While we tend to vacillate schizophrenically between a kind of techno-futurist cheerleading (“The future’s so bright!”) and reactionary, apocalyptic jeremiads (“The future is doomed!”), Benjamin offered another attitude towards history — one in which we walk among the ruins of an already-present catastrophe, and the highest grace is a kind of vigilant mourning. “In all mourning there is a tendency to silence, and this infinitely more than inability or reluctance to communicate,” he wrote in 1925, but if “Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge,” in its “tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them.”
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had the curious notion that we could change the past. For most of us, the past is fixed while the future is open. Benjamin thought that the past could be transformed by what we do in the present. Not literally transformed, of course, since the one sure thing about the past is that it does not exist.
There is no way in which we can retrospectively erase the Treaty of Vienna or the Great Irish Famine. It is a peculiar feature of human actions that, once performed, they can never be recuperated. What is true of the past will always be true of it. Napoleon will be squat and Einstein shock-haired to the end of time. Nothing in the future can alter the fact that Benjamin himself, a devout Jew, committed suicide on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 as he was about to be handed over to the Gestapo. Short of some literal resurrection, the countless generations of men and women who have toiled and suffered for the benefit of the minority – the story of human history to date, in fact – can never be recompensed for their wretched plight.
What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it. Benjamin also thought this about works of art. In his view, the meaning of a work of art is something that evolves over time. Great poems and novels are like slow-burning fuses. As they enter into new, unpredictable situations, they begin to release new meanings that the author himself could not have foreseen, any more than Goethe could have foreseen commercial television. For Benjamin, it is as though there are meanings secreted in works of art that only come to light in what one might call its future. Every great drama, sculpture or symphony, like every individual person, has a future that helps to define what it is, but which is beyond its power to determine.