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Walter Benjamin

The Consolation of History in a Paris Exile

Patrick H. Hutton

Walter Benjamin, a Jewish German literary critic of modest reputation during the interwar years, has become an intellectual celebrity in our times. In flight from Nazi Germany, he took refuge in Paris during the 1930s before dying in 1940 in a vain effort to escape to America. In this essay, I analyze his ideas as conceived in his Paris exile, with particular attention to his turn to the topics of memory and of history and of the relationship between them. I close with some thoughts on how his ideas about memory's redeeming power played into the humanist Marxism of the intellectuals of the 1960s and subsequently the preoccupation with memory in late twentieth-century scholarship.

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Legends of a Revolutionary

Nostalgia in the Imagined Lives of Auguste Blanqui

Patrick H. Hutton

Louis-Auguste Blanqui ranks among the most famous apostles of the nineteenth-century French Revolutionary tradition. His commitment to that cause was bound up with his longing to tap once more the energy that had inspired the popular uprisings of the French Revolution. Such nostalgia came to define not only his tactics but also his way of life. In the process he fashioned a legend of his role as insurrectionary activist, and its nostalgic underpinnings would intrigue his twentieth-century biographers. Here I examine the way four among them draw out varied and conflicting meanings from a life powerfully invested in a conception of the future deeply embedded in the past.

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Patrick H. Hutton

Scholarly interest in the topic of nostalgia has come late to discussions of the workings of memory, a popular topic in contemporary historiography, but its moment may at last have arrived, bringing with it perspectives unappreciated a generation ago. As an emotional response to time’s passage, nostalgia has long been viewed with suspicion. From the dawn of the modern age, critics have explained that it plays into life’s illusions, drifting into sentimental idealization of a past on the fast track to obsolescence. From the earliest critical commentaries on its nature in the late seventeenth century, nostalgia has been equated with homesickness, futile longing for lost places, lost times, and lost causes. For the most part, it was diagnosed as a psychological disorder that immobilized individuals susceptible to the tug of its emotions. It was in this guise that discussion of its nature entered the lexicon of medical discourse during the nineteenth century. The impairments of those who suffered from its sadness were real. The remedy was to awaken them to life’s present realities, and so to teach them to adapt with vigor to their own times.