Angels of History

by Katharine Blake McFarland

AngelusNovusAngelus Novus was one of Paul Klee’s first painted angels, and for a few decades in the 20th century, it belonged to the German philosopher and writer, Walter Benjamin, as one of his most prized possessions. He referred to it, implicitly and explicitly, throughout his letters, projects, and published works. As his friend Gershom Scholem wrote, “If one may speak of Walter Benjamin’s genius, then it was concentrated in this angel.”

I discovered Benjamin in college, in a Shakespeare class of all places, and he quickly became a writer in whose words I wanted to disappear. His essays were everything my twenty-year-old self longed for: nostalgic and romantic and full of useful observations. “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope,” he wrote. A marked-up, scribbled-in, dog-eared copy of Illuminations lived permanently in my bag throughout my junior year of college; one of my most prized possessions.

I then discovered Klee through Benjamin, through his references to Angelus Novus.

It’s no mystery, then, that the two men stay tied together in my mind. Original contexts and first impressions hold true long past validity. Angelus Novus is the only explicit link between these two men and there exists no record of their meeting. And yet, as I’ve learned more about their lives, I can’t help but see a synchronicity between them. They seem almost like strands of the same rope; knotted and tied by their way through the world, frayed by the same winds of progress and war.

Here are a few of those knots.

I. The Angel Brings What Was Wished

Storytellers, wrote Walter Benjamin, “move up and down the rungs of their experience as if on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds.” Paul Klee’s grandmother was a storyteller. She told her grandson fairy tales that she illustrated herself and when he was four years-old (so the story goes) she gave him colored pencils and a drawing pad. Perhaps she foresaw, from that towering vantage in the clouds, the art her grandson would someday create.

From his own grandmother, Oma Schoenflies, Walter Benjamin inherited a propensity to give gifts. He acquired objects for others, and sometimes for himself. He was a collector. “Collectors,” he wrote, “are people with a tactical instinct; when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position.”

And so in 1921, Benjamin ventured to Munich, took hold of the Golzt Gallery, and acquired a small watercolor—just twelve and a half by nine and a half inches. The painting, by Paul Klee, was called Angelus Novus.

II. Introducing the Miracle

Both Benjamin and Klee leaned toward a transcendent philosophy. A wonderment that can only be described as mysticism, and an affinity for the child-like. The year Klee painted Angelus Novus (1920) was also the year he published his Creative Confession, in which he set down his metaphysical perceptions in writing—the perceptions that drew Benjamin to the artist’s work.
For Benjamin, this metaphysical inclination manifested in particular passions: he relished the smallest of objects; he theorized and fantasized about the moment—exact and minute but potentially colossal; he inherited and absorbed Goethe’s concept of Urphänomen—a phenomenon in which word and thing, appearance and significance, coincide. One day in Paris in 1927, he discovered two grains of wheat at the Musée Cluny on which the entire Shema Israel had been inscribed. “Tiniest essence appearing on tiniest entity,” writes Hannah Arendt. The LORD is one.

Years before he published his Creative Confession, Paul Klee experienced one of Benjamin’s moments—an instant of revelation and collision—on a trip to Tunisia with August Macke and Louis Molliet. Stirred by the North-African coastal light, unlike any he had seen before, he wrote:

Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one.

III. Struck from the List

Divorced and plagued by financial insecurity, in 1930 Benjamin secured a small two-room flat in Berlin. One room for his bed and one room for his books and papers. Angelus Novus kept watch over this second room—over notes, sketches, and collections—and it often found its way into the pages of his work. During this time, Benjamin wrote to Scholem about the difficulties of being “without property and position, home and funds at the threshold of one’s forties,” but noted that his “inner existence” had “a foundation that feels hard but has no room for demons.”

Yet as the Nazi’s gained power in Berlin, his foundation began to crumble. “The Third Reich is a train that does not leave until everyone is on board,” Benjamin wrote to Scholem. Refusing to get on board, Benjamin locked his papers in the closet of the bedroom, and fled to Prussia and Spain; he did not take Angelus Novus with him. Where there was no room for demons under the Angel’s watch, in its absence there grew a vacancy, quickly and quietly filled. “[S]eriousness,” “hopelessness,” and “weariness” settled down like dust on the empty bookcases of his consciousness. At the Hôtel du Petit Parc in Nice, he bequeathed Angelus Novus to Gershom Scholem in a suicide note. He did not, at that time, go through with it, and no one knows why he changed his mind.

