Saturday, July 07, 2018

the backwards angel !

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.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

The royal Flabellifer

When Walter Gropius built a little house for himself in Lincoln, Massachusetts, he included a screened in porch to (as his friend, Siegfried Giedion, puts it) “catch eastern and western breezes during the hot and humid summers.” Gropius built his house in 1938. Giedion gave his lectures, Space, Time and Architecture, about the same year. Giedion later expanded his lectures into a book,which went into three editions – but even in the fifties edition, he mentions “air conditioning” only once, with a reference to a building by Le Corbusier that “attempts a very simplified type of airconditioning”, with a footnote referencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s claim to have built the first air conditioned office building in Buffalo, New York.

The lack of concern for air conditioning is, in a sense, inscribed in the grandiose title of the book – Space and Time are monumental, while seasons, with their fits of hot and cold, are the very stuff of what Giedion might call “transient facts” – they are seasonal.

From the American p.o.v., Europe is painfully underserved by the air conditioning industry. From the European point of view, all of America’s gaudy wastefulness is epitomized by the enormous effort spent in blowing hot air into hot rooms in the summer. That effort has an effect beyond ductwork: for instance, it advantages the sealed window. Opening a window or a windowed door (such as the one I am sitting next to as I type this) has a pretty interesting psychological effect. One can see it, for instance, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which looks at a New York City in which private life, in the summer, is conducted half outdoors, on fire escapes and porches.  Rear Window is so theatrical because real life was so theatrical; apartments weren’t castles, and the suburban house was not a monad set down on a plat seeded with antiseptic grasses, even if Mr. Blanding’s dream house was something like this.

I am the son of an HVAC man, so my mind naturally strays to climate control in the summer. We just went down to Montpellier, which was hot. Not that hot, not as hot as it gets in August, but somewhat hot. The mornings, though, were amazingly pleasant, the bird life was hopping, and the inducements to slow down and lie prone on some chaise lounge were not unpleasant, especially when the reality was accompanied by a cold beer. So men and my bourgeois softened hide couldn’t really complain. Still, the lack of air conditioning does provide a sort of control experiment – an experiment in climate control – that is interesting.

In Ancient Egypt, the equivalent of your friendly Air Conditioning man was the royal Flabellifer – the fan bearer. In those times, the artificial breeze was a product of an ostrich feather fan, and the royal nose was pleased by bouquets of flowers that were waved about at the same time. The royal fanbearer, apparently, was an enormously important post, perhaps because nobody knows more about the pharaoh than the primitive climate control guy sitting two feet behind him all day. There were no folding fans in Egypt – in the fan literature, this innovation is attributed to the Japanese of a much later date. The fan is, in a sense, a poetic continuation of two things: the leaves of trees and the wings of birds. Both leaves and feathers play a big role in the decoration of fans. It must have been a big kick for ancient homo sapiens to pluck a palm leaf and agitate it, thus becoming a mini-wind maker. The cosmos in our hand – the ancient dream! Who knew that from such primitive fashionings we would, in a remarkably short time, get our grubby hands on the atmosphere and stratosphere of the whole planet!

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...