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Wesleyan University

The Sublime Dissociation of the Past: Or How to Be(come) What One Is No Longer
Author(s): F. R. Ankersmit
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Oct., 2001), pp. 295-323
Published by: Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2677968 .
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Historyand Theory (October2001), 295-323 ? Wesleyan University2001 ISSN: 0018-2656




The heartcannot forget

Unless it contemplate
What it declines
(Emily Dickinson, CompletePoems, no. 1560)

A Klee painting namedAngelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to

move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.His eyes are staring,his mouth
is open, his wings are spread.This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is
turnedtowardthe past.
(WalterBenjamin,Theses on the Philosophy of History)


Forgettinghas rarelybeen investigatedin historicaltheory.Insofaras it attractedthe atten-

tion of theoristsat all, forgettinghas ordinarilybeen consideredto be a defect in our rela-
tionshipto the past that should be overcome in one way or another.The only exception is
Nietzsche who so provocativelysung the praisesof forgettingin his On the Use and Abuse
of History (1874). But Nietzsche's conception is the easy victim of a consistent histori-
cism and thereforein need of correction.Four types of forgetting are identified in this
essay. Centralin the essay's argumentis the fourthtype. This is the kind of forgettingtak-
ing place when a civilization "commits suicide" by exchanging a previous identity for a
new one. Hegel's moving accountof the conflict between Socratesand the Athenianstate
is presentedas the paradigmaticexample of this kind of forgetting.Two conclusions fol-
low from an analysis of this type of forgetting.First, we can now understandwhat should
be recognized as a civilization's historical sublime and how the notions of the historical
sublime and of collective traumaare related. Second, it follows that myth and (scientific)
history do not exclude each other;on the contrary,(scientific) history creates myth. This
should not be taken to be a defect of history,for this is precisely how it should be.


For many years Kant was dutifully served by the faithful Lampe. But one unfor-
tunate day Lampe could not resist the temptation to steal something from his
master's household. He was dismissed on the spot by his master, for whom prop-
erty was sanctified by nothing less than the categorical imperative. Nevertheless,

1. I would like to express my gratitudeto Jaapden Hollanderfor his most valuable comments on
a previous version of this essay. All translationsare mine.

Kant was not at ease with his Roman severitas and he kept worryingabout poor
Lampe. In orderto get rid of this most unwelcome manifestationof Neigung he
pinned above his desk a little note with the stunningtext "Lampevergessen"-
"forget Lampe."There is something pathetic about the naivete of this greatest
among all philosophers2urging himself "not to forget to forget Lampe." For,
obviously, somebody who requireshimself to forget is sure to remember.Or, as
Jon Elsteronce put it: "thecommandment'forgethim' requiresan effort thatcan
only inscribe in memory the object that one is demandedto forget."3
But as we shall see, "notforgetting- or remembering- to forget"is more than
a psychological naivete. More specifically,our attitudeto the collective past may
sometimesrequireus to repudiatepartof the past;thatis, to dissociate partof our
historicalpast from our collective self and from our collective historical identi-
ty. In such situationswe find ourselves in the quasi-Kantianposition of having to
remember,or to bear in mind, what is forgotten.We then paradoxicallyare what
we areno longer,in the sense thatour identityis then definedby our having repu-
diated a previous identity.
I hope to demonstratethat such situationsare, from both a materialand a for-
mal perspective, in agreementwith the philosophical category of the sublime.
This will be clear as soon as we come to see how the sublime relates to the psy-
chological notion of trauma.In general, though traumachallenges our identity it
does, in the end, respect it, whereas the sublime requiresus to abandona previ-
ous identity.This is why traumaserves the cause of memory,and the sublime that
of forgetting. It will become clear, finally, how all this contributesto a better
understandingof myth and of the crucial role that myth still plays in our mod-


Since Cicero'sHistoria Magistra Vitae4many differentanswershave been given

to the venerablequestionof the uses of history.Most convincing still is the claim
2. But perhapsone must be a philosopherin orderto be capable of this naivete. For the philoso-
pher,with his love of distinctions,will arguethatthe notion of "forgettingp" does not necessarilypre-
supposethe knowledge thatp.The formermerely is an operationthat should be executed on p, and its
meaning is, as such, independentof the knowledge that p. So there is no contradictionbetween the
commandto forget p and not-knowingthat p. But in real life the notion of "forgettingp" is transpar-
ent with regardto p, so that, paradoxically,we cannot forget p unless we know that p. Of course that
is the point of Dickinson's poem quoted above.
As Jon Elsterhas shown, the distinctioncan be formalizedin termsof the distinctionbetween inter-
nal and externalnegation. If we have the proposition"S believes that p," its internalnegation is "S
believes not-p,"whereasits externalnegationis "it is not true thatS believes thatp." If appliedto for-
getting, the distinction is described by Elster as follows: forgettingg or indifference is an external
negation,the simple absence of the awarenessthatx, whereasthe will to forget requiresthe awareness
of the absence of x, hence of x. Willing to forget is as if one wantedto create darknessby light." See
J. Elster,Psychologie politique: Veyne,Zinoviev,Tocqueville(Paris:Editionsde Minuit, 1990), 82.
3. Elster,Psychologie politique, 81.
4. For a magisterialexposition of the history of this topos, see R. Koselleck, "Historiamagistra
vitae: Uber die Aufl6sung des Topos im Horizont neuzeitlich bewegter Geschichte," in idenm,
VergangeneZukunft:Zur SemantikgeschichtlicherZeiten (Frankfurtam Main: Suhrkamp,1979).

that our identity lies in our past. Philosophers(since Locke) and psychologists
(since Freud) almost unanimously agree that the question who we are is best
answeredby an account of our life-history (as a historia rerumgestarum) and,
especially, by our memory of our history (as res gestae). And, so the argument
continues,having knowledge of one's past is of the greatestpracticalimportance:
all meaningfuland responsibleaction has its origins in it. What would we say of
a generalwho suddenlyforgot his identity and were to behave like a midwife, or
vice versa?This is what made the film Analyze This into such a hilariousspecta-
cle, for we would never expect a Mafia boss to be plagued by the kind of psy-
chological worries that would have sent Woody Allen to his psychiatrist.We
attributeto people certainidentitiesand assume theirbehaviorto be in agreement
with them. Nineteenth-centuryhistoriciststranslatedthis insight into the domain
of history:the identity of a nation, a people, or an institutionlies in the past of
this nation, people, or institution;if we wish to get hold of their identity, we
should above all write theirhistories.This is why the historicistshad no difficul-
ty at all in answering the question of the uses of history: history, and history
alone, will give political and social institutionsaccess to their identity.This is
where they also discovered the condition of all meaningful and potentially suc-
cessful political action.As Rankeput it in his inauguraladdressof 1836: "it thus
is the task of history to define the natureof the state on the basis of past events
and to make this known; it is the task of politics to develop and to bring to per-
fection the assignmentof the past afterit has been understoodand recognized."5
Politicianshave to begin wherehistoriansleave off, and theiractions shouldbe
a more or less logical continuationof what the historianshave writtenaboutthe
nation'spast. Even today many theoristsstill see this as the most convincing and
satisfactorycharacterizationof the tasks and the uses of the writingof history.6It
self-evidentlyfollows that the more we know about our individualor collective
past,the betterit will be. Forthe morewe know aboutthe past,the clearerthe con-
tours of our identitywill become, and the more adequateour individualand col-
lective actioncan become.7Hence, an overdoseof historycan hardlybe imagined.
As we all know, Nietzsche attackedthe historicistconception of (the uses of)
history in his second UnzeitgenidsseBetrachtitng.Nietzsche argued there that
forgetting is, to a certain extent at least, a condition for successful action-or,
perhaps,even for our being capable of any meaningfulaction at all; for people
unable to disengage themselves from their past and who wish to relate their

5. L. von Ranke,"De historiaet politices cognationeatquediscrimineoratio,"in ideni, Sdmmnntliche

Werke.Band 24 (Leipzig: Duncker& Humblot, 1872).
6. For a moderndefense of this view, see the influentialwritingsby, among others,HermannLtibbe
and JdrnRiisen. On several occasions I have expressed my agreementwith it.
7. I deliberatelysaid "can become" and not "will become," for thoughknowledge of one's identi-
ty undoubtedlyis a necessary condition, it is not a sufficientcondition for successful action. For we
may derive mistakenor inadequatemaxims for action from our knowledge of our identity.For exam-
ple, somebodywho knows himself to be a relativelyweak-willed personmay suddenlydisplay unrea-
sonably stubbornbehaviorin his reactionto people that he believes to be inclined to exploit his plia-
bility. With states or nations it is no different.

actionsto the ultimateand finest ramificationsof the historicalprocess will never

succeed in summoningup the courage for any action: "wheredo we find those
actionsthathumanbeings were capableof before having passed throughthe airy
envelope of the unhistorical?"8Knowledge of the past then paralyzesall action;
for all actionis, to a certainextent, a rupturewith what the past has been like and,
in thatsense, essentially a- or anti-historical.Nietzsche even goes on to say in so
many words thatyou can have an overdose of history,and that such an overdose
will not contributeto an improved awarenessof your identity,but, on the con-
trary, to an irremediable loss of identity: "think of the most extreme example, that
is, of a humanbeing completely lacking the capacity to forget and who is con-
demned to see historical evolution everywhere:such a person could no longer
believe in his own existence, he could no longer believe in himself, he would
only see everywhere a dispersion of moving points and he would wholly lose
himself in this streamof becoming."9Obviously,this is the very antithesisof the
Now, it must strikeus that historicism as defined above is, in fact, more radi-
cal than the ordinarily-so-radicalNietzsche. WithinNietzsche's constructionwe
have, first,the individualwith his identity,and then we may ask how much of the
past this individual can tolerate before becoming incapable of action. For, as
Nietzsche argues,this is how people may differ: some people will be paralyzed
by the tiniest bit of history,whereasotherscan swallow heaps of it withoutbeing
seriously handicappedby it in their actions.10So Nietzsche's argumentpresup-
poses the existence of an a-historicalindividual,of an individualequippedwith
an identity logically prior to this individual's history. In this sense Nietzsche
seems to preach a reactionaryreturnto the a-historicaltranscendentalismof the
Enlightenment;this impressionis reinforcedby his insistence on the dimensions
of the un-historical(humannature)and the super-historical(the domain of eter-
nal beauty) at a later stage of his argument.Historicism,on the other hand, had
the courageto completelyhistoricizehumansandtheirsociety. Historiciststhere-
fore could certainlyhave accused Nietzsche of inconsistencyin thathe excluded
part of our identity from the regime of history.'1Probably Nietzsche's partial

