History, retrospection and narrative

Jan 30, 2014 | Random Convolutes

How does art stand in relation to the tradition and history which preceded it? How is the meaning of history made, un-made, or re-made?

It is not that “history is written by the victors.” No, the proper cliché to mention here is the moment in the classic adventure film when the hero’s friend or partner is killed, and, succumbing to his grief, he is brought out of it by the injunction, “Make his death mean something!”


“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors.


“Articulating the past historically … means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 391


“Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [a citation to be taken up as part of the business of the day]. And that day is Judgment Day.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 390


“To imagine one’s self-composed obituary read at the Judgment Day constitutes the farthest reach in the anticipation of retrospective narrative understanding. It is one that all narratives no doubt would wish to make: all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“The energy generated by deviance, extravagance, excess … maintains the plot in its movement through the vacillating play of the middle, where repetition as binding works toward the generation of significance, toward recognition and the retrospective illumination that will allow us to grasp the text as total metaphor, but of therefore to discount the metonymies that have led to it.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“In the whole history of Marxism, there is probably only one point at which this non-historical ‘ex-timate’ kernel of history was touched — at which the reflection of history was brought to the ‘death drive’ as its degree zero: Theses on the Philosophy of History, the last text by Walter Benjamin, ‘fellow-traveller’ of the Frankfurt School. the reason for this is of course that it was again Benjamin who — a unique case in Marxism — conceived history as a text, as series of events which ‘will have been’ — their meaning, their historical dimension, is decided afterwards, through their inscription in the symbolic network.”

– Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 151


“Strong poets make history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.”

– Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, second edition, p. 5.


“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.”

– T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” par. 4.