Waking the Dead: For Walter Benjamin, History Was More Than a Series of Dispassionate Facts. He Showed How the Struggle for the Past Shapes Our Future

By Eagleton, Terry | New Statesman (1996), November 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Waking the Dead: For Walter Benjamin, History Was More Than a Series of Dispassionate Facts. He Showed How the Struggle for the Past Shapes Our Future


Eagleton, Terry, New Statesman (1996)


The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had the curious notion that we could change the past. For most of us, the past is fixed while the future is open. Benjamin thought that the past could be transformed by what we do in the present. Not literally transformed, of course, since the one sure thing about the past is that it does not exist.

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There is no way in which we can retrospectively erase the Treaty of Vienna or the Great Irish Famine. It is a peculiar feature of human actions that, once performed, they can never be recuperated. What is true of the past will always be true of it. Napoleon will be squat and Einstein shock-haired to the end of time. Nothing in the future can alter the fact that Benjamin himself, a devout Jew, committed suicide on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 as he was about to be handed over to the Gestapo. Short of some literal resurrection, the countless generations of men and women who have toiled and suffered for the benefit of the minority--the story of human history to date, in fact--can never be recompensed for their wretched plight.

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What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it. Benjamin also thought this about works of art. In his view, the meaning of a work of art is something that evolves over time. Great poems and novels are like slow-burning fuses. As they enter into new, unpredictable situations, they begin to release new meanings that the author himself could not have foreseen, any more than Goethe could have foreseen commercial television. For Benjamin, it is as though there are meanings secreted in works of art that only come to light in what one might call its future. Every great drama, sculpture or symphony, like every individual person, has a future that helps to define what it is, but which is beyond its power to determine.

In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

Yet we are not entirely impotent. It is up to us to ensure that Michelangelo and Thomas Mann, say, did not belong to a race that ended up destroying itself. They themselves, being dead, are powerless to prevent that tragic denouement, whereas we are not. We can make a difference to their stories. We cannot undo the fate of those in the past who fought for justice and were murdered for their pains. But we can rewrite their narratives by our own actions in the present, and even give them a classical happy ending.

In this way, Benjamin thought, we could redeem our ancestors after a fashion. The traditional Judaic rituals of mourning and remembrance could be lent a new twist. For this unorthodox leftist, astonishingly, there could even be something revolutionary about nostalgia. Today, nostalgia is almost as unacceptable as racism. Our politicians speak of drawing a line under the past and turning our back on ancient quarrels. In this way, we can leap forward into a scrubbed, blank, amnesiac future.

If Benjamin rejected this kind of philistinism, it was because he was aware that the past holds vital resources for the renewal of the present. Those who wipe out the past are in danger of abolishing the future as well. Nobody was more intent on eradicating the past than the Nazis, who would, like the Stalinists, simply scrub from historical record whatever they found inconvenient. …

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