8. F. Nietzsche, VornNutzen und Nachtheil der Historieffir das Leben (Stuttgart:Reclam, 1970),
12, 13.
9. Ibid., 9.
10. Ibid., 10, 11.
11. Admittedly, this may put nineteenth-centuryhistoricism in too favorable a light. For, as
Gadamerpointedout in his WahrheitundMethode,nineteenth-centuryhistoricists(unwittingly)adopt-
ed Kantiantranscendentalismwhen firmlyexcluding the historicalknowing subjectitself from histor-
ical change. Indeed,the historicistshistoricizedeverythingexcept themselves-and precisely this con-
firmedthem in theirconviction thatobjective knowledge of the past is, in the end, possible. However,
as the quote from Ranke makes clear, we get a fundamentallydifferentpicture when we move from
the historicalknowing subjectto the collective individualityof a nation,a people, or a state. For then
the kind of historicalknowledge that should inspirepolitical action is always fully contextualizedhis-
toricallyby the historicists.And then the transcendentalknowing subjectis abandonedby the histori-
cists. Hence, at this level-which is the level Nietzsche was thinkingof when attackingthe historicist
dive into the past- the historicistswere undoubtedlymore consistentthan their angryand short-tem-

returnto the Enlightenment'stranscendentalismcan be explained by the influ-

ence of Burckhardtin particularand by the intellectualclimate in Basel in gen-
Now, even if we are willing to forgive Nietzsche this inconsistency,we cannot
doubtthatthe historianwill preferthe historicistposition to Nietzsche's. For it is
partand parcel of the historicalprofession to show that what initially may have
seemed to be outside the grasp of history is, if one looks hardenough, also part
of a historicalevolution. "Everythingstreams, and nothing remains what it is,"
to quote Heraclitus.This may explain why neitherhistoriansnor historicaltheo-
rists have ever seen in Nietzsche's diatribeagainstnineteenth-centuryhistoricism
an occasion seriously to ponderNietzsche's argumentaboutthe necessity of for-
getting;doing so might easily invite awkwardquestionsaboutwhy we should be
interestedin history at all. We will not be in need of historiansfor forgetting
about the past.'3 So historianscan be expected to avoid addressingthe issue of
forgetting,even if they are willing to recognize that Nietzsche has been up to
something.As we all know, sometimes it is prudentto feign agreementwith a
useful misconceptioncontraryto one's betterknowledge and understanding,and
to sacrificethe lesser truth,in orderto secure the possession of a greaterone.
In orderto avoid eventualmisunderstandingsaboutwhat I have in mind here,
I am perfectly well aware that the disciples of Marx and Foucault have written
whole librariesaboutwhat was marginalizedin the past itself, pushedaside delib-
erately or unintentionallyor simply forgotten.But this is not the issue here. This
will be clear as soon as we recognize that these theoristsfocussed on forgetting
with no other purposein mind than to make us rememberagain the forgottenor
repressedpast. Consequently,as far as I know, Nietzsche still is the only theo-
retician who seriously consideredthe issue of why and when historiansshould
welcome and contributeto a forgettingof the past-and we should praise them
for this. But his analysisof forgettingis incomplete.In orderto remedythis short-
coming I proposeto begin by distinguishingamong four types of forgetting.


In the firstplace, as we know from daily life, much in our past we can safely for-
get since it is devoid of any relevancefor our presentor futureidentity.Normally,
what we had for dinnerlast Sunday,or where we went for a walk with our dog,
have no consequences for our identity nor for the importantdecisions that we
shall have to make in our lives. Typically,these are aspects of our existence that
we can safely forget about without endangeringour mental health. Much the
same is true for our collective social or political action. This is, in all likelihood,

12. For the view that"Basel"can be conceived of as a kind of missing link between the Enlighten-
ment and German historicism, see L. Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt:A Study in
UnseasonableIdeas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
13. Or so it may seem. As we will see in the course of this essay things are, in fact, more compli-

the kind of forgettingNietzsche had in mind; here we can only agree with him.
Note, however, that what initially was irrelevantmay acquirean unexpectedrel-
evance from a later perspective. Perhapsduring our walk with the dog we met
somebody who was to make a difference to our lives at some later stage-and
then we will have good reasons to rememberwhere we had this walk. Similarly,
thanks to Alltagsgeschichtewe have become aware that daily life has a history
of its own and that this history may profoundlyaffect our collective identities.
This brings me to a second type of forgetting. As the example of
Alltagsgeschichte suggests, it may be that we have forgotten what truly is rele-
vant to our identity and our actions-but we were simply not aware of this. On
the level of the individualwe may think of those apparentlyinsignificantdetails
of our lives and of our behaviorthatpsychoanalysishas shown to be of the great-
est significancefor our personality.Who would have believed that a largepartof
our personalityis revealed by our sexual fantasies (assuming that Freud is cor-
rect about this)? This has its counterpartin the writing of history. Historians
sometimes "forget"what has truly been decisive in the past, not because they
deliberatelywant to distortthe past, but simply because they are ignorantabout
the significance of certaincausal factors. It thus requiredRestorationhistorians
such as Augustin Thierryor FranqoisGuizot, or Marx and the socialists of the
chair, to make historianssee that a nationalhistory that only deals with politics
and that is silent about socioeconomic history is seriously incomplete. Because
of these thematicshifts in the history of historicalwriting,purely political histo-
ry can be comparedto psychoanalysis.A new sense of what is causally impor-
tant makes us aware of the unexpected significance of aspects of the past that
were hithertouniversallydisregarded.
However, there is a thirdvariantof forgetting,one in which we have excellent
reasons for forgettingan aspect of our past-for example, when the memory of
it is too painful to be admittedto our collective consciousness. The paradigmat-
ic example of this kind of forgetting is, of course, how in the first two decades
afterWorldWarlI the Holocaustwas "forgotten"in Germany,and not only there.
The memory of it was so threateningand so terriblypainful--both for the vic-
tims and for the perpetrators(and at times even for the bystanders)-that it was
for a long time withheld from conscious memory.The result was repressionand
the curiousparadoxthattraumaticexperienceis both forgottenand remembered:
forgotten in the sense that it is successfully expelled from conscious memory;
rememberedin the sense that the subject of a traumaticexperience will be seri-
ously handicappedby it.
The dissociation of the self into a conscious and an unconscious self guaran-
tees the possibility of a not forgettingto forget. By relegatingthe traumaticexpe-
rience to the domain of the unconscious, we can, indeed, forget it. But precisely
by storingit there,we will also retainit as an unconsciousmemory.As an uncon-
scious memory it is a constantreminderthat there is something that we should
or wish to forget. To returnto the Kant example: Kant's problem with Lampe
was, so to speak, that he did not succeed in transforminga conscious into an

unconscious memory.Perhapsthe whole affair with Lampe, however painful it

may have been, was insufficientlytraumaticfor Kant. Had Lampe done some-
thing significantly more painful to Kant, or if Kant had treated Lampe more
severely, Kant would probably not have needed the note above his desk, but
would have succeeded in repressingthe event from his conscious memory.'4
Lastly, we should discern still a fourth type of forgettingthat will occupy us
for the remainderof this essay. A few examples may suggest its nature.Think of
Europe after the French Revolution, or of how the IndustrialRevolution pro-
foundlychangedthe life of WesternEuropeansin every conceivable aspect, or of
what the Death of God must have meant to our outillage mental. Undoubtedly
these dramatic transformationsbelong to the most decisive and profound
changes thatpeople in the West have undergonein the course of their history.In
all these cases they entered a new world, something they could do only on the
condition of forgetting a previous world and of shedding their former identity.
Entering such a new world is, automatically,the abandonmentof a previous
world, of "a world we have lost" forever,to use Peter Laslett's well-known and
appropriateformula.Moreover,the latter(forgetting)always is a conditionof the
former(the acquisitionof a new identity).
In all these cases having to abandona traditionaland familiarprevious world
was extremelypainful,and it was experiencedas such. These transitionswere no
less traumaticthan the kind of collective experience we encounteredin the third
type of forgetting. But there are importantdifferences between them as well.
Crucial is that in the third type of forgettingclosure of the traumais possible,
whereasit remainsa constantandpermanentpresencein the fourthtype. The ten-
sion between what is presentconsciously and unconsciously,or between remem-
beringand forgetting,can always be resolved in the thirdtype-albeit sometimes
with the greatestdifficulty.For as soon as the traumaticexperiencecan be narra-
tivized (as paradigmaticallywill be the case in the psychoanalyticaltreatmentof
trauma),as soon as the traumaticexperiencecan successfully be subsumedin the
historyof one's life, it will lose its threateningand specifically traumaticcharac-
ter. The traumaticexperience has then been adaptedto one's identity and vice
versa. Or, to use the right terminologyhere, a reconciliationof experience and
identity has then been achieved, a reconciliation that respects experience and

14. This does raise the question what happens when a memory is relegated to the unconscious.
More specifically,in what way does a conscious memorydiffer from an unconsciousone? An uncon-
scious memory is, so to speak, a package that we put away upon a shelf unopened;whereas the con-
scious memory is like a package that we have opened in orderto see what it contains.To put it more
precisely, conscious memory is transparentwith regardto its contents in the sense that the object of
memoryis not memoryitself but what is remembered,i.e., rememberedexperience.However, uncon-
scious memory is merely the memory, (memory about memory) of a memory2 (memory itself) in
which the actualcontentof memory2remainsunarticulated.This may help us to understandthe para-
dox of our being both unable to forget and to remembera traumaticexperience.A traumaticexperi-
ence is not forgotteninsofar as it may occasion a memory, of a memory2;however, it is forgottenas
far as the contentof memory2is concerned.And in this way the seeming contradictionof a forgetting
and a rememberingat one and the same time can be solved satisfactorily.For a furtheranalysis of the
different levels of forgetting, see Elster, Psychologie politique, 74ff.

