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The Storm Blowing from Paradise: Walter Benjamin and Klee's Angelus Novus

What was so marvellous to Benjamin about this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes? “This,” he wrote in one of his greatest essays, “is how one pictures the angel of history.”

Stuart Jeffries 2 August 2016

The Storm Blowing from Paradise: Walter Benjamin and Klee's <i>Angelus Novus</i>

The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness gathers for the first time the fiction of the legendary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. Each text in the book is accompanied by a Paul Klee illustration. Below, Stuart Jeffries examines the meaning that Klee's Angelus Novus held for Benjamin.

In 1921, Walter Benjamin bought Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, an oil transfer drawing with watercolour, for 1,000 marks in Munich. His friend Charlotte Wolf then recalled how this “gauche and inhibited man” had “behaved as if something marvellous had been given to him." 

What was so marvellous to Benjamin about this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes? “This,” he wrote in one of his greatest essays, “is how one pictures the angel of history.”

The German-Jewish philosopher and critic hung Angelus Novus in every apartment he lived in, not quite as a guardian angel but a suggestive presence that would keep making appearances in his writings until Benjamin’s death in 1940. Today, after a torrid history, its home is Jerusalem, though until August 1 it can be seen in Paris as part of the Pompidou Centre’s Klee retrospective.

In the same year Benjamin bought Angelus Novus, he set up a literary journal of the same name, “in part,” as he put it

because of the attempt to draw a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the period and the Talmudic legend about angels who are being constantly created and find an abode in the fragments of the present.

Klee was not Jewish and so his Angelus Novus was unlikely to be the visual representation of Talmudic legend. No matter: in the eye of Benjamin the beholder, the young Swiss artist’s painting took on a new, and profoundly influential, resonance.

Ten years later, Benjamin cited the painting his essay on the Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus. Angelus Novus, he wrote, makes it possible “to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction."

And then in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power and Benjamin fled Germany for the last time, he left the painting behind. He wrote in an autobiographical essay called "Agesilaus Santander" that year while in exile on Ibiza. “The angel … resembles all from which I had to part: persons and above all things.” 

But it was in his last great posthumously published essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," that Benjamin reflected most profoundly on the picture’s significance for him and his understanding of human history. He described in thesis IX what he saw in Klee’s painting:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon 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 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 his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

For a Marxist (and Benjamin was a Marxist, albeit of an oddball temper), this was heretical stuff. Indeed, these words were part of a reconfiguration of Marxism that had arisen in the aftermath of the failure of the 1919 German Revolution to emulate the Russian one of two years earlier. It was a reconfiguration that had gathered intellectual support by the publication in Moscow in the late 1920s of Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. It was there that Marx developed what he disdained later, a  theory of alienation whereby the working classes instead of changing the conditions under which it lived, became passive in the face of apparently autonomous exchanges of commodities.

In the era of consumerised monopoly capitalism in which Benjamin and the thinkers of the Frankfurt School he influenced lived, and in the wake of the failure of revolution in Germany and, later, enthusiasm among German workers for the Third Reich, this was a resonant thought: the revolution was not coming, or at least not according to the unfolding dialectical laws of historical materialism Marx set out in his mature work. If, contrary to those whom Benjamin called “vulgar Marxists," class struggle would not necessarily lead to a happy future in which capitalism was destroyed and the proletariat able to lead fulfilled lies devoid of economic exploitation, then, perhaps, all that remained was to survey the rubble of the past and to expose the lie of progress as coterminous with human liberation.

This, to more straitlaced Marxists, reads like unacceptable political quietism, a disgraceful elitism in response to the needs of the sufferings of the poor and needy under capitalism. And yet, understood sympathetically, Benjamin’s approach to that suffering and Adorno’s gloss on his one-time master’s thinking, are important, perhaps even humane. Both effectively insist, counterintuitively, that the past can be transformed, that injustice can be corrected by looking back on past sufferings.

It has been a stimulating thought to many. The critic British critic Terry Eagleton, a sophisticated and politically engaged interpreter of Benjamin , for instance, wrote: “In one of his shrewdest sayings, Benjamin remarked that what drives men and women to revolt against injustice is not dreams of liberated grandchildren, but memories of enslaved ancestors. It is by turning our gaze to the horrors of the past, in the hope that we will not thereby be turned to stone, that we are impelled to move forward.” 

Thus, the enigmatic figure of the Angelus Novus, so captivating to Benjamin, has become an iconic emblem for the left.

