Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I find myself circling back around the figure of Pol Pot, trying to read that almot blank page. He has at least one historical predecessor, the Chinese general Zhang Xian-zhong, who slaughtered the 100,000 inhabitants of a Sichuan city in the seventeenth century, and then ereced a stone to commemorate the event, with this inscription:

[Zhang Xian-zhong believed that he himself was not a man, but the incarnation of a star sent down by the Jade Emperor to kill all men. And though he particularly relished the death of scholars, he also thought of himself, through a coincidence of names, as the god of literature.] -- Eliot Weinberger, 1982

The emperor is mad, the opposition powerless, and hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq.

Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I'm sick beyond cure to have lived to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara yet what a blessing we didn't know it. -- Henry James in a letter, August 1914, quoted by Eliot Weinberger, 1999

How different is our situation from that of Henry James. We can pretend that Bush is morally worse than Johnson or Nixon, but it would only be pretending. I happen to believe that Bush hates America more than his predecessors in catastrophe, but rooting for the home team is a marginal issue. This is the way we have always been -- "we" being humans amassed into "great civilizations."
We, as a species, repeatedly allow ruthless murderers to assume positions of massive power. I wonder how we can break the habit. I wonder whether. I have no clues.

James must not have read Conrad, to have been so deceived about his civilization's relationship with the worst.

* * *

Addendum two days later: I’ve been re-reading Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. Benjamin, a German Jewish Marxist writer fleeing the Nazis early in the Second World War, takes Henry James’s myopia to task.

The current amazement that things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. -- Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940, tr. Harry Zohn

Benjamin’s marriage of Marxism and Messianic Judaism provides the most honest account I know of the millennialist leanings of revolutionary Marxism, revealing its teleological nature. Because he is Marxist, the agent of human deliverance is the revolutionary class, aided by history itself. In Benjamin’s rendering, “history” is a crypto-mystical force that appears in times of crisis to people who can recognize and use it. He almost makes “history” out to be a Homeric god that appears by the side of a blessed combatant. Almost, but not quite; Benjamin remains Jewish: The Revolution will be Messianic in the theological sense; the Revolution’s Messianism shall redeem all of the suffering wrought by what normal usage designates as

Aside from the theology, the Theses carry deep wisdom. Benjamin convincingly argues against the equation of history and progress, and less convincingly but still fascinatingly against the homogeneity of time. He also prophesies the need for stories to be known from the losers’ points of view, which has influenced the whole field of historical study.

Benjamin’s attempt to detach history from progress is curious and subtle. In Byron’s The Vision of Judgment, souls go on trial after death; the Archangel Michael serves as defense attorney; the Devil prosecutes, and “history” is “the Devil’s scripture” -- his evidence. In Benjamin, history has nothing to do with the devil’s evidence of human perfidy; history consists of moments of resistance to perfidy. And these historical moments can come to the aid of people who need them, arising like visions to be grasped.

Benjamin could only hope for a happy ending to the human story -- against all historicist evidence. His argument has to be taken on faith; ultimately it is a religious argument. And he couches the happy ending in terms of vengeance -- a reasonable reaction of a Jew fleeing Nazis, which Benjamin was when he wrote this. Reasonable and human -- but not a convincing vision of the redemption of history and humanity.

Vengeance is a mode of self-perpetuating catastrophe. Therefore it is not able to bring the redemption of humanity into being. The redemption of humanity shall be post-vengeance.

Shortly after writing his Theses, Benjamin killed himself after having been refused entry into Spain from France. 1940.

I have had several opportunities to watch hope, the promise of what is called a better tomorrow, lead people that I respected . . . quite simply to suicide. -- Jacques Lacan, 1974, quoted by Catherine Clement, The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan, tr. by Arthur Goldhammer

It is only for oneself that one can prepare the Way for the Messiah; we can only work to be personally worthy of the Coming. Our acts cannot entice the Messiah to come.

How shall we recognize the Coming of the Messiah? How shall we know that the Messiah is not false? What Benjamin struggled not to call “history” is littered with false Messiahs.

To hope for the Messiah is not to hope at all. Benjamin’s Theses are desperate -- understandably so, terribly so. The Terrible was at his doorstep. It is always at somebodys doorstep.

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