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Waking the dead

November 13, 2009

by Terry Eagleton
from the New Statesman

benjaminThe 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. more

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