identity-and thereforeguaranteesthe continued existence of both. Of course,

this negotiationof a new balancebetween the two is only possible at the price of
the greatesteffort and of a most painful descent into the past of an individualor
of a collectivity-but it can be done. Even if this reconciliationis not achieved-
though this surely is bad enough already-it need not necessarily imply the loss
of one's existing, or of one's former,identity.As we know from psychopatholo-
gy, in the worst-case scenario the coexistence of two identities (the former one
and a new identity,crystallizingout aroundthe traumaticexperience)may be the
final outcome. But even then the former identity will remainthe dominantone;
traumamay shake identity at its very foundations,but it will not result in the
abandonmentof a formeridentityfor a wholly new one. It could not even do so,
since traumais always specific for the identity whose traumait is-and it there-
fore necessarilypresupposesthe continuationof identity.
This is essentially differentwith the fourth type of forgetting.The historical
transformationsoccasioning it are always accompaniedby feelings of a profound
and irreparableloss, of culturaldespair and of hopeless disorientation.In this
sense such historicalexperiencesare undoubtedlytraumatic.But the stake of the
traumaticexperienceis far more dramaticin such cases: for here one really loses
oneself, here a former identity is irrevocablylost forever and supersededby a
new historical or culturalidentity.Hence, in cases like these any reconciliation
of a former and a new identity is categorically out of the question. This also
means that no room is left for a mechanism that might give us the redemption
from trauma.This, then, is the kind of traumathat we will always carrywith us
afterhistoryhas forced us to confrontit; it is a traumafor which no cure is to be
found. The new identity is mainly constitutedby the traumaof the loss of a for-
mer identity-precisely this is its main content.This ineluctabletruthannounces
itself in the realization(agonizing, resigned, or otherwise) that this loss is per-
manentand can never be undone.This sort of traumais just as permanentas the
loss of the formeridentity.
In this case our collective identitylargely is the sum of all the scars on our col-
lective soul, scars that were occasioned by our forced abandonmentof our for-
mer identities, scars that will never wholly cure and that will cause in us a con-
tinuousand enduringpain. Similarly,the past will always accompanyus as a past
love: absent, but precisely because of this, always so very much and so very
painfullypresent.This, then, is whathas most appropriatelybeen called "thepain
of Prometheus,"in which a civilization is permanentlyaware of the social idylls
of the "lost worlds"that it was forced to surrenderin the course of its long his-
tory, and that will never be returnedto it however strong the nostalgic yearning
for these lost paradisesmay be.
The differencebetween the thirdand the fourthtype of forgettingcan also be
explained by emphasizingthat in the thirdvariantsome specific identity (either
individual or collective) is the universe within which a psychological tragedy
unfolds itself, while this universe itself is never really at stake in this tragedy.
This universeremainsintact,togetherwith all the psychological laws and mech-

anisms obtainingin this universe and that determinewhat the reactionto a trau-
matic experiencewill be. Precisely because of this, and because of the make-up
of such a psychological universe,we are allowed to push traumaticloss for some
time into the dark backgroundof the unconscious. For the unconscious is an
integralpart of our identity that may offer us the kind of shelter that we some-
times need more thananythingelse. But this is differentin the fourthtype of for-
getting since here the whole of a previous identity (conscious and unconscious
all taken together)is at stake; and then there is no place where we could tem-
porarily shelve a traumaticexperience until the moment has come that we can
summon up the force to face it. Between identities there is a vacuum-so not
even a substratefor the unconscious.
So we should distinguishbetween two kinds of trauma:on the one hand, the
kind of traumato be associatedwith the thirdtype of forgetting(trauma,)which,
however dramatic,will leave identity intact;on the other,the kind of traumato
be relatedto the fourthtype of forgetting(trauma2)which involves the transition
from a formerto a new identity.Here the traumaticloss truly is the loss of one's
(former)self. And what loss could possibly be greater-for is this not as close to
death as one may come?


So let us now investigate trauma2.Our best point of departurewill be the reac-

tionary and the conservative reaction to the French Revolution. When investi-
gating the natureof conservatismKarl Mannheim'5 emphasizedthe need to dis-
tinguish clearly between conservatismand traditionalism(a term that was origi-
nally used by Max Weber). Traditionalismstands for each human individual's
dependenceon fixed traditionsfor his or her orientationin life; in this sense each
human individual is traditionalist(even the revolutionary).Now, according to
Mannheim, the French Revolution suddenly made people aware that they had
always been living in a world of traditionswithout ever having been conscious
of it: for this was simply how they lived theirlives and how they saw theirworld.
But the great Revolution suddenly lifted them, so to speak, out of this world of
unreflectedtraditionand made them awareof these traditionsas traditionsfor the
first time. Hence, as Mannheim most cogently argues, conservatism is the
becomingconscious of tradition.This may explain the unbridgeablegap between
traditionalismand conservatism:before the Revolutionone could not possibly be
a conservative;afterthe Revolutionone could no longerbe a traditionalist.It was
the Revolution that createdan insurmountablebarrierbetween the two.
But the really interestingimplicationin the presentcontext is that the conser-
vatives are no less part of the post-revolutionaryorder than the revolutionaries
whom they so fiercely oppose. Novalis had already seen this paradoxwhen he
jotted down the following profoundly insightful comment after having read

15. K. Mannheim,"Das konservativeDenken," in idem, Wissenssoziologie(Neuwied am Rhein:


Burke'sReflectionson the Revolutionin France immediatelyafterits publication

in 1790: "manyanti-revolutionarybooks have been writtenin favor of the revo-
lution. Burke, however, has written a revolutionarybook against the revolu-
tion."6 So, even for the conservative a returnto the pre-revolutionaryorder is
unthinkable.This is in part why conservatives deeply regrettedthe Revolution
and were adamantthat such disastersshould never,ever happenagain, while, at
the same time, they were ready to accept the Revolution as an ineluctable fact
that we should learn to live with in some way or other. Even the conservatives
realizedthathowever fiercely they might condemnthe Revolution,the world had
irrevocablyand inexorablyacquireda new identityand thatthe prudentand sen-
sible person can only acquiesce in this.
Now, partof this is true as well of the reactionaryreactionto the Revolution.
Reactionarieswere no less aware than conservatives of having been expelled
from the idyll of a pre-revolutionaryand pre-industrialworld. They were no less
awareof living in an essentially post-revolutionaryorderand thereforeof having
moved beyond traditionalismno less than conservatives. The fact that we
describe their political position as "reactionary"amply testifies to this. For the
reactionaryposition is, afterall, a reactionto the FrenchRevolution-and there-
fore presupposesthe latter.Each reactionbears the traces of that to which it is a
reaction. The notion of a pre-revolutionaryreactionary is, therefore, just as
meaningless as the notion of a marriedbachelor.
Nevertheless, there is a profounddifferencebetween the conservativeand the
reactionary'ala Joseph de Maistreor Bonald. We can explain or clarify this dif-
ference in termsof the differencebetween trauma1andtrauma2.Thoughthe reac-
tionaryreactionto the Revolution is far more vehementand unyielding thanthat
of the conservative,it is the latterwho has lost most and who chooses what truly
is the via ardua.For while the reactionarywill experiencethe loss of the pre-rev-
olutionaryworld in terms of trauma1,the conservative will undergo his or her
historical predicamentin terms of trauma2.Put differently, whereas the reac-
tionary will not see in the Revolution (and its aftermath)an irreparablerupture
with a pre-revolutionaryidentity,the conservative is aware that the pre-revolu-
tionaryorderis gone forever and can never be reconstituted.So for reactionaries
the pre-revolutionaryidentity can be recaptured,and their relationshipto that
past can, therefore,be defined in terms of being. For them the past is an object
of the desirefor being-they wantto be(come) again what the past once was like.
Conservatives,on the otherhand,recognize that they are forever separatedfrom
the pre-revolutionarypast by the abyss between two differenthistorical or cul-
turalidentities. Their desire for the past can thereforeonly be a desire to know.
They know theirlusterlessbut lofty assignmentto be the transformationof (past)
being into (present) knowledge-or, as Burckhardtonce so movingly put it:
"whatonce was joy and despairmust now become knowledge.'7 History,as the
16. Novalis (pen-name of the poet Friedrichvon Hardenberg),Bl~ithenstaubI (Heidelberg:L.
Schneider, 1953), 340.
17. "Was einst Jubel und Jammer war, muss nun Erkenntnis werden" in Jacob Burckhardt,
WeltgeschichtlicheBetrachtungen(Bern: VerlagHallwag, 1947), 51

discipline investigating the past, is, therefore, the product of the conservative,
and not of the reactionary,reactionto the Revolution and to the loss of the past
and of a formeridentity.Or, we might just as well say that reactionarieslive in
the illusion that we may come to know so much of the past that knowledgewill
finally shade off into being and that, in this way, we may become the past again.
This would obviously mean the end of trauma, (which is why they desire it so
much)-though it could never be the end of trauma2(which is why the conserv-
ative accepts having to live in the post-revolutionaryorder).
However, a qualificationmust be added to the acceptanceof the present (and
the implicitabandonmentof the pre-revolutionarypast) thatI just attributedto the
conservative.For this is not an acceptancein the sense thatall tension in the rela-
tionship with the pre-revolutionarypast has now disappeared.This will become
clear if we recognize that for the conservative- and in the case of trauma,- the
oppositewill takeplace of what was said aboutthe reactionary.Thatis, the desire
for knowledgefunctionshere as a substitute- or sublimation- for the desirefor
being. But this means that the desire for knowledge will be all the more intense
and all the more ambivalentsince it can sui generis never actuallybe such a sub-
stitute.Hence, trauma2will never come to a closure;all thatwill be told aboutthe
past, and all the historiesand stories thata culturemay wish to tell itself aboutits
past and aboutwhat is experiencedas traumaticin it, will always be told from the
perspectiveof a modem post-revolutionaryidentity and, in this sense, reinforce
ratherthanmitigatefeelings of traumaticloss. This is, once again, the crucialdif-
ference between trauma,and trauma2.In trauma,telling the right story aboutthe
traumatizingpast may, in the end, effect a reconciliationbetween the traumatic
experienceand identity;in this way trauma,has been overcome. But such a rec-
onciliationis unthinkablein trauma2.For knowledge can never satisfy the desire
for being, though it will naturallyhave an insatiablewant to do so.
In fact, we may locate here the mechanismperpetuatingwhat I earliercalled
"thepain of Prometheus."For the historicalsearchfor ourformeridentityis moti-
vated by the desire to become this identity again: but each time partof the past
identityhas, in fact, been recaptureda new dimensionhas (unintentionally)been
added to the differencebetween our former and our present identity. So in this
way the writingof history must be curiouslycounter-productivesince the desire
for being is continuouslybetrayedby its own best substitute,thatis, the desire for
knowledge. Precisely this fact about history will elicit over and over again a
renewedeffort by the historianto satisfy the impossible requirementof bridging
the gap between being and knowledge. In this way the Prometheanpain, and our
wish to assuage this pain, keep each other going in a permanentperpetuum
mobile- therewill be no room for eitherthe temporarycalm of repressionor for
the dissolutionof traumawhich trauma,may give."8

