Impossible Modernism
T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and the Critique of Historical Reason
Robert S. Lehman



The Poetry and the Prose of the Future

The entanglement of poetry and history has been with us for a long time. The poetic emplotment or embellishment of historical facts endemic to the epic tradition developed for centuries before Plato provided it with its first philosophical challenge. In the seventeenth century, Giambattista Vico—whose first writings were poems—argued that “all the histories of the gentile nations have had fabulous beginnings” (109); and by transforming Homer into the imaginative spirit of the Greek people, he positioned poetic wisdom at the origin of the Western tradition. More recently, Martin Heidegger has made the work of art, and the poem in particular, the locus of “a people’s historical existence,” or the “distinctive way in which truth . . . becomes historical” (Off the Beaten Track 75). These blendings of poetry and history are not all equivalent, but blendings they are. They speak to the fact that our thinking about history and our thinking about poetry have progressed together.

Today, reflection on the relationship between poetry and history is more likely to be motivated by ethical concerns. The question of whether or not a given aesthetic form is adequate to historical events—as we find in Adorno’s query as to the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, or in Lyotard’s aesthetics of the sublime1—still assumes that the domains of poetry and history overlap, that poetry’s task is at least in part to address the same events or experiences that worry more sober forms of historical reflection. But the relationship between poetry and history has changed, such that a gain in status for one has come to appear as a loss for the other. Those who doubt the continued relevance of poetry, or of art in general, might do so on the grounds of its “pastness,” of its superannuation by the accelerated prose of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. So, when Joseph Epstein writes of “poor poetry” that it is “the Darfur of twenty-first century literature,” he succeeds in showing not only that, like Darfur at the time of his writing, “everyone wants to do something about [poetry], but nobody quite knows what is to be done,” but also, through the chasm separating the humanitarian crisis unfolding on every television screen from the chapbook on the coffee table, a possible explanation for poetry’s misery. Conversely, when the continuous movement of history can no longer be taken for granted, when the very idea of progress appears as something fabulous or fictive, evidence of history’s borrowings from poetry rises to the surface and suspicion sets in.

Poetry has been left behind by the events of history. History has promised us truth and given us only poems. Between these two assertions, the relationship between poetry and history has been determined as essentially crisis-ridden. Modernism inherits this crisis and brings it to a point of high tension, but it does not necessarily produce it. My aim in this chapter is to address this crisis as it exists prior to the period of literary modernism, and to do so by examining three moments that shed a particular light on what is at stake in the coupling of poetry and history. The first occurs in the fourth century B.C. in Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest attempt to provide a systematic definition of the structure and effects of poetry and, consequently, the origin of all later crises de vers. The second appears in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, a text that offers a complicated poetic response to a moment of crisis in Marx’s own historical method. The third appears in the early writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, where, against the onset of the nineteenth-century science of history, the demand to see history become poetry is made explicit. Limiting myself to these three moments and to these three authors, I do not hope to present anything like a thorough treatment of the issue at hand. What follows will move freely between fourth-century Greece and nineteenth-century Germany, romantic poetry and radical politics; and while it will be organized chronologically, its structure is perhaps better understood as a relative of the historical-collage forms favored by Eliot and Benjamin (while its failure to do more to cleave to these forms should be attributed to my own limitations as a stylist). In any event, by examining the particular coordinates I have chosen, I aim to provide some of the necessary intellectual-historical context for my subsequent analyses of Eliot’s and Benjamin’s poetico-historical projects, and to show why, for Eliot and Benjamin, the problem of historical representation might seem to invite a specifically literary solution. Guiding these analyses will be the suspicion—already anticipated in the writings of Aristotle—that both poetry and history are centrally concerned with the relationship between universal and particular, and with the way that universal structures do or do not allow the singularity of events to appear.

I. A More Serious Thing

[P]hilosophy is not meant to be a narration of happenings but a cognition of what is true in them, and further, on the basis of this cognition, to comprehend that which, in the narrative, appears as a mere happening.

—G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic

In a well-known passage from Poetics 9, in the midst of characterizing the nature of poetic emplotment, Aristotle pauses to distinguish poetry (poiēsis) from history (historia), and to celebrate the former at the latter’s expense. Poetry, he writes, “is a more philosophical (philosophōteron) and more serious (spoudaioteron) thing than history” (1451b5–8). Aristotle does not base his distinction between poetry and history on the fact that the former is composed in verse—for, he notes, “the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse but they would be no less a sort of history in verse than they are without verses”—but on the fact that “poetry tends to speak of universals, history of particulars” (1451b1–10). And as Aristotle elsewhere reminds us, only the former, the universal, is the proper object of philosophical knowledge (Metaphysics 981a15–30).

