"Eternity No More: Walter Benjamin on the Eternal Return" by Tyrus Miller

Darren Waterston, Untitled (watercolor) on paper, 2008

Right before I received Rob Halpern’s Disaster Suites, I had just gotten my hands on Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context, edited by Tyrus Miller and published by the Central European University Press in 2008. I had been reading Miller’s essay “Eternity No More: Walter Benjamin on the Eternal Return.” I immediately wanted to copy this essay for some friends with whom I’d been reading parts of Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and his slender but large “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” both astonishing, complex and lush works. It was a thrill to read Miller’s essay in part because he explains who Auguste Blanqui is and Benjamin’s relation to him. Blanqui’s name recurs throughout Arcades and while the editor Rolf Tiedemann provides a “Guide to Names and Terms” that informs us Blanqui was a radical activist committed to permanent revolution, those of us in the reading group found ourselves wanting more.

Miller takes us through Benjamin’s discovery of Blanqui’s L’éternité pas les astres (Eternity According the Stars) as Benjamin explains this discovery and its significance to his Passagenwerk to Max Horkheimer. Miller writes, “Although this [B’s report to Horkheimer] was only two years from the close of Benjamin’s own defeated life, this seemingly minor discovery of a truly marginal text of Blanqui crystallized a whole new set of motives in the Passagenwerk studies and seemed to offer Benjamin a conceptual hinge for the juncture of modernity and myth he intuited in the culture of nineteenth-century Paris” (280).

But Miller’s essay elucidates more than Benjamin’s relation to Blanqui. Miller’s larger argument here is “what seems to be at issue for Benjamin in the emergence of the eternal recurrence is the very narratibility of history and hence also narrative transmission of culture. At the same time, however, this crisis of narrative representation of history may be less the end of history as it turns toward what Hayden White has suggestively called the ‘modernist event’ (282).

You can read all of this for yourself since Tyrus has kindly agreed to share this essay with you here on xpoetics.

I think you’ll find that this essay and Rob’s Disaster Suites are put along side one another productively.

The essay posted here appears in the volume Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context, published by the Central European University Press and available from CEUP at:

or Amazon.com here:


Eternity No More: Walter Benjamin on the Eternal Return
Tyrus Miller

"Men of the nineteenth century, the hour of our apparitions is fixed forever,
and always brings us back to the very same ones."--Blanqui, 1872

On January 6, 1938, Walter Benjamin wrote to Max Horkheimer from San Remo to report on a remarkable development in his thinking about his Baudelaire studies and about the larger framework of the Passagenwerk, Benjamin's decade-long historical research about 19th-century Paris, a project that he described as an "Urgeschichte der Moderne" (an archaic history of modernity). The occasion of this development was his encounter with a largely forgotten text by the famous insurrectionist Auguste Blanqui, entitled L'éternité par les astres (Eternity According to the Stars). This short book comprised a set of cosmological speculations written in prison by the old revolutionary near the end of his life, and coupled arguments from the popular science of Blanqui's day with a remarkable vision of infinite repetitions of the same in an indefinite series of parallel worlds. Here is Benjamin's report to Horkheimer:

In the last weeks I have made a strange find that will decisively influence the work: I came upon the text, Blanqui's last, which he wrote in his final prison,in the fortress of Taureau. It is a cosmological speculation. . . .and is, as far as I can tell, till now as good as unknown. . . . Admittedly,at first glance the text is tasteless and banal. Whereas what constitutes its main portion are the clumsy meditations of an autodidact, these prepare for a speculation about the universe that could be provided by no one lesser than this revolutionary. If Hell is a theological object, one could call these speculations infernal. The world view that Blanqui sketches here, while taking its data from the mechanistic natural sciences of his day, is in fact infernal--but is at the same time, in the shape of something natural, the complement of the social order that Blanqui must have recognized in the evening of his life to be the victor. What is astonishing is that this sketch is completely without irony. It represents an unconditional surrender,but at the same time the most terrible lament against a society that projects this images of the cosmos against the sky. The piece has as its theme, the eternal recurrence, the most remarkable relation to Nietzsche; and a more hidden and deeper one to Baudelaire, with whom in a few of its magnificent points it resonates almost word-for-word. (Briefe II, 741-742).(1)