18. I shall returnto this issue when dealing with myth at the end of this essay.


Hegel's famous analysis of the conflict between Socrates and the Athenian state
is a good point of departure if we wish to deepen our insight into the nature of
such catastrophes.
The unparalleled revolution effected by Socrates was, according to Hegel, that
he was the first to compel humanity to think rationally and independently of all
tradition about questions of good and evil, and about what our duties and our
obligations are:
In a former time laws and customs were valid unconditionally;human individuality
formed a unity with the universal.To honor the Gods, to die for one's fatherlandwas a
universal law and everybody fulfilled this universalcontent as a matterof course. Then,
however, humanitystartedto inquirewhetherone should really wish or comply with this
content. The awakening of this new principle brought about the death of the Gods of
Greece and of naturalcustom [die schdne Sittlichkeit].Thoughtmakes its appearancehere
as the principleof destruction,that is, as the destructionof naturalcustom; for because it
knows itself to be an independentprinciple,it establishes principlesof reason standingin
a criticalrelationto existing reality and in oppositionto the limitationsof naturalcustom.
The formerGreeks were perfectly well aware of what custom requiredthem to do under
each condition;but that man ought to discover the answerto such questions in himself-
that was Socrates' point. Socrates made man aware of his inner self, so that man's con-
science could become the measure of what is right and morally true [Moralitdfl.This is
the contrastbetween the naturalcustoms of a former time and the moral reasoning of a
later time; the formerGreeks had no conscience. Socrates is famous as a moral teacher;
in truth,however, he was the discovererof morals.He defined thoughtas the highest and
decisive principle. The Greeks had mere customs; but what are the moral virtues and
duties of man, this is what Socrateswanted to teach them.19

In this sense Socrates, even more than Christ, was for Hegel the pivot on
which the whole of the history of humanity hinges. History, as conceived by
Hegel, is a movement from the objective mind, that is, from a rationality inher-
ent in reality, or in the given itself, via the subjective mind, that is, the human
subject's rational awareness of this objective rationality, towards the absolute
mind where objective and subjective rationality finally identify or coincide with
each other. Mind first arises out of or dissociates itself from nature, and as such
it places itself opposite to objectivity; but finally it will arrive at a complete
knowledge of itself by "recognizing" itself (to use the crucial Hegelian notion)
in its previous objective manifestation. It was with Socrates that the first and
decisive step, liberating humans from natural and objective necessity, was taken.
But precisely by doing this Socrates shattered the foundations of the Greek
mind; in this sense Socrates' condemnation by the Athenian state was eminently
justified. For the morality of the Athenian state still belonged to the phase of the
objective mind which saw moral rules as something merely given. Hence, by con-
demning Socrates the Athenian state condemned its mortal and most dangerous
enemy. In this way Socrates' fate was tragic in the true sense of the word: both

19. G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungenfiber die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte.Band II-IV (Hamburg:

Felix MeinerVerlag, 1976), 644.

parties in the conflict, both Socrates and the rulers of the Athenian state, were
right; history was on both their sides. But-and this is crucial-the death sen-
tence of Socrateswas also a deathsentencethe Athenianstatepronouncedagainst
itself. For the death sentence was unintentionallya recognitionand, in this way,
an acceptance,of the revolutioneffected by Socrates. It was such a recognition
since it proved that Socrates'principlehad alreadyfound its way to the heartsof
the rulers of the Athenian state themselves. If this had not been the case they
would have caredlittle, if at all, about Socrates'teachings.They would probably
not even have discerned anything subversive in them and regarded Socrates
merely as their wholly harmlessvillage idiot. So Socrates' condemnationmade
sense only to the extent that it was implicitly a self-condemnationof the con-
demnersthemselves, as well as a condemnationof Socrates.As Hegel comments:
"afterwards the Athenian people profoundly regretted the verdict .... They rec-
ognized that they were just as guilty or worthy of acquittalas Socrates, since
Socrates'principle,namely the principleof subjectivity,had alreadytakenroot in
theirown mind and had alreadybecome their own principle."20
Of the greatest importancehere is the natureof the relationshipbetween the
previous (objectivist) and the new (subjectivist) identity. Ordinarilywe say-
with the historicists-that our identity lies in our past; our past defines our iden-
tity or perhapseven is identicalwith it (if one wishes to avoid the multiplication
of theoretical entities praeter necessitatem. But under circumstances as
sketched by Hegel this is, paradoxically,both the case and not the case. On the
one hand it is not the case, in so far as the past (the phase of objectivity) has
effectively been expelled from the Athenian collective identity. Obviously so,
since Socratesno longer definedhumanityin termsof objectivity,but in termsof
subjectivity-at least as Hegel understoodthese terms.Withinthe historicistpar-
adigm such a complete erasureof a former identity would, needless to say, be
wholly inconceivable.For the historicistyou are a productof your past; you may
dislike your past, feel unhappyaboutit, or whatever,but you cannotdelete it and
become somebody else, somebody who does not have this past. All your efforts
to get rid of your obnoxious past will only more stronglytie you to it.
On the other hand, however, this is only half the story. Part of the historicist
view is salvaged, after all. For in a certain sense-I emphasize, in a certain
sense-the former identity is retained.It is retainedin the awarenessof having
surrenderedan old identity, of having moved beyond it to a new identity. For
Hegel the realizationof being no longerpartof the world of objectivityis an inte-
gral partof the newly acquiredidentity of subjectivity.So it is with all the other
examples mentioned above: constitutive of the identity of contemporary
Westernersis theirrealizationof being no longer partof a pre-revolutionary,pre-
industrial,and still predominantlyChristianEurope.To put it in one comprehen-
sive formula: in all these cases, one has become what one is no longer-with
emphasis on the "no longer."What one used to be, one's formeridentity,is now
transformedinto the identity of the person who knows (but no longer is) his for-

20. Ibid., 646.


mer identity.One has discarded(partof the) past from one's identity,and in this
sense one has forgottenit. But one has not forgottenthat one has forgottenit. For
that one has forgotten (what one used to be) is a constitutivepart of one's new
identity.Indeed, the fact that one can forget this past at all is in partconstitutive
of a new identity,ratherthan merely the fact of forgettingitself. Not forgetting
but being able to forget is in partthe issue here. It is trulypartof becoming a new
identity that we are capable of forgetting a certain part of our past. To put it
provocatively,we are not only the past that we (can) remember(as the histori-
cists have always argued),but we are also the past that we can forget.
It really requireshaving a certainpersonalityto be capable at all of forgetting
a certainkind of past. For example, it will mean to a formerconcentrationcamp
victim something entirely differentto be able to forget aboutAuschwitz than to
a formerconcentrationcamp guard.Or, think of Jewish twins who survived the
horrorsof Auschwitz, one of whom is continuouslyhauntedby the memory of
the Holocaustwhereasthe otherhas overcome the trauma.Then a crucialpartof
the differencebetween theiridentitiesmust be definedin termsof what they have
or have not been able to forget. In this way we are what we are capable of being
no longer.This is one lesson taughtto us by Hegel in his discussion of Socrates.
Lastly,this may also make clear in what way Hegel's accountof Socrates'con-
demnationupsets both the historicist'sand Nietzsche's view of forgettingand of
identity.For on the one hand,Hegel would agreewith the historicistthatour iden-
tity is exclusively a productof our history,and with Nietzsche thatforgettingmay
sometimes be crucial for our identity. But on the other hand, Hegel's account
clashes with thatof the historicistin thatit identifiesidentitywith a repudiationof
the past, and with Nietzsche's where it avoids placing identityoutside or beyond
history.So we encounterin Hegel a regime of our relationshipto the past that is
fundamentallyat odds with the one we discoveredin historicismandin Nietzsche.


