Louis Auguste Blanqui ’s L’Eternite par les Astres by Walter Benjamin

AppId is over the quota
AppId is over the quota
gravitational lens in Hubble’s eyes

During the Commune, Blanqui was held prisoner in the fortress of Taureau. (1) There he wrote L’Eternite par les astres. The book consummates the constellations of phantasmagorias, the magical images of the century, in a final phantasmagoria. It is conceived on a cosmic plane and contains a bit­ter critique of the other magical images. The naive reflections of an autodidact, which form the principal portion of this work, open the way to merciless speculations that give the lie to the author’s revolutionary elan. Zarathustra, with hardly less pathos and with truly hal­lucinatory power.

The conception of the universe which Blanqui develops in this book, taking his basic premises from the mechanistic natural sciences, proves to be a vi­sion of hell. It is the necessary complement of precisely that society whose triumph Blanqui at the end of his life could no longer deny.

The uncon­scious irony of Blanqui’s elaborate enterprise is that the terrible accusation he directs against society takes on the form of unconditional acquiescence to its tendencies. The book proclaims the idea of the eternal return ten years before Nietzsche’s

The impression left by the book is depressing rather than triumphal. Blanqui’s aim is to sketch an image of progress. It turns out to be a magical image of history itself, as immemorial antiquity dressed up in ultramodern garb. The most important passage is as follows:

The whole universe consists of astral systems. To create them, nature has only one hundred elements at its disposal. Despite all its ingenuity and the infinite number of combinations available to its fertility, the result is necessarily a finite number, like the number of the elements themselves. To fill up space, nature must repeat its original combinations and types ad infinitum. Accordingly, each star must exist in time and space an infinite number of times, not just as it ap­pears once, but at each moment of its duration from its genesis to its death. The earth is such a star. Hence, each human being, too, is eternal at each mo­ment of its existence. What I am writing at this moment in a cell in the Fort Du Taureau I have written and will write throughout eternity—at a table, with a pen, in circumstances absolutely identical to the present ones. It is the same for everyone. . . . We have innumerable doubles in time and space. . . . These dou­bles have flesh and blood, trousers and overcoats, crinolines and chignons. They are not phantoms but eternalized reality. One thing, to be sure, is lacking in them: progress. What we call by that name is walled up in each earth and passes away with it. Always and everywhere on the earth, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage—a clamorous humanity intoxicated with its greatness. Always and everywhere it believes itself the universe, living in its prison as if it were immeasurable, only to sink—along with the terrestrial globe itself—into the shadows which soon put an end to its arrogance. The same monotony, the same immobility on the other stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly, marking time on the spot. Unwaveringly, eternity performs the same play over and over again, in infinity. (2)

This renunciation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary. The century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibili­ties with a new social order.

Fragment written in early 1938; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Gesammelte Schriften, I, 1153-54. Translated by Edmund Jephcott.


This fragment is part of a larger complex of material extracted from the Arcades Project (see in this case the Conclusion to the “Expose of 1939”) and expanded in preparation for the writing of a book which bore the working title Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus (Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism). The book was never completed. Blanqui would have played, along with Nietzsche, a key role in the book’s third and final section, which Benjamin called “The Commodity as Poetic Object.”

1. Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was a French revolutionary socialist and militant anticlerical. He was active in all three major upheavals in nineteenth- century France—the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871—and was imprisoned following each series of events. His book L’Eternite par les astres (Eternity via the Stars) was published in 1872.

2. Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Instructions pour une prise d’armes, L’Eternite par les astres, Hypothese astronomique, et autres textes (Paris: Societe Encyclopedique Frangaise, 1972), pp. 167-169.

In: Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938- 1940 (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 93-94.