Facebook friends know that a few days ago, our thirteen-year-old daughter finished reading Mark Helprin’s massive and exquisite Winter’s Tale. That prodigy gave me an opportunity to lightly pass through the book again. And it struck me with full force that the themes of “political theology” are dramatized in this grand novel. Herewith I inaugurate what will be an ongoing series.
Today I wish simply to juxtapose two passages. The first is from Winter’s Tale, which is fundamentally a virtuosic exercise of eschatological imagination serving the elaboration of providence: “The last thing Mrs. Gamely said to her daughter was, ‘Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead. Rise, Virginia. Rise and see the whole world.”
It is just a guess on my part, but this novel seems profoundly inflected by the spirit of that brilliant literary theorist, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a Jew associated with the Frankfurt School who committed suicide as he tried to flee the Nazis.
In thesis 9 of his “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin gives an incomparably powerful meditation on history:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The Kingdom comes athwart worldly progress. Jesus advenes to bring back the dead. To do that, He makes war on our limited notions of progress. Authentic temporality is a suffering. The victim is the norm of history.