Let’s look more closely at Klee’s drawing. Can you see in it what Walter Benjamin did, a whole mystical vision of human woe and eternal suffering? Some have struggled with that. The artist Ken Aptekar, for instance, in 2000, made a painting riffing on Klee’s Angelus Novus and overlaid it with Benjamin’s text quoted earlier from "Theses on the Philosophy History." 

The Detroit-born painter, who now lives and works in New York and Paris, is himself Jewish, and hardly ignorant of the Talmudic legends about angels. Indeed, he made his version of Angelus Novus for an exhibition called Angels in which he painted new versions of historical works, bolting glass with sandblasted words to his painted panels. Like Benjamin, Aptekar’s gaze is retrospective, time-travelling old paintings into the present, redeeming them from the past — or at least re-interpreting old art for new audiences.

Problem: Aptekar couldn’t see Klee’s angel as bearing all the weight of suffering humanity’s history, still less as emblematic of shattered hopes in progress. “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus,” Benjamin wrote in the ninth thesis, “shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.” You could look at Klee’s work for aeons without seeing the movement Benjamin suggests is about to take place — or at least, you could were you not to look at the image with eyes not sympathetic to Benjamin’s interpretation.  

Does the angel look as though poised to move from something he’s contemplating? Or does Benjamin projects on to this image  a whole mystically infused, Talmudically inspired, heretically Marxist philosophy? The latter seems more likely. Without that Benjamin projection, Angelus Novus is — or at least Ken Aptekar and I see him as being — a rather jaunty figure, marked if anything by Klee’s abiding sense of irony (not for nothing is the Pompidou’s Klee show called l’Ironie à l’oeuvre; Irony at Work). To pin the angel down eternally as representing anything — in particular an inversion of the Hegelian onward dialectical march of history — seems reductive, though in Benjamin’s case fascinatingly so.

No matter. In order to make his retooled Angelus Novus seem effectually sinister and bear the weight of significance Benjamin imputed to it, Aptekar doubled the angel — laying a negative image of the angel over his reworking of Klee’s original. Over the resultant,compositeimage is a sheet of glass with sandblasted text from Benjamin’s "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Aptekar told me that he had never seen in  in Klee’s drawing what Benjamin saw. “But,” he said, “this is my attempt at visualising it.” 

We don’t know, unfortunately, what Klee thought of Benjamin’s interpretation of his work. Perhaps, like Ken Aptekar, he would have felt mystified by it. Perhaps Klee might have felt  like Karl Kraus who, after reading Benjamin’s great essay on his work, commented, in a mood of rather charmed mystification: “[T]he author appears to know a good many of things about me that I was previously ignorant of, things that even now I don’t clearly recognise; and I can only express the hope that others will understand it better than I.”

For all that one was Jewish and the other not, nonetheless, Benjamin and Klee were sympathetic souls, whose lives followed similar trajectories. In the early 1920s, they were both young men attempting to establish themselves in the aftermath of Germany’s catastrophic defeat in World War One in which humanity, indeed, did seem to prove itself by destruction. “I want to see a war fought, so badly,” says one eager grunt in the British sitcom Blackadder. “Well, you've come to the right place, Bob,” says Captain Blackadder. “A war hasn't been fought this badly since Olaf the Hairy, high chief of all the Vikings, accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside”.

Fortunately, neither Klee nor Benjamin  saw much action in that war. Despite being conscripted, Klee spent much of his service away from the front, which allowed him to paint and draw throughout the conflict. As for Benjamin, in October 1915, the 23-year-old student and the great Jewish mystic thinker Gershom Scholem cemented their friendship by staying up all night drinking vast quantities of black coffee until 6am. 

The coffee was part of “a practice then followed by many young men prior to their military physicals,” Scholem wrote in his memoir, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. The trick was to simulate a weak heart and it worked — later that day Benjamin presented himself for a medical examination and his call-up was deferred. After dodging the draft, he wrote to Scholem: “At my last army physical, I was given a year’s deferment and, in spite of having little hope that the war will be over in a year. I am planning to be able to work in peace, at least for a few months, in Munich.” Later he was to spend the remainder of the war in Switzerland, studying for his doctorate at the University of Bern.

After the war, the former had a dream of becoming Germany’s leading critic, the latter in 1921, would join the faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar and then Dessau. But the rise of Hitler radically undercut both men’s aspirations. Klee was dismissed from his teaching job in 1933, the year of Hitler’s election as German chancellor, and moved to Bern. Benjamin settled in Paris after some years of vagabond wandering throughout Europe in the early 1930s in which he stayed away from Berlin to avoid the “opening ceremonies of the Third Reich”.