Although this was only two years from the close of Benjamin's own defeated life, this seemingly minor discovery of a truly marginal text of Blanqui crystallized a whole new set of motives in the Passagenwerk studies and seemed to offer Benjamin a conceptual hinge for the juncture of modernity and myth he intuited in the culture of 19th-century Paris. In fact, in the final, 1939 version of his exposé of the Passagenwerk he granted the last word--in his text and about the nineteenth century--to the messengers of the eternal recurrence. In his final paragraph, following a quote from Blanqui's L'eternité par les astres, Benjamin concludes:

The century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order. That is why the last word was left to the errant negotiators between old and new who are at the heart of these phantasmagorias. The world dominated by its phantasmagorias--this, to make use of Baudelaire's term, is "modernity." Blanqui's vision has the entire universe entering the modernity of which Baudelaire's seven old men are the heralds. In the end, Blanqui views novelty as an attribute of all that is under sentence of damnation. Likewise in Ciel et enfer, a vaudeville piece that slightly predates the book: in this piece the torments
of hell figure as the latest novelty of all time, as "pains eternal and always new." The people of the nineteenth century, whom Blanqui addresses as if they were apparitions, are natives of this region.(2)

Though perhaps not the shattering experience of being "6000 feet above man" that Nietzsche reported when he first envisioned the eternal return, nor perhaps the grim testament of a revolutionary activist doomed to live year-after-year in prison, it might be said that Benjamin's discovery of Blanqui's late text hit him with the force of a revelation. The content of that revelation was that the eternal recurrence--the utmost cancellation of modern historicity--was itself a historically determinate form of experience that had emerged, or punctually reemerged, at the acme of modernity in late 19th century Europe.

In focusing on this motif in Benjamin, I myself will be pursuing three simultaneous paths of argumentation. The first, and narrowest one, will be philological and explicatory. I am using the motif to map out some potential interconnections between fragmentary points in Benjamin's oeuvre, to suggest how such themes as the new, the same, fashion, hell, myth, and phantasmagoria can be read in light of a temporal form of 19th-century metropolitan experience that Benjamin was at pains to disclose in its material context. More generally, I will also use this focus on the cosmological motif of the eternal recurrence to suggest the complex concatenation of time structures in Benjamin's thinking, one that is not reducible to such simple dichotomies as, say, the opposition of a Jewish and Marxist messianic time to a cyclical time of myth.

Second, according to Benjamin's own interpretative and historiographic method, there are particular "horizons of readability" that are time-bound and ephemeral, in which certain aspects of the historical past become discernable, because they are charged with special intensity of a transhistorical configuration of past and present. Clearly, he believed that in his own discerning of a shared experience of the eternal recurrence by the poet Baudelaire, the philosopher Nietzsche, and the revolutionary Blanqui, that he stood in such a momentary horizon. On the other hand, at the moment of his writing, he could not really have the perspicacity to describe his own situation historically. From our later horizon, however, Benjamin's fragmented meditations on eternal recurrence become legible within a cultural context shared with such contemporaries as Georg Simmel, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith, Mircea Eliade, and Pierre Klossowski, all participating in a serious contemplation of the meaning of the thought of eternal recurrence, especially in the work of Nietzsche. Moreover, this concern has not ceased to be important, but rather has persisted up to the present in the work of post-structuralist thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida.

Finally, I want to suggest how Benjamin's focus on the modernity of the eternal recurrence highlights its general significance as a topic for metahistorical reflection. Namely, what Benjamin discerns in the 19th-century thought of eternal recurrence --and here he is preceded, even exceeded by the magisterial Nietzsche criticism of Karl Löwith--is the extreme, forced conjunction of an archaizing cosmology with a modern psychology. Yet if, as Paul Ricoeur has argued, narrative offers a way of reconciling the opposition of cosmological time ("the time of the world") and lived time ("the time of the soul"), the maximum polarization of cosmos and experience that the eternal recurrence implies also marks the point at which historical narrativity is stressed to its limit and begins to unravel. In short, I will argue what seems to be at issue for Benjamin in the emergence of the eternal recurrence is the very narratibility of history and hence also the narrative transmission of culture. At the same time, however, this crisis of narrative representation of history may be less the end of history as its turn towards what Hayden White has suggestively called the "modernist event." Historical writing following this turn will need to be more conscious of how temporal concepts such as eternity, succession, causation, and recurrence were tied to concepts of meaning, mimesis, and generic form. Moreover, it will need to be more reflexively constructivist in its conception of the historical, in an awareness that--as David Wood has written--"concepts, theories, and representations 'of' time [form] part of the temporal itself."(3)


