Lately I have been thinking of perhaps the most famous passage in Walter Benjamin’s work, the 9th section of his theses on history.
“There is a picture by Klee entitled “Angelus Novus”. It shows an angel who looks like he is trying to escape something that he stares at. His eyes are wide open, his mouth too, and his wings are spread out. The angel is history must look like this. He has his face turned to the past. Where, to us, there is something like a chain of incidents, he sees a single catastrophe, the is untiringly piling up ruin on ruin, and throwing them at his feet. He would like to pause, to waken the dead and to conciliate the injured. But a storm blows out of paradise, that is caught in his wings and is so strong, that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him helplessly into the future, to which he has turned his back, as the ruins before him pile sky-high. That thing we call “progress” is this storm.”
This is a beautiful passage, a gorgeousness tinged with atrocity – especially for readers who know that Benjamin is soon to hide his work, flee Paris as the Germans defeat France, and commit suicide in a small Spanish town trying to get away from the certainty of death in a concentration camp. But this thesis is also a huge puzzle. How is the storm “progress”. And what is paradise doing here? And why is it all ruin? And why can’t the dead be re-awakened, if history truly has an angel?
Myself, I have long pondered on these things. Of course, for a real answer, one would have to plunge into Benjamin’s work at length. There’s an industry that does this. The angel has, in particular, been philologically reconstructed from Klee, the Talmud, and perhaps the mythology of modern German poetry (Rilke’s angels, which show up – as does Benjamin – in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, a film that provides a coda to the whole experience of modernism). I have been thinking about something that is, perhaps, more minor, more off the point: the backwardness of the angel.
I feel a sort of weird vibe coming from this figure who blown backwards by progress – this figure behind whose back, literally, the future is happening. It is an interesting challenge: to trace with a fine Auerbachian hand the motif of backwards progress in European literature in the broadest sense. Everything depends upon the angel facing the past, and not the present: the angel could fold his wings if he could turn
around – for presumably there is no wind coming from the future. The backwards motion is imposed on the angel – physically. The meaning of which for the spectator is that an old assumption is reversed, for the future is not ‘ahead’ of us here. That inversion of our metaphoric assumptions has a deeply disorienting effect. It stabs at our way of making time accord to space, and our orientation in space.
Tracking a motif in the wilderness of books is a little like trying to catch one drop in a rain storm with a pair of pliers. But as this motif is especially rich to me, I think I’ll make some suggestions, cast a broad net, see how this works out, and see, especially, why it so moves me. Cause it does, this angel being blown from the past into a future it doesn’t face. This reverse motion reminds me of something, there’s some kind of anamnesis at the base of it, some form in which memory stirs. Along the way, probably I'll touch on the rebus, the transmission of motifs, entropy, slavery, and the disorientation of all the senses.
The backward image, I think, can more concretely be traced in part to film, to the perceptual changes brought about in the nineteenth and twentieth century to transportation, which are traced in Schivelbusch’s great book, The Railroad Journey, and finally to a metaphor going through Montaigne back to Plutarch. That is how I will do this. First I’ll think about film.