Modernity and Eternal Return – Nietzsche and Benjamin’s Philosophy of History

Walter Benjamin criticized the optimistic idea of progress. For him the idea that history would evolve automatically along the lines of the economical and technological evolution, was a catastrophe. He thought that all stories, that represent historical causality are false, because they have been made up a posteriori. For Benjamin historicism was disguised theology. As a metahistorical principle it (historicism) invented historical causalities which claimed that things are in a constant state of developement.

Benjamin blamed that the dogmatic faith in progress had belonged to the Social Democratic thinking from the very beginning. ‘Nothing has destroyd the Social Democrates as much as the idea that they swim along the stream of progress.’ This has not been just paralyzing or depressing for them, it has also had harmful effects to the nature, because the idea of the technological progress seems to justify the control and abuse of nature, says Benjamin in his “Theses about the Concept of History” (1940).

In Arcades Project (Passagen werk) Benjamin seeked to provide evidence against historical optimism. Against the usual lines which claimed that the experience after the French industrial revolution was supposed to be a new, dymanic experience of Neuzeit (Modern times) Benjamin claimed that the modernization had not brought about but inauthentic experince of time. Benjamin’s descriptions of the 19th century Paris show, that the contemprariers’ experienced their times as tireing. Boredom was the prevailing experience among the Parisians of the Second Empire. In spite of the massive construction work, nothing new seemed to be brought about. Fashion with its cycles of novelty and death was a typical modern measure of time, in which the repetition of the same became forth.

Benjamin notices, for instance, that the number of cafeterias, where time was spent or killed, was enormously increased in Paris. In Arcades Project He even puts Marx and Engels in a Parisian cafeteria, Café de la Régence, telling that it was there, in 1848, that Marx laid out for Engels the economic determinism of his materialist theory of history. Marx’s historicism is compared in Arcades Project to Auguste Blanqui’s and Engels’ determinism. Both of them started to study natural sciences in their old days.

There seem to be many similarites between Benjamin’s and Nietzsche’s criticism of historicism. In his “Theses of the Concept of History ” Benjamin makes a reference to Nietzsche’s writing “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History For Life”. There Nietzsche says that “We need history, but we need it for different reasons than the idler, who wanders in the gardens of knowledge, needs it.”

With the formers Nietzsche meant the learned historians, who were producing masses of scientific, but idle historical reserch. Nietzsche blaimed, that they were suffering about sc. history-illness, which was an effect of studying history too much and in too young at an age. For those who suffered about the history-illness, it was all the same. The history-illness brought up a déja-vù experience, which means that “we lose our sense of strangeness, we no longer are much surprised at anything, finally we are pleased with everyhting”. We have the feeling that everything we are told, we have heard before. The depressing effect of the history-illness in Nietzsche is parallel to the paralyzing effect of historicism in Benjamin.

Nietzsche also criticizes Hegel’s historicism. It makes one bow before the forces of history and the sense of history is transformed into mere admiration of succes. Here one can find a connection to Benjamin’s “Theses of Concept of History”, where Benjamin asks historians not to identify themself to history of the winners’ and asks them instead to stroke history in opposite direction. In a similar way Nietzsche says that you should read the histories of those, who have been in opposition in their age. “Do not desire those which bear the legend ‘Mr. so and so and his age’ but those, about whose title-page there would stand ‘ a fighter againt his age’.”

“A man of virtue always swims against the tide of history.” Nietzsche implies that in addition to the (monumental) history of the winners’ each epoch is included a history of oppostion or resistance.

As a matter of fact, Benjamin uses even the same tropes as Nietzsche when describing historicism. From Nietzsche come the images of historicism as theology and the idea of a marionette who moves when the historicism (God) draws the strings.

Nietzsche thought that the justified writing of history requires winning of the Spirit of Revenge. Only when the Will redeems itself from the Spirit of Revenge will man become innocent and childlike again, i.e., he or she will be healed from nihilism and the new future will be possible.

Again, Benjamin’s ideas about what would be the right way to write history come near to Nietzsche’s thinking. Benjamin thought that the historians should break the conformistic interpretations about history, the sc. standard-history. Only the dialectical images could break historicism. Dialectical images are like a strokes of lightning, in which the past and the future come together.

Dialectical images, which emerged from the meticulous study of history, brought a clear historical index. They were not abstract generalizations, nor ‘the essence’ of history, but concrete images, which had a connection to the present moment. With writing history in dialectical images Benjamin meant artistic histories, story-telling. Benjamin thought that only story-tellers, like Proust, were capable to write history. He said that images, which arise from the text are ‘dialectis in standstill’.

“The relation of the past to the present was dialectical, not temporal in nature, but figural (bildlich).” The dialectical images in the stories were ment to help us to understand, that the relationship of the past and present was open, everything that had happened could have happened in another way. The history is not closed but open to different alternative courses of events. Dialectical images could redeem the past or the history.

Dialectical images in which the past and present meet on a critical moment (Benjamin says that it is a moment of danger) brings to mind again the idea of Eternal Return in Nietzche’s Zarathustra. There we are told about a special critical Moment, when Zarathustra meets a gateway where two paths lead to opposite directions, one to the eternal future and one to the eternal past. A dwarf is asking Zarathustra to choose between them. Zarathustra chooses the Eternal Return. He explains this by asking: ‘must not everything that can happen (in the eternal future), have happened and has not everything that can walk, have walked on this lane before?’

In Zarathustra the Eternal Return means a great compromise before the history, an affirmation of Being, and not a redemption of temporal existence. Everything that has happened could happen again.

Eternal Return as something that is willed opens up a different future in Nietzsche, a future that is free from the Spirit of Revenge.

There are, of course, remarkable differences between Nietzsche’s and Benjamins thoughts about history. For Benjamin the redeeming of history in Dialectical Images did not, in the first hand, mean opening up a new future. Benjamin said that the task of Social Democrats was not to redeem the generations to come. For him, the image of the enslaved ancestors was obligatory, not the ideal of the redeemed grandchildren. Benjamin’s Messianism is regarded to be restorative. This means, that hope is set in the past, and the fantasies of the nation were connected to its past and its memory. He always preferred the tradition. The hope is in the past, so that the wishes of the former generations must be preferred.

There are other differences as well. Nietzsche would not have written that the task of a historian is to rescue those who are depressed, those who ‘lie on the ground’. Nietzsche admired only the heroes of resistance.

Does this mean that there is not, in Benjamin, a revolutionary consciousness aiming to the future in the Nietzschean way? As a matter of fact, Benjamin describes in The Arcades Project characters, who can change the Boredom into alertness. These people do not just kill time, but restore it like batteries. For Benjamin Dandy means a possibility to change history. “A dandy … a rich man perhaps, but more likely an out-of-work Hercules” (Baudelaire)

In his essay about Karl Krauss Benjamin presents an inhumane ‘Unmensch’, ‘Inhuman’ along with Nietzschean lines. The ‘Inhuman’ does not respect the tradition any more, but uses it, which means, that he or she may also destroy the unnecessary parts of the historical tradition by devouring everything that comes forth.