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The Reproducibility of the Angelus Novus in the Moment of Danger

  Vivian Liska

  Institute of Jewish Studies, University ofAntwerp

  Prinsstraat 13 L. 400, B-2000 Antwerpen, Belgium


   Abstract Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" inspired by Paul Klee's artwork"Angelus Novus" has become a modern icon that continues to receive internationalacclaim in markedly different contexts and situations. This reception raisesquestions about the conditions and implications of carrying Benjamin's allegoryand, by extension, modernist icons as such, across cultural, temporal and politicalborders: Under what conditions can this arguably most radical of canonizedmnemonic images of the past century be saved from conventionalization in orderto continue to testify to the violence and destruction perpetrated over the course ofhuman history until today? This question is addressed in a juxtaposition of severalcontrasting interpretations of Benjamin's famous allegory.Key words Angel of History; Memory; Transmission; Benjamin; IconicityAuthor Vivian Liskais full professor of German Literature and Director of theInstitute of JewishStudies at the University of Antwerp. She is also permanentDistinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem and amember of the visiting staff of New York University. Her academic work focuseson Modern German Literature, Literary Theory, German-Jewish thought, Modernistliterature and poetry after 1945. She is the editor of the book series "Perspectiveson Jewish Texts and Contexts" (De Gruyter, Berlin), the Yearbook of the Societyfor European-Jewish Literature (with A. Bodenheimer), arcadia:lnternationalJournal of Literary Studies (with Vladimir Biti). Her most important recent booksare Giorgio Agambens leerer Messianismus (2008), When Kafka Says We (2009),Uncommon Communities in German-Jewish Literature (2009), and FremdeGemeinsch护Deutsch亨udische Literatur der Moderne (2011).Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" who turns his back to the future and facesthe past that lies before him like a heap of rubble, has become an emblem for theredemptive commemoration of history as catastrophe as well as for the failureto carry out this task. Written in 1940, the figure developed in Benjamin's NinthThesis "On the Concept of History" ` as a comment on Paul Klee's "oil paintingwith touches of aquarelle"2 from 1920, which was his most precious possession,represents a bleak view of history associated with the darkest hour of the EuropeanTwentieth Century. As has often been remarked, Benjamin's theses "On theConcept of History" constitute not only a microscopic summa and a testament ofhis thought, but, particularly in the figure of the Angel drawn in the Ninth Thesis,they can also be regarded as a condensation of his views on the task of the historianto confront the past from the perspective of a specific constellation with the present.

  My title is a collage of three quotes from Benjamin's work: the essay "TheWork of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" (SW 3 101-33), thereference to the title of Paul Klee's painting in the Ninth Thesis, and the passagein the Sixth Thesis that defines the task of the historical materialist in terms ofcapturing "an image of the past as it presents itself spontaneously to the historicalsubject in the moment of danger" (im Augenblick der Gefahr) (SW 4 391). Thecontinuous and worldwide reception of Benjamin's "Angel of History" in verydifferent contexts and situations over the past decades raises questions about theconditions and implications of carrying Benjamin's icon across cultural, temporal,and political borders.

  Benjamin's Ninth Thesis starts out as a description of Klee's "Angelus Novus"and, in a few lines, turns it into an allegory that reaches far beyond anything visiblein the painting: A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an Angel looking as though heis about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyesare staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one picturesthe Angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive achain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckageupon 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 isblowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence thatthe Angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into thefuture to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him growsskyward. This storm is what we call progress. (SW 4 392)His wings ready for flight, the "Angelus Novus" would gladly return to the stancelent to him by Benjamin in one of the most famous allegories of the TwentiethCentury. But the storm of fame that blows in his face from countless theoretical,literary, and visual reproductions blocks his path and drives him inexorablyforward. The history of the reception of Benjamin's "Angel of History" who, withhis back to the future, is prevented by the storm of progress from making wholeagain the heap of rubble constituted by world history,raises the question of theextent to which ideas of cultural memory can be transmitted from generation togeneration, from one place, time and situation, from one historical and politicalconstellation to another.

  The prospects are different today than they were in 1940 when Benjaminwrote his theses, but even now there is no lack of a need for salvation. Still to besaved in our time is all that has been disgraced and denied by the victors, that hasbeen forgotten, and to which the Angel bears witness with his petrified gaze anda silence expressing outrage beyond words. Yet, in the meantime, Benjamin'sAngel has himself been victorious. Finding himself in the basket of desirablecultural consumer goods, he risks not only being subjected to wear and tear throughglobalised reproduction, but also being instrumentalized for the most arbitrarypurposes. The question arises, therefore, whether and under what conditionsthis arguably most radical of canonised mnemonic images can be saved fromconventionalization in order to continue to testify for the violence and destructionperpetrated in the course of human history. And today.

   Here a few extreme examples of contrasting interpretations: although theyappear only few years apart, an ideological gulf lies between Gershom Scholem'sand Otto Karl Werckmeister's complaints about the misuse of Benjamin's Angel. In1972 Scholem rebukes those, who "quote him like holy scripture."3 The guilty onescome from the "New Left," the 68' Marxists, at the moment when "the reception ofBenjamin had just got into full swing" (BE 35). Scholem contrasts their conversionof the "Angel of History" from an "image of meditation" into a political weaponwith a "true understanding of Benjamin's genius" (BE 35) and points these Marxistdeniers of the true Holy Scripture (BE 46), towards Benjamin's "link to the mystictradition" (BE 46). Admittedly, Scholem also holds the Marxist terminologyBenjamin himself "slipped over" his thinking (wobei das marxistische Elementetwas wie eine Umstulpung des metaphysisch-theologischen ist) (BE 35) partlyresponsible for this denial of his mystical inclinations. In 1976, Werckmeister, froma radically orthodox Marxist perspective, likewise complains about those who haveturned the Angel into an "icon of the Left."4 If Scholem described Klee's drawingpositively as an "image for meditation," then for Werckmeister this term一he usesthe German word "Andachtsbild" taken from the theological register一becomesa witness for the prosecution. The guilty parties, to whom the Angel has becomea "devotional picture," are for Werkmeister too the "left-wing intellectuals" (BA242), but his critique comes from a much different position in "Walter Benjamin'sAngel of History" Werkmeister calls Benjamin's allegory "a composite literaryicon for left-wing intellectuals with uncertain political aspirations" and "an iconof the left…that has seemed to hold out an elusive formula for making senseof the senseless, for reversing the irreversible, while being subject to a kind ofpolitical brooding all the more protracted the less promising the prospects forpolitical practice appear to be" (BA 242). Werckmeister objects not to an absenceof mysticism but to a lack of political commitment. The leftist dissidence, nowwith the blessing of the Establishment, refers to Benjamin's Angel without theleast praxis and existential risk. For Werckmeister, like for Scholem, Benjamin hashimself fostered the misuse. He makes it easy for the "politically powerless" oftoday to hold on to the cultural superstructure without any true political practiceand try to strike saving sparks from his "politically most helpless phase" (BA 243).

   Scholem and Werckmeister counter what they consider to be the misguidedreception of Benjamin's Angel with the history of its origins and genesis一onefrom a theological, the other from a Marxist perspective. Intending to provideevidence of the mystical origin of the Angel, Scholem introduces Benjamin'sautobiographical sketch "Agesilaus Santander," probably written during a boutof malaria fever, which describes the Angelus Novus as a "newly created Kabalaprotector" and the Talmudic legend quoted by Benjamin, in which一allegoryof actuality一“angels, new ones, are created in huge crowds at every momentand after they have sung their hymn before God, cease and fade away" (BE 47).Scholem reconstructs the genesis of Benjamin's Angel from demonology, theChristian iconography of the Baroque, Jewish mysticism, anagrammatic poeticpractice, and Benjamin's love life. In his early texts the Angel is first of all thebeloved, later the figure of the self waiting for the Angel patiently and at a distance,and finally the "occult reality" of Benjamin himself (BE 62). In the last stage ofthe development of Benjamin's relationship to Klee's painting, as reconstructedby Scholem, the Angel becomes the emblem of ideas of a failed Messianicdeliverance. Finally, it ends up in "distorting Marxist form" (BE 67) as the familiarhistory-blasting allegory, which, according to Scholem, is nevertheless一even inBenjamin's own imagination一still propelled more by messianic hopes than bymaterialistically determined means of production. Thus Scholem disposes of thepolitical significance of the parable and rescues the Angel as evidence of his beliefin Benjamin's close relationship to mysticism and to the Jewish cultural tradition assuch.

  Werckmeister's history of the origin of the Angel, augmented by muchdetailed knowledge, takes a somewhat different direction. Where Scholem criticizesBenjamin for giving in to Marxist seductions, with which he only masked hismetaphysical一and Jewish一intentions, Werckmeister is critical of Benjamin'sabandonment of a truly Marxist perspective and of having, in the 1940s, takenrefuge in metaphysical speculations, replacing his commitment to a revolutionarypraxis with a resigned vision of paralysis in the face of history. Werckmeister'sinterpretation of Benjamin's "Angel of History" unfolds primarily by way ofreferences to revolutionary politics and to literature. He uncovers links to AndreBreton, Karl Kraus, Ernst Fuchs and Karl Jochmann, and discovers a fantasticanalogy between the hope of Benjamin's Angel "reawakening the dead" and thenovel Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars Benjamin was writing about at the time: Atthe end of Cendar's novel, a film-maker plays a scene backwards. In this scene, hehas shot the destruction of Paris as announced by Angels above the portal of NotreDame. But now the buildings are made whole again and the dead rise up (BA 259).This fascinating but also somewhat grotesque speculation about the origin of whatinspired Benjamin's parable of the "Angel of history"'s redemptive aspirationscould not be further removed from Scholem's celebration of Benjamin's hiddenmetaphysical claims. It is, however, ultimately unimportant whether the messianic-revolutionary hope of Benjamin's Angel derives from film reels played backwardsor from holy scrolls, which Scholem supposes he discerns in the hairdo of Klee'sAngel. In either case it is questionable whether his story of the origin of Benjamin'sallegory is sufficient to discredit its reception-history and to lament that it isunfaithful to Benjamin's original intention. It is after all Benjamin himself who,in "Literaturwisenschaft and Literaturkritik" writes, that the influence of works(Wirkungsgeschichte) "is by no means of less importance than their genesis" andthat "only in their afterlife do they find their true purpose-not as art object but aspolitical tools to shape history."

   One could indeed go on showing the extent to which Benjamin's "original"text is already a conglomerate of transpositions, displacements, and transferences.Giorgio Agamben, for example, supplements the history of the origin of Benjamin'sAngel by linking it to neo-Platonic mysticism, late Hermetics, Gnosticism, earlyChristianity and Persian and Islamic Angelology, as well as the pre-animist studiesof Preuss and Bachofen's primeval swamp myths.6 Agamben also complains thatBenjamin's theses have degenerated into cliches (P 152) and to him, too, it is theLeft that is the guilty party, referring glibly to Benjamin's allegory in the name ofthe oppressed. Agamben, however, unlike Scholem and Werckmeister, is concernedneither with mysticism nor with political praxis. Instead, in a more philosophicalvein, he calls for a gesture of destruction that would prevent a misunderstanding ofwhat it means for the historian to save a past that has been silenced or forgotten. Amere reconstruction or restoration would only assimilate the mode of transmissionof the cultural memory of the oppressed to that of the oppressor. (P 153)

   For Agamben, Benjamin's radicalism lies in his belief that to redeem the pastis "not to restore its true dignity, to transmit it anew as an inheritance for futuregenerations." Rather, Agamben concludes that for Benjamin the redemption to beperformed by the historian is to save the past and its artefacts "from a determinedmode of its transmission" (P 152). In Agamben's understanding of Benjamin, theculprit is "the way in which it is valued as `heritage"', something"more insidiousthan its disappearance could ever be" (P 152). For Benjamin, Agamben writes,what is at issue is "an interruption of tradition in which the past is fulfilled andthereby brought to its end once and for all.... To redeem the past is to put an end toit, to cast upon it a gaze that fulfils it" (P 153).

