Benjamin and Arendt: Pearl Diving for the Messianic

In his last essay, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin composes several intriguing juxtapositions: the desire for the future verses the redemption of the past, the oppressing class verses the oppressed, and nature verses labor to name only a few. Of the many, the juxtaposition I wish to investigate here is that which he constructs between two modes of time. On the one hand, there is the time of the historicist who “gives the eternal image of the past.”[1] On the other hand, there is the historical materialist who “supplies a unique experience with the past.”[2] Connected with these two different understandings of the past — of verses with — are two diverging understandings of time. He’s not presenting a physics of time, but an existential understanding and experience of it — a phenomenology of time as experienced by the West.

Throughout the essay at several points, Benjamin states that for the historicist time is homogenous and empty.[3] One gets the picture of some type of container waiting to be filled. It is within this container of time that mankind progresses. However, for Benjamin this progression is anything but what is usually understood by the term. It’s not that humanity through a causal chain of events linked together through homogenous and empty time, rises from primordial darkness to civilization. First, civilization, Benjamin notes, is always connected to, if not grounded on, barbarism. Second, for Benjamin, and those on the underside of history, progress appears as a storm, a unit, or “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”[4] Here we see the problem that Benjamin has with this notion of progress, and with what he sees as its necessary and corollary representation of time: it is the view of the victors, the view of those who do the oppressing and thus are able to live under the illusion that progress within time is inevitable, irresistible, or even progressive.[5] However, it is worth noting that he still used the word of progress.

In opposition to this notion of time Benjamin presents his notion of “Messianic time”, time filled by the presence of the now (Jetztzeit).[6] As an example Benjamin cites the French Revolution’s and Robespierre’s self-prescribed connection with ancient Rome. He notes that just as fashion “makes a tiger’s leap into the past” when it conjures up a certain peace or style of a bygone era and places it in the present, for the present, and divorced from its historical context, so does the historical materialist make this leap when he “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a different earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of messianic time.”[7]


In the third section of her introduction to Benjamin’s work, “The Pearl Diver”, Hannah Arendt suggests that Benjamin was fully aware that the break in tradition, what she calls “history itself”[8], had already taken place and was irreparable.[9] For Arendt this break happened at the beginning of the 20th century. This break itself gives rise to the question of how one is to relate to the past when the bridge of tradition has been irreparably sundered. Arendt suggests that Benjamin’s answer was to be a collector. What is the difference between these two ways—collecting and tradition—of relating to the past? When tradition encounters the past Arendt says it brings order by separating, “the positive from the negative, the orthodox from the heretical, (that) which is obligatory and relevant from the mass of irrelevant or merely interesting opinions and data.”[10] To stick with a metaphor that Arendt makes much use of tradition helps us navigate the sea floor of history in all of its complexity and chaos allowing us to grasp moments and creates the illusion that we can excavate its depths. In the homogenous and empty time of the historicist tradition orders the endless “one damn thing after another” and allows us to pinpoint those moments of significance, causally or otherwise.

Collecting, however, levels all differences flirting with chaos. As Arendt puts it, “Against tradition the collector pits the criterion of genuiness: to the authoritative he opposes the origin.”[11] These two criterions, the genuine and the origin, obliterate the need for context. All that matters is that this or that object, quote, or thought fragment was from this or that place in this or that time. As such collecting is less about the past then it is about the present. The collector, from her position in the present decides which fragments of the past are meaningful and which are not. Thus, collecting carries with it a destructive force in so far as it tears out the objects of its desire from their embeddedness it destroys their context. Yet, as Arendt points out, this destruction has already been completed by the loss of tradition.[12] It is in this light that the collector is seen to have the appropriate relationship with the past within (and after?) the 20th century. The collector is now free to, well to collect—to pick and choose those objects based upon his or her need to create (the original meaning of the Greek poesis) in the present.

Immediately questions arise: is this responsible? if not then to whom is it irresponsible? what do we owe the past? what tradition are we even talking about? Following the messianic theme we will begin with the last first. The tradition Arendt speaks of is our tradition of political thought, from Plato (the Greeks) to Marx (the Germans). However, while Marx along with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard mark the end point of that tradition, the rupture itself came through the event of totalitarianism.[13] (26) But what of that tradition, which was never of course an isolated thread, but one intimately interwoven with that Hellenism carried from the Greeks to Marx through Rome, the Medievals, Romanticism and Hegel, whose development was fatefully connected to Arendt even if only genetically? Arendt appears to temporally locate the lose of this tradition, Christianity, in an event as well: the separation of religion and politics that gave rise to secularism.[14]

