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.
Neither ‘The Blown-Away Angel’, the chapter of Lutz Niethammer’s book devoted to Benjamin’s philosophy of history, nor what I have read of the proliferating literature on Benjamin’s angelology to which it refers, contains any discussion of the possibility that the angel of history might have a Christian, Kantian ancestry. This surprising omission is, one suspects, the result of Gershom Scholem’s emphasis on Benjamin’s use of Jewish sources in his identification of and with Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus. (Benjamin considered the picture his most valuable possession and it prompted numerous meditations, including the ninth of the ‘Theses’.) However, as Niethammer points out, there is no reason to suppose that Benjamin’s earlier projections of himself into the Angelus Novus define the angel of history, with whose perspective he clearly does not identify. But nor does Benjamin identify uncritically with the storm, the ‘dynamic of progress and reason’. Although Benjamin may have condensed Kant’s argument against Christian millenarianism into the image of the ‘blown-away angel’, he did not entirely concur with it. On the contrary, he can be seen as invoking Kant’s argument against the temporal end of history as a preliminary to his own critique of the Kantian idea of progress. The criticism of the Social Democrats, who (in ‘Thesis XIII’) are said to view progress as the infinite, irresistible perfection of mankind itself, is implicitly directed at Kant. Against this conception of the future as a ‘progression of a homogeneous, empty time’, Benjamin juxtaposes another conception of history – not an eschatology in which the future is foreclosed by eternity, but a political messianism in which the revolutionary classes can ‘make the continuum of history explode’ and (as in Judaism) ‘every second of time [is] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.’
The ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ thus offer three alternative endings: one in which eternity breaks into time; one in which humanity progresses through time; and one in which humanity has the potential to break out of time. It is a sequence that recapitulates the historical progression from Christian apocalyptic, through Kant to Marx. Benjamin seems to have viewed each step in the sequence as an advance in explanatory power and a strengthening of realistic hope for the future. But every step also involved a loss. Kant saw the Christian idea of time passing onto a changeless eternity as an end without a goal, a petrifaction of life in which the redeemed would for ever sing the same monotonous hallelujah. Yet as he recognised, the idea of a goal without an end was equally uninspiring, because in an infinite progression to the ultimate purpose, ‘the condition in which man exists remains ever an evil in comparison to the condition into which he stands ready to proceed,’ and unless the ultimate purpose is reached, the future is just ‘an unending series of evils’.
The problem which will prove the most difficult, and will be the last to be dealt with by mankind is, according to Kant in ‘The Idea for a Universal History’, also one of the oldest: man requires a master, but that master will also be a man requiring a master, so who will master the highest master? In fact, Kant admits that a complete solution will prove impossible because of the intractability of human nature: ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.’ As Perry Anderson has pointed out, Kant’s use of this phrase hardly justifies its adoption as a motto for Isaiah Berlin’s pessimism; but even so, its deployment is significant, for the imagery of the crooked and the straight is steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. ‘Crooked’ is the epithet characteristic of the serpent, the enemy of God, and it is a central eschatological expectation that ‘Leviathan, that crooked serpent’ will be punished, and that the crooked paths will be made straight. In this context, Kant’s ‘crooked wood’ seems more than a handy metaphor; it is an emblem of evil – the snake in the tree. And it is for precisely this reason that Kant cannot let it go: the persistence of evil is a necessary condition of infinite progress – a crooked plank is needed to save mankind from drowning in eternity.
As Kant conceded, being saved from eternity can seem less appealing than being saved for eternity, and for those who are impatient, crooked timber is merely an irritating obstacle to historical closure. But how can it be straightened? One answer is found in the messianic expectation that ‘the crooked shall be made straight’ when the valleys are filled in and the mountains and hills made low. The implied connection between levelling and straightening was given stronger expression in Marx’s prediction that the eradication of class differences and hierarchical power relations would bring the close of history; and there were many who, like Benjamin, rejected the prospect of endless progress in favour of an egalitarian ending. But Marx offered hope for the present rather than the future. The problem was not that Marxism would not attempt to make the crooked straight, but that it might succeed. Like Plato’s Protagoras, Communist governments believed that the disobedient could be straightened ‘with threats and beatings, like a warped and twisted plank’. Some Marxists were naturally revolted by the cruelty of the straightening process itself, but even those who accepted the necessity and efficacy of terror could find the future less than inspiring. One man who did was the Russian emigré philosopher Alexandre Kojève (the prophet of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’). Although he had relished the prospect of Stalin bringing history to a close, and was confident that history would stop when ‘the opposition between Master and Slave disappears’, Kojève thought that in the resulting ‘realm of freedom’, the ‘free, historical individual’ would be annihilated: ‘Action which negates the given, and Error, or more generally the opposition between Subject and Object’, would disappear, and mankind would survive only in a subhuman condition.
