Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee and the Angel of History

LO28906_AngelusNovus

 Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879, in Münchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland, the second child of Hans Klee, a German music teacher, and a Swiss mother. His training as a painter began in 1898 when he studied drawing and painting in Munich for three years. By 1911, he had returned to that city, where he became involved with the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911. Klee and Kandinsky became lifelong friends, and Kandinsky’s support provided much-needed encouragement. Until then, Klee had worked in relative isolation, experimenting with various styles and media, such as making caricatures and Symbolist drawings, and later producing small works on paper mainly in black and white, one of which was ‘Angelus Novelus’ which he painted in 1920.

 The Jewish writer and mystic, Gershom Scholem, was the first owner of the painting and it was proudly displayed in his apartment in Munich, Germany.  Scholem was a close friend of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish literary critic and philosopher whom, after viewing the painting in a major exhibit of Klee’s work at a gallery in Munich, purchased it for a mere $30. It became one of Benjamin’s most treasured possessions and the work effected him profoundly, eventually leading to his famous interpretation in his ninth thesis in his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”.

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.                                                         

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin further elaborated that the very notion of “historical progress” was nothing but a cruel illusion, elucidating “There is certainly another understanding of history. It says progress is made by the “freedom” of competition, striving for “always more”; it can be as if living in a devastating hurricane”. For Benjamin, the sense of historical ‘progress’ was in all actuality a never ending procession of disaster and ruin. Suffering, it seemed, was the inevitable outcome of  human history.

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

Although there was a relatively optimistic mood about the future at the end of World War I ( the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world at the time was believed to be ‘ the war to end all wars’) , social cohesion in the Weimar Republic began to rapidly disintegrate. This was due the vindictive nature of the Treaty of Versailles which essentially destroyed the German economy, and thus many peoples lives, as well as the subsequent home grown attacks on left leaning workers organizations and ethnic minorities that led to the final ‘defeat’ of the socialist movement in Germany by 1923 as well as the persecution of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and other minority groups that eventually led to the horrific crescendo of the holocaust less than 20 years later.  Daily life in cities like Berlin began to be dominated by self-interest and divisiveness as opposed to anything resembling egalitarian principles or civic mindedness as Weimar capitalism, much like modern capitalism, scarcely concealed the ugly fact that its real purpose in the world was to benefit the wealthy. This situation consequentially led to an entire generation of disenchanted and marginalized youth on one end of the spectrum and an increasingly militaristic right wing faction (eventually leading to Fascism) on the other-two divided factions left fighting over scraps of a ruined economy.

The “Lost Generation” of 1920’s era Germany were disillusioned not only with the traditional creeds of nationalism and religion, but also with collective associations as a whole- nothing was sacred and everything was open to question . For many young people living in Germany at the time, the nation itself seemed to be the source everything that had gone wrong with their lives. Many left the country that had seemingly crushed their hopes and dreams in hopes of establishing themselves anew elsewhere in the world, others found solace in the psychology of the mob. Benjamin, however, was not willing to abandon Europe (although he fled to France in 1933), where he lived until he took his own life to avoid being captured by the Nazis.

Despite the pessimism expressed in Benjamin’s ‘Angel’ thesis, he still asserts that the Angel of History is firmly on our side; he wants to intervene but has been rendered powerless against the torrent of progress propelling him forward through history.  Benjamin criticized the pessimism that often deems fundamental change as impossible or ‘rationally’ argues that, historically speaking, utopian dreams have rarely been successful. As an antidote to this pessimistic world view, Benjamin reminded us of Biblical accounts where popular movements succeeded against seemingly invincible power structures. In these politically and economically tumultuous times it would be wise for us to heed Benjamin’s advice and learn from his observations, hopefully before the gale force winds have once again caught the angels wings.

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