Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

Still in the fourth section, Benjamin proceeds to reincorporate the future into this sense of a combative, humorous present moment. ‘As flowers turn toward the sun, what has been strives to turn – by dint of a secret heliotropism – toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. This historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 390). That sense of the future – as a sunrise, embedded in the present, with the past turning towards it ‘by dint of a secret heliotropism’ – replaces postponement with a dynamic sense of the potential of the present moment. This is what we have to work with, incorporating as it does both a constant questioning of the past and a ‘secret’ turning towards what is capable of coming into existence.

This sense of a dynamic present moment, incorporating both the past and an undefined but sometimes radiant future, is elaborated in the fourteenth thesis, in which ‘now-time’ is established as a charged space. It exists in another intellectual universe to the one that obeys chronology and calendars, beyond both the daily ticking of the clock and the annual recurrence of the festival. ‘History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled full by now-time. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, a past which he blasted out of the continuum of history’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 395).

The breach with chronology is exemplified here by Maximilien Robespierre, the lawyer and opponent of capital punishment who came to represent the bloodiest days of the French Revolution in the minds of subsequent generations: a provocative choice, and hardly one that can be read as standing in for any version of the historical materialist. This thesis has occasionally been read as a sign of Benjamin’s acceptance of revolutionary terror, as though Robespierre, ‘the master of the guillotine’, was ‘a model for the ‘materialist historian’’ (Werckmeister 1999, p. 31). However, Benjamin characterises the French Revolution as having ‘cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress’ [my italics], and he goes on to say that while fashion may take ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’ in search of the ‘topical’, that action is not in itself revolutionary: it ‘takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands’. Whether Benjamin’s remarks can be read as a definitive judgement on some of the middle-class leaders of the French Revolution is not made clear; but it is clear that there is a difference for Benjamin here between Robespierre’s citing of Rome and the ‘same leap in the open air of history’, which is ‘the dialectical leap Marx understood as revolution’. Something was containing Robespierre’s thinking; he was not quite in Benjamin’s ‘open air’.

As with the careful phrasing around the term ‘class struggle’ in section IV, it is clear here that ‘revolution’, or what ‘Marx understood as revolution’, is a concept that is to be carefully dealt with. It is a ‘dialectical leap’. With Stalin’s Soviet Union in mind, Benjamin had no illusions about the possible consequences of revolutionary change. Perhaps Robespierre has his place here as a forerunner of another Great Leader? Stalin himself saw aspects of ancient Rome as a precursor of his own time: not its democratic political structures, but in the parallels between the threat posed by early Christianity to the Roman establishment and the hope it offered to the slaves of the Empire, and the way that ‘present-day socialism served as the banner of liberation of the toilers’ (van Ree 2002, p. 167).

Robespierre’s fate – the guillotine after a hasty trial – might also have had its relevance for Benjamin: a little piece of carefully concealed wishful thinking in relation to an imagined future for Stalin.

Within the dense and complex seventeenth section, Benjamin elaborates on the processes involved in the ‘tiger’s leap’ into the past. ‘Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock by which thinking is crystallised as a monad.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396). This image, drawn from crystallography, encapsulates the moment at which time stops, as does an image of the revolutionaries firing on the public clocks of Paris in the fifteenth section; but it shifts that action into interior space, into the actual processes of thinking, and into an almost algebraic account of an intellectual revolution, capable of being experienced initially by one solitary individual.

It is his own awareness of coming to a halt, of not-thinking, of tension, that is the point at which the historical materialist goes to work. This is a description of a mental process close to that described by some poets: the work announces itself by a suspension of thought, by a lack of awareness of time passing, by a phrase that has somehow acquired a musical intensity, offering itself as a point of beginning. For Benjamin, however, and for his historical materialist, this is ‘ . . . the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’. This is an explosive process: ‘blast’ is the verb of choice, and it results in a ‘lifework’ which ‘is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era, and in the era, the entire course of history’: a condensation of the whole of history into one thing: an idea, an object, a text.

In Benjamin’s account of the historical materialist at work, the thinker has brought past and present together in a new constellation, driven by the danger of the present, into what he has already named as now-time. A historical subject has to become a monad – incorporated into a new mental constellation at a time of great urgency – in order to be worth approaching, as far as the historical materialist is concerned. It is now a structure as well as an object, retaining the past and present connections in which it first formed a constellation. Benjamin goes on: ‘As a result of this method the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396). In some small thing, the whole era, the whole course of history can be read. Again, this might be a representation of poetic imagery: the world in a grain of sand, as Blake put it (Blake 1969, p. 431).

