The following is a passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (in ‘Illuminations’, translated and edited by Hannah Arendt, London, 1999). In the past I have written about Benjamin’s work on authenticity, which you can find here.
I found this specific passage, his ninth thesis, particularly interesting not just because of its meaning, but also the paradoxical way in which Benjamin conveys his message- a few mystical lines by Scholem and a painting by Klee which might not agree with everyone’s artistic taste. These elements are in dialogue and used by Benjamin to poetically sketch a horrifying past full of hardships and wreckage. Even more horrifying seems the uncontrollable flight into the future, forced upon history in the form of a storm that is progress.
Benjamin’s thesis is a pessimistic one. History is trapped in a circle of catastrophe , forced to continue its way forward. This might be the most popular of Benjamin’s passages and it is not difficult to see why that is. Klee’s Angelus Novus has been inextricably linked with Benjamin and the opposite.
Benjamin in his essay puts forward his critique of historicism and in the process uses multiple artistic and scientific references. In this particular passage however, he seems to become more emotionally evolved, as if he is describing a personal situation. It could be that such an interpretation is influenced by the knowledge of the philosopher’s tragic end. In any case, the passage does not lose its appeal.
Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit
ich kehrte gern zurück
denn blìeb’ ich auch Iebendige Zeit
ich hätte wenig Glück.*
Gerhard Scholem, ‘Gruß vom Angelus’
*My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.
“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. When 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 pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”