My discussion will center on a specifically modern formulation of the notion of "eternal recurrence"; however, it is useful to consider more generally this concept, before considering the texts and quotations that Benjamin assembled around it. Mircea Eliade's Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return--begun just after the end of World War II and published originally in 1949--remains a key source for its bold theoretical stance and forceful interpretation of the significance of this concept for religious and historical thought. According to Eliade, eternal return is the characteristic underpinning of mythic thinking and arises in a plethora of variations out of a single fundamental, existential need of human societies: to master the despair and fear that comes from historical change, death, contingency, and transience. Out of this basic anthropological motivation, in Eliade's view, archaic societies, and even, to a large extent, post-archaic and modern societies as well, project an ontology that limits or excludes change by mapping it on to repeating patterns and archetypes. On the one hand, the macro-structure of natural and social reality appears already to be a repetition of a cosmic archetype, and at each level, from the cosmic to the political to the everyday, the cosmogonic act of world-foundation must be repeated and renewed on a periodic basis. The prescribed rituals and profane gestures, in turn, gain their place in a cosmos of social and religious meanings in so far as "they deliberately repeat such and such acts posited ab origine by gods, heroes, or ancestors."(4)

Eliade's conceptualization had the virtue of allowing him to define, with a single clear criterion, an essential difference between mythic thinking and historical thought, between archaic and modern societies, and between the foundations of pagan and non-European civilization in which cyclical cosmologies predominate and the historical orientation of Judaic and Christian civilizations along with their modern European successors. Moreover, it can be said that Eliade's discussion of the mythic thought of the eternal return has a special object that appears in stark relief against the background of this nearly universal myth: the case of Jewish civilization and its incomplete, hybrid confluence into Christian and post-Christian modern Europe. If the eternal return represents the symbolic means through which archaic and pagan societies disavow history, the Jews are singular in having broken with such archetypical, recurring cosmoi in favor of a God who reveals himself in one-time historical moments. With Jewish civilization--and in the Jewish legacy within Christianity--genuinely historical time emerges. For Eliade, then, myth and history, and the phenomenologies of time that underlie them, are pivotal terms in constituting distinct "ethnic ontologies." (5) The status of the Jews, built into the structure of Eliade's interpretation of eternal return, is at once that of privilege and exclusion, privilege from the point of view of historical thought, exclusion from the perspective of mythic thought. The relative valuation of these two interpretative postures is precisely what is at stake in Eliade's short, programmatic study.

It would be an easy extrapolation, and one which I in fact will venture here, to say that Eliade, writing in 1945, could view these civilizational tendencies at war in his own contemporary context. European civilization, at its present extremity of crisis, represented a wavering, unresolved amalgam of mythic and historical components, or to put it in baldly ethnic terms, of pagan and Judaic elements. European anti-Semitism, seen in this light, would mark a return of myth and an anti-modern disavowal of history, but history precisely as ethnically personified by that singularly historical people, the Jews. Insofar as history is the domain of terror and insofar as the Jews are seen from the mythic perspective as the bearers of history as such, they are subject, recurrently, to the violence of the mythic mentality, which seeks to impose a cosmic cancellation of history through recurrence. We might say that Eliade poses himself ambigiously between an historical view of the recent tragedy of the Jews as a singular horror of his time and a mythic view that sees anti-Semitism as the expression of basic anthropological forces that are not going to go away any time soon and are rooted in the very deep-seated existential revulsion against history. The meaning of the war and the Nazi genocide is not simply a matter of deciding between two historical actors, the Nazis and their opponents, but rather also between a historical and an anti-historical, mythic, anthropological framework of interpretation of these events. Or put otherwise, the war, in the most stark and virulent way, sets Europe before a decision--existential, political, even theological--as to whether history or the myth of eternal return gets the final say about who and what is European. Thus Europeans do not just have a particular historical decision to make; rather they have to decide for or against historical being as such, for or against the recurrence of myth. In arriving at this decisionistic conclusion, Eliade thus meets on common ground with Walter Benjamin, who viewed his present as a polarized, extreme confrontation of myth and messianic possibility, an emergency situation that required unequivocal, punctual decision. Benjamin, however, leaned emphatically towards a critique of myth in favor of a messianic, theopolitical Marxism.

