10 July 2011

Storms, Part IV

Finally, there is the storm Walter Benjamin describes in his “Theses on History.” He says, “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 that 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 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.” But it is not advance at all.
This storm is what we call progress, but it is a delusion.  The face of Benjamin’s Angel is turned toward the past. The angel, looking back, sees not a series of events, but one huge catastrophe that keeps piling “wreckage upon wreckage” at his feet. To the angel, history is not some forward progress, effected in fits and starts and in botched beginnings and failed means; rather, history is one huge disastrous and calamitous blunder piled atop another. The angel would love to stay and to make whole what has been broken, but “a storm blows from Paradise,” and that storm irresistibly propels the angel, head turned toward the past, into a future the angel cannot see. This storm, says Benjamin, is called progress, but it is some sightless, violent and uncontrollable force blowing us blindly into an unseen future, even while we stare uncomprehendingly at the shards of a broken past that we would but cannot repair. We are blown forward by the storm blindly into a future we cannot know or even control, as we are compelled (is it by the storm, I wonder?) to look back on a past we cannot understand. Our blind and will-less entry into that future blown by the storm called progress is hardly a sign of advance, however, though our movement appears to us as forward. This storm, unlike that which blows Dorothy out of Kansas and into the parallel Oz, blows us willy-nilly into the future that we cannot see; rather it is the past on which our eyes are fixed, though it remains incomprehensible to us. Benjamin’s angel can neither repair the past nor control the future. Home is the catastrophe to which return offers illusory hope of repair, though the storm of progress prevents that return. This storm of progress that cannot be controlled nor paused blows the angel—and us— forward into some unknown future though our eyes remain fixed on the catastrophe that is the past. Here, the home to which we go is forever unseen, but the home from which we go is forever in view as disaster.


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