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  • Vacant Holidays:The Theological Remainder in Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Benjamin
  • J. M. Baker Jr.

This essay treats a segment of modern culture that appears as a motif in the writings of Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Benjamin: the vacant holiday, a space on the calendar once reserved for days of ritual recollection but a space that has since lost its ceremonial function and declined into leisure time, or mere idle time. This motif will be interpreted here as the index to a certain cultural nostalgia, a loaded term given the fact that in Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Benjamin, nostalgia points to a deep connection between historical perception, temporality of experience, and theological remembrance. More than that, though, it rests on a presupposition that theological categories do not cease to be illuminating or valid in contexts where religious rites have been pushed to the margins and ceased to claim the imagination. So my intention here is not simply to take up a contrarian viewpoint but rather to probe a real if elusive cultural and historical complex.1

The Theological as a Marginal Category

A familiar image for the place of theology in modern culture is that of Walter Benjamin's angel in the ninth of the "Theses on the Philosophy of History." The angel, powerless either to stay in the present or retreat into the past, is blown into the future by an irresistible wind. The figure of the angel is usually interpreted as a modern allegory for history, yet in that interpretation the theological level of the angel's meaning—a level whose presence is due as much to the allegorical [End Page 1190] nature of the figure as it is due to its angelic nature—is largely lost. At best the theological survives as a default: it is what hovers there in reserve when every other category of explanation or sense fails. This is precisely the place theology occupies in the first of the theses where it makes an ironic appearance as a hunchback dwarf ("buckliger Zwerg").2 The truth is that it is ugly and ought to be kept out of sight, but the truth is also that history cannot definitively renounce its promise as the only valid form of remembrance. Thus, Benjamin's angel crystallizes the problematic status of theology in his work. In an often-cited passage from a letter Benjamin described the relation of his work to theology as like that of a blotter to ink: from the point of view of the blotter he would gladly forget what was written there, and nevertheless it was saturated with it. Theology in this sense is the remainder that involuntarily returns even when one wishes it away. Benjamin's angel is an allegory in precisely the sense he attributed to Baudelaire: "Allegories are the sites on which Baudelaire made amends for his destructive impulse" (GS I 669).3 The allegorical intention Benjamin ascribes to Baudelaire combines contrary theological impulses: the will to destruction and the will to salvation. The process by which the past disintegrates into allegorical ruins is also the prehistory to another time glimpsed through those ruins. This is the dialectical turn in Benjamin's theory of history; its theological element echoes even as it is elided.4

The peculiar dialectic I trace here is one in which the relevance of theological categories returns not in spite of but as a consequence of the very emptying of sacred rites and cults. It is within this paradoxical development that I want to reconfigure, to borrow a word from Nietzsche, the untimeliness of Baudelaire and Leopardi. The theological is not a concealed presence in Leopardi and Baudelaire's texts which, once revealed, manifests itself as their secret or latent core. On the contrary, following the kind of antinomian logic developed by Adorno from Kant and Hegel, I wish to make the argument that the anti-theological moment in Baudelaire and Leopardi has to be faced on its own terms, reading the theological, insofar as it is to be read at all, not in spite of or beyond the antitheological, but inside it. Secularization, or the exclusion of the sacred, is the matrix within which the theological has to be read...


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