets

of long ago –

it is the tiger’s leap into the past.

Tiger, burning bright,

responds only to the commands

of the ruling class.


A Blair will yearn for the halcyon days

before Eden;

a Bush will burn for the desire

of a Rooseveltian imperial presidency,

with Raj-like purpose of moral uplift,

proclaimed aloud

amidst only quiet terror.


What will be our dialectic?

What ghosts will we summon up from the past

to be our antithesis,

so that we too can leap

into the open air of history,

forging a synthesis

from shards of broken memories?






We will make time explode;

we will stop history

and get off.


Failing that,

we’ll stop the clocks.





The fleeting, time-fleecing present,

in which I write,

gives me perspective

that others could not have –

shrouded as they were

in mystery,

behind that veil

of History,

being the losers

and not winners,

like me.


Bah!  We have sung historians

in many cities –

we will sing of the sun.


Sleeping with that whore,

called “Once upon a time”

in historicism’s bordello

is engaging,

but draining.

History as potential

dries up,

locked between the narrative legs

of “Once upon a time.”


But the materialist,

the realist

with his real list,

will remain in control of his faculties;

he will be disciplined

and man enough

to blast through the bordello

to the continuum of history.


Women and eunuchs

will have to remain behind.





Mustering a mass of data

without theoretical armature,

additive Universal History

subtracts the silences

from the past.


But the historian

of materialistic bent

searches for the oppressed past,

in the fissures

and interstices of the moment;

trying to disrupt the Messianic flow

propelling a specific era

out of the homogeneous course

of history –

as a specific life

or a specific work

out of the lifework.


Preservation of the lifework,

destruction of the lifework,

preservation of history

and its destruction,

the nurturing of a precious

but tasteless seed.





In relation to the history of organic life on earth, the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day.  On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.


The present,

that model of Messianic time

comprising the entire history of mankind

in an enormous abridgment,

coincides exactly

with the stature

which the history of mankind

has in the universe.





            Only that which has no history is definable.

                                                – Nietzsche


Finding the causal connection

between discrete moments

is the mark of historicism.

But no fact that is a cause

can be historical.

It becomes so


from events

that may be separated from it

by thousands of years.


The present,

the time of now,”

is shot through

with chips

of Messianic time.






who learn from time

what it has in store,

turn Messianic time

on its head.


We can strip the future

of its magic

by closing down

the futurists,

shutting up shop,

and dealing only in remembrance –

remembering what it is

we can remember,

looking not at ourselves in the mirror,

but at the image of ourselves

looking at a mirror.


That way we can know

that the unexpected

is restricted space,

a zone through which

only a Messiah may enter.


We will grab the past

by the scruff of the neck

and ensure that it conforms to our wish,

that we should only find

what we know has been lost.




*  *  *  *  *


Where are the other seventy-seven theses?


Will these eighteen

shake the foundations

of a church,


bolster a constitution,

or even put a bill to rights?


Where are the other seventy-seven theses?


Were they interrupted

by that self-inflicted wound,

brought on by despair

of escaping from Nazis

only to remain among the fascists?


Were they erased

in the recognition

that even Social Democracy

with all its messy Messianism

might be preferable

to the nihilistic might

of power unbridled,

leading irrevocably

towards its dark conclusions?


If so,

where does that leave us now,

with social democracy eating its own –

its constitution and its rights –

and shaking the foundations

of its own church

in a new crusade?



like an Owl of Minerva

taking to flight

these missing seventy-five

will come to light

in the dusk

amidst the “shock” projectiles

that herald the arrival

of those legions

from ancien Rome.


Where are the other seventy-seven theses

when we need them?





© Rob Gregg, 2003