angels and the catastrophe of history:waiting for his master’s voice

Why do angels have wings? What do angels mean today? In early Christian times God’s messengers walked as men. But after the sweeping conversions of the pagan world, Christian artists found inspiration in the flying deities of ancient faiths dressing their near naked glory in soft undulating robes, splendid wings and the further support of rainbow clouds. Hence, once convention is established its hard to retrace and dig up the ancient iconography of heavenly beings.

---According to Benjamin in his first interpretations as described by Scholem, Angelus Novus strives after “true actuality”; comparing it to the throng of angels created every moment to sing God’s praise and then disappear into nothing. He sticks to this Talmudic conception of an angel that exists for a fleeting moment, and pays less attention at this time to everlasting angels and Lucifer. Combined with this was his view that each human has a personal angel, represented by their secret name of mature moments, as discussed in “Agesilaus Santander,” that is for a fleeting instant joining in the choir of God’s praise. The heavenly part of every human sings God’s praise, and Benjamin saw Angelus Novus as the depiction of his angel.--- Read More: image:

…It can interpreted that the angel above, excuse the pun,  depicted by Paul Klee has withered and died.Croaked without taking flight. Klee’s angel carried the hope of, the seed of, a utopian impulse, despite its contradictory nature. Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History are a series of dialogues with historical materialism, which, against all seeming evidence to the contrary,  retained the kernel of utopian impulse,like the oil lamp that magically burned for eight days;  and he insisted that it was possible to achieve a definitive rupture with the unsavory history of the past, leading humankind be some kind, vague and misty,  of redemption. Comforting to know it wouldn’t all have been for nothing, though perhaps not necessary. After all, art for art’s sake. Still, there is no public dialog like that presently. It does not seem like there is much desire to work together, to struggle for a better world; everyone just wants their piece of meat they can carry off into the jungle and chew on in solitude.

Hence, in a sense history has died as well. In America,  the only talk in government is about accounting and bond ratings, and credit scores and preserving markets, and taking risks out of markets, and encouraging risk for markets and the job market and the toxic credit market. And so on. Benjamin’s Angels are in the shadows. waiting.  There are no visions of a better society potentially available after the financial mess is cleaned up; for it will never be cleaned up since its so profitable to many.

ParkeHarrison.---Human nature is a highly contested concept, but whatever it may amount to, it doesn't seem to involve a thirst for good news. Which may be a problem for Steven Pinker, who has dedicated much of his academic life to the study of human nature, because his latest book is full of good news. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, the celebrated evolutionary psychologist and bestselling author argues that we – the human race – are becoming progressively less violent. To the consumer of 24-hour news, steeped in images of conflict and war, that may sound plain wrong. But Pinker supports his case with a wealth of data....---Read More: image:

By 1933 Benjamin had expanded his interpretation to include his observation that the expression of the angel contains “satanic features- with a half suppressed smile.” Scholem comments that this came after Benjamin smoked hashish for the first time, going through what he described as a “satanic phase,” where he smiled with an “expression of satanic knowing, satanic contentment” and “satanic serenity”. Dialectical thought evolved his view of the angel as time progressed, with deeper meanings being revealed. Thus in “Agesilaus Santander” he captures this with an anagram to the name of the Klee painting, a technique Benjamin was fond of, in the name Angelus Satanas. That the angel was also a devil had foundation, says the author, in its “claws” and “sharp wings”. Read More:

Douglas Bourgeois art.----(angel in the house), a set of desiderata that was advertised as the essence of natural womanhood. The ideal of feminine domesticity was exhaustively discussed and prescribed in western Europe and the United States, reaching its height in Spain in the late nineteenth century. Directly or indirectly, it informed a wide variety of different discourses—ladies' journals, feminine conduct manuals, the costumbrista anthologies with their vignettes of local customs, serialized novels, poetry, medical texts, pedagogical treatises, legislation, essays, and public speeches. A recent line of scholarship argues that the appearance of the angel in the house is no isolated phenomenon but the symptom of a wider process, that of the creation of a new bourgeois ideology of gender roles, which substantially revised earlier definitions of femininity and masculinity. Feminist scholars have argued that this process was not a marginal side effect of political history but one of the definitive projects of nineteenth-century western societies.--- Read More: image:

…First my knees begin to tremble
My heart begin to pound
It was arrhythmic and out of tune
I lost my equilibrium
And fell face down upon the ground
As I lay there on that cold pavement
A tear ran down my face
‘Cause I thought I was dying
You boys know I’m not a religious man
But I sent a prayer out just in case
You never know
Lo and behold almost immediately
I had reason to believe my prayer had been heard in a very special place
‘Cause I heard this sound
Yes, it was harps and angels
Harps and angels coming near… ( Randy Newman, Harps and Angels )

As an almost national belief, Jews have clunged and clinged to the great idea, unfathomable to many, that God cannot be seen. He resembles no thing and no animal and no man. He is a spirit, indescribable and unnamable. Although he has a voice and has often been heard speaking, still “no man hath seen God.” In the Old Testament, God sends his people many messengers, angel being the Greek word for messenger. Although their power and their mission are supernatural, they themselves are not winged.

