- Angelus Novus, Angst of History
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In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance—provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem (Aufgabe). For the revolutionary thinker, the peculiar revolutionary chance offered by every historical moment gets its warrant from the political situation. But it is equally grounded, for this thinker, in the right of entry which the historical moment enjoys vis-à-vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked. The entrance into this chamber coincides in a strict sense with political action, and it is by means of such entry that political action, however destructive, reveals itself as messianic.—Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”
For staying is nowhere.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
>> All the Time in the World
Paul Klee’s “new angel” is a figure of balanced asymmetries: upper body and glance cocked slightly to the right, lower half counterweighing with left-shifted arrangement of costume and limb.1 The evidence of this winged compensation, its suggestion of horizontal motion and central placement in the composition (defining a space otherwise without coordinates) give the angel its uneasy fixity. Even in innocence of its canonical allegorization, the picture distantly recalls the melancholy face of petrified clocks, striking in time’s absence. The apparent suspension—in equilibrium—of the angel’s movement between invisible fields, one before and one behind it, already evokes time’s balancing act; as past and future hang in the balance, the pivotal present (pictured here) seems either static or “absent.”
If we nonetheless find ourselves turning toward Walter Benjamin, turning the allegory of time into an allegory of history, it is to grant this seemingly fixed, empty present the gravity of historical presence (by raising to a higher power the historicity of its origins—1919–20, Munich, the rise of fascism . . .). The present’s balanced stasis belies the tug-of-war in which it is effectively locked; a minute shift in the balance of time would wrest it from its here-and-now. The order of adjustments that entered into the figure’s disposition is nowhere legible: Had lapsed time formed a vortex before the gusts of progress reached the scene? Were these claims simultaneous? The faint suggestion of motion, moreover, does not extend to its effective orientation. The angel’s positional ambivalence should immediately dispel any impression of partiality—of being, in however tentative a way, on the side of the future; one would be wrong to render its name unequivocally as a valorization of progress. Drawn equally in both directions, it is a figure of split allegiances. Not to prelapsarian Paradise and Utopia of the Future, but to the abortive reality said to follow the one and precede the other: human punishment and sacrifice, respectively. Though immobilization and equipoise make its pendant-like suspension in the sky appear ornamental, spared the vicissitudes of history, the angel is [End Page 43]
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really an angel-doll, a plaything of time, at the behest of the past and the mercy of the future. Something in its breast, the center of tension—the threshold on which time’s taut line chafes incessantly—threatens to snap.
The angel may be modern, “new,” even in its novelty “revolutionary” (progress is pressing and comes on with neither warning nor moderation). It may be caught in a violent air current as in the spokes of a spinning wheel, whose revolution would instantly carry it off into the future—were it not for a counterforce, retardatory but no less revolutionary (or violent). Given the understated pattern of dynamism in...