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

Many Names and One God

Some say that God is infinitely distant, totally incomprehensible, absolutely different from anything human minds can conceive. So much so, in fact, that this God might just as well not « exist » in the sense that we understand « existence » and its various modalities.

Others think that God creates, speaks, justifies, gratifies, condemns, punishes, saves, in short actually interacts, in various ways, with the world and with human beings.

At first glance, these two lines of thought are contradictory, incompatible.

But there is yet another hypothesis: the possibility of a God who is at once infinitely distant, incomprehensible, and at the same time close to men, speaking to them in their language.

Some texts describe forms of interaction between God and man. In the Book of Exodus, for example, God says to Moses:

« There I will meet thee, and I will speak with thee from the mercy seat between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, and I will give thee my commandments for the children of Israel. « (Ex. 25:22)

How can we justify the use of these words: « from », « upon », « between »? Are they not, inasmuch as they indicate positions and places, rather strange for a divine Spirit, who is supposed to be disembodied?

According to Philo of Alexandriai, God thus indicates that He is « above » grace, « above » the powers symbolized by the cherubim, i.e. the power to create and the power to judge. The Divine « speaks » by occupying an intermediate place, in the middle of the ark. The Divine fills this space and leaves nothing empty. God mediates and arbitrates, placing Himself between the sides of the ark that seemed separated, bringing them friendship and harmony, community and peace.

The Ark, the Cherubim, and the Word (or Logos) must be considered together as a whole.

Philo explains: « First, there is the One who is First – even before the One, the Monad, or the Principle. Then there is the Divine Word (the Logos), which is the true seminal substance of all that exists. And from the divine Word flow as from a source, dividing, two powers. One is the power of creation, by which everything was created. It is called « God ». And there is the royal power, by which the Creator governs all things. It is called « Lord ». From these two powers flow all the others. (…) Below these powers is the Ark, which is the symbol of the intelligible world, and which symbolically contains all the things that are in the innermost sanctuary, namely, the incorporeal world, the « testimonies, » the legislative and punitive powers, the propitiatory and beneficent powers, and above them, the royal and creative power that are their sources.

But between them also appears the divine Word (the Logos), and above the Word, the Speaker. And so seven things are enumerated, namely, the intelligible world, then above it, the two powers, punitive and benevolent, then the powers that precede them, creative and royal, closer to the Creator than to what He creates. Above, the sixth, which is the Word. The seventh is the Speaker.»ii

The multiplication of the names of God, of His attributes or His « emanations », is attested to in the text of Exodus just quoted, and is confirmed by Philo’s interpretation.

The idea of a One God to whom multiple names are given (a « God myrionymous », i.e. God « with a thousand names ») was also familiar to the Stoics, as it was to the followers of the cult of Isis or to the followers of the Orphic cults. Among the Greeks, God is at the same time Zeus, the Noos, or « the one with many and diverse names », πολλαίϛ τε έτεραις όνομασιαϛ.

We also find this practice, multiplied beyond all measure, in the Veda.

For example, Agnî has been called by the following names: “God of Fire”. “Messenger of the Gods”. “Guardian of the domestic hearth”. “His mouth receives the offering”. “He purifies, provides abundance and vigour”. “Always young”. “His greatness is boundless”. “He sustains and protects man”. “He has four eyes”. “He has a thousand eyes”. “He transmits the offering to the Gods with his tongue”. “He is the Head of the sky and the umbilicus of the Earth”. “He surpasses all the Gods”. “His child is his rays”. “He had a triple birth”. “He has three abodes”. “He arranges the seasons, he is the son of the waters”. “He produces his own mothers”. “He is called the Benefactor”. “He is born by Night and Dawn in turn”. “He is the son of strength and effort”. “He is the Mortal God ». “Called Archer”. “Identified with Indra, Vishnu, Varuna, Aryaman, Tvachtri”. “His splendor is threefold”. “He knows all the hidden treasures and uncovers them for us”. “He is present everywhere”. “His friendship delights the Gods, everything animate or inanimate”. “He is in the home of the singer, priest and prophet”. “He is in heaven and on earth”. “He is invoked before all the Gods”.

Both the God of Moses and the God Agnî have one thing in common: they have many names. No matter how many, in fact. What is important is that these two Gods, who are both ‘unique’, do not have just one single name. Why is that?

Perhaps no single word, no (however sacred) language, is worthy of bearing the name of God. No spirit, either, is deemed worthy to think about God only through His (many) attributes.

iPhilo. Q.E. II, 68

iiPhilo. Q.E. II, 68

Going Beyond Migration.

Angels, powers, virtues, dominions, seraphim, cherubim, and many other supernatural envoys and agents of the Jewish or Christian traditions, do not always confine themselves to their supposed rankings, to their orders of precedence, because of their subtle and incessant ascents, their internal movements and connections, and their continuous descents.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, for instance, sees their endless interpenetration as a metaphor and a possible illustration of the process at work within the Trinity, a process which he names the “conversation”. Each divine Person sees the Face of God in the Other Person, a Face of a God greater than any total understanding, eternally worthy of worship, even for a divine Person. The « Trinitarian conversation » is like an image of the « original prayer ».

This « Trinitarian conversation » could be imagined as a supreme metaphor, far above the entanglement of sephirotic whispers, the murmurs of the zephyrs, the atonal choirs of angels, their distant echoes, their evanescent evocations, their systemic symphonies.

In these elevated and delicate realities, the metaphors we are bound to use are only an invitation to journey. We have to move, always again, always further, we must always “go beyond”.

“To go beyond”in Hebrew: Habar, עָבַר. The English word ‘Hebrew’ was coined precisely from the Hebrew word – habar. Does it still convey its original meaning?

We may generalize this semantic intuition. The destiny of man is that of a never ending migration, possibly continuing, after death, in a future life. Men have been created as eternal migrants, en route for an infinite discovery.

Where does the soul go when she migrates?

We don’t know. But between “being here” and “being gone”, we may think of a continuity. We may dream that there is a way, a path. We may cherish the eventuality of a path leading to some place of unexpected interest, where to look after hidden gates, opening on new horizons.

Of course, this is a « fantastic » idea, in the sense that Plato gave to the word « phantasmos » in the Sophist.

Why consider it? As migrants, on our faces, we bear metaphysical scars. Under the scars, a rift. Under the rift, another face, yet hidden. We migrate within our scars.

Lightning, thunder, zephyrs, whispers. Metaphors invite us to navigate even further, to leave behind the grammatical ports, the security of our roots.

The next mutation will be yet another migration. Man is changing. The self-transformation of the human species is underway. A new language, visionary, is needed, beyond grammar, beyond roots, beyond migration.