Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

By | 1 May 2017

Benjamin took this poem to the internment camp, and Hannah Arendt has described its impact: ‘… speedily, like a rumour of good tidings, it travelled by word of mouth – a source of consolation and patience and endurance – where such wisdom was most needed’ (Arendt 1968, p. 120; Parker 2014, pp. 385-6). At a historical moment at which it may have seemed that almost everything was lost, it would have been more than useful to remember the power of water over stone.

Brecht was, by comparison with Benjamin, a relatively straightforward Marxist. This did not, of course, mean that he was in any way in thrall to Stalin, or ignorant of the arrests and executions of friends in Russia, or sympathetic to the doctrine of socialist realism, with the representatives of which he had been tussling since the early 1930s (Brecht 1993, p. 20; Parker 2014, p. 326). He was volcanic, rarely defeated in argument. According to Soma Morgenstern, writing about a meeting in 1929, forty-five years later, ‘he did it by starting to shout, and anything that didn’t suit him was ‘completely out of the question’’ (Wizisla 2009, p. 30). Benjamin would have observed such displays, though it seems that he was not always a target himself. Günther Anders wrote of ‘conversations (for example with Benjamin), even conversations with explosive content, from which uninitiated involuntary witnesses could only receive the impression that the two gentlemen were conducting a Confucian ritual’ (Wizisla 2009, p. 19).

When challenged by Gretel Karplus (later Gretel Adorno) about his friendship with Brecht, he wrote to her: ‘In my existential economy, a few specific relationships do play a part, which enable me to maintain one which is the polar opposite of my fundamental being.’ (Wizisla 2009, pp. 9–10). This could be described as a dialectical analysis of friendship.

The chess games acquired the status of a ritual. Benjamin was notoriously an indecisive player; Brecht, writing to him in 1936 in the hope that he would make the journey to Denmark later in the year, lamented: ‘The chess board lies orphaned; every half hour a tremor of remembrance runs through it; that was when you made your moves.’ (Wizisla 2009, p. 59)

‘On the Concept of History’ begins with a humorous reworking of those games of chess. In the strange little fable of Thesis I, Benjamin presents us with the bizarre spectacle of a wizened dwarf, a master chess player, concealed underneath an apparently transparent table, pulling the strings of a chessplaying automaton. It is all done with mirrors. Benjamin offers a ‘philosophical counterpart’: the puppet is ‘historical materialism’ and wins all the time, as long as ‘theology’ – that dwarf, shrunken from its former glory – is pulling the strings (Benjamin 2003, p. 389).

In other words, in one reading of this complex image, Brecht, the notoriously volatile theatre director, who appears to win every argument if only by the sheer force of his personality, is entirely dependent for his intellectual direction on the invisible Benjamin, the introverted philosopher who hides under the table and pulls ‘theological’ strings. The story doesn’t reflect well on either participant. ‘Theology’ has lost its public presence and retains only its intellectual ability, while ‘historical materialism’ – note Benjamin’s sneer quotes – in this representation is simply a puppet in its hands, a figure of fun. It may be worth mentioning that ‘Turkish’ would have had a particularly precise meaning in his case; there must be a harem at the back of Benjamin’s mind, an allusion to Brecht’s many lovers; even in Denmark, where he lived with his wife, the great actress Helene Weigel, and their two children, there was often another sexual partner in residence, just down the road.

There is something missing in the picture of the automaton. Nobody is playing against him. There is the Turk with his hookah, and presumably that harem somewhere in the background; and there is the wizened little creature that pulls the strings. Whatever is going on is taking place between the two of them against an absent opponent. That absence could be inhabited by, for example, Nazism or Stalinism or the failures of the Left in Europe that allowed the rise of fascism, or even those of the players’ colleagues with whom they may from time to time disagree; the writer chooses to leave the opponent anonymous, as if Benjamin was working to construct a kind of algebra of political conflict, applicable in a wide range of circumstances, from the level of the individual to that of the state.

This reading of the first thesis – as partly a private joke on Benjamin’s part – can only be counted as one out of the forty-nine levels of meaning of Torah, in Benjamin’s words. When Brecht, exiled in the relative safety of the United States, first read this text after Benjamin’s death, he made no mention in his journal of the any private meanings written in to the text: ‘… in short the little treatise is clear and presents complex issues simply (despite its metaphors and its judaisms) and it is frightening to think how few people there are who are prepared even to misunderstand such a piece’ (Brecht 1993, p. 159). Was there nevertheless a private smile, or a mental re-engagement in one of those unresolved arguments?

