The Bowels of History, or The Perpetuation of Biblical Myth in Walter Benjamin
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The Bowels of History, or The Perpetuation of Biblical Myth in Walter Benjamin Roland Boer The question thus becomes that of interpreting how "theological concepts," whether direct or indirect, function in the writings of Benjamin. —Weber In the debates over Walter Benjamin's use of theology, two common mistakes are made: first, biblical studies is subsumed under the label of theology , and subsequently, the concept of theology is brought to bear on Jewish and Christian thought without acknowledging the origin of theology in Christian tradition.1 By "theology" I designate a specifically Christian discipline —mistakenly applied to religious traditions other than Christianity in a colonizing fashion—that involves rational reflection upon the experience of the religiously committed in light of the sacred texts, in this case the Bible.2 As far as the second problem is concemed, the majority of Benjamin criticism works with the assumption that Benjamin drew mostly from Jewish theology, without recognizing that this is an oxymoron. Theology is indelibly stamped, in its method and content, with the various Christian traditions. In this respect, Jewish thought does not develop a theology , or theologies, for this is to carry on the Christian appropriation of Jewish thought. Rather, Jewish reflection takes the form of halakhah— elaboration on the law—and haggadah—development of the narratives of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 32.3 (Fall 2002): 371-390. Copyright © 2002 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 372 JNT the Hebrew Bible for relevance in new situations. Over against this unexamined position, which owes its continued currency to the influence of Scholem on the reception of Benjamin, I will argue that Benjamin's use of theology is a distinctly Christian one and that his interest in Jewish esoteric thought and "sacred" literature comes out of this context. Apart from this, my argument is that while Benjamin identifies a major problem within Marxism—how to envisage the possibility and nature of a change out of capitalism—his attempted solution is fraught with difficulties . In one respect his effort was doomed to fail in the context within which he worked; yet there are other possibilities that arise from the solution he offers. Benjamin sought to use theological arguments and categories as a philosophical and literary method without the institutional basis normally assumed for theology, nor taking on board any of the truth claims of theology. Initially, he used theology as a way of dealing with some of the major problems of German philosophy and literary theory, especially in the Trauerspiel book. With his turn to Marxism, theology has a similar function, now brought to bear on what he felt were problems within Marxist thought and expectation. Thus, in the Passagen-Werk, he seeks a mode of breaking out of the myth and dream-work of capitalism by means of the dialectical image, the caesura of the explosion out of history , waking from a dream. Yet, the effort to break out of such a myth can only be mythical in Benjamin's formulation, and the problem begins with his elision of the Bible and theology. His various appropriations of the Bible are nearly always theological and mystical, drawing out schémas of history, modes of interpretation, theories of language; that is, he assumes that biblical interpretation is inevitably theological. In doing so, he neglects the fact that biblical studies and theology have been uneasy partners , and that biblical studies also has a long tradition of non-theological commentary, a demystifying and demythologizing mode of criticism that critiques the mythical structures of the biblical material itself, although even here such criticism all too easily reverts to a barely concealed "theology ." This problem runs deeply in his work, for he takes biblical commentary as a model for criticism, following its theological direction rather than as a method of démystification. For this reason, the mythical nature of the biblical texts—precisely those that are favoured by theology—generates a mythical solution to the problems with which he sought to deal. In other words, in the effort to develop a notion of 'redemption' that would work The Bowels of History 373 for Marxism, Benjamin falls prey to the inherent mythologization of a theological and mystical appropriation of...