Whether or not Arendt is correct in her assessment that both of these two interwoven traditions are irreparably lost is beyond the scope of this essay. What can be addressed, even if only briefly, is the issue of responsibility. Coupled with the loss of tradition, whether it be philosophical, political, or religious, is the loss of responsibility to that tradition. To the question of whether or not this or that reading is faithful, or this or that position is orthodox, one can always respond: to whom or to what? The responsibility is shifted, but that does not need mean that it is lost. It is no longer to the past that we owe responsibility, the need to comprehend it “rightly”, i.e. according to some form of orthodoxy although we defenately still need to comprehend it. Nor is it to the future, the need to begin the right process in order to liberate the future generations as Benjamin says.[15] Rather, our responsibility is to the present. It is the past that we beings of the present must turn to find those pearls, configurations, and crystallizations of time, those messianic moments that become possible when the thought of the present grasps hold of the past. It is these moments that Benjamin tells us, “blast open the continuum of history”.

Both Arendt and Benjamin mention the French Revolution. For both it was incredibly important that this event was able to reorganize time, or as Arendt says, “to begin a new historical process.”[16] For Benjamin the new calendar ordered time differently than the measuring of time, the tick-tock, tick-tock, of a clock. It, at the very least, created a time of repetition, if not a cessation of time altogether. For Arendt the moment when the calendar was given up may even mark the moment when “the modern age abandoned its earlier attempts to establish a new political philosophy for its rediscovery of the secular…”[17] In fact, Arendt even goes so far as to say that this was the moment when “the Revolution was reintegrated, as it were, into the historical process with its two fold extension towards infinity.”[18]

And it is here where we are brought back to the preface of Between Past and Future and Arendt’s explication of Kafka’s image of man inserted into the infinite and uniform temporal flow. According to Arendt’s reading Kafka’s man becomes the meeting point between the two forces of past and future. Contrary to common-sense the past pushes us forward, while the future pushes us back.[19] On Arendt’s reading while Kafka understands that the insertion of man breaks up this temporal flow, he misses that,

The insertion of man, as he breaks up the continuum, cannot but cause the forces to deflect, however lightly, from their original direction, and if this were the case, they would no longer clash head on but meet at an angle. In other words, the gap where “he” stands is, potentially at least, no simple interval but resembles what the physicists call a parallelogram of forces.[20]

In being inserted in between the past and the future humanity finds a third diagonal, the space for thought. Whereas the past and the future both come out of infinity, “both unlimited as to their origins”[21], they reach their termination in the gap of humanity. Yet their termination is not a true extinguishment, but rather a refraction into the potentially infinite space of thought opened up by the gap of humanities insertion. It is incredibly important to notice here that thought begins in this location. It does not begin in some “timeless, spaceless, suprasensuous realm”[22], but rather in the midst of the now. It is made possible by the past pushing it forward and the future pushing it back. It is not a disembodied thought, but a thought of the present, a thought that begins in a spatio-temporal location with a throwness in the Heideggerian sense. This is why for Arendt philosophy does not precede through thought experiments, but rather through the textured complexity of everyday lived life. Thought, while potentially infinite, is always tethered to the present, to the here and now of the human condition.

However, while Arendt’s man refracts the rectilinear time sequence, he does not necessary set out on his own trajectory of infinite thought. Is it only in grasping the gap opened up between the past and future by the loss of tradition that man can “ploddingly pave (the non-time-space in the very heart of time) anew”?[23] Is man, even if able to create a non-time-space for thought left with reflection and contemplation only, or is this space enough to create an opening within which the continuum of history can be exploded? Arendt and Benjamin seem to suggest that the French Revolution and the calendar that marked and mapped its unique time was indeed a moment when humanity set out on this trajectory of infinity arising out of the gap between the past and future. And this brings us back to Benjamin and leads us to ask (along with him?) if indeed every second of time is “the straight gate through which the messiah might enter”?[24]

[1] Walter Benjamin, “These on the Philosophy of History” in, Illuminations (), 262 italics mine.

[2] Ibid., italics mine.

[3] Ibid., 261, 262.

[4] Ibid., 257.

[5] These are the three views of progress that Benjamin ascribes to the Social Democrats. Ibid., 260.

[6] Ibid., 263.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hannah Arendt, “III. The Pearl Diver” in Illuminations (), 45.

[9] Ibid, 38.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] See, Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (The Viking Press: New York, 1961), 26. See also Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Harvest: New York, 1968). While Arendt’s examination of Totalitarianism is breath taking in scope and precision, and while I follow her theoretical lead in understanding Totalitarian political phenomena, I am not sure that the rupture of Totalitarianism is able to give her the clean slate, as it were, that she seems to imagine it does.

[14] Ibid., 60-74.

[15] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 260.

[16] Arendt, Between Past and Future, 81.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 10.

[20] Ibid., 11.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 264.

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