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

Jacob and the Black Seraphim


Just hours before he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to his death in Drancy, Max Jacob wrote « The Spring ». Here is my tentative translation:

“In front of this golden dust of the sun, on the horizon of the plain, in front of this silver dust of the willows around the marshes, in front of this buzzing of different insects, cut by the jack dominated by the horror of an airplane, in front of this dust of sporadic flowers, the crow folds up its voluptuous velvet and silk wings, gathers, greets deeply and looking in its chest for the pelican cry which was that of the dying Christ. And I, letting my head roll in tears, crying with joy in my elbow, as a gnome and a crippled old man, I cry out: ‘My God, I am a pantheist and you are unspeakable’. »

The dust may be a testimony to the unity of the world. The voluptuousness of the velvet incites contemplation. The cry of the pelican and the cry of Christ are drowned in terror. It is war. Max Jacob, alias Leon David, alias Morven the Gaelic, converted to Christianity, and wearing the Jewish star, crippled and pantheistic, gave himself over to tears and joy.

In the Middle Ages the pelican was a symbol of Christian sacrifice. Many writers and poets have borrowed and exhausted this metaphor.

Lautréamont: « When the savage pelican resolves to give his breast to be devoured by his young, having as his witness only the one who knew how to create such love, in order to shame men, even though the sacrifice is great, this act is understandable » (Songs of Maldororor, 1869).

Léon Bloy: « Each one of us is saved by the redeeming pelican who can save even notaries! But he saves you very-particularly, because the heart of Jesus needed a painter and no painter came forward. By dint of love and faith, you have been judged worthy to glimpse the red pelican, the pelican that bleeds for his little ones » (Diary, 1906).

Wikipedia says, more technically: « The pelican is usually silent, but in nesting colonies, chicks will throw plaintive growls to ask for food. Adults may emit hoarse cries during courtship. »

The nailed Christ, hanging by his outstretched arms, his suffocating chest, close to asphyxiation, must not have shouted very loudly. Was his moan « plaintive » or « hoarse »?

Ornithology can hardly help here.

The poet’s images, their rhizomes, proliferate and interfere, generation after generation, like memories and prophecies.

Alfred de Musset:

« The most desperate are the most beautiful songs,

And I know some immortals who are pure sobs.

When the pelican, tired of a long journey,

In the fog of the evening returns to his reeds,

His hungry little ones run ashore,

As they watched him fall over the water in the distance…

Already, believing to seize and share their prey,

They run to their father with cries of joy,

Shaking their beaks on their hideous goiter.

He, taking slow steps over a high rock,

From its wing hanging down, sheltering its brood,

A melancholy fisherman, he looks up to the heavens.

Blood flows in long streams from his open chest;

In vain he has of the seas searched the depths;

The ocean was empty and the beach deserted;

For all food he brings his heart.

Dark and silent, lying on the stone,

Sharing his fatherly insides with his sons,

In his sublime love he cradles his pain;

And, watching his bloody teat flow,

On his feast of death he collapses and staggers,

Drunk with lust, tenderness and horror.

But sometimes, in the midst of the divine sacrifice,

Tired of dying in too much agony,

He’s afraid his children will leave him alive;

So he rises up, opens his wing to the wind,

And, hitting his heart with a wild cry,

He pushes into the night such a funeral farewell,

That the birds of the sea desert the shore,

And that the retarded traveler on the beach,

Feeling the passing of death, commends himself to God. »

(The muse)

The pelican offers his flesh for its brood in a kind of a Christic, final sacrifice and utters a « wild cry ».

Musset is a poet, and by anticipation, he foresees the sure end of poets, who are also some sort of pelicans:

« Poet, this is how the great poets do it…

They let those who live for a time cheer themselves up;

But the human feasts they serve at their feasts…

Most of them look like pelicans. »

The poet Jacob the Gaelic also had a foreboding of the end, which was near.

Those who seized him were not black seraphim.

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.

« You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. »


Everything contributes to deceive, delude, mislead, the seeker who ventures into the slippery terrain of mystery, – without guidance, compass or bearings. The shoehorns are multiplying underfoot, in words. There are a thousand opportunities to get lost. The material is too rich, too vast, too flexible, too subtle. It is covered with too many veils, protected by thick walls, buried in the depths of forgotten cenotaphs, vanished into a clear azure, lost in the inaudible murmur of the zephyr.

You need a singularly piercing eye, a fine ear, a gentle touch, to only feel the fleeting shadow of a clue.

The mystery seeker reminds us of this character from Ṛg Veda: « Sullen, without knowledge, I question with my mind what are the hidden traces of the gods. »i

The seeker contemplates with his thoughts Isaiah’s seraphim, with their three pairs of wings, two of which are to cover their face and feet, and the third to fly, and he cannot be satisfied with what he sees, since they hide from him what he cannot see.

He tries to understand the meaning of Greek words that are only outer envelopes, without content: mystery (μυστήριον), symbol (σύμϐολον), enigma (αἲνιγμα), sign (σημεῖον), shadow (σκία), shape (τύπος) or similarity (εἰκών).

Origen has shown as clearly as possible, without being discouraged, how the mystery is constantly being hidden, and how, without interruption, it is being overlooked. He stated with a sense of evidence: « We feel that everything is full of mysteries”ii and also: « Everything that happens, happens in mysteries.»iii

In terms of mysteries, a higher irony haunts some Kabbalah texts, such as this one: « You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. For it is a mystery from the mysteries that leaves my treasure. All your schools prosper like fattened calves (Jeremiah 46:21), not by sorrow, not by labor, but by the name of this seal and by the mention of the terrifying crown. »iv

How would one interpret that sentence, nowadays?

Without waiting too long for an answer that will not easily be spit out, the researcher picks up other grains of knowledge that were collected thousands of years ago: « What is manifested and secret, what moves here in the secret heart of our being is the powerful foundation in which is established all that moves and breathes and sees. »v

He meditated on the details of Ezekiel’s experience, wondering about the differences between brightness, fire, and amber: « And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.» vi

The researcher measures the inanity of his efforts, the derisory nature of his strengths. He is aware that the idea of mystery could be nothing more than an illusion, a chimera, a pretext to collect in sheer waste scattered symbols, a propensity to tear diaphanous veils, to plunge into a verbal abyss, to overestimate the signs, to desire to see, instead of live.

Origen had warned: true knowledge is love. Plunged in sweet madness, the seeker seeks love in the true mystery.

iŖg Veda I,164,1

iiOrigen, Lev. Hom. 3,8

iiiOrigen, Gen. Hom. 9,1

iv Cf. Section Sar Ha-Torah (« Prince of Torah ») from Hekhalot Rabbati (« Great Palaces »)

vMundaka 2,2,1

viEz 1, 4