Most immediately, this elevation of poetry might be read as a challenge to arguments developed by Plato, for whom the failure of poetry and of the mimetic arts in general is precisely their distance from the universality of the ideas. Because the poet imitates things that are themselves copies of eternal forms, Plato observes, the poet is “third in the descent . . . from the truth” (Republic 597e); as such, he provides no assistance to the philosopher and he threatens to mislead the public. Understood thus, poetry (the discourse of illusion) and philosophy (the discourse of ideas) are separated by a gulf as great as empirical reality itself. As the few surviving fragments of the dialogue On Poets evince, Aristotle rejected his teacher’s criticisms of poetry, going so far as to note that the “form of [Plato’s own] dialogues is between poetry and prose” (Poetics 56). Before the force of Aristotle’s challenge to Plato’s criticisms can be measured, however, the meaning of what Aristotle calls poetry’s “universality” needs to be unpacked.

Aristotle provides a straightforward definition of universal and particular in his work On Interpretation: “By the term ‘universal,’ I mean that which is of such a nature as to be predicated of many subjects, by ‘particular’ that which is not thus predicated. Thus ‘Man’ is a universal, ‘Callias’ a particular” (17a40). Clear enough. Particulars are those things that we intuit in our everyday experience—this man, that horse, and so on—as opposed to the universal categories through which we come to describe these things. But the question persists: what is the universal about which poetry tends to speak? Should we say that poetry deals with “man” in general, though it may appear to be dealing with Oedipus or Achilles? Does poetry deal with universal values—justice, love, bravery, and the like—while seeming to describe particular events? Aristotle clarifies his claim: “[I]t is the function of a poet to relate not things that have happened, but things that may happen, i.e. that are possible in accordance with probability or necessity” (1451a39–b1). At first this remark is not particularly helpful. Its murkiness results from what seems to be its basing of the opposition of poetry to history on the opposition of future (“things that may happen”) to past (“things that have happened”). And yet Aristotle cannot be arguing that the poet must avoid treating past events—as, for example, his readers would have understood the Trojan War—in favor of purely fictive scenarios, for, he goes on, “even if it turns out that he is representing things that happened, [an individual] is no less a poet; for there is nothing to prevent some of the things that have happened from being the sort of thing that may happen according to probability” (1451b29–33). Though the poet is not constrained by the “traditional stories” that myth or history provides, neither is he prevented from drawing on these traditional stories, as we tend to find in the cases of the great tragedies and epics. When the poet incorporates historical events into his art, however, he transforms them into something that goes beyond their particularity as history, something that may be grasped according to modal categories such as probability and necessity.

Aristotle sheds more light on the universality of poetry, as well as on the association of this universality with probability and necessity, in Poetics 23. While prescribing the norms of epic poetry, he writes that the poet “should construct plots that are dramatic (i.e., [plots] about a single whole action that is complete, with a beginning, middle, and end), so that [the poem] will produce the pleasure particular to it as a single whole animal does” (1459a18–22). In addition to offering an early formulation of the organicist model of the literary work—a poem should be akin to a “single, whole animal”2—Aristotle here clarifies the nature of poetry’s universality. Poetry—tragic, comic, or epic—is not universal because it presents universal themes through its particular characters and events but because it provides events with a universal structure, one that includes, most basically, a beginning, a middle, and an end. In so doing, it presents these events as “a single action, and a whole one at that,” such that “when some part is transposed or removed, the whole is disrupted and disturbed” (1451a31–34). “Probability” and “necessity” describe how, in a poem, one event probably or necessarily follows from another according to the laws of poetic emplotment, how all things begin and tend toward a specific end. They describe, therefore, something of the causal order of human events. Again, poetry must be distinguished from history in this regard, for in history “it is necessary to produce a description not of a single action but of a single time, with all that happened during it to one or more people; each [event] relates to the others at random” (1459a22–25). History is defined negatively, by its lacking access to the universal, causal structure of poetry. Consequently, it is essentially incomplete (since an infinite number of events are always occurring at a “single time”) and random (since historical events do not tend toward any rational end).

