Friday, June 13, 2008

History as Catastrophe

Syberberg's film and Susan Sontag's essay on it reminded me of one of my favourite phrases - "History as Catastrophe". And conversely, there are few ideas I find more ridiculous than the idea of historical progress and yet if I say this in front of other people they think I am some kind of loony, a pretentious loony at that. You don't really need to have read lot of books on history and philosophy to realize that the story of human civilization, and indeed on a miniature level the story of individual human life is nothing but a story of continuously unfolding disaster, a complete calamity. Indeed is it even possible to think of Life as a concept without thinking of Death. This is another aspect of German(-ic) literature that fascinates me - this melancholic awareness of the existence of a principle of destruction which unifies history, not just human but also natural history.

Theses on Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin (very cryptic essay but I love that image of the angel of History that he describes)

The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald (much more readable illustration of Benjamin's theses. Also interesting that his doctoral dissertation was titled The Mythos Of Destruction in Works of Alfred Doblin and his essays on Austrian Literature is collected under the title, "Describing Disaster: Austrian Literature from Stifter to Handke")

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (Doblin will have you convinced that life has an essential negative value and that will-to-life is a force of evil, a force you can't but surrender to even if it is Death himself telling you otherwise)

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Like a good Nietzschean Musil sees an opportunity of renewal in destruction)

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Less hopeful and more sentimental than Musil. The end of Autrian empire is end of history for him and he is very disconsolate about it.)

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