Notably, too, as Karl Löwith had suggested in his 1935 book on Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence, of which Benjamin read Theodor Adorno's copy in 1938, this issue of decision was already built into Nietzsche's presentation of eternal recurrence in Also sprach Zarathustra. Löwith was, along with Hannah Arendt, a student of Martin Heidegger and a Jewish refugee from Nazism, first in Italy, later in the United States. Löwith notes that the title of Zarathustra was originally to have been "Noon and Eternity," a key image in the text. He notes the temporal ambiguity of Nietzsche's noontide, which is at once the eternal moment in which time stands still and the instant in which the shattering insight that everything recurs can take place. Paradoxically, the crisis point in which one decides, in an instant, to affirm existence as a whole, in all its recurrences, is also the only moment in time in which eternity is manifest. As Löwith writes:

A metamorphosis occurs unexpectedly in Nietzsche's presentation of the noon and of the eternal recurrence: out of what by nature comes again and again,develops something that is supposed to be decisive once and forever. Likewise,the "moment," too, is not eternal because what is forever shows itself in the moment, but because the moment (as a decisive moment) determines in advance what will be in the future.(6)

Löwith's analysis of this paradox in Nietzsche's noon becomes the central point of his critique: for all of its appeal to cyclical recurrence, myth, and the return to pre-Christian and pre-Socratic antiquity, the temporality of crisis, a typically modern time-structure, predominates in Nietzsche's thought. Löwith concludes:

Zarathustra thus teaches two things: as the redeeming man of the future,he proclaims a new way of existence; and as the teacher of the eternal recurrence of the same, he teaches. . . the highest law of the whole life of the world. But as a critical center, the noon is not the always recurring time of something everlasting, but rather the moment of decision at which previous history parts from the history of the future.(7)


I now turn to the constellation of materials that Benjamin assembles around the topic of the eternal recurrence, in order to consider how this concept offers a perspective on the associated themes of Benjamin's writing, especially in the Passagenwerk. First, a word about the texts in question. The first notes for the Passagenwerk date between 1927 and 1930, and Benjamin worked periodically on his research throughout the 1930s, but especially intensely following his definitive departure from Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis. Out of the Passagenwerk research notes, he intended to publish a book that would place Baudelaire in his material and intellectual context; the various drafts and reworkings of these Baudelaire writings represent the most achieved part of the research. Thus, the main texts that I will be discussing include a 1935 and a 1939 exposé of his research, at least partly intended to win financial support from the Institut für Sozialforschung directed by Max Horkheimer; his first attempt at a draft of the Baudelaire study, "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire"; his late truncation and revision of the former draft into a rounded, shorter essay entitled "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire"; a group of draft notes assembled under the title "Central Park"; and a few of the topically organized "convolutes," or note-files, of the larger Passagenwerk research, especially Convolute D [Boredom, Eternal Return] and Convolute J [Baudelaire].

The theme of the eternal recurrence emerges in Benjamin's work with the elevation to an allegorical centrality of Blanqui, who had previously appeared strictly as an empirical, historical figure up to Benjamin's discovery of L'éternité par les astres; the emergence of the previously marginal Nietzsche as an important voice and especially as mediated through Karl Löwith's study; and a reinterpretation of several temporal and phenomenological issues in Baudelaire. Moreover, Benjamin's historiographic collage method entailed a kind of hopeful, patient empiricism, in which the historian collects, sifts, and rearranges countless bits of data and discourse, until hidden nodal points begin to take on relief and consistency. The resonance of the poet Baudelaire, the philosopher Nietzsche, and the revolutionary Blanqui around the eternal recurrence convinced Benjamin that he had uncovered a phenomenological key to nineteenth-century experience, a conceptual node that pointed to something more than simply the subjective imagination of these thinkers.

