Bitter Angels of History


Klee’s painting, Angelus novus, has a catchy title. It gives the painting an air of mystery. Angels, however, are so many, there are billions of them, on every pinhead, it is said. Every boson, every prion even, could have its own angel. In this immense crowd, how can we distinguish between « new » and « old » angels?

Are not angels, by nature, essentially timeless, pure spirits?

Klee’s angel is curiously static, even motionless. There is no sensation of movement, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing.

His « wings » are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forward. His « fingers », or « feathers », are pointing upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose is like another tiny face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several are missing.

This ailing, stunted angel has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher shop.

Walter Benjamin made this comment, expressly metaphorical: “There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. This is what the angel of History must necessarily look like. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm blows from heaven, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is pushing him incessantly towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins pile up as far as heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i

It seems to me that Benjamin has completely re-invented the Klee painting, for his own purposes. No storm, no accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seem – in my opinion – to accompany the young angel of Klee.

Why, moreover, should History have only one ‘Angel’? And, if it were so, why should this Angel of History be ‘new’, when History is not?

Angelology is a very imperfect science, like History, it seems.

Isaiah said: “The angels of peace shall weep bitterly.”ii

In the Book of Daniel, we read that an archangel appeared and said: “The Prince of the Persians resisted me for twenty-one days.”iii According to a classical interpretation, this archangel was Gabriel, and the « Prince of the Persians » was the angel in charge of guarding the Persian kingdom.

S. Jerome added that Daniel prayed for the liberation of his people. But the Angel-Prince of the Persian kingdom opposed his prayers, while the archangel Gabriel presented them to God.

S. Thomas Aquinas commented the commentary: “This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”iv

Isn’t this here a quite convincing indication, based on the Scriptures, that there are definitely several angels playing a role in History, and that, moreover, they are sometimes brought to fight each other, according to the interests of the moment?

According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels belong to various orders and classes, such as the Principalities (hence the name « Prince » that we have just met for the angel of Persia), the Powers, the Virtues, the Dominations. Even better known are the Cherubim and Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « crying out to one another ». Ezechiel speaks of Cherubim he had a vison of, and according to him, each of them had four faces and four wings.v

The Kabbalists propose ten classes of Angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.

Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, but he arranges them in a different order, and groups them into two large classes, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».

Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguished between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time.

Where, then, should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, that « new » angel whom Benjamin calls the « Angel of History »? Is he permanent or perishable? Eternal or momentary?

If Benjamin and Klee are right, we should believe that History is guarded just by one ‘new angel’, who therefore must be probably perishable and momentary.

But if they are wrong, History is guarded not by one, but by many angels, and they may be eternal, imperishable.

They then may also cry out to each other like seraphim with multiple wings, and in the confused battles of the angels furiously mixed up, over the centuries, progress might be hard to perceive.

There is one thing, however, that we can be assured of: the most beautiful, the most brilliant of these seraphim (though not the most powerful apparently), – these angels of « peace » keep crying out, bitterly.

iWalter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History. 1940

iiIs. 33, 7

iiiDan. 10,13

ivSumma Theologiae I, Q. 113 a.8

vEz. 10,14-22

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