The End

Malcolm Bull

  • Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End? by Lutz Niethammer, translated by Patrick Camiller
    Verso, 176 pp, £19.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 86091 395 3
  • When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture by Paul Boyer
    Harvard, 488 pp, £23.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 674 95128 X

Four angels held back the winds of destruction. Until the redeemed had received the seal of the living God, nothing could be harmed. But now the servants of God are sealed, and the seventh seal has been opened. Six trumpets have sounded. A third of the trees have burned, a third of the sea has turned to blood, a third of the heavens has been darkened, and a third of mankind has been killed. Another angel comes down from heaven and cries out. Seven thunders reply, and the angel swears by ‘him that liveth for ever and ever ... that time should be no longer’ (Revelation 10.6).

It is a terrible prospect, but it is not the end. The angel’s statement has no illocutionary force, and, as modern translations make clearer (the Revised Standard Version translates the King James Bible’s ‘time should be no longer’ as ‘there should be no more delay’), it is only when the seventh trumpet sounds that ‘the mystery of God’ will be finished. But Kant, encouraged perhaps by Luther’s translation, was unable to wait. In his playfully sceptical essay, ‘The End of All Things’ (1794), he misreads the text, taking it to mean that time is brought to a close with the angel’s declaration. The angel is even mistakenly given a ‘voice of seven thunders’ to make his announcement suitably impressive. This premature apocalypse allows Kant to make a preemptive strike. If the angel is not speaking nonsense, ‘he must have meant by these words that henceforth there would be no change; for if there were still change in the world, time, too, would be there.’ On this basis, as Kant had already shown, the Last Day ‘belongs as yet to time’, for there are still changes to come – the judgment and the creation of a new earth. So the angel must mean ‘the end of all things as beings in time and objects of possible experience ... [and] the beginning of these self-same beings as supersensible’. However, this notion of time passing into timeless eternity is equally problematic: ‘an end of all things as objects of the senses’ is inconceivable, and the idea that the moment which determines the end of the sensible world is also the beginning of the supersensible world is self-contradictory because it means that ‘the latter is brought into one and the same temporal series with the former’. The contradiction is neatly exemplified in the epigraph of Paul Boyer’s book by the hymn ‘When the Roll is Called up Yonder’:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
And time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair.

If the end of time is unimaginable and the angel cannot bring history to a close, what does the future hold? Kant suggested unending temporal progression with (atemporal and supersensible) uniformity of moral orientation: ‘nothing else remains for reason except to visualise a variation that progresses into the infinite (in time) within the perpetual progression toward the ultimate purpose in connection with which its disposition endures and is itself constant.’ It is not, one would have thought, an argument that could easily be translated into the visionary language of apocalyptic. But what about this ‘angel of history’?

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise ... [which] irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned ... This storm we call progress.

Like Kant’s misinterpretation of the angel of Revelation 10, the angel in the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ stands between history and the future. He has come to end the destruction of what he would like to think are the last days. But he cannot. Time continues; history is not at a close; the winds of change continue to blow, bringing progress in the wake of destruction and driving the angel back into the future. In Benjamin’s account, the turbulent metaphors of the Apocalypse reappear in the angel’s dialectical relationship with the storm. But unlike John the Revelator, who was told to ‘seal up those things which the thunders uttered and write them not’, Benjamin wrote down what the thunders said, for in the violence of the storm he seems to have heard the still small voice of Kant, arguing for progress.

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