The paradoxof a new identity originating in the capacity to forget something

brings me to the question of the relationshipbetween traumaand the sublime. I
have already commented elsewhere on the similarities between the notion of
traumaand of the sublime.2'But I hope to make clear in this section thatthere is
also an asymmetrybetween the two.
Both cases have to do with an experiencethatdoes not fit within the categories
thatwe normallyrely upon for processingour experienceof reality.Considerthe
sublime-more specifically, Burke's conception of it. Burke takes his departure
from Locke's psychology of perceptionby situating all experience on the axis
runningfrom pain or terroron the negative side to pleasureon the positive side.
But this "foundation"(to use the appropriatecontemporaryjargon in this con-

21. See, for example, my "Traumaund Leiden:Eine vergesseneQuelle des westlichen historischen
Bewusstseins," in Westliches Geschichtsdenken: Eine in-terkulturelleDebatte, ed. J. Rtisen
(Gbttingen:Vandenhoeck& Ruprecht,1999), 127-146.

text) of all experience is radically upset by the category of the sublime. For he
observes aboutsublime experiencesthat:"they are capableof producingdelight;
not pleasure,but a sort of delightful horror,a sort of tranquillitytinged with ter-
ror;which as it belongs to self-preservationis one of the strongestof all passions.
Its object is the sublime."22The notion of a "delightful horror"is completely
incompatiblewith Lockeanpsychology-and is meantto be precisely so. It is as
if the axis on which pain and pleasureare at the opposite extremes has suddenly
been turnedninety degrees so that they coincide with each other.Lockean epis-
temology is thenjust as useless and helpless as the liquefiedwatches we may find
in Dali's surrealistpaintings.
Think, furthermore,of the Kantiansublime. As Kant explains in the Critique
of Judgement,when experiencingthe sublime the normalfunctioningof the cat-
egories of the understandingmomentarilygives way to a free interactionbetween
reason and the imagination.What the categories of the understandingordinarily
do in orderto enable us to make sense of the world is temporarilyput into ques-
tion in the most literal sense of the word. They are weighed and found wanting.
So we may observehere the same momentarydisruptionof our normalcognitive
apparatusas in Burke's case, though the technicalitiesof Kant's account of the
sublime are, admittedly,immeasurablymore complex thanBurke's.
Traumapresentsus with a roughlysimilarpicture.For the traumaticexperience
is too terrible to be admitted to consciousness: the experience exceeds, so to
speak, our capacitiesto make sense of experience.Whereasnormallythe powers
of associationenableus to integrateexperienceinto the storyof our lives, the trau-
matic experience remains dissociated from our life's narrative;these powers of
associationare helpless and characteristicallyinsufficientin the case of trauma.
Thereis one moreresemblancebetweentraumaandthe sublimethatis relevant
in the presentcontext.Characteristicof traumais the incapacityto actuallysuffer
from the traumaticexperience itself (as opposed to the consequences of repres-
sion): subjectsof a traumaticexperienceare peculiarlynumbedby it; they are, so
to speak, put at a distancefrom what caused it. The traumaticexperience is dis-
sociated from one's "normal"experience of the world. A good example is how
soldiers sufferingfrom shell-shockduringthe FirstWorldWardissociatedthe ter-
rors they had experienced from conscious memory: "most striking of all, the
patient[sufferingfrom shell-shock]would not rememberanythingaboutthe hor-
rifying events that lay at the origin of his pitiable state. Dissociation or amnesia
was thereforethe hallmarkof the war neuroses."23
22. E. Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford
UniversityPress, 1992), 123.
23. R. Leys, "Shell-Shock,Janet,and the Questionof Memory,"in TensePast: CulturalEssays in
Traumaand Memory,ed. P. Antze and M. Lambek (New York:Routledge, 1996), 104. For a clinical
definitionof dissociation, see E. Cardetia,"The Domain of Dissociation," in Dissociation: Clinical
and TheoreticalPerspectives, ed. S. J. Lynn and J. W. Rhue (New York:Guilford Press, 1994), 63-
64: "in its broadestsense, 'dissociation'simply means that two or more mentalprocesses or contents
are not associated or integrated.It is usually assumed that these dissociated elements should be inte-
gratedin conscious awareness,memory or identity."In the 1880s PierreJanet had alreadylengthily
commented on how traumaticexperience may give rise to a dissociation (or "desagregation"as he
called it) of the memory of traumafrom normalmemory.

Much the same can be observedof the sublime. Recall here Burke's statement
about the sublime quoted earlier.When Burke speaks about "tranquillitytinged
with terror"this tranquillityis possible (as Burke emphasizes) thanks to our
awarenessthat we are not really in danger.Hence, we have distancedourselves
from a situationof real danger-and in this way, we have dissociated ourselves
from the object of experience. The sublime thus provokes a movement of de-
realizationby which reality is robbed of its threateningpotentialities.As such
Burke's sublime is less the pleasant thrill that is often associated with it than a
pre-emptivestrike againstthe terrible.
Of course, this considerationbrings the sublime even closer to trauma,where
we can observe exactly the same. For since the traumaticexperienceis not admit-
ted to consciousness, but stalled in a directoryof the mind specially createdfor
it, it is also temporarilyrobbed of its threateningfeatures. Consequently,both
traumaand the sublime are, if comparedto "normal"experience, both extreme-
ly direct and extremely indirect.Both sublime and traumaticexperience have a
directness absent from "normal"experience since we undergothem without the
protectivemediationof the cognitive and psychological apparatusthat normally
processes our experience. But on the other hand they are abnormallyindirect
since we cannot face this directnessand, precisely because of this, we dissociate
ourselves from it and thus remain, in a way, external to it. From the latterper-
spective, both sublime and traumaticexperience strangelypresentthemselves to
us as if they were somebody else's experience.
Perhapsthe paradoxof the directnessandindirectnessof this kind of experience
is nowherebetterexemplifiedthanby the characteristiccomplaintof patientssuf-
fering from de-realizationor de-personalizationwhen they say that they seem to
experiencethe world"asif fromundera cheese-cover."On the one hand,the expe-
rience these patientshave of reality is highly indirectin the sense that the glass
cheese-cover seems to preventany direct access to reality.They perceive all that
we "normally"perceive-truth is just as accessible to them as to "normal"per-
sons-but it neverthelessseems to them as if they see the world in some different
way, as if they have begunto live in a world somehow separatefrom the "normal"
world. Some transparentbut impenetrablescreen seems to have been erected
between themselves and the "normal"world.And, indeed, in a certainsense, the
illusion is correct,for they really inhabita world that is differentfrom the "nor-
mal"world.In this way a dissociationof theirworld from the "normal"worldhas
really been effected. On the otherhand,however,this experienceof reality has a
truly nauseatingand most unpleasantdirectness.The intensity and directnessof
the kind of experienceof the world provokedby de-realizationfound its paradig-
matic expressionin Sartre'swell-known descriptionof how Rocquentin,the pro-
tagonistof his novel La nause'e,suddenlybecame overwhelmedby the presence
of the roots of a tree next to the bench he was sitting on in a park.24Suddenlya

24. Though, admittedly,as an existentialist Sartrephrasedin ontological terms what is discussed

here in epistemological terms. It should be added that an ontological definitionof the sublime is not
easy to imagine.

yawning abyss between himself and the world had come into being-these roots
suddenlyacquiredthe threateningstrangenessof the sublime and were suddenly
dissociatedfrom the reassuringcontinuityof "normal"experience.
De-realization,then, paradoxicallyendows reality with a presence that is far
more real than reality ever is. Experience can acquire this directness since the
protective shield that normallyprocesses our experience of the world and medi-
ates between us and the world has momentarilybeen taken away-so that a
directconfrontationwith the world results.This becomes abundantlyclear in the
experience itself: for, after all, the patient suffering from de-realization has
become aware of his cheese-cover; he really knows that he perceives the world
throughit. Whereasin our "normal"relationshipto reality,the cheese-cover per-
forms its task of processing experience silently and unnoticed,people suffering
from de-realizationhave objectifiedthis cognitive and psychological "interface"
between themselves and the world, and have in the process reducedit to just one
more aspect of the world. De-realizationplaces us, on the one hand, in a realm
beyond or outside the cheese-cover, so that we can experience it as an objective
reality,while, on the otherhand we are neverthelessawarethat we see the world
throughit. This is the most paradoxicaleffect the cheese-cover experience must
have upon us and where the paradoxessential to all experience of the sublime
manifests itself in the experience of de-realization.Hence, what is so nauseating
in the "cheese-coverexperience"has its origins in the fusion of an objectification
of experience with the object of experience, and not in (aspects of) reality itself
(we are momentarilyboth inside and outside the world, so to say). For as the
patient suffering from de-realizationwill be the first to admit, the reality per-
ceived throughthe cheese-cover is itself often harmlessenough (merely the roots
of a tree, for example).
In both traumaand the sublime the directness and indirectnessof experience
strangelyreinforce each other.Both traumaand the sublime wholly disruptthe
normalschema within which we make sense of the data of experience, and they
do so by means of dissociation:traumadissociates because the traumaticexperi-
ence is not admittedto "normal"consciousness; the sublime dissociates since it
places us at a standpointobjectifying all experience as such. In sum, traumacan
be seen as the psychological counterpartof the sublime, and the sublime as the
philosophicalcounterpartof trauma.
Two considerationsof a more general importcan be relatedto this. In the first
place, the foregoing may explain why the sublime and epistemology always tend
to go together.Indeed, the category of the sublime was retrievedfrom one and
half thousandyears of oblivion only after Descartes had placed epistemology at
the top of the philosopher's agenda.At first sight this might be surprisingsince
the sublime experience (of reality) is an experience which unsettles the episte-
mologist's accountof the natureof experience.So the more ambitious,complete,
and comprehensive an epistemology is, the less room it should leave for the
anomalies of the sublime. But one might respond that precisely the more ambi-
tious epistemologies must automaticallystimulatean interestin experiences that

do not seem to fit, or only with difficulty, within the epistemologist's matrix
(such as the sublime), since each philosopher ought to be interested in what
seems to conflict with his or her theories. But this is a rathertrivial observation,
especially as there is a strongerand more interestingone.
Epistemology is in part an attemptto define the natureof our cognitive appa-
ratus,and thereforepresupposesor effects exactly the same objectificationof our
cognitive cheese-cover that we observed above for traumaand the sublime. The
logical space enabling the epistemologist to discuss experience and the condi-
tions of the possibility of experience is thereforeidentical with the one in which
the experience of traumaand the sublime may manifest themselves. It should
thereforenot be surprisingthatepistemology (or transcendentalphilosophy) and
the sublime have a sharedfate in the history of philosophy-nor that the period
to which Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant belong was a culminationpoint in
reflection on the sublime. Speaking more generally: insofar as ArthurDanto is
right to claim that each philosophy to be taken seriously must minimallybe able
to explain itself (which is where logical positivism so conspicuouslyfailed25),we
cannot doubt that the transcendentalphilosophermust be open to the notion of
the sublime. For all transcendentalphilosophy is only possible if one places one-
self in a position which, if well thought-out,also legitimizes the notion of the
sublime. In sum, no sublimity without transcendentalphilosophy-and vice
Second, this may also shed some new light on the relationshipbetween the his-
toricist, the Nietzschean, and the Hegelian attitudetowards the past. The very
idea of a historicalepistemology makes no sense at all from the historicist'spoint
of view. Since for the historicistthe knowing subjectitself is no less taken up in
the streamof historythanthe objects in the past investigatedby it, it could never
acquirea transcendentalposition with regardto what is studiedby it and that is
presupposedby all epistemology.Just as an Aristotelianepistemology is impos-
sible, since subjectand object cannot be isolated from each other,so it is in his-
toricism as well. Small wonder,then, thatthe intellectualroots of historicismare
to be found in Aristotelianism:whereasAristotelianismwas abandonedin sev-
enteenth- and eighteenth-centuryFrench and English natural-lawphilosophy, it
remainedrelatively strong in Germany26;this is mainly why it was in Germany,
and not, for example, in England,where historicismcould be developed.
As we have seen, this was differentwith Nietzsche: Nietzsche took the histor-
ical subject out of the all-embracingstreamof becoming where the historicists
had positioned it; by doing this, Nietzsche returnedto Enlightenmenttranscen-
dentalism.However, in spite of this, Nietzsche was simply not interestedin the
development of a historical epistemology. He was happy to leave this feat of
Kantianpedantryto hermeneuticistssuch as Droysen or Dilthey.Hermeneuticists
25. Since the statementsdefining logical positivism wholly failed to satisfy the logical positivist's
own criteriafor what is to count as a meaningfulassertion.So logical positivism is nonsense if mea-
suredby its own standards.
26. See my "Burke and Historicism," in F. R. Ankersmit, Political Representation(Stanford:
StanfordUniversityPress, 2001).