Kojève’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist utopia echoed Kant’s critique of the Christian idea of eternity, for whether the divine breaks into history or the proletariat bursts out, the outcome is the same: without the presence of evil and error, there is nothing to do. But whereas Kant had found an alternative in unending progress, Kojève argued that an objective infinitely unrealised is, by definition, an impossible goal. If history has a purpose, it must also have an end; and when history is over, stasis is the only possibility. So to the eschatologies of Christianity, Kant and Marx, a fourth must be added: one in which natural life continues, but human time is over; a post-history where no further development is to be expected, and people are just technologically sophisticated animals roaming a flattened landscape or sulking in forests of straightened timber.
Niethammer’s book is a critical study of the European theorists of posthistoire – most notably Kojève on the Left, Arnold Gehlen (who first deployed the term) and the novelist Ernst Jünger on the Right and (moving between the two extremes) the political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel and the Belgian politician Hendrik de Man. By finding the connections between the ideas of this seemingly heterogeneous group of (mostly) mid-century writers, Niethammer evokes the mood of historical exhaustion that enveloped radical intellectuals at the end of the Second World War when their political expectations were disappointed and American-style capitalism became dominant in the Western world. In English translation at least, Niethammer’s book can hardly be said to be ‘as exciting to read as a thriller’ (Die Zeit), but it remains a fascinating, provocative and timely piece of intellectual history. Its importance derives not only from its fortuitous appearance alongside the rather more optimistic post-history of Fukuyama’s End of History (a conjunction thoroughly explored in Perry Anderson’s Zone of Engagement), but also from the relative absence of any other secular thinking about the future. Of the eschatologies of Christianity, Kant and Marx, only one remains: the ideals of Marxist messianism and Kantian progress are now widely perceived to have been discredited by the bloody history of the 20th century, but the same events have given the religious alternative renewed credibility. It is Christian millenarianism that has survived to compete with post-history as a guide to the present and a map of the future.
Christian eschatology is not, of course, a single unified tradition. In addition to millenarianism, there is a long history of optimistic thinking about the future in which gradual moral improvement and the spread of peace eventually lead to Christ’s reign on earth. But since the Enlightenment, this post-millennial (Christ returns after the millennium of peace) vision has found it hard to distinguish itself from secular teleologies like Kant’s, while the pre-millennial (millenarian) strand has flourished because its emphasis on the destruction and disorder preceding Christ’s dramatic return has provided a sharply differentiated alternative to dreams of human progress. (There is ironic justice in the fact that Paul Boyer has taken for the title of his study of millenarianism the text on which Kant poured scorn in ‘The End of All Things’.)
The world of contemporary American prophecy belief described in Boyer’s excellent (if slightly repetitious) book seems a long way from that of the disillusioned intellectuals of Niethammer’s Posthistoire. Millenarianism is, in every sense, a popular culture. According to the polls, 62 per cent of Americans have ‘no doubt’ that Jesus will return to earth. The proportion is inversely related to education, and the interpreters who see the fulfilment of prophecy in contemporary political events are not (as they were until the 18th century) academic theologians, but people with a weakness for numerology and conspiracy theories. Still, given the obvious differences in perspective, there is a surprising measure of agreement between millenarian and post-historical interpretations of contemporary society. Both are preoccupied with the globalisation of economic life, the universalisation of government, the homogenisation of society and the death of the individual.
Kojève, who took all these developments to be indicative of the end of history, eventually came to see the United States and not the Soviet Union as their most likely agent, and found the required model of universality in the transnational character of the organisation for which he worked, the European Economic Community. In these respects, his analysis converges with that of American pre-millennialists. One prophecy writer notes that, ‘the necessary ingredients for a world government are present for the first time in the history of civilisation’. Another anticipates that ‘powerful global organisations already in existence will band together and employ the new technologies to achieve absolute hegemony, leaving individuals utterly impotent.’ A third fears that man will be turned ‘from a human being with an unpredictable will and an unmanageable conscience into a robot or marionette, a compliant human vegetable’. J. Dwight Pentecost predicted in 1961 that after the destruction of the Soviet Union, the European federation ‘will rule over all the earth. There will be one world government.’