I will begin with Blanqui, whose text is likely to be unfamiliar to many. As already mentioned, Blanqui's text is centered on the view that given a finite number of basic elements in the universe and an infinity of spatial extension and time, then every entity, every event must exist in countless copies dispersed over these spatial and temporal expanses. In this cosmos, we may find consoling that our lost loves are being embraced by our doubles an infinite number of times, yet at the same time, every defeat and instance of suffering in history are also replicated throughout eternity. Contemporary commentators in newspaper notices and reviews of Blanqui's book did not fail to point out the logical inconsistencies in the argument. Two, in particular, stand out, since they anticipate almost word-for-word Georg Simmel's classic refutation of Nietzsche's "proof" of the eternal recurrence and critique of its inconsistencies.(8) First, the commentators note, it is not logically necessary that even a finite number of elements generate recurrences, much less exact sequential recurrences, in the course of infinite time. Second, even if it were the case that the recurrence did take place, so that our doubles led the same life that we did elsewhere in the universe or in another time, "we" would know nothing of it as individuals. Without any perspective outside the recurrences from which to grasp them as a whole, the hypothetical fact of recurrence should be perfectly indifferent to "us," as singular identities here and now. The Blanqui reviewers tend to praise the vivid imagination and vigorous mind of the old revolutionary, while remaining ironical about its content. Analogously, Simmel rejected the "scientific" or ontological claims in Nietzsche's conception, while admitting its force as a moral and psychological ideal, a kind of post-Kantian categorical imperative that values individual authenticity and rectitude over the social generality. Benjamin, however, in keeping with his materialist interests in the structure of experience and the framing of historical time, takes a different tack. On the one hand, unlike previous commentators, he tends to take the idea of eternal return not as a psychological metaphor or regulative moral idea, but rather as a literal experience; accordingly, he seeks to understand what are the social preconditions and phenomenological characteristics of eternal return as an experience of reality. On the other hand, he interprets the eternal return metahistorically and theologically, as a critique of progress, a recurrence to myth within modernity, and a post-Christian secularization of the theo-political topos of hell.

Benjamin cites Blanqui secondhand from a late 19th-century work, Gustave Geffroy's L'Enfermé, and quotes Geffroy's commentary as well. Blanqui wrote, "What I write at this moment in a cell of the Fort du Tareau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity--at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these," and Geffroy comments: "He thus inscribes his fate, at each instant of its duration, across the numberless stars. His prison cell is multiplied to infinity. Throughout the entire universe, he is the same confined man that he is on this earth, with his rebellious strength and his freedom of thought" (9)[D 6, 2]. By the end of his short treatise, Blanqui has risen to a pessimistic hymn to astral necessity and the vanity of human hopes measured against the relentless course of the stars. Following Benjamin's quotation from Blanqui--firsthand this time--I will quote the final three paragraphs of the book. The first reads:

At bottom, this eternity of the human being among the stars is a melancholy thing, and this sequestering of kindred worlds by the inexorable barrier of space is even more sad. So many identical populations pass away without suspecting one another's existence! But no--this has finally been discovered,in the nineteenth century. Yet who is inclined to believe it? [D7; D7a](10)

Benjamin does not follow Löwith's lead at this point in noting the exact corollary of Blanqui with Nietzsche here, but as with Nietzsche's eternity at noon, Blanqui's discovery of "l'eternité par les astres" is an analogous revelation at a particular moment in history, "in the nineteenth century," of a cosmic structure of eternal recurrence. Hence, Blanqui conjoins a temporality of crisis with a temporality of repetition. Though all moments in history are implicitly rendered equal by the fact that each will recur in an infinite number of copies, so that none can be said to be more important than any other, there is one privileged crisis point in the entirety of eternity: the infinitely repeated nineteenth century, as the crisis moment in which this cosmic order becomes conscious to Auguste Blanqui. To state the paradox differently: because every historical moment repeats and the future is in no way a consequent of precedent events, futurity itself is an illusion; yet it is this crisis of the nineteenth century, in which we come to know this cosmic fact, that determines the future for all eternity as illusory.

