Drawing On The Angel Of History


by Zoë Pollock

David Kaufmann reviews Uwe Steiner’s new book on Walter Benjamin, the Jewish theorist who committed suicide in 1941. Kaufmann relishes the passage below and connects it to Benjamin's notion of religion:

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 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 is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ...

Benjamin’s thought was essentially religious. It clung to the twin promises of redemption and transcendence. The man worked from the clearly Jewish intuition that justice cannot be derived from the world as it is. Justice is precisely that small break from nature instituted by the Law. Our problem is not that nature is sinful. Our problem lies with the fact that on its own, nature just isn’t enough. It needs to be transcended, if only just a bit. As his friend T. W. Adorno was fond of reminding us, the Talmud says that the redeemed world will be like this one, but a little different. And that tiny shift means everything.