Dialectical images

Yesterday the great Pablo Neruda was exhumed from his grave, dramatic news that jostled for media coverage on the same day that Margaret Thatcher died. And so two strangely disparate events coincided on April 8th. A socialist poet is pulled from the ground; a right-wing ideologue is sent to the morgue. Between the two there flashes something of Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image.” As Benjamin says,

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” (The Arcades Project, 463.)

Neruda died only two weeks after the military coup that killed the newly-elected president Salvador Allende and toppled his government on September 11, 1973. Examination of Neruda’s corpse is meant to shed light on the circumstances of his death. Neruda was a communist, a close friend of Allende, and was immensely popular both at home and abroad, all of which caused him to be seen as a dangerous rival to the dictator’s military regime. The suspicion is that Pinochet ordered the poet’s assassination.

Thatcher was an unabashed supporter of the ruthless Chilean dictator, just as she was of any ruler who treated socialism as a crime punishable by death. The odd convergence of Thatcher’s demise and Neruda’s exhumation is an echo of the vicious Manichaean conflicts of the Cold War; it also speaks to that war’s enduring legacy in a globalized and deregulated world divided ever more widely between Thatcher’s rich and Neruda’s poor.

That much is historical record. But what of Benjamin’s “dialectical image”? The concept, it’s worth noting, owes as much to Surrealist art as it does to historical materialism. And surrealism is still a potent force for politics.

On the 8th of the month the calendar makes a brush with the infinite, or maybe the eternal return. As we speak, Thatcher and Neruda lie in a temporal limbo between death and burial, their bodies slotted into a morgue’s black drawer, periodically emerging into the fluorescent glare. In these circumstances strange links and transpositions can happen. Like the character in The Jacket played by Adrien Brody, but apparently sporting a retroactive mustache from his recent Bride of Frankenstein_2star turn as Salvador Dalì, Neruda may find himself time-traveling in the morgue, waking in our nightmare present, then leaving with an urgent mission for the past. Thatcher ends up reanimated in the hands of Pinochet’s thugs, but ancient and witless, like a shrunken bride of Frankenstein, her hair a fright as usual, shrieking loud enough to wake us up.

“Only dialectical images are genuinely historical,” Benjamin says. For his part, in “Dance Card,” a political text if ever there was, Bolaño asks the question: “Why didn’t Neruda like science fiction?”


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