Blanqui spells out these paradoxical consequences even more clearly in the last two paragraphs that follow. He writes:

Until now, the past has, for us, meant barbarism, whereas the future has signified progress, science, happiness, illusion! This past, on all our counterpart worlds, has seen the most brilliant civilizations disappear without leaving a trace, and they will continue to disappear without leaving a trace. The future will witness yet again, on billions of worlds, the ignorance, folly, and cruelty of our bygone eras! [D7; D7a](11)

"Until now": thus speaks a classic locution in the rhetoric of crisis. But this locution functions as if it were a performative speech act, which, once pronounced by Blanqui at a punctual moment in the nineteenth century, would stamp eternity, backward and forward, with the laws of astral necessity. What follows upon this pronouncement is the rule of cosmic mechanism, which renders subsequent every gesture and act merely a mime-show of inexorable cosmic forces (and note the theatrical metaphors that pervade Blanqui's passage throughout):

At the present time, the entire life of our planet, from birth to death, with all its crimes and miseries, is being lived partly here and partly there, day by day, on myriad kindred planets. What we call 'progress' is confined to each particular world, and vanishes with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial arena, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage--a noisy humanity infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its prison as though in some immense realm, only to founder at an early date along with its globe, which has borne with deepest disdain the burden of human arrogance. The same monotony, the same immobility, on other heavenly bodies. The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs--imperturbably-the same routines. [D7; D7a](12)

Taking off from these passages in Blanqui, Benjamin offers a number of phenomenological remarks on eternal return that interpret it as an index of modern experience. Here, the key issue is the meaning of the element of the "new"--of novelty--in modernity. This problem posed by Baudelaire in his stark conjunction of ephemeral, epiphanic flashes of beauty in the metropolitan environment with the experience of spleen, "I feel that I have lived a thousand years." Baudelaire, according to Benjamin, experienced spleen as the potential for devaluation that exists in any commodity or object of fashion, once its moment of newness had past. What once seemed new, now is just one more inert, material shell, to be accumulated in drawers and on shelves, while its purchaser seeks the new once again. Spleen results from a backward turned glance that perceives and suffers the indifferent weight of obsolete objects, and its experience may even turned forward again and felt at the heart of the new. Already, at the glint of fashionable beauty, the object breathes the staleness that will soon set in around it. Thus, even in the kaleidoscopic procession of new objects, spectacles, fashions, there is the return of the same: the obsolete, the tasteless, the faded. As Benjamin writes in a fragment of the Baudelaire study, "The devaluation of the human environment by the commodity economy penetrates deeply into the poet's historical environment. What results is the 'ever-selfsame.' Spleen is nothing other than the quintessence of historical experience." (13) Against the overwhelming and repeated experience of spleen, Baudelaire seeks to seize the new, a struggle that elevate the artist and poet into the hero of modern life. This heroism. Baudelaire's new, Benjamin emphasizes, is not a formal or objective newness, but an abstract, subjective temporal difference that intensifies the moment to free it from the melancholy sameness of spleen. "Baudelaire's work," Benjamin writes, "is not concerned with the attempt, decisive in all the arts, to engender new forms or to reveal new aspects of things; its interest is in the fundamentally new object, whose power resides solely in the fact that it is new, no matter how repulsive or bleak it may be" (Selected Writings IV, 96-97) (14).

Baudelaire's hero of modern life struggles on the battlefield of abstract time, and thus, Benjamin concludes, is equivalent to those other heroes of time, Nietzsche and Blanqui, in their endurance of the ultimate intensification of nihilism in the thought of the eternal recurrence:

The heroic bearing of Baudelaire is akin to that of Nietzsche. Though Baudelaire likes to appeal to Catholicism, his historical experience is nonetheless that which Nietzsche fixed in the phrase 'God is dead.' In Nietzsche's case, this experience is projected cosmologically in the thesis that nothing new occurs any more. In Nietzsche, the accent lies on eternal recurrence, which the human being has to face with heroic composure. For Baudelaire, it is more a matter of the 'new,' which must be wrested heroically from what is always again the same" [J60, 7]. (15)