Back in Germany, Klee was also forced to flee. The Nazis called his work “degenerate” and publicly decried him a Galician Jew (and it didn’t matter that he wasn’t). Klee returned to the small Swiss town where he was born, and it seemed to him that his moment had passed. When he looked out the windows of his two-bedroom flat, he might have seen the snowy caps of the Bernese Alps, just barely discernible on a clear day.

IV. “One Day I Will Lie Nowhere with an Angel at My Side.”

But in their shared and separate bleakness, both Benjamin and Klee were too quick to call it. The last years of Klee’s life were his most productive. In 1939, the year before he died, he created more than 1,200 drawings and paintings, many of which were angels. Compulsively and sometimes broodingly, on sheets large and small, he sketched wings and claws and startled eyes. With heavy black charcoal lines, he captured the motionless beating and gazing. Messenger after messenger, appearing as they might before God’s throne, at times joyfully exalting, at times lamenting the brevity of their stay. (In Kabbalistic angelology, of which Benjamin made himself an avid scholar, angels appeared before God’s throne for an instant, to sing a hymn and then dissolve.) In total, Klee created 2,700 works in his small studio in Bern (a “personal best” he wrote to his son). He died in 1940, from Scleroderma, a literal thickening of the skin.

1940 was also the year of Benjamin’s death. But for the five years prior, he lived and wrote in Paris. In 1935, he asked a friend to bring him his Angelus Novus and once he had it back he hung it on the wall at 10 Rue Dombasle. There it hung until 1940, when—once again, and long after he should have—he fled the Nazi forces. He gathered his papers and stuffed them into two briefcases; he cut his Angel from its frame, the safe borders in which it had been suspended for twenty years, and hid it among the papers in one of the cases. Both briefcases lay hidden in the Bibliothèque Nationale on September 26, 1940, when Benjamin’s desperate attempt to seek refuge across the Pyrenees failed. And both cases lay secretly in the dark when he, too, lay silently in the dark of his hotel room that night—suicide .

V. His Eyes Are Staring, His Mouth Is Open, His Wings Are Spread

Benjamin wrote that Klee’s “work in painting is essentially solitary.” But Klee’s last years prove otherwise. In an almost ritualistic, clairvoyant preparation, the painter surrounded himself with the angels of his creation. Terrifying, whimsical, maniacal, and impish—these were his companions. And in a way, Benjamin was similarly attended through his final writings. Theses on the Philosophy of History, which he started and finished the year of his death, materialized one last angel: the Angel of History. Here is a translation of the ninth thesis in its entirety:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.

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 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 a 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.

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I no longer carry Illuminations with me everywhere I go. But I often remember the Angel of History. It lives next to my understanding of time, loss, and change. And in its genesis—from Klee to the canvas to Benjamin to the page—it represents a chain of connection that weathers the storm, that weathers all storms. Amidst loneliness, violence, loss, and dejection, we are bound together by art. Paintings, books, poems and songs—their creation and collection—passed along by chance or gift. When all that’s left is work and progress and the violence of progress and war, the Angel of History sees us wrapped together like strands of the same worn rope. Whether we feel it or not, whether or not we ever meet face to face.

Sources:

Scholem, Gershom. On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: the Story of a Friendship. Trans. Harry Zohn. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter and Gershom Scholem. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940. Trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. New York: 1989.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1955.

Partsch, Susanna. Klee, 1879-1940. Taschen, 2003.

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Katharine Blake McFarland  is a writer living in San Francisco. She has a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. in English Literature from Smith College. Currently, she teaches writing at San Quentin Prison and is at work on a collection of essays.

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2 Comments

  1. This is a revelation–surprising and unsettling and genuinely heartening. And who knew about those dissolving angels? (The phrase itself seems as apt a description for Benjamin as I can imagine.)

  2. Wow–what a lyrical history lesson, and look at the larger movements and lessons of history. I’m glad to see the American intellect is still alive and well and being published. Kudos to CIRCA and McFarland.

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