opted for a kind of halfway position between the historicistson the one hand and
a historical epistemology on the other. Some of them, such as Dilthey, tried to
move as close as possible to the epistemologists-think for example, of Dilthey's
declarationthat he had attemptedto do for history what Kant had done for the
sciences. Others, such as Gadamer,moved in the opposite direction so much
inherentin all historicism- think of Gadamer'sclaim that a convincing account
of the natureof historicalunderstandingrequiresus to abandonepistemology for
ontology. This is, needless to say, a very Aristotelianclaim again. It might be
arguedthat this perennialhesitation between the incompatibleextremes of his-
toricism and epistemology is the source of most of the problems in which
hermeneuticshas become entangled.
Indeed Nietzsche could not care less about epistemological explanations of
how historicalknowledge is acquired.He was primarilyinterestedin the issue of
forgetting,and hence in how to get rid of an overdose of historicalknowledge.
Nevertheless, when dealing with this question he (unwittingly)remainedfirmly
within the epistemologicalframework:for thanksto how he framedthe problem
he was interestedin, he had lifted the historical subjectout of the streamof his-
torical becoming in exactly the same way in which epistemologists always cre-
ated an unbridgeablegap between the transcendentalknowing subject and what
it has knowledge of. Nietzsche did so by tearinghistoricalidentityloose from the
streamof historicalbecoming. This is why he remained,in the end, vulnerableto
a counterattackfrom his historicistbeatesnoires: for historicizationis a very jeal-
ous God who usually ends up by appropriatingall of the territoryin the posses-
sion of less competitivedivinities.27 For as soon as we startto historicizeit is not
easy to see where and why we should stop (at all) and why we should exclude,
for example, the transcendentalknowing subjectfrom historicization.A total his-
toricism, then, is the inevitable outcome, as Gadameralways liked to point out
with so much satisfaction.
This is where Hegel comes in. Hegel succeeded in combining the total his-
toricizationof the knowing subjectwith the possibility of a dissociationfrom the
past, hence with Nietzsche's forgetting-and thus in transcendingthe opposition
of epistemology and history.He performedthis most remarkablefeat by involv-
ing identity itself in the vicissitudes of history:just as history may die, so a pre-
vious identity may die in cases where, paradoxically,we are or have become
what we are no longer. So what Hegel saw, and Nietzsche did not, was that
sometimes our identity may be defined by what we are no longer, by what we
have forgotten and repudiated.For Nietzsche identity and the past are as inde-
pendentfrom each other as diners and their dinner.We may overeat of the past,
and this may cause a kind of intellectualindigestion, but precisely this indiges-
tion can only be noticed on the basis of a sound awarenessof what it is like to
feel normal and healthy-hence, on the basis of an awareness of who we nor-
mally-and a-historically-are. So, this is why Hegel's account of the life and
history of civilization is superiorto those to be expected from historicism and
27. See also note 11.

Nietzsche: only the Hegelian dialectics of memoryand forgettingrecognizes and

explains those most profoundbreaks and rupturesin the life of a civilization to
which historicismand Nietzsche will inevitablyremainblind.


The foregoing remarkson traumaand the sublime may enable us to arrive at a

deeper understandingof Hegel's account of Socrates' condemnation.In the first
place, there can be no doubt that the event must have been a traumaticloss for
the Athenians.If we follow Hegel's interpretationthey lost nothingless thantheir
previous identity;they must have felt, as Victor Hugo once so forcefully put it,
what a tree must feel when it is torn from its roots.28This can be elaborated.We
saw above how Hegel insisted upon the propensityto self-accusationon the part
of the Athenians after they condemned Socrates. This kind of reaction is, as
Freudargued,typical of the melancholicreactionto traumaticloss (not the "nor-
mal" or healthy way to react to loss, which Freud associates with Trauer).The
reaction to traumaticloss prevents one from overcoming the loss because what
is criticized in the lost object is transformedinto a criticism of the self:
The occupationof the objectprovedto be littleresistant,it was removed,butthe now
ever,it was no longeravailablefor anypossibleuse,butwas nowmadeto servethepur-
poseof bringingaboutanidentification of theself withthesurrendered
ow of theobjectthusfell overtheself, thatcouldnowbe seenas an object,in fact,as the

Here, the lost object is, first, pulled within the subject in order to be, next,
repelled again as a criticized object-where it will, lastly, foreverremainpartof
the subject in this guise. This is, summarizedin one sentence, the entire mecha-
nism I am describing in this essay (and, even more succinctly, encapsulatedin
Emily Dickinson's poem that I used as its epigraph).
In order to correctly appreciateFreud's meaning and how it may clarify the
natureof Socrates'conflict with the Athenianstate and the "becomingwhat one
is no longer,"a short remarkis in order.The conflict between Socrates and the
Athenian state was not merely the lawsuit of a state against one of its citizens
who had spoilt one of its most valuable possessions. This, as Hegel made clear,

28. V. Hugo, OeuvresCompletes.Vol.XIII.Quatre-vingttreize (Paris:J. Hetzel, n.d.), 419: "he felt

somethingcoming close to what a tree must feel when it is torn from its roots."Nietzsche happened
to use exactly the same metaphorwhen describing what he referredto as "criticalhistory":"in that
case one takes a criticallook at one's past, then one attacks with a knife one's own roots, then one cru-
elly overrides all that demands piety and reverence" (Nietzsche, VomNutzen und Nachtheil der
Historiefir das Leben, 33). From the perspective of the contrastbetween Nietzsche and Hegel that
was dicussed above, it is of interestthatNietzsche explicitly says here thatone cuts oneself loose from
one's roots-and thathe does not presentthis as somethingthathistorymay force us to do. Obviously,
this suggests again how much Nietzsche (unlike both the historicists and Hegel) is inclined to place
the self in the position of a historicaltranscendentalego that is itself outside or beyond history.
29. S. Freud, "Trauerund Melancholie," in idem, StudienatusgabeBand III. Psychologie des
Unbewussten(Frankfurtam Main: FischerTBV, 1982), 203.
would be a very naive view of what happened.Socrates was not like the irre-
sponsible child who gambled away his ancestor's inheritance.In opposition to
this simplistic view, Hegel insisted that the condemnationof Socrates was the
externalizationof a dramathat was, in fact, enacted in the mind of the Athenians
themselves.They punishedthemselves for the traumaticloss of the abandonment
of a previous world-and Socrates was merely the externalized token of this
dramaenacted in the Athenian's own inner life. Socrates' fate was, in the end,
their own.
If seen from this perspective,Freud'scommentis highly instructive.For,in the
first place, Objektbesetzung(that is, the tie with a former identity) had already
become weak and "little resistant";the Athenians were already moving into a
new world, or, ratherinto a new phase in the historyof humanity.When Socrates
enteredupon the scene of world history,the new world was alreadymanifest in
Greek morality:they lived and acted already as Socrates requiredthem to do.
The past was a mere empty shell; but the Greekscould still see only the shell and
not yet the new content that had graduallyfiltered into it. So Socrates merely
made conscious (that is, "subjective"in Hegel's terminology) what had come
into being already (in "objective"reality). In the second place, however, this
Objektbesetzungwas not yet availablefor projectionupon a new world;for such
a new world had not yet come into being. Before it could take a new form, the
break with the old world first had to be final and definitive. And in order to
achieve this, the mechanismdepictedby Freudwas instrumental.Crucialhere is
the phase of identificationmentioned by Freud:the lost object, the abandoned
past, had first to be fully presentto the self, that is, to the Athenians'awareness
of their historical identity.Once again, Hegel acknowledges this as well. For at
the end of his accounthe wrote: "firstthe heart of the world must breakbefore
its higher life and destinationcan truly make itself manifest.The acceptance[of
a new phase in the world's history] firsttakes place in mere abstractthought:this
was Socrates' achievement.But then it still had to be carriedout in Mind [and
this could only take place thanksto the 'heartbreaking'conflict between Socrates
and the Athenian State]."30
Hegel emphasizeshere thatwe can only entera new world after having gained
a completeand adequate insight into what must be given Up.31 Transcendingthe
past can only take place on the condition of our being able to tell the final story
about what we will surrenderprecisely thanks to our ability to tell this story-
and so it is with the overcomingof traumaticexperience.Forgettingis only pos-

30. Hegel, Vorlesungenfiberdie Philosophie der Weltgeschichte,647.

31. Hegel's point has been most forcefully put by ArthurDanto in his claim about what makes a
historicalperiod into what it is: "andsomething of the same sort is true for the historicalperiod con-
sideredas an entity. It is a period solely from the perspectiveof the historian,who sees it from with-
out; for those who lived in the period it would just be the way life was lived. And asked, afterward,
what it was like to have lived then, they may answer from the outside, from the historian'sperspec-
tive. From the inside there was no answer to be given; it was simply the way things were. So when
the membersof a periodcan give an answerin terms satisfactoryto the historian,the periodwill have
exposed its outwardsurfaceand in a sense be over, as a period."See A. C. Danto, The Transfiguration
of the Commonplace(Cambridge,Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press, 1983), 207.