The only significant difference between Niethammer’s theorists and the prophecy writers is that the former are describing post-history and the latter are talking about the preparations for the Antichrist who rules the world before the Second Coming. (In one prophecy novel, the Antichrist is the head of the EC, a M. Jacques Catroux.) But whether it is post-history or the Tribulation (the reign of Antichrist) the plan of action is remarkably similar. If they have not already been raptured, both pre-millennialists and post-historical individualists will embark on the ‘forest way’ envisaged by Ernst Jünger and practised (for a time) by Hendrik de Man: survival training, rural isolation and avoidance of the authorities. As one prophecy writer put it, the best thing to do is to: ‘Get Out of the Big City. Go to the country and hide out.’ When there is universal government and a single, uniform way of life, the only way for the individual to maintain identity and integrity is to withdraw from society and try to survive in the woods and mountains.
It all sounds deeply pessimistic. And if post-historical and millenarian survivalists were to meet in the forest, there would be little chance of their forming an alternative community, or uniting to do battle with the Antichrist. But they might be able to find some common ground, for neither group is completely resigned to its fate, and each provides something of what the other lacks. Unlike the writers of post-history (who proclaim what Niethammer terms ‘the fantasy of a meaningless, but ever continuing course of events’), contemporary interpreters of prophecy are alert and responsive to the dangers of the post-war world: the unpredictability of international politics, the prospect of nuclear war, the destruction of the environment and the immiseration of the poor. All these things are taken to be signs of the end, and millenarians do not expect (or hope to make) any improvement in the situation prior to the Second Coming. But they certainly do not suffer from the delusion that all the world’s problems are solved or in the process of resolution, and the interpretation of prophecy provides the opportunity for a constant stream of social criticism. Capitalism, the putative agent of post-history, is frequently identified as a source of oppression. One prophecy populariser, Chuck Smith, writing in 1977, observed that: ‘As we look at this monolithic commercial system which has controlled the world and today controls our lives, we realise that the policies of nations are formed by and for commercial interests’ sake ... We are [the] victims.’ But the power of capital is also recognised to be insecure. In 1982, Doug Clark predicted that ‘business will fail; the stock market will collapse; the government will go bankrupt. The nation will go hungry, with jobless millions ready for any kind of answer.’ Capitalism, one writer asserted in the Fifties, will be destroyed with ‘a violence beyond that visioned by Marx’.
Thanks to their apocalyptic orientation, millenarians are able to observe contemporary society, identify its evils and, by extrapolating into the Tribulation, predict what will happen if nothing is done to remedy them. But they cannot act; they are, in the words of Chuck Smith, ‘helpless to do anything about it’. The theorists of a meaningless post-history, on the other hand, prefer to ignore the problems of everyday life and rely on comforting generalisations. (In contrast to Chuck Smith and Doug Clark, who worried about shortages and unemployment, Kojève thought that all American citizens ‘can appropriate whatever appeals to them, without working more than they feel like doing’.) What makes post-history distasteful to its prophets is not the fear of economic or environmental disaster, but the tedium of prosperity and the inability of the individual to stand out from the crowd. Despite this general blindness to the problems of the contemporary world, some post-history theorists hint that action is possible. Jünger imagined the post-historical individual as ‘a passenger in a fast-moving vessel whose name might be Titanic or also Leviathan’. Someone in this situation may appear helpless, but as Jünger relates, when Dionysus was kidnapped by sailors he ‘had ivy and grapevine grow over the tiller and shoot up the mast. From this thicket sprang the tiger who ate up the pirates.’
As Niethammer observes, Jünger’s imagery here is dense and confusing. But from this jumble of modern, Greek and Hebrew mythology a glimmer of hope can be extracted. The forest may be more than a place of retreat; it could become the cradle of resistance. In the fourteenth of the ‘Theses’, Benjamin, too, imagined a tiger springing from a thicket. He saw the tiger’s leap as the revolutionary break from history; but the image could more appropriately be used to describe the escape from post-history, for, unlike the angel who was blown into the future, the tiger leapt ‘into the past’. But is the past the only way out of post-history, and Dionysus the only saviour? He would hardly seem to be needed in a society where, according to Kojève, men will already ‘play like young animals ... and indulge in love like adult beasts’.
Jünger’s parable offers another interpretation Leviathan need not only be the ship of state; it could also be that aquatic monster, the ‘crooked serpent’, the enemy of God. Like the Hobbesian state, the reign of Antichrist is founded on fear and selfishness. And (as Benjamin reminds us in the ‘Theses’) it is the Messiah who ‘comes as the subduer of Antichrist’. But here too there is a problem. In the words of Delmore Schwartz, ‘Tiger Christ unsheathed his sword, / Threw it down, became a lamb.’ So who is best equipped to be the saviour, Christ or Dionysus? Only Nietzscheans need answer. For earlier centuries, one prefigured the other. In Poussin’s drawing of the birth of Bacchus in the Fogg Museum, the infant Bacchus has a halo. It is Christmas in post-history.
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