Epistēmē, scientific or philosophical knowledge, is not achieved through a simple perception of events, Aristotle writes, “for perception must be of a particular, whereas scientific knowledge involves the recognition of a commensurate universal” (87b38–39). Poetry is more philosophical than history because it passes beyond mere perception so as to express something universal: the universality of dramatic action, of plot. As such, it resists Plato’s attempt to locate it “third in the descent” from the ideality of universal knowledge. It does not do so, however, by attempting to depict the hypostasized forms of things—a project that Aristotle, contra Plato, elsewhere rejects. Rather, it expresses a causal order immanent to the events it describes. Again, these events need not be the same as those given to the mere perception of the historian, but they can be. When they are, we can judge most easily the difference between history and poetry: whereas “[historical] perception must be of a particular . . . , [poetic emplotment] involves the [expression] of a commensurate universal.” Poetry provides the universal commensurate to historical particularity. So, in addition to being near to philosophy, poetry, insofar as it “tends to speak of universals,” is also a way for particular events to gain purchase on philosophical universality. More succinctly, poetry is the locus of historical events’ becoming philosophical.

By elevating poetry over history and by basing his determination on the distinction between universal categories—the proper objects of philosophical knowledge—and particular events, Aristotle unintentionally traces the path that history would have to follow to constitute itself as a science. It would have to become more like poetry, so long as the latter is defined neither by the verse form nor by fictionality as such but by the composition of plots. And this is not so far from the path that history would take in its struggles for and eventual attainment of philosophical respectability. Thus, reflecting on the birth of history in its modern sense, that is, on history’s assumption of its place among the human sciences, Ernst Cassirer can write the following: “[The eighteenth century tried] to grasp the meaning of history by endeavoring to gain a clear and distinct concept of it, to ascertain the relation between the general and the particular, between idea and reality, and between laws and facts, and to establish the exact boundaries between these terms” (Philosophy of the Enlightenment 197). Not only particular realities or brute facts but universal structures: insofar as history possesses them it enjoys scientific validity. But for Aristotle, these structures—which do not themselves occur historically—are precisely what history lacks and what distinguish it from poetry.

In any case, history would finally achieve its place among the sciences in the nineteenth century, with chairs of history appearing almost simultaneously at the University of Berlin (1810) and the Sorbonne (1812), and historical societies such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (1819) and the École des Chartres (1821) following a few years later (White 136). The impetus behind these developments is no secret. Following the unprecedented occurrence of the French Revolution, all of Europe demanded to know “Could it happen again?” or “Could it happen here?” At its origin, institutional history came into being to answer these questions, and thus to complete the Enlightenment project by subsuming under laws of “probability or necessity” that last space of contingency, history itself. Under the eyes of the great nineteenth-century historians—Leopold von Ranke, Jules Michelet, Jacob Burckhardt, and others—the relation of past, present, and future became, if not wholly predictable, at least rational, open to the knowledge of the historian or the philosopher.

And yet, in this most historical of centuries and in the most historically minded of countries, the most historical of philosophers—G. W. F. Hegel—seems to reopen the question of the relationship between poetry, history, and philosophy, and in terms that echo Aristotle’s own: “The representations of art,” Hegel writes, “cannot be called a deceptive appearance in comparison with the truer representations of historiography. For the latter . . . remains burdened with the entire contingency of ordinary life and its events, complications, and individualities, whereas the work of art brings before us the eternal powers that govern history without this appendage of the immediate sensuous present and its unstable appearance” (LFA 9). History, or rather “historiography”—the distinction will prove important—appears to have once again been demoted. It is again characterized by particularity (“individualities”) and randomness (“the contingency of ordinary life,” “unstable appearance”), while the work of art again tends to speak of universals, of “eternal powers.”

We should not, however, be misled. Between Aristotle’s Poetics and Hegel’s Aesthetics, everything has changed. On the one hand, for Hegel, “historiography” remains bound to contingent facts, to the sensuous immediacy apprehended by an essentially prephilosophical consciousness. It fails to grasp the universal, categorial structures that are the true content of this apparent immediacy. In the language of the Phenomenology of Spirit, historiography can only point to things without really comprehending them.3 The passage out of this immediate sensuous present is the passage into philosophy conceived as the realm of universals. Poetry, as a sensuous appearing of the idea, lies between historiography and philosophy. Laying claim to the universality of the idea, it is already beyond the former, which remains trapped in particularity. But poetry is also “not yet” philosophy, for though it raises the sensual up so as to mobilize it as a vessel for the absolute, it does not succeed in freeing itself entirely from the sensual and acceding to the realm of pure thought.4 Thus Hegel can agree with Aristotle’s claim that “poetry is a more philosophical . . . thing than history,” while retaining the distinction between poetry and philosophy.

