Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” remain one of the lynchpins of my understanding of the relationship between the world of spirit and the world of historical reality. Benjamin disassembled a strictly linear notion of history, one thing after another, to emphasize the potencies inherent in the present moment, what he called the now-time (Jetztzeit), the moment of crisis that lays hands on whatever it can to proceed forward.
As Benjamin understood it, this was antithetical to the everyday conceptions of history, most especially of a history that seeks to place everything in its context, that seeks to return to and appreciate the past in its own horizons. If dialectical history nourished itself in the now-time, this ‘historicism’ languished in a then-time. This historicism, which could wander through the recesses of history in order to ‘get it right’ lost touch with the life of its own time.
The time taken to languish over this or that detail of the past was time spent away from the crisis of the moment, the crisis of a time, from “the state of emergency” that “is not the exception but the rule” (Thesis VIII). He identified the languishing habits of historicism with acedia, and noted that the time spent in careful study of the past was a means to “blot out…the later course of history” (Thesis VII).
But when it came to confronting this languishing historicism, Benjamin didn’t propose abandoning history. He proposed turning to history as “fashion evokes costumes of the past,” with a “flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago.” His key point of differentiation between the two is distinguishing that fashion plays across a stage “where the ruling class give commands,” but that dialectical materialist history leapt “into the open air of history.” (Thesis XIV).
In other words, he proposed turning to history as an assemblage from which you could tear away this or that image or style or concept or form of organization and put it in service of the present demands. What was key, though, was keeping in touch with the now-time, with the state of emergency, and not losing yourself to the past. Better a tatterdemalion collage rising to the occasion that a king comfortably ensconced in his well-ordered memory palace.
Benjamin doesn’t always attend to the complex entanglements that follow from this. The leap of fashion and dialectical history often depends upon footing and traction set within books and texts that derive from the historicism he criticizes. On this point, he lacks Nietzsche’s sense of irony, that the person of the future depends upon the past with which they break and that all breaks tend to collapse back into the past. Still, that does not make the leap pointless, because the return has the potential to transform the past-centered world to which it returns, if for no other reason that it demonstrates an other world to which we can direct ourselves.
This sense of necessity and direction defines many religious movements at their most vital and is what animates their seemingly random syncretisms. The rich fabric of spiritualism and spiritualism-fueled practices exemplify this. The vital moment in which the codetermination of people, texts, prayers, rites, and spiritsoccurs transpires within a concrete occasion that can’t be easily abstracted and described.
It is to such a now-time that I have tried to direct my own spiritual work the last few years. The spirits that have risen up within that work criss-cross neatly defined cultural milieus, taking shape from the materia through which my life passes and acquiring conceptual and ritual form through lightning flashes of sympathy between concepts and images from a wide range of domains.
I don’t have a great way to write about that, but I thought there might be one way to approach the work indirectly by talking a little about the network of texts between which some of these lightning flashes pass.
For the artifice of a post, I will focus on seven books: (1) The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources by Dina Katz, (2) The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture by Peter Sigal, (3) Exu and Pomba Gira by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold (treated as one work because, in my reading, they make the most sense as a pair), (4) Popol Vuh (Dennis Tedlock’s translation), (5) Bible, (6) various writing by Ibn Arabi, but especially excerpts from Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, and (7) Grimorium Verum (Joseph Peterson’s translation).
There are some sympathies between these works from the get-go. The Maya Popol Vuh and the Nahua culture Sigal examines share a common Mesoamerican horizon. Quimbanda developed in part in relationship to works like the Grimorium Verum. Frisvold himself has studied both Babylonian and Sufi traditions. The Bible occupies a prominent place in the cultural world that gave birth to Ibn Arabi, and Ibn Arabi’s work likely shaped the intellectual horizons of the world into which the grimoires of early modern period. The Grimorium Verum looks to the Americas as a spiritual domain in itself, dividing the world into triumvirate of geographic principalities: African, American, and Eurasian.
(As an aside, a lengthier discussion would need to include a number of Asian and African nodes in the network, but, again, this breakdown is for the artifice of a cogent post.)
These sympathies only foreshadow the lightning flashes that animate my own interaction with these texts. Between them, the flashes illuminate a domain occupied by some of the most important members of my spiritual court. These figures aren’t quite identical with figures identified in these texts, but they often seem to resonate with them.
Between the figures of Exu, Nergal, Dumuzi, Tezcatlipoca, Tohil, and Absalom, I have been able to discern a faceless masculine figure surrounded by veiled women. Between Tamar, Pomba Gira, Ereshkigal, Asteroth, Ibn Arabi’s rose in the fire, and Tlazolteotl, a mysterious female figure that I have sometimes called the Queen of Saturn, and often called Mother. Around the rivalry of brothers and Tamar/Eve in the Bible, the hero twins and their mother in the Popol Vuh, and the triumvirate of worldly princes in the Verum, a cross-cutting relationship between these forces and others.
The figures themselves manifest most clearly in dreams, visions, and visceral intuitions. These often seem to be in search of texts, the guiding force of some library angels that have guided me to some of these accidental discoveries. The dreams will come, then the texts that give me words and images, sometimes the hints of rites, through which I am able to deepen my relationship with them. This seems to be the “homing” instinct that Benjamin talks about, the “weak Messianic power…to which the past has a claim” (Thesis II). It is the capacity to realize within our historical circumstance a sense of our position within what we often call ‘eternity.’