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  • The Dwarf in the Machine:A Theological Figure and Its Sources
  • Joshua Robert Gold

What is the function of theological language in Benjamin's writings? "My thought behaves towards theology like blotting paper to ink," runs one of his fragments. "It is entirely saturated by it. But if the blotter had the last say [Ginge es aber nach dem Löschblatt], then nothing that was written would remain."1 This citation is an appropriate summary of the pitfalls that accompany any consideration of Benjamin's relationship to theology: though its meaning appears self-evident, further scrutiny belies this impression. For example, the equation of thought and blotting paper seems like a straightforward means of emphasizing the absorptive qualities of the former until one recalls how blotting paper preserves the reverse image of writing and accumulates markings in the fashion of a palimpsest. Is one therefore to conclude that Benjamin's thought inverts theological categories, or that his works overwrite them with the language of criticism? Even the second half of the citation contains a twist that runs contrary to our expectations: one would assume that theology might overwhelm Benjamin's thought by saturating it, but the claim here is that it is his thinking that endangers theology, threatening to dissolve it and leave a page that has been wiped clean. Thus, while Benjamin's writings clearly employ theological language, the ends towards which he invokes this tradition remain elusive; indeed, the matter becomes further complicated when one considers how commentators have labeled "theological" texts as diverse as "On Language as Such and [End Page 1220] on the Language of Man" (1916), "Critique of Violence" (1921), and "Theological-Political Fragment" (1937–38).

In order to address the role of theological language in Benjamin's texts, it helps to consider the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer with whose works Benjamin was well acquainted. Readers of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" will recall how one of Poe's most famous characters, the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, insists upon the importance of what one must call "superficial" reading. Commenting upon the approach that the police have taken in their investigation of the murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin notes: "There is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. The depth lies in the valleys where we seek her, and not upon the mountain-tops where she is found."2 It is hardly surprising that more than a century after Poe's death, another famous Dupin mystery would inspire Jacques Lacan to draw a parallel between Poe's notion of reading and Martin Heidegger's understanding of truth as the play of revealing and concealing.3 For Poe no less than for Heidegger, truth is more often than not that which is "hidden in plain sight."

Moreover, reading superficially according to Poe also requires approaching truth from a sideways glance or a view off-center, a notion exemplified by Dupin's claim that we see a star most distinctly by beholding it "in a side-long way, by turning toward it the exterior portions of the retina." He concludes: "By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought, and it is possible to make even Venus herself vanish from the firmament by a scrutiny too sustained, too concentrated, or too direct" ("Murders in the Rue Morgue" 412). In order to read upon the surface, one must be prepared to approach matters indirectly.

Taking Poe's observations into consideration, the following pages attempt to understand what Benjamin means by "theology" in "On the Concept of History" (1940), his last work before committing suicide. Readers already familiar with Benjamin's writings know the pivotal role that this text has played in debates regarding the supposed tension between theology and Marxism in his criticism.4 However, the concern here is not to take one side or the other—theology or Marxism: which has the upper hand?—but to focus upon the hunchbacked dwarf (buckliger Zwerg) from the anecdote of the chess-playing automaton with which the text in...


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