Français : Walter Benjamin en 1928 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Walter Benjamin‘s concept of the angel of history has particular resonance for me, in looking at how things go in the world. I quote, “A Klee drawing 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 that keeps piling ruin upon ruin 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 from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such 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.
— Walter Benjamin,
Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History
Benjamin saw what was happening in and to Europe in the 30’s, and particularly what was happening to Jews. He chose to take his own life, in 1940, rather than deal with the horror or take the chance of being corralled by the Nazis.
Benjamin’s observation, or insight, is from a completely different time from our own. Its relevance to human history in general, however, is timeless. I quote here from an essay on truthout.org by Henry Giroux, linked below:
“we are pulled forward by future happiness – [when] in fact, [as Benjamin noted], we are pushed from behind by the horror of destruction we keep perpetrating on the way.”
The promise of a brighter future is constantly held before us, but we, at least most of us will never get there, neither in this life or whatever may come after. Most of us will experience the stick, in one way or the other, much more often than we will taste the sweetness of the carrot. It doesn’t HAVE to be this way, but as the system currently is constructed, and works, this is how it is. It is up to us to change it if we can muster the desire, pull away from the distractions constantly dangled in front of us, and bond together with like-minded individuals to enact change.