In the final sentence of section XVII, the fast-moving scientific metaphors are replaced by something altogether different: an unidentified piece of fruit. It is tempting to think of an apple, but Benjamin has chosen not to be specific. ‘The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396). Here, can the ‘historically understood’ be taken to be the monad, the historical subject that has crystallised from the constellation saturated with tensions? And what kind of time is Benjamin talking about here? Is this future time: ‘tasteless’ because it cannot be apprehended by the senses, and ‘precious’ because it contains the possibility of change, and even of happiness?

This ‘time of the now’ or ‘now-time’ in the eighteenth thesis becomes a version of the present moment that has expanded to incorporate the whole of human history. Benjamin quotes ‘a modern biologist’ using the familiar trope of the Earth’s history compressed into twenty-four hours, in which case ‘the paltry fifty-millennia history of homo sapiens equates to something like two seconds’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396). The moment is both tiny and enormous: even in its comprehension of the whole of human history it comprises only the tiniest fraction of life on earth. This final thesis is sweetly reminiscent of the primary school student who when asked to write her name and address in a textbook adds the useful directions: ‘the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe’. It’s a kind of humorous signing off. Benjamin has made his claim for now-time, and he goes on to hold it at arm’s length, to set it in the overwhelming context of geological and cosmic time. Even Brecht’s vision of 30,000 years of fascist domination is dwarfed by this image.

What can be taken from the melange of biography, history and poetic imagery that has gone into the making of this particular reading of a very dense and complex text? It does not offer a neat set of ideas with which to open a poem like a can of tomatoes or even to act as a theoretical foundation for a new and different piece of writing. It does offer a powerful but fragile and very debatable way of thinking about time and the future: as the potential for change wrapped up, concealed, in an obscuring present moment, and as fuelled by the interaction between that impossible, dangerous present and equally fraught moments in the past.

The future, in Benjamin’s view, cannot be imagined or anticipated. By imagining the worst and failing to discern the forces with the potential for change locked away in the present, we open a path to despair. As Andrew Benjamin has written, hope is ‘the work of memory in the present, working to maintain the present . . . However, rather than providing an opening to the future and thus only ever being of the future, hope will form an integral part of the present’s constitution. In marking an ineliminable spacing within the present, a productive caesura, hope will as a consequence be of the present.’ (Andrew Benjamin 1997, p. 57).

Hope is all around us, concealed in the dense, resistant matter of the everyday. The task for Benjamin’s historical materialist, as for the rest of us, is to continue to work with what is around us, taking nothing for granted and holding in our minds the possibility of things being otherwise. To believe in the constant possibility of change is a version of Pascal’s wager: without hope, whether or not it turns out to be justified, the chance of change is lost. (When Bill McKibben recounts the research of British scientists and Kenyan farmers on a form of crop rotation which operates against the pests that are likely to increase with hotter weather, without the use of pesticides, he concludes: ‘To see this kind of ingenuity at work is to understand its power.’ (McKibben 2010, p. 170). Four thousand Kenyan farmers cannot reverse the on-going processes of climate change, but their work points to other and more sustainable ways of living.)

At the same time, Benjamin demonstrates in his constant self-interrogation – not to mention his difficult, conflicting friendships, and even after his death in the competitive struggle to define his memory – that for him any fixed sense of self is something to be avoided, even struggled against, and that it is between the various forms which the self is able to inhabit – in their arguments among themselves – that it becomes possible to interrogate the most fundamental assumptions on which we base our lives.

Finally, ‘On the Concept of History’ embodies a complex and subdued attack on fundamentalism in all its forms, whether of left or right, religious or secular. Historical materialism as driven by theology may well win every argument – and this applies whether Benjamin is talking about his volcanic friend Brecht or the monstrous Stalin or both – but it remains theological: a closed circuit, the forces of revolution fossilising into a distorted image of the powers they aim to displace; the opponent is absent. There are other kinds of historical materialism; and for Benjamin it seems to be in the open-ended encounter with other moments in history that it becomes possible to envision the present moment in a different light: one pointing to the possibility of dramatic, unimaginable change. This is how in the face of the most terrible times it may still be possible to move beyond despair: by fully inhabiting the present moment, in the full awareness of past struggles, victories and defeats.

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