To summarise: in a time of extraordinary terror, with the rise of Nazism apparently unstoppable, Benjamin was beginning to set some unexpected things against it. The power of water, as identified in Brecht’s poem, he connected to friendliness and more generally to ‘the inconstant, mutable aspect of things’, ‘whatever is unobtrusive and plain but relentless’. This is not the language of Leninist revolution. He characterises ‘On the Concept of History’, to which he attached such great importance, not as a clarion call to action in times of appalling danger, but as ‘a bouquet of whispering grasses, gathered on reflective walks’. He begins it with a teasing tribute to a friendship that had been formative, for him, allowing disagreement to flourish in safety.

This unobtrusive constellation brings to mind Benjamin’s characterisation of the concepts he aimed to introduce in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’: ‘completely useless for the purposes of fascism’. In that essay, however, he made another claim: that they ‘are useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 252) In this light, the famous conclusion of that essay – ‘Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 270) – might be read not as a call to arms but as a sad acknowledgement of the consequences of fascism for artists: that they may be forced by the pressures of their times into mirroring the aesthetics of fascism, and that the formation of ‘revolutionary demands in the politics of art’ may need to draw on some unexpected lines of thinking and feeling.

For the purposes of this essay, I want to put aside any attempt at an overall reading of ‘On the Concept of History’ and construct instead a second and more robust constellation, to place alongside the first.

This constellation’s beginnings can be read as positively Brechtian. The fourth section, or ‘thesis’, or in Andrew Benjamin’s choice of term ‘fragment’ (Andrew Benjamin 2013, p. 162), begins with a characterisation of class struggle which adds an interesting nuance to the Leninist orthodoxy. Benjamin describes class struggle as being ‘… for a historian schooled in Marx, … always in evidence’, carefully placing the phrase at a critical distance. If you are a historian, and if you have studied Marx, class struggle is inescapable: never out of sight. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement. He goes on to describe it as ‘a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 390). Again, there is a subdued critique lurking behind this description. Class struggle, while taken for granted as fundamental to social change, is in danger of being limited to the crude and material. The refined and the spiritual may depend on such crude and material things for their own existence, but they do not necessarily follow automatically once the crude and material things have been won.

There certainly are material ‘spoils that fall to the victor’: a redistribution of wealth as a consequence of revolution. The ‘refined and spiritual things’ which depend for their existence on those basic ‘crude and material things’, however, are in Benjamin’s account paradoxically present already. ‘They are alive in this struggle as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude,’ writes Benjamin, as though fresh from a performance of Mother Courage (Benjamin 2003, p. 390). These qualities are not those of foot soldiers for the revolution, but those of the energetic activist, engaging in the struggle for social change as it constantly develops and changes, with its growing roll-call of victories and defeats. The shadow side of these things might be their reverse: fearfulness, cowardice, humourlessness, stupidity and despair. The angel of section IX, who turns his face to the past and sees ‘one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 392), could be read as having some characteristics in common with this negation of the Brechtian list of commonsensical virtues; he is, in Peter Osborne’s words ‘an angel which is powerless to intervene’ (Osborne 1995, p. 149; see also my related article on the work of Jill Jones, Williamson 2013).

In section XII, Benjamin will attack the idea of progress as manifested in the thinking of the German Social Democrats, describing them as having ‘preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 394). The passage has its difficulties; in particular, ‘the ideal of liberated grandchildren’ is not obviously opposed either to class hatred or to self-sacrifice. In the passage from section four, however, Benjamin deliberately brings the ‘refined and spiritual’ back from a possible future into the present moment, and into the minds and hearts of those engaging in class struggle. He goes on to connect them to a restructuring of history; these things ‘have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 390). It is people’s engagement in political struggle now, in other words, that is crucial to the reinterpretation of history – not as a celebration of the victors but as a record of struggle. Those ‘liberated grandchildren’ are part of a conception of time in which the future is not enmeshed in the present moment, but out of reach, a separate realm, at the mercy of current and future political developments.

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