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‘One of the most peculiar characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is. . . alongside so much selfishness in specific circumstances, the lack of jealousy which the present displays toward the future.’ This observation leads us to guard an image of happiness which is thoroughly tinted by the particular era to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is inextricably tied up with our image of salvation. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the subject of history. The past carries with it a secret index by which it is connected to salvation. Are we not touched by a whiff of the breeze which surrounded those who passed before us? Do we not find in voices to which we lend our ear and echo of those now made silent? Do the women who now we court not have sisters, whom they no longer recognize? If so, then there exists a secret agreement between the generations which have passed before and our own. Our appearance on earth was anticipated. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past lays claim. That claim cannot be simply dismissed. The historical materialist understands why.
–Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte: II. geschichtshistorische These (1940) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I/2, pp. 693-94 (S.H. transl.)
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”