5. On Time: Augustine, Borges, Benjamin
Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler - Matthew G. Whitlock
Carl Levensen [+]
Idaho State University
There is an ancient teaching that just as the stars keep spinning and the seasons keep returning, so time itself keeps circling back to its beginning; and whatever is happening now has therefore happened already, the repetitions – past and future – echoing infinitely. In the Statesman, Plato teaches this fantastic doctrine; and Augustine, in Book XII of City of God, imagines the future Academy in which Plato would teach once again, disclosing Eternal Return to the same pupils as before, in exactly the words used previously. “But far be it from me to believe this!” writes Augustine. “Christ died once for our sins.” So Augustine evokes the linearity of time, the Cross-smashing circles and spheres. Fifteen centuries later, the story-teller Borges begins “The Theologians” by telling of a fire in a great monastic library, a huge conflagration which a single text survives miraculously: Book XII of City of God where Augustine resists time’s circularity. Borges translates Augustine’s polemic into concepts of identity and difference, and manages to evoke both the sublimity of boundless repetition and the freshness – and pathos – of that which can happen once only. Above all, he displays the strife between these visions, showing how certain ideas lead straight to gnostic madness (doing evil to precipitate goodness) and how the embattled views of time tempt an ambitious scholar to arrange the death of his rival, his more gifted “twin” or second self. Walter Benjamin – who fatally experienced the strife between concepts of history (Marxist, fascist, and liberal) – draws the circle and line together. The reconciliation, however, depends on setting aside global historical constructions, whether cyclical or linear, and focusing narrowly on fragments– apparently random moments “blasted out of time” by the inquirer. These moments, Benjamin says, will be continuous with moments long past, yet rich in Messianic expectation.