Strange Angel

July 15, 1892: Walter Benjamin was born on this day in 1892. Benjamin translated Baudelaire and Proust, and although he died at age forty-eight — a probable suicide, his attempts to flee the Nazis having failed — he is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most important critics and cultural theorists. In one of his last works, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin meditates on a Paul Klee watercolor he owned, turning it into a bleak vision of human history as an apocalyptic junkpile:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel 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 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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin bequeathed the Klee oil painting to the Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem, and in 1989 Scholem’s widow donated it to the Israel Museum. The painting is included in The Klee Universe (2009), which documents a recent international exhibition of Klee’s work. “Angelus Novus” is also central to Robert Alter’s Necessary Angels (1991), a study linking Kafka, Scholem and Benjamin as key twentieth century thinkers. The book is published by Harvard University Press, which has recently brought out a highly-praised, multi-volume collection of Benjamin’s writings.

In Laurie Anderson’s song, “The Dream Before (For Walter Benjamin),” from the album Strange Angels, the modern man and woman are Hansel and Gretel, who get by in Berlin on their few remaining breadcrumbs — “She is a cocktail waitress / He had a part in a Fassbinder film” — their schnapps, and their Benjamin:

…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