sible on the conditionof a perfect memory (think again of the Dickinson poem).
The past firsthas to be fully admittedto our identity,to be recognized as a world
that we have left behind us, and only then can it be discardedand give way to a
new identity.In line with this, Hegel elsewhere emphasizedanotheraspectof this
transcendenceof the past by historicization:"the dissolution of a previous phase
in historyby thoughtis automaticallyalso the emergenceof a new principle.The
universalisminherentin thoughtalways aims at dissolution;and in case of such
dissolution a previous principle,is, in fact, retained,but no longer in its original
meaning. Only the outward shell of a previous universality is retained, but
future-directeduniversalityhas been taken out of it."32
Hence, not only does historicaltranscendencereveal the true natureof a pre-
vious period, but transcendencealso is a dissolution of the previous period and,
in this way, the destructionof a civilization by itself. In this sense we should
agree with HaydenWhite, when he writes in his most penetratinganalysis of this
aspect of Hegel's philosophy of history, that "the deaths of whole civilizations
are more like suicides than naturaldeaths."3 The past Hegel has in mind does
not simply die off like an obsolete and outmodedtradition,it does not gradually
become irrelevantlike a practice for which we can find no use anymore.This
would be the theoreticallyuninterestingfirst type of forgetting,where the con-
tent of forgettingis restrictedto the kind of thing we had for dinner last week.
But from the perspectiveof the truly interesting,fourthtype of forgetting,mov-
ing to a new and differentworld really is and also requiresan act of violence, in
fact nothing less than an act of suicide-hence also the hostility that Freudrec-
ognized in our attitudeto the lost object afterour having internalizedit and made
it into a partof our own identity.
The natureof this suicidal act is, to put it into one paradoxicalformula, the
association of dissociation. In orderto see this, we should in the firstplace recall
that history and narrative are essentially associative. The historian, when
accountingfor the past, constructsa chain of associationsresultingin whatLouis
Mink has called a "configurativecomprehensionof the past."34What was ini-
tially a chaos of disjointedevents, or of unrelatedaspects of the past, is now tied
togetherinto a coherenthistoricalnarrativeby means of association.Association
thereforegives us our masteryof the past; it is, in this respect, the counterpartin
the field of historical writing of what the categories of the understandingare in
Kant's theory of how experience and knowledge are possible. History essential-
ly is the artof association.This is also why narrativecan be the appropriatecure
for trauma1:by narrativizinga traumaticexperience, by transformingit into a
partof our personalhistory,we can hope to gain masteryof it and to rob it of its
threateningfeatures.Dissociation, obviously, does the reverse,and may therefore

32. G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungenfiberdie Philosophie c/er Weltgeschichte.Band 1. Die Vernunftin.

der Geschichte (Hamburg:Felix Meiner Verlag, 1970), 165.
33. H. White, Metahistory:The Historical ImaginationinlNineteenth-CenturyEurope(Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 117.
34. Louis 0. Mink. Historical Understanding,ed. Brian Fay, Eugene 0. Golob, and RichardT.
Vann(Ithacaand London:Cornell University Press, 1987), 50-58.
bringus back to a traumaticallyexperienced(historical)reality.This, then, is pre-
cisely what takes place in the repudiationof a past as envisaged by Hegel. For
this past must first be historicized, transformedby association into narrative
understanding,before, with a subsequentgesture,it can be repudiated,and there-
by ensure entry into a new world-hence, with a gesture that creates trauma2,
instead of overcomingit.
Here we will also find the sublimity of this experience of the past. For as will
be clear from the foregoing, the movement of dissociation not only denies the
movementof narrativeassociationwhich is, to use Kantianterminology,the con-
dition of the possibility of historicalunderstanding,but it self-evidently also pre-
sents us with the dissociationthatwe found to be constitutiveof the sublime.The
experienceof the past, as describedin Hegel's account,is a movementboth with-
in and against history:it is, at the same time, the deepest and most intense expe-
rience of the past and a steppingoutside the realm of history.Once again, direct-
ness and indirectnesscoincide and mutuallyreinforceeach other.No less obvi-
ously, the one is the condition of the possibility of the other.
We may ask, lastly, how this dialectics of directness and indirectness pro-
duced by traumaand the sublime arises out of normal experience. Against the
backgroundof what has been said before it is not hard to deal with this ques-
tion. For if the kind of culturalsuicide which takes place in historicaltransitions
(as envisaged by Hegel) has the characterof the exchange of a former identity
for a new one, such transitionscan properlybe described as seeing the former
self as if it were the self of somebody else. Hence, this kind of transitionpre-
sents us with the baffling situation in which it is as if somebody suddenly
becomes somebody else -and which would requirehim or her to see his or her
formerself as the self of some otherperson. What is at stake in such transitions
has been brilliantlyanalyzed by ArthurDanto in his The Transfigurationof the
Commonplace.His argumentis, roughly, that the directness of our "normal"
experience can become indirect, or opaque, when we have become a different
person with a different identity. The directness of "normal"experience he
explains by pointing out thatwe are never awareof the frameworkwithin which
we experience the world, whereas we do not hesitate to assert that how others
encounterthe world is always determinedby such frameworks.For how we rep-
resent the world to ourselves can never be part of our representations;we see
the world throughour representationsof it, but we do not see them. "I represent
the world, not my representationsof the world," as Danto puts it.35But we feel
no reluctanceat all to lock others up within their representationalframeworks.
This results in a peculiar asymmetryin how we relate to our own beliefs and
to those of others:whereas we always perceive those of others as being partof a
network of their representationsof the world, we think or our own beliefs as
being directlyrelatedto what they are beliefs about.It is partof what it means to
be a personto experienceone's beliefs as being transparentwith regardto the rel-
evant parts of the world; or, in Danto's words: "to put it with a certain dash of

35. Danto, Transfigiuration,

paradox, we do not occupy our own interiors. We live, rather, naively in the
world."36 It follows that we will also become, in a certain sense, another person
when, for some reason or other, we start to objectify our own beliefs and, thus,
to relate to them as if they were the beliefs of somebody else. Nothing may have
changed in our beliefs themselves-there need be no change whatsoever in the
truths or theories we hold to be true; but nevertheless we have become a differ-
ent person, since our attitude towards them has changed:
I cannot say withoutcontradictionthat I believe that s but that s is false, but I can say of
anotherperson that he believes that s but it is false. When I refer to anotherman's beliefs
I am referringto him, whereashe, when expressing his beliefs, is not referringto himself
but to the world.The beliefs in questionare transparentto the believer;he readsthe world
throughthem withoutreadingthem. But his beliefs are opaqueto others:they do not read
theworldthroughthesebeliefs;theyas it were,readthebeliefs.Mybeliefsin thisrespect
areinvisibleto me untilsomethingmakesthemvisibleandI can see themfromthe out-
side.Andthisusuallyhappenswhenthebeliefitselffails to fit the waythe worldis, and
accidenthasforcedme frommy wontedobjectsbackontomyself.Thusthe structure of
of consciousnessitself,as viewedby the great
my beliefsis somethinglike the structure
phenomenologists, consciousnessbeinga structure thatis not an objectfor itself in the
waythethingsof the worldareobjectsfor it.37
This is what takes place when an individual, or a civilization such as Hegel's
Athens, acquires a new identity and does so by discarding a previous one. In
Danto's words, a previous "consciousness"has now become "an object"for the
new "consciousness""in the way things of the world are objects for it." Or, to
put it in the terminologyI used above: we have moved from a place underneath
the cheese-cover to a place outside it and, by doing so, we have suddenly
become aware that we have always seen the world throughit. At the same time,
nothing has changed in the world itself, everything is still "indiscemibly"38the
same that it has always been; but yet a shift in our level of representationhas
taken place. We objectified our previous representations and by doing so
became aware of our previous identity-a previous identity that could only take
on its opacity from the perspective of a new identity, and which, in its turn, is
invisible to us because of its essential transparency.Identityis like our shadow:
always outside our grasp and never coinciding with ourselves. That is its
supreme paradox, though in the kind of experience as described by Danto we
may come infinitesimally close to it. At such moments we almost see it, as it
were, jump away from us in the shape of a previous identity.At such moments
it must be to us as if we were moving faster than time itself. For is there then

36. A. C. Danto, Narrationand Knowledge(New York:ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1985), 339.

37. Danto, Transfiguration,206.
38. The notion of identity is one more striking example of how Danto's method of the indis-
cernibles(thathe so famously and successfully appliedin the case of Warhol'sBrillo Box) can be used
for obtaining an answer to some of the most difficult and most stubbornphilosophical problems.
There may be no discernibledifference between the self before and after the kind of experience dis-
cussed here-and yet this enables us to clarify the notion of identity.For a discussion of the method
of indiscernibles,see my "Dantoon Representation,Identity,andIndiscernibles,"Historyand Theory,
ThemeIssue 37: Danto and His Critics (1998), 44-71.
not a suggestion of seeing together what is always separatedwithin time itself?
And, finally, is being faster than time not a way of saying that we are outside
time itself?


