« I don’t Need a Face »


-Angelus Novus. Paul Klee-

Gershom Scholem immigrated to Israel in 1923 and settled in Jerusalem. He was very disappointed, there. With raw and disenchanted words, his poems testify to his feelings.

Under the title « Sad Redemption », Scholem wrote in 1926:

« The glory of Zion seems to be over.

Reality has been able to resist

Will its rays know unexpectedly

how to penetrate to the heart of the world?

(…)

God could never be closer to you.

When despair eats away at you

In the light of Zion, itself shipwrecked. »i

It is possible that these poems were also, maybe, the bearers of yet another hope, a secret one, – obviously a burning one, which could however not be formulated.

But it is fact that he had lost his faith.

For him it was already nightfall.

« I lost that faith

Who led me here.

But since I recanted

It is dark all around. » ii

On June 23, 1930, he wrote another poem, which shows the depth of his dereliction, – and also opens a path, pierces every fence, projects himself in the broad, in the vast, – in the world, and exile himself, in thought, again.

« But the day has desecrated us.

What grows requires night.

We are delivered to powers,

By us unsuspected.

Incandescent history

Threw us into its flames,

Ruined the secret splendor,

Offered to the market, too visible, then.

It was the darkest hour

An awakening out of the dream.

Yet those who were wounded to death

Barely noticed it.

What was inside

Transformed, passing outside,

The dream has turned violent,

We are out again,

And Zion is formless. » iii

How to interpret this radical change in his state of mind?

Should we understand it as the terrible disappointment of an idealistic soul, unable to bear the violence of the reality, the one he had before his eyes, or to stomach the repetition of yet another violence, known to him, under other forms, and under other longitudes?

Or should we understand it as a terrible naivety, not suspecting what was inevitably to come, and which was already looming in 1930, on the slimy, red and black threatening stage of History?

Two years before leaving for Israel, Gershom Scholem had addressed a poem to Walter Benjamin, on July 15, 1921, – entitled « The Angel’s Salute ».

At his friend’s request, he had kept on his behalf Paul Klee’s famous drawing (belonging to Walter Benjamin) at home and had placed it on the wall in his Berlin apartment.

Klee’s « Angelus Novus » was to be later on called the « Angel of History », by Walter Benjamin himself, shortly before his suicide in France.

In his poem, « The Angel’s Salute », Scholem made the « Angel of History » say :

« I’m on the wall, and beautiful,

I don’t look at anyone,

Heaven sent me,

I am the angelic man.

In the room where I am, the man is very good,

But I’m not interested in him.

I am under the protection of the Most High

And I don’t need a face ». iv

Gershom Scholem obviously sees himself as this « good man », who houses the Angel in his « room », – but Scholem, apparently, was struck that he did not interest the « angelic man ».

In fact, Klee’s Angel really does not « look at anyone ».

But it was Scholem’s idea that the Angel allegedly did not « need any face »…

Why this angelic indifference?

Maybe because Klee’s Angel only sees Elyon’s Face?

Or maybe because any angel’s face is already « all faces » (panim)?

Or perhaps because any face, as the Hebrew word panim teaches it, is in itself a plurality.

And then all the faces of History form an infinite plurality of pluralities.

Or maybe the Angel does not need plurality, nor the plurality of pluralities, but only needs the One?

There is something overwhelming to imagine that the « Angel of History » is not interested in the « good man » in the 1930’s, and that he does not need to look at his good face, or at any other human face for that matter.

What does this jaded Angel come to do, then, on this wall, in this room, in the center of Berlin, in the 1920’s?

Thinking of it, a century later, I had to turn to yet another voice.

« At least one face had to answer

To all the names in the world.» v

_________________

iGershom Scholem. The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 303.

iiGershom Scholem. « Media in Vita ». (1930-1933) The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304.

iiiGershom Scholem. « Encounter with Zion and the World (The Decline) « . (June 23, 1930). The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304.

ivGershom Scholem. « Hail from the angel (to Walter for July 15, 1921) ». The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304

vPaul Éluard . Capitale de la douleur. XXIX – Poetry/Gallimard 1966 (my translation)

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