Such heroic newness is the distillation of sheer temporal intensity from an object, which at the instant of newness falls away as the mere vehicle of this subjective experience and endures as a knick-knack of spleen. Subjective newness feeds off the new object, but in such a way as, in advance, to doom it to a spleenful afterlife among all the previous objects that were once-new. Thus, Benjamin argues, the Baudelairian new is not really a redemption of or escape from spleen, but rather its inseparable semblable and frere, the complement and perpetual reproduction of spleen in ever-expanded form. He writes: "Baudelaire's project takes on historical significance. . . only when the experience of the ever-same, which provides the standard for assessing that project, is given its historical signature. This happens in Nietzsche and in Blanqui. Here, the idea of the eternal return is the 'new', which breaks the cycle of the eternal return by confirming it" (Selected Writings IV, 97). (16)

Benjamin tried to deepen this analysis by further exploring its phenomenological dimensions. These are encapsulated in a one sentence entry in the Convolute m [Idleness]: "Phantasmagoria is the intentional correlate of immediate experience" [m3a, 4](17). That is to say, what appear to be extreme modes of thought and perception in Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Blanqui are, in fact, rich descriptions of immediate experience. The hallucinatory characteristics of their texts--Baudelaire's negative and positive intensities, the coupling of cosmic pessimism and exaltation in Nietzsche, the inseparability of denunciation and resignation in Blanqui--are not symptoms of unbalanced minds, but rather of an objectively false appearance, a reality that disclosed itself to these thinkers in a systematically distorted way. In a letter to Adorno dated 23 February 1939, Benjamin tried to justify his latest attempts to organize his Baudelaire studies around a critique of the phenomenological pair "newness" and "sameness". He begins by noting that "sameness" is not, in fact, normally experienceable:

Sameness is a category of cognition; strictly speaking, it is not to be found in plain, sober-minded perception. Even in extreme cases, perception that is sober in the in the strictest sense, free of all prejudgement, would at most encounter similarity. The degree of prejudgement which can normally accompany perception without detriment can be harmful in certain special cases. It can reveal the perceiver as one who is not sober-minded. (Selected Writings IV, 208)

Benjamin notes the example of Don Quixote, who recasts whatever he sees as part of his on-going romantic adventure as a knight-errant, and likens Cervantes's comic presentation to that of Daumier's drawings:

Daumier constantly encounters sameness. In the faces of all the politicians, ministers, and lawyers, he perceives the same thing--namely, the meanness and mediocrity of the bourgeois class. But here, one thing is all-important: Daumier, like Cervantes, imparts a comic aspect to the hallucination of sameness. . . . Daumier's laughter, however, is aimed at the bourgeoisie; it sees through the sameness this class prides itself on, revealing it as the fatuous égalité which flaunted itself in Louis Philippe's nickname. (Selected Writings IV, 208)

Benjamin here gives an original spin to the concept of ideology that he inherited from Marx and, more immediately, in terms of sources, from György Lukács's History and Class Consciousness. If ideology, in the classic Marxist view, is false consciousness, then in Benjamin, in contrast, it is false experience: that is, ideology is not just thought, but phenomenologically lived as a kind of intoxication of everyday life. One form in which ideology may be criticized, again in lived form, is through comic presentation and laughter.

This view of ideology and ideology criticism as experiential is fundamental to his interpretation of the eternal return as well, although the critical strategy of comedy seems, in Benjamin's view, to reach its limits here. Baudelaire--and by implication, the associated names of Nietzsche and Blanqui--does not follow Cervantes and Daumier in making fun of sameness, but rather take up occupancy at the heart of sameness, heightening its intensity to the point of critical explosion:

In laughter, both Cervantes and Daumier do away with sameness and thus fix it as a form of historical semblance [Schein]. Sameness has a very different stamp in Poe, to say nothing of Baudelaire. In "The Man of the Crowd," the possibility of comic exorcism may still flash up. In Baudelaire, this is out of the question. Instead, he gave artificial assistance to the historical hallucination of sameness which had taken root with the commodity economy. And the images in his work that relate to hashish are decipherable in this context. (Selected Writings IV, 208)

To put this in other words, the intoxication, exaltation, and hallucination that characterize the perception of the eternal return do not discredit this thought, but rather invest it with its significance as an historical index. The thought of the eternal return redoubles and heightens the very forms in which reality already is experienced as an ideological phantom, and in so doing, it offers purchase on the phantasmatic character of the real.

