Friday, August 11, 2006

Landmark VII: The Angel of History


My wing is poised to beat
but I would gladly return home
were I to stay to the end of days
I would still be this forlorn
-- Gershom Scholem, "Greetings from Angelus"

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

--Walter Benjamin's "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History" Sholem's poem on the Klee painting was written for Benjamin's twenty-ninth birthday (July 15, 1921). Benjamin purchased the Klee painting in 1921.

"The Dream Before" by Laurie Anderson (for Benjamin)

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well
And they're living in Berlin
She is a cocktail waitress
He had a part in a Fassbinder film
And they sit around at night now drinking schnapps and gin
And she says: Hansel, you're really bringing me down
And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch
He says: I've wasted my life on our stupid legend
When my one and only love was the wicked witch.

She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
Being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
Backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress

A painting by Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. A poem by a Jewish mystic. An essay by a German Jewish philosopher who was both a Marxist and a surrealist. (I suspect that he was a better surrealist than Marxist.) He penned these words mere weeks before taking his own life on the Spanish border after he and his group of refugees were denied entry as the Nazi death-machine closed in on them. A song by American performance artist Laurie Anderson. In her video for this song, her digitized twin sings the lyrics - a midget man with a moustache (a la Duchamp, perhaps) and a low voice. Anderson's lyrics add a new creation myth to the Benjamin text: a postmodern and appropriately urbanized Adam and Eve, fable characters we haven't seen since our own childhoods; they are all grown up now like us. Their dream, however, is over, having lived through the logical trajectory of their illusions. What Fassbinder film is it? The one where the one-armed man comes into the flower shop and says, "What flower expresses: Days go by and they just keep going by? On and on. Endlessly going by?" And the florist says, "White lily." Everything returns to what the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Herclitus wrote 2500 years ago: "The fairest universe is but a heap of rubbish piled up at random" (Fragment 40). But we, in our overly technologized and productionist view, still call this progress, but it's a progress of discovering that all that we assume we know is wrong.

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