History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake

Usually, it seems, associated with the artistic career of Joyce. But yes, it does sound like rich pickings for an aestheticising Marxist.

Do any Marxist critics do substantial work with that phrase?

  • 1
    Loosely speaking, Walter Benjamin does, or at least he suggests it. Best to start with the print by Paul Klee en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelus_Novus
    – Gordon
    Aug 2 '17 at 18:18
  • @Gordon vaguely aware of that, but hoping for an "answer" nonetheless
    – user25714
    Aug 2 '17 at 18:29
  • 1
    Yes I understand. Walter Benjamin did not write directly about the quote you gave, at least as far as I know.
    – Gordon
    Aug 2 '17 at 18:37
  • i'm not sure, either. "nightmare of history" "benjamin" has 77,000 hits... @Gordon
    – user25714
    Aug 2 '17 at 18:41
  • 2
    Benjamin definitely wrote about the general idea of your quote. The wikipedia I link to above is a very famous example regarding what the Angelus Novus meant to the Left, and Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of is cited in this wikipedia article.
    – Gordon
    Aug 2 '17 at 18:55
  1. Dedalus' 'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake' has an echo in Marx's 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte :

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

  1. But since Joyce was not a Marxist, this is only a side comment. Eisenstein is a candidate as a Marxist who used Joyce. Take this quotation from a 1932 talk :

Radek's critique of Joyce was based essentially on one point. He said that we don't need things in such microscopic detail. We don't see that way, such phenomena don't exist. But that criticism is as if a person at some first-aid station saw an enlargement of something seen under the microscope on the wall and said: "Why is this necessary? After all, microbes aren't that big. After all, you don't see all that in real life." Do you understand the mistake here? The thing is that you have to study those charts in order to be able to know those invisible bacteria, those invisible elements, in order to possess them. And that's the significance of studying Joyce and it's on that level that he analyzes things so microscopically. (James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), p.137.)

This can be applied to history and can remove its nightmarish qualities. Macro-history is as bad as Marx said it was but it ceases to be dark and oppressive when macro-history is replaced by micro-history : the life of one person in the course of just a day described in 700 pages. Of course 'Ulysses' is not real history but its microscopic style and level of treatment can be applied to history, which then looks very different from the Marxist grand narrative. It does not reject that narrative but alters our perspective on it.


Joyce's phrase echos Marx, as Benjamin. Further:

enter image description here

Scare Quotes from Shakespeare, p59

  • there are other things you could read, on joyce and benjamin.e.g. Joyce, Benjamin and Magical Urbanism. obviously i haven't, though
    – user25714
    Aug 2 '17 at 19:01

Joyce's bon mot would not have been appreciated by any bona fide marxist. History and nightmares may be both horrible but this similarity is much weaker than the difference between real and unreal. The idea about 'waking from history' would be not only meaningless but also pernicious: it hints at some kind of unreality while marxism used to explain itself as 'historical materialism'. Having an end is another similarity but waking is something that happens more or less independently of you, while putting an end to history is the goal of a premeditated action - the Revolution. So, as the differences largerly outweight the similarities, the conjectured use would relie on a rather superficial analogy. The possibility of 'substantial work' appears to be excluded in advance.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy