The Tears of the Angel of History

klee.gif

“Angelus Novus” – Paul Klee

Mein Fl¼gel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zur¼ck,
denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich h¤tte wenig Gl¼ck.
– Gerherd Scholem, ‘Gruss vom Angelus’

The Currency Lad has been busy ranking Australia’s Prime Ministers. Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Public Opinion is sceptical of this sort of list, finding the ‘Great Man Theory of History’ a tad Hegelian for his liking. When we in the West reflect on history, we see it as progressive and teleological – tending towards a (predestined?) end. This is quite contrary to the historical understandings of most other cultures, whether Indian or Chinese, or our own cultural precursors in Greece and Rome. It’s been much more common to see history as cyclical or recurrent. In fact Plato and Aristotle’s theory of democracy lapsing into tyranny is probably quite relevant to us just now. But, deeply influenced by Jewish and Christian narratives, we like to tell ourselves that history moves steadily towards a goal – a goal that is good. This can be secularised as some sort of Kantian utopian perpetual peace, or even a neo-con world where the universal inscribes itself on the sands of the Middle East. Or it can have its properly religious eschatological meaning.

I’m much more struck, myself, by the reflections of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. In a manuscript smuggled out of Spain where he committed suicide trying to escape Vichy France in 1940 (just before he reached safety) and later published by Hannah Arendt, Benjamin wrote in the Theses on the Philosophy of History:

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.

That’s not a bad summation of how the world looked in 1940.

Benjamin owned the Klee pictured above, and it was one of his most prized possessions.

The end of a year is a time of stocktaking for many. We, or at least those of us who care about politics and the world, will also be reflecting on the course of events over 2004. Gary Sauer-Thompson writes “This is history as tragedy. We are characters in the political machinery of that tragedy”. I’m deeply moved by the tragedy Benjamin so eloquently treats in his writing, but somewhat more hopeful in the face of suffering. I prefer to align myself with the great French phenomenologist and philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

It is a law of human action that the present encroaches upon the future, the self upon other people. This intrusion is not only a fact of political life it also happens in private life. Just as in love, in affection, or in friendship we do not encounter face to face “consciousnesses” whose absolute individuality we could respect at every moment, but being qualifies as “my son”, “my wife”, “my friend” whom we carry along with us into common projects where they receive (like ourselves) a definite role, with specific rights and duties, so in collective history the spiritual atoms train after them their historical role and are tied to one another by the threads of their actions; what is more, they are blended with the totality of actions, whether or not deliberate, which they exert upon others and the world so that there exists not a plurality of subjects, but an intersubjectivity…

So in other words, as we enter 2005, it’s up to us with all our sedimented and interwoven histories, in all our embedded contexts, nevertheless to make our own meaning from the histories we write collectively together as we live every day of our lives… Together.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

Mark, can you translate the German poem, please? I think Scholem translated the Hebrew bible into German – is that right?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sure, yellowvinyl. The translation’s in the link to the text of Benjamin’s writing but it’s a tad hard to find:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.

Ironic, because if there was one thing Benjamin never had, it was luck…

I think yr right about Scholem. I think Derrida wrote about Scholem’s translation of the Hebrew Bible in ‘Archive Fever’.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I wonder about translators sometimes. For example “lebendige” wouldn’t normally translate as “timeless”. My dictionary gives “live” or “alive” (ie, not dead) for “lebendig”. If you reverse translate “timeless” you get “zeitlos”. So I’d question why “timeless time” rather than “living time”, but I guess that could be ambiguous.

So I’ll just crawl back under my rock!

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

This is my effort:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would gladly turn back,
For if I also stay in living time,
I would have little luck.

The real problem is that it sounds a bit tinny in English.

You’ve captured an intriguing insight in this post, Mark. I think you’re right about how the world looked in 1940, as it happened the year I was born. There were certainly echoes of this kind well into the 1950s and maybe still today.

I like the Merleau-Ponty quote and the last para.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Brian. As you know, I don’t read any German! I was going with the translation that was done by Harry Zohn in the book ‘Illuminations’ edited by Hannah Arendt of Benjamin’s essays. I did see something somewhere which said the translation of Benjamin’s work wasn’t the best. A tad ironic since I understand that Scholem’s great claim to fame was as a translator… It’s a perennial problem, though!

If anyone can help me with the source of this quotation, I’d be so grateful. I was given to believe it’s from Schiller but I can’t identify it. I really like it! I don’t think it’s High German:

“Ich sie die liehte heide
in gruener varwe stan
dar siln wir alle gehen
die sumerzeit enpahen”

The translation I have reads –

“I see the sunstruck forest
In green it stands complete
There soon we are all going
The summertime to meet”.

The person who quoted it is dead, and so I can’t ask him, regrettably.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don will recognise the source of the quote, I think.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Can’t help with that one, Mark. It’s definitely a dialect.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, I thought so, Brian. I did a google search which corrected the German to “Ich sie die leichte heide” but still turned up no results!

It’s the epigraph to a book by Philip K. Dick – ‘Ubik’.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

I’m hoping for a post from you or Don on Phil Dick – chrissie pressie???

Mike Daplyn
Mike Daplyn
13 years ago

Like you I’ve been haunted by “ich sie die leichte heide” ever since reading it in Philip K Dick’s book – I found this page while googling for it. From my vague recollection, it’s much older than Schiller – one of those German mediaeval poets, Walter von der Voegelwiede or around then? Weren’t two of the characters in the book trying to translate it, in some post-cataclysmic world, with nothing but a dictionary for guidance?