Mittman (2007 Congress)

Asa Simon Mittman
(Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona)
“The Monster of History:  A Response, via Walter Benjamin”

Abstract of Response Presented at the 42nd International Medieval Congress (Kalamazoo, 2007)
Session on “Getting Medieval:  Medieval Monstrosities and Their Ill Repute”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jennifer A. T. Smith (University of California at Los Angeles)

2007 Congress

[First published on our first website]

In his essay On the Concept of History (AKA Theses on the Philosophy of History), Walter Benjamin offers a powerful vision of “the Angel of History.”  Benjamin describes this creature thus:

“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 stay, 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.  This storm is what we call progress.”

This evisceration of the concept of progress presents divine history as blind to the future, and human history as mistaken about its past.

I would posit, as we try to understand the Middle Ages through their creation of monstrous Others, a “Monster of History,” analogous in position of Benjamin’s Angel.  What would such a being see?  How would this construct differ from that presented by Benjamin, and what do these differences tell us about the differences between medieval and modern world views?  We might, for example, envision the Pantoii, facing forward, sweating blood as its giant ears are caught in a storm (From Hell?  From Earth?), propelling him into a certain future (the Apocalypse), and further and further from a longed-for Golden Age in the distant past.  Such notions will be considered as a means by which to respond to the papers of the session, and to the concepts on which they are based.