Victor Turnercharacterizesmyth as follows: "myths treat of origins but derive

from transitions.39 An importantboundaryis typically transgressedin myth-as
is the case with all transitions.But the transgressionof this boundaryis drama-
tized by myth into a dissociation between pre-historicaland historicaltime. For
the story of a move from one phase to another-which is the natureof all stories
abouttransitions-is now dramatizedinto a story of the birthof time itself. With
this dramatizationall that should be associatedwith what precededthe transition
has been removed outside historicaltime. It has become partof pre- or a-histor-
ical nature.A previously historicaldevelopmentis now transformedand immea-
surablyenlargedinto the transitionfrom natureto history.Turner'sexamples are
Myth relates how one state of affairs became another:how an unpeopled world became
populated;how chaos became cosmos; how immortalsbecame mortal;how the seasons
came to replace a climate without seasons; how the original unity of mankindbecame a
pluralityof tribes or nations;how androgynousbeings became men and women; and so
on. Myths are liminal phenomena;they are frequentlytold at a time or in a site that is
"betwixtand between."40

As will be clear fromTurner'sexamples, myths separatea pre-historicalworld

of a perennialand quasi-naturalstability from the world of change in which we
presentlylive. Myths most typically focus on the boundaryseparatingtime from
what precededtime. They are no less stories of loss, for they tell about a quasi-
naturalparadisiacalpast thathas been taken away from us with the birthof time.
It would be hardto exaggeratethe magnitudeof this loss: from a world of per-
fection and stabilitywe stumbledinto the world of history,hence of imperfection
and of inevitable decay, of mortality,of death, and of the futility of all human
effort. All that had made life worth living has been taken away from us. On the
collective scale, for example a civilization, this must be the equivalent of what
the birthtraumais for the humanindividual:here we are really thrownout of the
womb of natureinto the bleak and hostile world of historicaltime. Worse, from
our side of this all-decisive divide we necessarily cannot recall its mythicalpre-
history: the strange and almost unthinkable story of the myth is therefore
requiredto inform us about it. Withoutthis story there is absolutely nothing in
our contemporarypredicament,and there is no fact about our present dispensa-
tion, that could possibly remindus of this mythical past. So the mythical past is
necessarily a past that has left no traces in our contemporaryreality;hence, it is

39. V. Turner,"Myth and Symbol," in InternationalEncyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. D.

Sills (New York:Macmillan, 1968), IX, 576.
40. Ibid.

a past that we have wholly "forgottenabout"and that is "dissociated"from our

Furthermore,never in the life of a civilization does the stormof historicization
andnalrativizationblow strongerthanwhen it passes from its mythicalphase into
historicaltime. For not only can a mythical narrativehistory be told about this
transition,but, even more so, this story of all stories is also a story aboutthe ori-
gin of time itself. In this sense myth is the condition of the possibility of all his-
tory and of all historicalnarrative.In sum, myth confrontsus with a past that is
completely dissociatedfrom the present,informingus aboutour pristineidentity,
an identity that we do not recall and that is yet to be linked to the fiercest storm
of historicizationor narrativizationthat we can find in a civilization's history.
So it is with the historical sublime as exemplified by Hegel's account of the
condemnationof Socrates. For the historical sublime is also a liminal phenome-
non demarcatingthe phase of the subjective mind from that of the objective
mind.As with myth, our crossing of this liminal thresholdfrom the formerto the
latteris accompaniedby a truestormof historicizationor narrativization.History
then becomes an almost tangible reality: one really feels that from now on one
belongs to a differentworld and that a formerpartof ourselves has died off and
become a lifeless and empty shell. One is remindedin this context of the image
of an open bottle while a powerful streamof air is blown along the opening. The
streamof air may then suck away all the air in the bottle and create a vacuum in
it. In a similar way the intense historicizationand narrativizationtaking place at
the occasion of a sublime historicalevent may completely dissolve the historical
identity of a previous period and replace it by a new one. This dissolution of a
previous identity may be so complete that there really is nothing to be remem-
bered for those living in a laterperiod;their formeridentity now has been com-
pletely dissociated from their own presentidentity.Or, rather,their own identity
has emerged from the death of the former.In this way an emptiness, a historical
hole so to say, comes in the place occupied by the previousidentity;and it is only
this storm of historicizationand of narrativizationthat may remind one of its
once having been there.The desire of knowledge replaces the desire for being.
Paradoxically,then, we may observe here the concurrenceof an extreme of
historicization,on the one hand,with an event whose historicitywas wholly sub-
limated,on the other,and thathas thus been made to returnto the domainof nat-
ural and a-historicalphenomena. It is, from this perspective, most appropriate
thatHegel should locate his historicalsublime at the transitionfrom the phase of
the objectivemind to thatof the subjectivemind. For in the former,humanitystill
dwelled in a state of nature:self-reflectionand, thus, all of history4lstill had to
come into being. And it is no less revealingthatat the heartof myth-beyond the
origin which is, as Turneremphasizes, in fact a moment of transition-we will
always find a quasi-naturaland paradisiacalpre-historicalstate.

41. And, as Hegel insists, both in the sense of historic and in thatof historia rerumgestarium.See
Hegel, Vorlesungen.fiberdie Philosophie der Weltgeschichte.Band 1, 164.

Precisely this may clarify to what extent myth and the historical sublime are
far more omnipresentin our experience of the past than we customarilythink.
True enough, we may find myth in the cosmological speculations of antiquity,
which we may discuss with a condescending smile; however, myth is no less
present in the mind of modernWesterners.For we can discern in the history of
the West several moments where it radically repudiatedits previous past in a
movementpossessing all the characteristicsof Hegel's historicalsublime. Think
again of the FrenchRevolution, or of that other tremendousrevolutionthat was
occasioned by the transitionfrom an agrarianand feudal to a modern,industrial
society. Few events in Westernhistoryhave been so intensively discussed by his-
torians(and poeticized by novelists) and few provokedsuch an avalancheof lit-
erature.In both cases these events raised a storm of historicizationwhich blew
away all that could possibly be historicized-and in the emptiness or historical
vacuumthus createdan idyllic, pre-historical,and quasi-eternaland quasi-natur-
al past came into being-a past thatwas ideally suitedfor idealization,a past that
we like to yearnfor nostalgicallyandto dreamaboutin ordermomentarilyto for-
get the ugly and unnaturalhistoricalworld of modernity.It is an a-historicalpast,
beyond time or precedingit; in this respect it is the kind of past that, according
to Freud,42melancholicsnever succeed in getting rid of, and that is, in this way,
no longer part of their history but, instead, part of their nature. In this way his-
tory may create nature(and myth).
It follows that myth and the historical sublime should not be relegatedexclu-
sively to a distant past; myth and the historical sublime accompany us like an
ever-presentshadow on our path towards modernity.Each time humanityor a
civilization enters a trulynew phase in its history,a new mythicalsublime comes
into being as this civilization's cold and fossilized heartthatwill foreverbe hand-
ed on to those living in all its later phases. Indeed, since the history of the West
is richer in new and revolutionarybeginnings than any other, we may expect
Westerncivilization to have been the unparalleledmaster in the productionof
myth and to shelter more myths than any other. So let us not believe that reas-
suring "counter-myth"accordingto which Westernhistorical writing has, final-
ly, succeeded in disposing of myth: on the contrary,the more history we have,
the more successful, "objective,"and scientific it is, the more myth we will have
as well. Myth is history's alter ego, accompanyingit like a shadow whereverit
goes: indeed, paradoxically,myth is the best measureof history's own success.


Historicaltheoristshave been much interestedin the problem of how historical

knowledge is acquired,but they have paid amazingly little attentionto the issue
of how we disengage ourselves from the past, of how we may forget it and dis-

42. In the essay mentioned in note 29, Freud distinguishes two ways of dealing with loss: in
mourningloss is overcome, in melancholia loss in never really worked through and in this way is
taken out of time.

sociate it from our culturaland historicalidentity.This neglect is understandable

in the cases where partsor aspects of the past simply lose theirrelevance for us:
the details of some obscurebattlebetween the Frenchand the English duringthe
Warof the AustrianSuccession may well be left to rest in peace in the military
archivesof the two nations involved.
But civilizations will sometimes commit suicide and kill a former identity in
orderto acquirea new one. We tend to be blind to these suicides, since we naive-
ly assume that nothing new could be born from such suicides, and that for civi-
lizations suicide means death (as it does for us mortal individuals). But the
capacityto survive suicide-nay, to arise rebornfrom the ashes of self-cremation
like a Phoenix-is one of the more conspicuous differences between our lives
and that of civilizations. Perhapsour own, Westerncivilization has been more
suicidal than any other-and this may go a long way to explain its unique role
on the scene of the history of mankind.But the capacity of civilizations to sur-
vive theirsuicides should not invite us to downplaywhat this may mean to a civ-
ilization. The tragedy of such episodes in the history of a civilization and the
tragedy of what it may mean for the individuals involved in such tragedies-
especially for the best and the most responsible among them, the Socrateses, so
to speak-are for a civilization what a traumaticloss may be for an individual.It
compels a civilization to abandon a former self and to become what it is no
longer. Such episodes in the historyof a civilization always involve a movement
of dissociation:a formeridentityis discardedruthlessly,thoughwith the greatest
pain, and transformedinto the "cold"heartof a new identity.In a civilization's
laterlife these discardedidentitieswill remainpresentonly as an absence-much
in the way that a scar may be the only visible reminderof an amputatedlimb. In
the history of a civilization such dissociatedpasts will ordinarilymanifestthem-
selves in what a civilization will tend to mythologize, thatis, to associate with an
idyllic pre-historicaland naturalworld. Myths are those parts of our collective
past that we refuse to historicize: a mythical past is taken outside the course of
history and made immune to historical (re-)interpretation(though precisely
because of this, it will provoke the strongestefforts at historicizationand narra-
tivization).In the eye of the greathurricanesof Westernhistoricalwritingwe will
invariablyfind a pre-historicalmyth.
Each civilization-and our own probablymore thanany other-drags along in
its wake a numberof these mythologizedpasts. These pasts that it cannothistori-
cize no less define its identity(thoughin a peculiarlynegative way) thanthe suc-
cessfully historicizedpast. It may and will often attemptto do so-or even find
the challenge to do so irresistible-but the resultwill then invariablybe a histori-
cization of how it dealt with these myths insteadof a historicizationof the myth
itself. Historiographythen functions as a substitutefor history itself (which is, I
would not hesitateto say, the very essence of all writingof history).We may des-
peratelytry to talk about this naturalized"cold"heart of our civilization and to
integrateit somehow into our collective history,only to discover over and over
again that we got lost in what previous historianshave alreadywrittenabout it.
Knowledge can never replace being. The "cold"heartitself of our civilization is
thereforeforeveroutside our reach(andthatof the historian).As sui generis these
mythologicalpasts cannotbe historicizedbecause they are dissociatedpasts, and,
as such, beyondthe reachof even the most sustainedand desperateattemptat his-
toricization.They must be situatedin a domainthatis outside a civilization'shis-
toricaltime. They are, in one word, this civilization'shistoricalsublime.