  Agamben's rejection of the use of Benjamin's allegory for a newhistoriography written from the perspective of concrete losers and oppressed is insome ways justified. It corresponds to Benjamin's idea of salvation as a rupturethat would put a stop to the existing bad state of affairs altogether and bring thepast as such to its messianic conclusion. It is, however, doubtful whether a meregaze would suffice to make whole again the pile of debris signifying the violenceof destruction in history and to awaken its dead. Benjamin's Angel "gazes"indeed, but his unfilled desire to save the past lies in an action that he cannot fulfil.Furthermore, it is perhaps also necessary here to draw Benjamin's own conceptionof the past into a new constellation with the present, which in the theses "On theConcept of History" is described as a relation to the past at the "moment of danger"(SW, 4 391).

  If at the time and place of the Angel-parable's genesis一Nazi-occupiedEurope一the danger was obvious and definable in world-historical terms, thentoday it is less unambiguous and appears more difficult to attribute to a singleorigin of destruction. Rather than pushing the abstraction of Benjamin's universalhistorical pile of debris any further一whether in a mystical direction likeScholem's, in a Marxist one like Werckmeister's, or in a philosophical- anarchistone like Agamben's, it may be more relevant today to measure the possiblesignificance一the impact and limitations一of Benjamin's "Angel of History"against more circumscribed, localized and concrete danger zones in the TwentyFirst Century.

  It may not be purely accidental that it is an Israeli art theorist who casts doubtson the dismayed powerlessness of the Angel critically regarded by Werckmeister(and before him by Bertolt Brecht) as the primary message of Benjamin'sDenkbild. For Azoulay, it is precisely the Angel's speechless shock in the face ofthe disasters of the past that lends him a potentially active role about the dangers ofthe present. The art historian, theorist of photography, and political activist AriellaAzoulay stresses the positive and productive aspect of the Angel's silent paralysisand interprets this interruption of continuous speech as a condition of a differentspeech and other images based on Klee's painting and Benjamin's text. Azoulay'sprimarily visual reading of Benjamin's Ninth Thesis refers to an error initiated byits author himself and blindly adopted by his readers: that the Angel's "fixed gaze"stares straight at the heap debris in front of him. As a glance at Klee's AngelusNovas confirms, the Angel is indeed rather looking to the side and squinting beyondthe edge of the picture. This observation allows Azoulay to designate the Angel asthe paradigm of a transmission in which reader and viewer do not have "the passiverole of saving and preserving a closed and sacrosanct relic"' but instead "the activerole of the destroyer, of the apostate, exterminator", who is consciously unfaithfulto the status and origin of the petrified image, in order "to tell the picture anew."8The sideways, squinting gaze itself also transgresses both the limits of the originalpicture and the bounds of Benjamin's allegory, in order to open a space in which itis both preserved and destroyed in new images and new texts.

  Azoulay's comprehensive affirmation of a use of the picture that does notonly reach beyond the original, but also, as Benjamin demands of citations, tearsand quotes it out of its original context and possibly even destroys it. Such anaffirmation can easily draw on Benjamin,to whom "the life of the original" onlyachieves its "constantly renewed most recent and encompassing development"through "translations, which are not mediations." As Azoulay emphasizes,Benjamin himself borrows an image and translates it into a new one, without tryingeither to imitate the original or create a corresponding substitute in language. Hetakes from it, rather, an essential mode of relationship, in the light of which, out ofthe destructive transformation of the original countless new angels can emerge.

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