This understanding is reflected in the plan that Benjamin presents to Adorno for the recasting of his Baudelaire essay: "From the standpoint of the Baudelaire study, the restructured text looks like this: The definition of flânerie as a state of intoxication is fully developed, together with its links to Baudelaire's drug experiences. The concept of the ever-selfsame is already introduced in the second book as ever-selfsame appearance, whereas in its definitive form as ever-selfsame happening it continues to be reserved for the third" (Selected Writings IV, 208-209). Benjamin also explores how this deforming of perception by sameness also breaks down the temporal fabric of experience and memory. If nineteenth-century lived time is increasingly marked by the repeated oscillation between intense punctual newness and the always-already imminent return of spleen, or by the eternal recurrence of the same, then the intervals between one point in time and another are no longer one of a genuine duration. This loss of duration has an individual lived dimension, but also a larger-scale, collective, historical face as well. In a dazzling passage, weaving together these two temporal frameworks, Benjamin writes:

The idea of eternal recurrence transforms the historical event itself into a mass-produced article. But this conception also displays, in another respect--on its obverse side, one could say--a trace of the economic circumstances to which it owes its sudden topicality. This was manifest at the moment the security of the conditions of life was considerably diminished through an accelerated succession of crises. The idea of eternal recurrence derived its luster from the fact that it was no longer possible, in all circumstances, to expect a recurrence of conditions across any interval of time shorter than that provided by eternity. The quotidian constellations very gradually began to be less quotidian. Very gradually their recurrence became a little less frequent, and there could arise, in consequence, the obscure presentiment that henceforth one must rest content with cosmic constellations. Habit, in short, made ready to surrender some of its prerogatives. Nietzsche says, 'I love short-lived habits,' and Baudelaire already, throughout his life, was incapable of developing regular habits. Habits are the armature of long experience (Erfahrung), whereas they are decomposed by individual experiences (Erlebnisse). [J 62a, 2]

Benjamin, in sum, utilizes the emergence of the concept of eternal recurrence as a metahistorical diagnostic of the condition of memory and experience in 19th-century modernity. In the heyday of historicism and visions of historical progress, the thought of the eternal recurrence--in the three very different heads of Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche--casts a shadow of repetition and cosmic stasis over the bustle of nineteenth-century urban life, fashion, and commerce. For Benjamin, these two, antipodal modes of interpreting the historicity of experience in this period pointed were, however, covertly interrelated. In their mutually canceling implications, they point towards a new, different form of historical thinking, writing, and acting, a practice of history that could shatter the continuity of historicist succession along with the continuum of mythic repetition. In the end, however, Benjamin's nineteenth-century thinkers only approached the threshold of this new form of historical practice. Its realization would require a new formal and conceptual vocabulary of montage that owed more to Aragon, Eisenstein, and Brecht than to Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Blanqui.

(1)Walter Benjamin, Briefe II, eds. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno (Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978) 741-742.
(2)Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) 26.
(3)David Wood, The Deconstruction of Time (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1989) 11.
(4)Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Williard R. Trask (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959) 5-6.
(5) I am indebted here to the work of Sorin Antohi for this conception.
(6)Karl Löwith, Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, trans. J. Harvey Lomax (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997) 103.
(7) Löwith, Nietzsche's Philosophy 104.
(8) Georg Simmel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Helmut Loiskandl, Deena Weinstein, and Michael Weinstein (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
(9-12) Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Following Benjamin's system of organizing his notes into topical folders, "Convolutes," I cite the "Convolute" and note number parenthetically in the text in this and subsequent reference to the Arcades Project.
(13) Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2003) 96.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

elegant post, for sure.

I find, as in anything, a flip side to the Benjaminian cosmology, however.

Maybe: Rimbaud's anti-Nietzschean 'swarm', and the pure mortality of its jubilant vulgarity (cf Kristen Ross, The Emergence of Social Space).
Possibly: Lyotard's mobius strip, ironically running a discursive twist of fate like a cracked interstate connecting psychogeographies of ideology.
Actually: Zizek's analysis of the ultimate ideological premise of 'non-ideology'.

Here, we can confront the metaphysical with a rounabout irony... good faith, perhaps...