Anything Can Happen: Progress, Pessimism, and Stephane Moses on “The Time of Possibles”

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I was raised in small town America. My family, my teachers, and my coaches always encouraged me to think in terms of progress. To be sure, my experience is not unique. Built in to American life is the belief that things can only get better; progress is inevitable. However, I also remember learning that in life anything is possible. Life is full of possibilities and I should believe that anything can happen for the better and for the worse. Judaism integrates both ideas. There is a movement towards a Messianic end, but it doesn’t seem to happen in a progressive sense. Gershom Scholem, in his discussion of the Messianic, points out that, for the Utopian/Apocolyptic thinkers, the Messianic moment will, necessarily, come as a surprise. It is, as he notes, an irruption into history. And by history, he means an understanding of history that puts progress at its core.

In his book, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Stephane Moses looks into how three Jewish-German thinkers, between the two World Wars – Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem – made it one of their main tasks to introduce an account of Jewish, Messianic time that would challenge the Western notion of history and progress. The purpose of this conception of time – which Moses calls a “time of possibles” – is to prompt us to think differently about our existential relationship to time. By putting more emphasis on the moment, with all of its possibilities, our sense of time, selfhood, and relationship change radically.

Moses points out how all three thinkers “presented a radical critique of historical Reason and its axioms: the idea of continuity, the idea of causality, and the idea of progress”(10). He dubs the latter an “optimistic vision of history conceived as a permanent march toward the final realization of humanity”(10). Using this term, one wonders whether the three thinkers reading of time is “pessimistic.”     After all, if history is not going toward an end and if, as he argues, in their work “the absurdity of every theodicy imminent in history is proclaimed,” what is left over in the wake of their critique?

Moses points out that their thinking emerged in the “face of human suffering.”   They realized that “past suffering is not abolished even by a triumphant future, which claims to give them (these moment of suffering in history) meaning”(11). This would suggest that the remnant of this view would be a view of life as immense irredeemable suffering.

However, even though this view would expose us to such suffering and a “direct experience of historical time perceived in the qualitative difference of each instance,” it “also opens toward a multiplicity of possible futures.”   Now, from the present, “many divergent paths can lead to different futures” and this, suggests Moses, should give us hope.   However, the hope is limited because the future is unpredictable.

Although Moses notes that this reading of time “could” lead them to a “pessimistic conception of history,” Moses goes on to note how it didn’t. They all decided to bank on hope: “Yet, for Rosenzweig, as for Benjamin and Scholem, the end of belief in a meaning of history did not involve abolishing the idea of hope”(12).  This belief opens itself up to the “advent” of “utopia” at “each moment in time.”

He calls this model, which they all share, a “model of a random time” wherein the “immanent realization of the ideal becomes conceivable again.”   However, as Moses notes, the Messianic, whenever it entered into history “ended in bitterness and frustration.” In this aside, I think there is a problem that Moses overlooks: what if the “advent” of the ideal seems immanent and people grab hold of it only to find that it fails? Won’t they go from having a view of time hinged in hope to one hinged in pessimism?

Should we, rather, in the spirit of the Jewish tradition, wait for the Messianic moment rather than force it? But what does it mean that we seize on to such an advent once it, apparently, comes?

The interesting thing is that these advents come across as “ruptures” in the history of progress which, one can imagine, create crisis, fear, and pessimism not, by and large, hope in new futures and a “new time of possibles.” What interests me most, in relation to these times of possibles, is the question of how to interpret them and relate to their advent. Simply thinking about them, in the general sense suggested by Moses – by way of Rosenzweig, Scholem, and Benjamin – is not enough.

Since I am very interested in the philosophy of comedy and its relation to Jewish idea of time and timing, this Moses’ reflections take on another dimension for me. Because, as many Jewish comedians know, what happens…happens and when a comedian has a moment open up he or she needs to figure out how to work with it.

To be sure, Jews have, throughout history, maintained what Moses calls the “time of the possible.” And have always been looking for the moment when an advent would open up a new future for the Jews. However, Jews have also learned to be careful about such moments. Relating to history and its interruptions creates a complex response for Jews – it always has – the question is always whether a moment is at hand or the effacement of possibility.   Reading Moses against the grain, I’d suggest a reading of the advent in terms of a pessimistic and optimistic relation to history since the Utopian relation is something that Jews have become very careful about due to the lessons of living under Pogroms, the Holocaust, and centuries of religious hatred and anti-semitism. Jewish comedy, with its bittersweet moments, has this awareness built in.

As Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel – Motl, The Cantor’s Son – notes, after he hears of his father’s passing – a time when the future opens up to him:

Never do I remember being as special as I am now. Why am I so special? My father Peysi the cantor, as you know, died on the first day of Shevuos, and I was left an orphan.

This rupture is bittersweet. It is a day when he is “special,” more special than ever; but what makes him special is that he is an orphan.

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