Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Progress


"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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This 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, Theses on the Philiosophy of History, IX
(from here)

W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is more or less a 300 page illustration of this thesis. This line from the book is often quoted in the reviews for example:

"On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark."

11 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

Thanks for spotlighting my favorite artist! And one of Benjamin's extraordinary images...

"His face is turned toward the past." What we are certain of is that his face is turned towards us, and we are forced to conclude that we constitute the past; we are the army of ghosts to which he - the only one who persists - is bidding an ambiguous farewell.

Alok said...

"we are the army of ghosts to which he - the only one who persists - is bidding an ambiguous farewell."

You have put it so nicely! thank you!! :)

I hadn't heard of him before, I came across him and this painting only in the course of reading about Walter Benjamin...

wildflower seed said...

Stay with me, Alok! :)

Second your thought about what Cheshire Cat said. Lovely!

Alok said...

We are all together in this wfs. We are all going to the same place :)

Antonia said...

reading this,especially the Sebald quote, made me wondering what the 'meridian' in this quote means...maybe a connection to Celan's Buechner prize speech?

Alok said...

Yes, the word choice did sound slightly strange to me too, although I wouldn't know since I haven't read the speech.

Incidentally I was reading the book Understanding W G Sebald and the author mentions that some critics found a referece to Celan in The Emigrants. In the final episode the painter Max Feber is haunted by a woman whose description they thought is similar to "Sulamith" of the Celan poem Death Fugue. He then dismisses these critics and calls these detective work "beside the point."

Sebald's books are peppered with literary references from everywhere so it might well be possible

Alok said...

Also Sebald's writing style in general is quite archaic and formal. In English at least (not sure about the German original) he is so formal that sometimes it even sounds comic, specially in Vertigo. So there might be many words and expressions which may sound "unnatural" but he uses them to create an effect of distance and detached contemplation.

Antonia said...

ive been thinking a lot about this Meridian thing but have no timejust now to reread this...its very good actually....and yes of course Sebald dismisses detective work, tho tehre are a lot of connections, I agree with you

Alok said...

Will check it out, I have been meaning to read about Celan for quite some time.

Antonia said...

here is the delayed Benjamin ine, by Rebecca Horn, don't know whether it makes sense...

"Leap from the roof of the hotel.
The tree collapses under the weight of the chattering birds.
Trapped between rocks, huge dark waves roll towards me.
A small trumpet should scatter the fog above.
- phonecall from the abyss –
Mortal combat between pencil and hatstring
From Walter Benjamin’s saturnine perspective."

Rebecca Horn: Tailleur du Coeur

Alok said...

Hmmm. Actually it made a lot of sense...

thanks a lot antonia :)