In his book of aphorism, The Blind Eye, Don Paterson writes: “We fall in love; so our lover feels entitled to assume that when our feelings undergo any complex change, we have simply fallen back out again. The Greeks thought of their future as behind them, and their past in front where they could see it;²⁶ how much human misery has been caused by the dumb and hubristic inversion of that wholly sensible model?”
²⁶ There is another writer, nestled between the time of the ancient Greeks and of Paterson, who also observed that the direction one faces has some bearing on the qualitative understanding of time²⁷. In his essay On the Concept of History [Über den Begriff der Geschichte]²⁸ Walter Benjamin uses an inventive and poetic allusion to Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus to describe an anthropomorphised history: its embodiment in the divine. “But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
²⁷ That time can be understood in qualitatively diverse ways at all was a less obscure matter in the time when Henri Bergson was still a household name. Benjamin was no doubt familiar with Bergson's Time and Free Will, in which Bergson advances an understanding of time that attempts to entirely extricate it from its historic grounding in spatial terms. What exactly is a time defined in spatial terms? It is the time of days and hours. A day: the tract of time that corresponds to one rotation of the Earth. The hour: a somewhat more arbitrary unit—one twenty-fourth of a day—which corresponds (in practise) to the rotation of the longer of two thorns around the face of a clock. This project might be described as the project to establish a qualitative understanding of time, without admitting the spatial motions that define time, circularly, by the condition of our tools of measuring it. In the early 20th century, the dominant competing theories of time as a physical medium inside which processes happened (Newtonian Absolutism) and time as a condition of thought rather than a physical space (Kantian Idealism) did not offer ways of exploring the qualitative substance of time. Rather, these two popular conceptions were two ways of ordering the ontological priority of time: another front in the war of Materialism against Idealism. Bergson offered a richer conception, the outlines of which I will sketch some other time.
²⁸ I do not usually list the original titles of works when I refer to them in my writing. As you can see, I refer to Bergson's book above only in its English title without the French original in subtitle. I do so with Benjamin's essay to draw attention to the depth of its suggestion in its carefully chosen German words. In the Marxists.org page for the essay, (the essay is perhaps chiefly concerned with Historical Materialism)²⁹ the translator (Dennis Redmond) takes care to note occasionally when certain words in German are likely to serve as double entendre. Where Redmond translates “Erloesung” as “resurrection”, he also takes note to offer “transfiguration” and “redemption” as alternative suggestions.³⁰
²⁹ Benjamin at various points critiques the Marxist conception of Historical Materialism, or rather attempts to box back into shape the lumpen messy determinism that the theory had dissolved into in the 20th century under the watch of the German social democrats. He quotes Josef Dietzgen: “Labour is the savior of modern times... In the... improvement... of labour... consists the wealth, which can now finally fulfill[sic] what no redeemer could hitherto achieve.” In what more closely resembles a grim, clumsy parody of Soviet atheism than an allusion to Nietzsche, Dietzgen secularises Christ by placing Him firmly within a historical tradition which the revolutionary proletariat is destined to render obsolete. Quite aside from outrage about sacrilege—I am perfectly happy for people to use the symbol of Christ in any way they see fit—there is a sinister bait and switch here: a movement from Materialism to Mythology. In Marx, the working class is the instrument of Capital's abolition. We are to bring it down with the hammer and the sickle, and with our sweat and blood. In politics hence, where the very notion of the working class has been shrivelled by a bourgeois mythologising from an objective economic relationship to the means of production and toward instead to a picture of a ruddy, casually racist man eating pie and chips, the proletariat instead becomes an instrument of the mysterious Communist horizon. The religious end-times are perpetually a future event: the Abrahamic rapture or the arrival of Maitreya cannot be conceived of in present terms, necessarily. In the promised revolution of the vulgarised Historical Materialism, the working class will, with an eschatological³¹ mysticism, sing sweet rapture, and so eradicate Capitalism. They will rise, but can never simply rise. These toiling many are the “saviours of future generations”, which gives the present proletariat its role not as gravediggers but as pencil pushing procrastinators.
³⁰ Redmond’s offering of “transfiguration” and “redemption” as possible synonyms of “resurrection” might have been considered pointless in Benjamin's 1940, when the suggestion of resurrection in both English and German was near synonymous with that of Christ, for whom transfiguration and redemption are part and parcel. Redmond translates in 2005, a number of decades after the proliferation of zombie movies³² introduces a secularised and grotesque concomitant in the word, jostling alongside the the heavenly perfection of the Redeemer's sacrifice on the cross.
³¹ The word “eschatological”, which refers to the part of theology concerned with the final destiny of the universe, sounds very similar to “scatological”. The 1984 album Scatology by English industrial band Coil features the image of an arse inside an inverted cross on the cover of its 1988 CD reissue, which suggests the band were as taken with this little linguistic curiosity as I am. In a rare foray into musical comedy, comedian Stewart Lee performs a song called Russell Brand's Wedding, which is about how funny it would be if the ridiculous media circus surrounding trivial celebrity non-stories was in fact the final gasp of civilisation. It includes the couplet: “because we’re detritus blowing through the final human age / cos’ we’re dirty stains on history’s final page”.
³² As I continue to strain this metaphor, Edgar Wright’s 2004 zombie film Shaun of the Dead acts as resurrection's postmodern surrogate when it concludes in the image of a zombie locked in a garden shed, playing video games and moaning out to no one in particular that he wants ice cream.