The ‘Angel of history’ must be one of the most widely recognized phrases among the great many famous things that Walter Benjamin has said or written. It often rings a familiar bell even for those who do not know its origin or perhaps haven’t even heard much of Benjamin himself. It is found in a short paragraph in Theses on the Philosophy of History that Benjamin wrote in contemplation of a 1920 watercolor painting
by Paul Klee (bought by Benjamin upon its completion), and it reads like this:
A Klee drawing 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 that keeps piling ruin upon ruin 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. 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.(1)
Benjamin’s description is a powerful and poetic image that, among other things, turned Klee’s painting into an icon of its own. I have known and indeed used the phrase for a long time myself, but it was only today that I stumbled upon something that made me appreciate it even more. I was reading a book on Dante (Dante and the origins of Italian literary culture by Teodolinda Barolini, should you be interested) and suddenly came across the following small epiphany:
Dante’s view of the human experience as a linear path affording encounters with the new, a line of becoming intercepted by newness, may be extrapolated from a passage in the Paradiso that denies the faculty of memory to angels. Because angels never turn their faces from the face of God and see all things in his eternal present, their sight is uninterrupted by new things, and they have no need of memory (which we use to store the new things once they are no longer new):
Queste sustanze, poi che fur gioconde
de la faccia di Dio, non volser viso
da essa, da cui nulla si nasconde:
pero` non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e pero` non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso.(2)
Thus the “angel of history” is a fabulous allusion to Dante’s Commedia that is one of the formational texts of the European modernity, of this very same “storm that we call progress” that is blowing from Paradise. Benjamin is clearly taking an issue here with Hegelian teleological view of history — not by rejecting it outright, rather than simply distancing himself from the optimism over this progress. To be able to create such a powerful melancholic and poetic impact along with a striking point about the relationship between history and memory and their relation to the past is another testimony to Benjamin’s complete mastery of both the form and substance.
(1)For the benefit of my Estonian readers, a translation of this paragraph can be found on page 173 in the recent collection of Benjamin’s essays by LR 2010/26-29.
(2)These substances, since they were gladdened by the face of God, have never turned their faces from it, from which nothing is hidden; therefore their sight is not intercepted by new objects, and therefore they have no need to remember by means of divided thought.