After Hitler’s accession to power, Benjamin, like Klee became person non grata in his homeland — the newspapers and radio stations on which he had relied for work, stopped returning his calls. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 redefined what it was to be Jewish, as a result the man who once dreamed of becoming Germany’s leading critic became a stateless man.  As the 1930s wore on, his work would only rarely be printed in German, and then mostly under a pseudonym. His 1936 book Deutsche Menschen, for example, was published under the pseudonym Detlev Holz and even then only because its theme (it consisted of 27 letters between Germans including Hölderlin, Kant, the Grimm brothers, Schlegel and Schleiermacher in the hundred years after 1783, with commentaries by Benjamin) could be twisted to serve the patriotic agenda of the Nazis. In 1938, though, even it was put on the censor’s list of banned German books.

Both men died in 1940. Benjamin was fleeing from Paris across the Pyrenees, hoping to reach Lisbon where he could sail to New York and there be installed in an apartment set up for him by his already exiled friends from the Frankfurt School. Instead, one night in a hotel in the Catalan seaside town of Port Bou, fearing capture and falling into the clutches of the Nazis, he took a fatal dose of morphine pills.  Today, written in both Catalan and German on his tombstone in Port Bou is a quotation from section seven of "Theses on the Philosophy of History": “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

As for Klee, he died in his native Switzerland from the wasting disease scleroderma. On his tombstone is the inscription  "I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.”

What has become of  Angelus Novus? It roamed vagabond for years, like Benjamin in the 1930s. Unlike him, though, it  found  a safe new home. Shortly before leaving Paris for his doomed flight, Benjamin entrusted his papers and Klee’s painting to author and Bibliothèque Nationale librarian Georges Bataille. After the war, Benjamin’s possessions were passed  to  Adorno in New York. Later, the painting came into the hands of Benjamin’s friend, Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem. Finally, Scholem’s widow gave Angelus Novus to the Israel Museum in 1987.

What did Klee’s work mean to Benjamin? In his book Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, Erdmut Wizisla writes that he saw Klee — like playwright Bertolt Brecht or architect Adolf Loos — as a modernist artist, a renewer of aesthetic means, perhaps even an ally in the communistic project of politicising art that Benjamin described at the end of his great 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Like Brecht, Klee developed “a new, positive concept of barbarism”, but means of which, no doubt, the true nature of civilisation, its intolerable flip side, was exposed.  

It’s fitting, then, that in Verso’s recent publication of the first major collection of Walter Benjamin’s fiction, called The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness, each tale is delightfully  prefaced with a picture by Klee. “Remarkable for their simplicity, humour and fantastical nature, Klee’s illustrations here bring to life Benjamin’s stories,” write the book’s editors. I particularly like the spooky, perhaps sheet-wearing figures who preface two of Benjamin’s dream narratives in the book.

But it’s another Klee painting, not included in the book, that makes me think of Walter Benjamin. In Arrogance (1939), a tightrope walker struggles to keep balance. Benjamin is always such a teetering figure. A year before Klee made this lovely painting, Benjamin described himself in a letter as “something like a man who has made his home in a crocodile’s jaws, which he keeps prised open with iron braces” — like so many other Jews and communists of the time who throughout the 1930s wandered an increasingly inhospitable Europe. Arrogance, of course, isn’t really the right title — at least for my interoperation of Klee’s picture.

But back to the Angel. 

If you take a clifftop walk not far from Port Bou’s municipal cemetery Walter Benjamin is buried, you may well find yourself descending some steps towards the Mediterranean Sea. Then you’ll find your path blocked by a sheet of glass. This is a memorial to Benjamin by Israeli artist Dani Karavanhe. It is called Passages — thus commemorating both Benjamin’s  attempted escape from the Nazis and the great book Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project) he left unfinished at his death. On the glass are some more words from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "It is more arduous to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.” The arduousness of that project of honouring the nameless is, of striving to redeem past sufferings no doubt, what Walter Benjamin saw in Paul Klee’s angel as it hovered mid-air, buffeted by the unbearable, inescapable storm of what we call progress.

>>> Listen to Esther Leslie, Michael Rosen and Marina Warner speak with Gareth Evans on the Verso podcast in collaboration with the London Review Bookshop

>>> Read an excerpt from the translators' Introduction

Filed under: art, germany, history, philosophy, western-marxism