Angelus Novus: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History IX
My wing is ready for flight
I would like to turn back
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck – Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”
A Klee painting named “Angleus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. He eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angels of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of 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; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pule of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp. 257-258
This new angel, interpreted here by Benjamin, offers a moment to reflect upon how we understand “history” and even time itself. Are we, like the angel, propelled backward toward the future by the storm of progress, a storm that continues to pile the flotsam and jetsam necessary for making the world better? Or, perhaps, is the angel, and are we, not pulled forward in to the future, by that which demands it no longer exists as vague becoming but rather realize itself in its full existence? Is that, perhaps, why the angel’s eyes look to the side, with surprise at the vehemence of growing wind, not of progress but of liberation? Is the destruction which the angel sees not the result of progress, but rather the future’s demand that we see what “history” has wrought, demanding a full accounting, liberating not only those to come, but those whose bodies fill the rubble at the feet of the angel? Is that, perhaps, why Klee called this angel the “New” angel? The angel of the future being pulled toward true human freedom, carrying the message that it is to the future that belongs the hope for naming the names of the dead, for denouncing the piles of rubble made to honor “progress” and other false gods?
The storm of progress and all the destruction it leaves in its wake is evil enough. A new angel would not oversee this destruction, even as an eternal mourner. No, a new angel would flow with the pull of the future, dragging with it not only the rubble of the past, but the living who will testify to the falseness of progress, to name each person whose life was sacrificed at this false idol, and declare this new future a time and place where true humanity can live without fear, worshiping no false gods, and live under the protective wings of this New Angel who wept at the past and therefore dragged us all to the future.
In this vision, historical materialism and Christian faith, particularly Christian eschatology, share so much in common. While history is important for each, it is only in service of the future that both the present and the past exist. We are the both the harbingers and clarions of the age to come, those who work to bring about this future that even now pulls us toward its full realization. For the historical materialist, this future is a world made fully human, with neither oppression nor the false gods of class or the superstructure that hold it in place. For the Christian, it is the Kingdom of God, begun with the first fruits in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and continued through the work of the Church, inaugurated by the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost. Whether godless or God-mindful; whether using the vocabulary of Marx or the vocabulary of the saints; whether looking back in horror or back in knowing grief; both are aware that this past will be redeemed. The dead will be alive again, either through the collective memory of those who name the names of the forgotten corpses of progress, or brought to full life in the resurrection of the dead, called before the throne of God and named and known and invited to share in the glory that is the Kingdom.
Klee’s angel may well be blowing backward from the sheer force of the violence of the past. I would prefer to believe it is glancing over its shoulder, knowing that it is the future that pulls it backward. It is only facing forward to ensure that each of those still alive are not left behind as the future makes itself more human, more humane, more free, the Kingdom of God.