---the angel wife-mother, in the new pan-European discourse, was the timeless and universal source of peace, order, morality, and contentment. Whereas marital relations in aristocratic circles in eighteenth-century Spain appear to have been distant and formal—and were moreover falling into disrepute as it became customary for the wives of the well-to-do in Madrid to have a cortejo (male admirer and confidant) who accompanied her everywhere—the middle-class writers of the mid-nineteenth century began to offer their readers a very different, utopic vision of a close, loving bond between wife and husband, which nothing could profane. One of the classic texts of the new gender ideology, Ruskin's essay "Of Queen's Gardens," first published in 1864, argued, furthermore, that only the wife could make home what it should be: "the place of peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division . . . a sacred place, a vestal temple." Read More:

Isaac looked in a sorry state but he said you should have seen the other guy:The two angels who visited Lot before the destruction of Sodom looked like ordinary men. They were treated by Lot simply as distinguished foreign guests, whom he saved from insults of the Sodomites. In one of the most mysterious episodes of the Bible, a stranger wrestled with Jacob all ni

at a ford, beat him by throwing his thigh out of joint, hurried away before sunrise, refused to state his name and gave Jacob a new name meaning “wrestler with God” – Israel. Jacob said his opponent was God himself, though later interpreters believe it was an angel, unless was simply toying with him for twelve rounds. In any case, the wrestler appeared to Jacob simply as a man. 

…Since Benjamin’s discussed piece is written while he is a refugee, away from his family and his favorite angel picture, he realizes that the angel is both what he is in essence and what he is not. At this point Benjamin sees his angel as coming from the future, to bring the chosen at whom the angel is staring with it. He said that the Angel’s movement means that to return home is precisely the way into the future.

---The bourgeois angel was counterpoised not only to the aristocrat but to women of lower social rank, for her exclusion from all productive labour was a way of signifying her family's rise out of the working class, most of whose women were employed in agriculture, industry, or service. This strategy was analyzed by the nineteenth-century sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen, who argued in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) that a special semiotic role had recently devolved upon middle-class women. Middle-class men, who were richer than the working classes but who could not afford to stop working themselves, allotted the formerly aristocratic privilege of leisure to their women. Thus, it was thought essential that women confine their activities to the place which had become the antithesis of the public, working world: the home.--- Read More: image:,%20Marlene-Annex.htm

The Angel of History is Benjamin’s final comment on Klee’s Angel is a culmination of his life experience and philosophies. He refers to the Angel in his essay on historical materialism. Even though the Angel is reflective of Benjamin’s personal view, it makes the switch from being his Angel to the Angel of all of History. The Angel is now representative of all historical progress. The essay was written in 1940, the last year of his life, after he had lived in exile and experienced the numbing terror that was Nazi Germany. The Angel has made the switch from being a patient lover to a storm from paradise. The Angel of History does not posses the previous hope of the other angels. The angel is not even capable of looking toward the present; the catastrophe of the Holocaust requires its full gaze. The Angel of History is one of melancholy, but at the same time it ties in the theological aspect of Benjamin’s work.Read More:

…I was too sick to roll over and see them
But I could hear them singing ever so beautifully in my ear
Then the sound began to subside
And they sounded like background singers
And a voice come down from the heavens above
It was a voice full of anger from the Old Testament
And a voice full of love from the New One
And the street lit up like it was the middle of the day
And I lay there quiet and listened to what that voice had to say
He said, “You ain’t been a good man
You ain’t been a bad man
But you’ve been pretty bad
Lucky for you this ain’t your time…( Newman )

According to Scholem, the Angel of History shows Benjamin’s understanding of the dialectical relation between the Christian baroque and the Jewish mysticism. The Christian view is that history is a “process of incessant decay.” (Scholem 85) The decay is the wreckage, pile of bodies, and general catastrophe that the Angel is not able to turn away from. The opposing view, that of Jewish mysticism, is the belief that according to the kabbalah it is not the angel’s responsibility to make whole the catastrophe of history, it is the Messiah’s responsibility. Read More:

…Someone very dear to me has made another clerical error
And we’re here on a bit of a wild goose chase
But I want to tell you a few things
That’ll hold you in good stead when it is your time
So you better listen close
I’m only going to say this once
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
‘Fore they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Don’t want no back stabbing, ass grabbing
You know exactly what I mean
Alright girls – we’re outta here”
“Encore. Encore.”
(He spoke French)
“Tres bien
And off they went into the night
Almost immediately I felt better
And I come round to see you boys
‘Cause you know we ain’t living right
And while it was fresh
I wanted to tell you what he told me
He said, “When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Else there won’t be no harps and angels coming for you
It’ll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tambourines”
Sing it like they did for me one time
Ooooh – yes
Ooooh – beautiful
Wish I spoke French
So actually the main thing about this story is for me
There really is an afterlife
And I hope to see all of you there
Let’s go get a drink


Benjamin stipulates that historical materialism, the subject of his “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, cannot be successful without the Messiah. The historical materialist’s way in which to move into the future is problematic because even if it does take the past into account and consider humans as historical beings, it does not and can never redeem the catastrophe of the past. When historical materialism constructs “an act like redemption or revolution, continues to have about it something of that leap into transcendence which these theses seem to deny but which is even then implied in their materialistic formulations as their secret core” (Scholem 84). This is where Benjamin makes the leap to the messianic belief. The past is so horrific that even if one is the ideal historical materialist that will not redeem the past it cannot penetrate the “secret core.” For Benjamin, the only way the redemption can come is from the Messiah. Read More:
“There is a picture by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus. In it, an angel is depicted who appears as if trying to distance himself from something that he stares at. His eyes and mouth gape wide, his wings are stressed to their limit.

The Angel of History must look this way; he has turned to face the past. Where we see a constant chain of events, he sees only a single catastrophe incessantly piling ruin upon ruin and hurling them at his feet.

He would probably like to stop, waken the dead, and correct the devastation – but a storm is blowing hard from Paradise, and it is so strong he can no longer fold his wings.

While the debris piles toward the heavens before his eyes, the storm drives him incessantly into the Future that he has turned his back upon.

What we call Progress is this storm.”

On tbe Concept of History IX
Walter Benjamin
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