I met Angelus Novus, a Paul Klee image, through Walter Benjamin’s writings, inscribed in his verse like a ghost. Within the binding of his book, like all books, I found my way into another world, a door to Narnia that released me into twentieth century Europe. At the time, Jewish intellectuals like Benjamin were fleeing persecution as the Nazis rose to power, and city after city fell. They moved from Germany outwards—with centrifugal force—many to Paris.
Benjamin perished in 1940, when he attempted to cross into Spain from France, but his last written words (published as Theses on the Philosophy of History) are timeless. Of Angelus Novus, he wrote:
“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.”
In his Theses, Benjamin wrote of the failures of so-called “progress,” citing the marginalized histories that we cannot remember because victors inspire a collective amnesia to preserve dominant narratives. He wrote of the societal fracturing that occurs when histories are ignored, cultural fault lines that burst open in times of economic or social change. He wrote of yesterday, and somehow also of today.
Angelus Novus is not the only image that has spoken to me, but the first that made me want to cross an ocean. When I finally saw the angel—”new angel”—as it was named by artist Paul Klee, I saw a tendency to forget that which is unkind or uncomfortable. In the wake of such forgotten histories, we encounter only partial stories that serve to further marginalize certain groups.
Benjamin was called by Angelus Novus almost a century ago and carried it with him when he fled from the Nazis, first from Berlin to Paris, the beloved French capital that inspired much of his writing (later collected in the Arcades Project). He gave the image to his closest friend, Gershom Scholem, before he died on the border alone. As a sort of pilgrimage for his fallen companion, Scholem carried the painting to Israel. And soon after, Hannah Arendt took the final words that Benjamin had written (the Theses) and fled with them, eventually making her way—and their way—to America.
When we think of migration, we think of human movement, or maybe that of animals when autumn turns to winter, or winter to spring. Rarely do we think of objects or images, how they travel across the globe, carrying memories and thus lives with them. Author Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved not of remembering, but “re-memory,” that is, the act of remembering a memory. I traveled to Jerusalem in December 2018, venturing into the Israel Museum, where Angelus Novus is now stored in a basement protected from the light, on a quest to recover a re-memory, or perhaps to find Benjamin, because in his writings of the city, of hope and of despair, I found myself.
As humans, we practice a sort of temporal deviance, inhabiting the fallacy that the here and now is disconnected from our before or after, and that time moves in a linear way towards an end. On December 26, 2019, I stood in the basement of the Israel Museum, beside a curator, Ronit, who grew up in New York City just like me. Since early adulthood, she had longed to move to Israel. And I, called by the angel that once called to Walter Benjamin, came face to face with Angelus Novus for the first (and likely last) time. I looked into the eyes of that fallen angel, its wings unable to take flight, eyes that Benjamin once studied with care and resignation, in his tragic search for redemption. The “new angel,” also the angel of history, teaching me in a single glance not that history repeats itself, but that the fullness of history remains within us, if only we choose to look it in the eye.
image: Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, via creative commons
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Written by: Elisabeth Becker
Elisabeth Becker is a postdoctoral fellow with the Religion & Its Publics project and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. She is working on two books: her academic manuscript, Unsettled Islam, based on ethnographic research in European mosques, and a memoir on interfaith marriage, migration, and belonging, On the Edge the Worlds. Her research centers on Islam in Europe and the United States as well as interfaith alliances between Muslims and Jews in Europe, the United States and Israel.