- A Turn Toward The Past
The title of Carolyn Forché’s newest volume of poetry comes from a famous passage of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in which Benjamin considers history’s power to dishevel human order and any human understanding of the past. In section IX, part of which is excerpted as an epigraph to Forché’s volume, Benjamin considers the possibility that this loss also brings about the loss of a present and a future:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
Tellingly, this passage from Benjamin’s essay emphasizes the destructive force of history. History here is perceived to be “one single catastrophe,” and “Paradise,” or the dream of utopia, far from being capable of restoring order, only adds to the storm. In subsequent sections of the essay, however, Benjamin insists upon the importance of a “hermeneutic of restoration” as a way of redeeming the past. For him the human imperative is to perform a hermeneutic of restoration as both a critical and social practice. For Benjamin, history can live meaningfully only as a redemptive vision and practice. Otherwise it becomes reified as a dead set of facts. The “weak Messianiac power” of utopianism is its power not only to make sense of the catastrophe of history, but also to redeem history by recasting its losses as part of a teleological journey which ultimately culminates in the establishment of a just social order. In this way, past, present, and future regain their lost connectedness and become part of one seamless, meaningful continuum.
It is useful to recall Benjamin’s argument here in order to see how Forché makes use of aspects of it while distancing herself from, or rejecting, others. As in section IX of Benjamin’s essay, in The Angel of History Forché sees history as a catastrophe, particularly twentieth-century history. For her, the decisive moments of our history are its large-scale calamities—World War II, fascism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, El Salvador, Chernobyl. All of these events have a ghost-like presence in Forché’s poetry. Past and present are affiliated through the repeated experience of political trauma. For Forché, as for Fredric Jameson, history is what hurts. Pain is history’s most enduring common denominator. Haunted by the weight of the dead, the volume speaks with a finely elegiac voice that gives it a singular intensity. The characteristic feeling in these poems is one of desolation. This feeling is evident even in relation to events not usually regarded as tragic, such as the fall of the Berlin wall. In these poems, the awareness goes to what Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being,” the sense that freedom is, in its own way, as illusory as nonfreedom. So for Forché, the fall of the wall ushers in an age of emptiness, filled only with the wreckage of the real brought about by both totalitarian and “democratic” governments. East and West have finally achieved a state of parity, but it is parity defined by moral nullity:
The homeless squatters passed through the holes into empty communist gardens, and the people from the east passed from their side into a world unbearable to them.
Forché’s volume attempts to convey her sense of the catastrophic nature of history formally by relying on poetic fragments. These are then linked together in thematically-related groups around the large-scale calamaties of the twentieth century. The continuity that exists between these poems therefore is ironic—the...