On the other hand, this movement from historiography to poetry, or from sensuous immediacy to the sensuous appearance of the idea, only takes place because history—as distinct, for Hegel, from “historiography”—has seized control of the whole plot. Everything happens within a historical time that is indissociable from the “eternal powers” that govern it. The distance of history from philosophy and the nearness of poetry to philosophy are utterly transformed. For Aristotle, history would have needed to become poetic to become philosophical. But for Aristotle, there is no possibility of this taking place. Poetry, philosophy, and history may have essential similarities, but their essences remain static. Neither poetry nor philosophy nor history is something historical. Hegel’s innovation is to volatilize these discrete discourses, and to do so by giving them over to a historical emplotment that, at least for poetry, will eventually prove fatal. Already in the nineteenth century, Hegel can famously write that “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place” (11). In history, and having already escaped the realm of sensuous immediacy characteristic of historiography, art becomes philosophy by ridding itself of the last residue of the sensuous world. The form art takes at the moment of its self-overcoming is poetry, which has the merit of being the most conceptual of all the forms of art. Thus, Hegel continues, “at this highest stage, art now transcends itself, in that it forsakes the element of a reconciled embodiment of the spirit in sensuous form and passes over from the poetry of imagination to the prose of thought” (89).

History carries us from art to philosophy, or from poetry to prose. Hegel does not, however, necessarily close the book on poetry. In the years after his own form of historical idealism had fallen out of favor, a generation of philosophers began to wonder if the “eternal powers” governing Hegel’s history were not in some sense poetic. The most famous example of these queries appears in Josiah Royce’s 1906 Lectures on Modern Idealism, in the suggestion that the Phenomenology of Spirit, and possibly Hegel’s entire system, might be read as the “biography” of the Weltgeist, a bildungsroman akin to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister or Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (151).5 Royce does not describe the affinities between the eternal powers of Hegel’s historical dialectic and the conventions of poetic emplotment with the intention of damning the former (though more empirically minded philosophers and historians would); he merely notes that “this consideration has been singularly overlooked by most of those who have given an account of the work” (147). For our purposes, however, it is enough to note that the question of whether history is the ruse of poetry or poetry the ruse of history is once again in doubt.


1. Adorno’s remark on the barbarity of poetry after Auschwitz reads, in its entirety: “The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34). Lyotard describes the ethical dimension of artistic representation in terms of the “aesthetics of the sublime” in the essays included in The Inhuman. Here he writes that “what is at stake in the arts is their making themselves witness to the fact that there are things which are indeterminate” (101; italics in original [henceforth, to be assumed if not otherwise noted]) and, as “indeterminate,” unrepresentable. For an opposed reading of the ethics of artistic representation, see Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image.

2. Compare to this remark the challenge set to Phaedrus by Socrates: “But surely you will admit at least this much: Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work” (Phaedrus 264c).

3. For Hegel’s discussion of empiricist “pointing,” see the dialectic of “Sense Certainty” as it unfolds at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

4. In a recent essay that deals with the philosophical significance of aesthetics, Christoph Menke opposes Aristotle’s and Hegel’s theories of poetry and philosophy as the difference between “almost already” and “not yet.” For Aristotle, Menke writes, poetry is “almost already” philosophical, while for Hegel poetry is “not yet” philosophical and is incapable of ever being so. Though Menke’s essay is suggestive, we cannot accept the conclusion that for Aristotle poetry is “in motion, on its way” from history to philosophy (35), while for Hegel this movement is impossible. For this argument to work, one would have to demonstrate that for Aristotle a (historical, temporal) development could see one discourse transform into another. This possibility only exists, however, if one assumes a model of historical development akin to Hegel’s self-education of spirit. This model would have been foreign to Aristotle.

5. Royce is cited more often than he is read. His characterization of the Phenomenology of Spirit as a bildungsroman has become quite influential, however, with Jean Hyppolite (Genesis and Structure 11), M. H. Abrams (229), and Judith Butler (240) all endorsing Royce’s argument (though Butler attributes the argument to Abrams).