Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Angelus Novus

‘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 upon 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. This 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.’ [Benjamin]

It has becomes almost a commonplace, today, that we move from past to future with out face to the past and our back to the future. (What does Kiekegaard say? ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’) There’s an intuitive sense of rightness about seeing things that way, I suppose. But is it correct?

I find myself perfectly able to scan out the landscape of my future, barring unlikely accident: I shall work, from day to day, at what I work at. I shall raise my child; she will go through school, to university and into work herself. I shall grow older, weaker, more set in my ways. It’s all perfectly clear. My past, however, is very shady: nothing at all from my early years, distorted and selected elements only from the last three decades. Am I oriented in that direction? No, my life is oriented towards what shall come. The past has died, and things that die cease to be. The only bit of the past still alive is inside my brain pan, and that’s mostly there to help me navigate the future. Benjamin has his angel facing the wrong way; A.N. is actually reading a science fiction novel, and peering as well as his eyes are able to the future.

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