Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Rubble of History

Watching the Republican National Convention, the image that keeps haunting me is Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. This is the figure that Walter Benjamin called the angel of history - blown ever forward by the winds of time, face turned perpetually toward the past, watching the rubble of human "progress" pile up behind him:
A Klee painting 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 which keeps piling wreckage 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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a 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's ninth thesis from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," cited in Wikipedia - yeah, I'm that lazy. Wikipedia claims fair use of this reproduction of Klee's Angelus Novus, and so do I.)
Of course, it's not the convention itself that calls forth the angel of history. It's the repeated references to danger and terror and 9/11. It's the memory of the avoidable human wreckage piled upon the ruins of the Twin Towers in the seven years since. And it's the very real fear that we as a country might not be wise enough to recognize the rubble for which we're culpable, nor strong enough to turn and face forward into the wind.

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