Friday, 28 January 2005

Angelus Novus - A dialogue with the Angel of History

'Es gibt ein Bild von Klee, das "Angelus Novus" heißt. Ein Engel ist darauf dargestellt, der aussieht, als wäre er im Begriff, sich von etwas zu entfernen, worauf er starrt. Seine Augen sind aufgerissen, sein Mund steht offen und seine Flügel sind ausgespannt. Der Engel der Geschichte muß so aussehen. Er hat das Antlitz der Vergangenheit zugewendet. Wo eine Kette von Begebenheiten vor uns erscheint, da sieht er eine einzige Katastrophe, die unablässig Trümmer auf Trümmer häuft und sie ihm vor die Füße schleudert. Er möchte wohl verweilen, die Toten wecken und das Zerschlagene zusammenfügen. Aber ein Sturm weht vom Paradiese her, der sich in seinen Flügeln verfangen hat und so stark ist, daß der Engel sie nicht mehr schließen kann. Dieser Sturm treibt ihn unaufhaltsam in die Zukunft, der er den Rücken kehrt, während der Trümmerhaufen vor ihm zum Himmel wächst. Das, was wir den Fortschritt nennen, ist dieser Sturm.'

Walter Benjamin

Recently, I read a short text that was written by the German historian and philosopher Walter Benjamin. This text was about the Angel of History; an angel who is desperately trying to restore the destructions of the past, but who is blown away by the powerful storm that we call progress. This text fascinated me, and I started to wonder what this angel would be like and, especially, what he would feel. In the text, it is suggested that the angel is not able to close its wings anymore. Even though I had never (at least consciously) met angels before, I could imagine how hard it must be for an angel not to be able to fly, and I felt sorry for him. While I was thinking about this, I realized that I would really like to meet this angel and ask him about it.
There were two other reasons why I wanted to have a talk with the Angel of History. The first reason was that I had just finished reading an intriguing book on the European history of the twentieth century by the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak, called ‘In Europa: Reizen door de twintigste eeuw’ (‘In Europe – Traveling through the twentieth century’), which had moved me and made me realize more than before that there is an undeniable connection between our history and our present situation, and therefore some sort of responsibility towards that history. The second reason was a more pragmatic one: I had to write a paper for the political philosophy class I was taking. I was planning to make this paper a kind of experimental patchwork of different short philosophical articles and aphorisms in different writing styles, and I thought that it would be interesting to add a brief interview with the Angel of History to this patchwork.
The conversation I had with the angel lasted much longer than I had expected. Although in the beginning he did not seem very eager to answer my questions, after a while we were having an interesting dialogue. We were talking about the nature of history and our perception of time, about responsibility, about “good” and “wrong”, and about the destructiveness and the speed of our current system. Eventually, I decided on turning this dialogue into my philosophy paper. When I wrote it down, I only did some polishing on the language, but I tried to minimize this. I didn’t change the order of our conversations, our associations and the way we reacted on each other. So, like all conversations, it probably contains some contradictions, repetitions and inconsistencies; but, as the angel said, ‘what’s the point of being consistent?’
To conclude, I would like to thank the Angel of History for answering my questions so frankly and comprehensively, and for allowing me to write down our conversation and use it for my philosophy paper. I am grateful that he wanted to share his thoughts with me.

Excuse me, can’t you see I’m busy? I’m trying to fix what you guys just screwed up. I don’t have time for a nice conversation right now. There’s a lot of work I have to do, and no one’s helping me.
I just want to ask you one question.
Yeah, that’s what they all say. Most of them are angry, some are only curious, but they all want me to answer their one stupid question. When I answer it, of course they have another question. Or, even worse, they start arguing with me, because they don’t agree with me. They need to have someone to blame, and I’m an easy target, so they just blame me without listening to what I’m trying to tell them.
What is it they usually ask?
Why do you want to know? Isn’t your own question enough? Do you also want to know the accusations the others made in order to strengthen your own? I know that strategy. Throwing out all terrible events you can come up with, as if you’re personally a victim of them all, in order to make me admit something, even though there’s nothing to admit. Just mentioning Auschwitz isn’t enough; in order to get your point clear you guys are able to mention, in one single question, Verdun, Hiroshima, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Nanking, Rwanda, Armenia… Do you want me to continue?
No, thank you. I was just wondering what it is they want you to admit.
Can’t you see? They want me to admit guilt, of course. You guys can’t face the mess you made so you need someone to admit guilt and clean your mess for you, so you can continue believing that you are not ‘like that’ and that you are not responsible for what you see in Spielberg movies and museums, for what you see on TV news and in newspapers, for what you will see in the future, and especially, for what you don’t see because you don’t want to see it. ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’ – not because there is no information available, but because knowing is equal to collaborating, is equal to being guilty, so not knowing is the safest option. It is very easy to convince yourself that something is not your fault. But of course there ought to be someone who does know, someone who is guilty so you don’t need to be so. ‘Why, mister History, why? Why did you do this to us? We are unknowing creatures, incapable of changing things; you should have guided us, stopped those other people, those evil people that did those things that we shall never do because they are different than we. But you didn’t stop them. We accuse you! Commit that you are guilty!’
Then why didn’t you stop them?
Do you really want to know? Or is this just one of those sneaky Socratic ways to try to make me commit guilt anyway?
Why would I judge you?
Because most of them do.
I really want to know.
First of all, I want you to know that I am not God. I am not omnipotent. But even if I were Him, I would not have been able to control everything. He is not able to control, because He is not distinct, He is not separated from us, and He really is not independent. In fact, He is so busy trying to find Himself, that He is completely getting entangled in His dependencies; when I see this mess, though, I sometimes get the impression that He is further away from what he is searching for than ever. He doesn’t even seem to know the meaning of ‘ever’ anymore, obsessed by the temporality of His current experiences. Maybe He should stop trying to find Himself, accept His death, in order to be able to understand who He is. Maybe then it would be possible to clean this mess, because you guys would no longer ignore it, since you would realize that it is your common mess. Maybe God could only live if you were willing to really give Him up, and face yourself by yourself so that you would see that your self is in fact God. Not until then would you stop blaming me for what you did together. But anyway, we’re not talking about God, we’re talking about history, and I just mentioned this because I think without acknowledging that God is dead, and that therefore you yourself are God and thus able to create, you will not be able to clean up the mess of your own history.
Secondly, I am just an illusion. I was created by you (do you now understand you’re God? You’re even able to create an angel!) in order to distinguish between different situations, events, et cetera. You created me to face all those wreckages that you cannot face yourself. The very word ‘history’ implies that something is not existent; it is artificially separated from the realm of the existent ‘present’, another artificial category that basically refers to those things that you allow to influence you directly and that serves as a borderline, on the one side of which are the events that you think cannot be, on the other side those that you think can be influenced. So by creating the category ‘history’, you have created a place where you can put away those things that you think cannot be influenced anymore, and therefore that you don’t have any responsibility towards. The concept ‘history’ serves as a means by which you alienate yourself from the conditions that construct not only your society, but your very being.
The greatest myth of all, by the way, is that thing called future, a vague concept that consists of all your projections of your fears, hopes, desires, et cetera. Due to this artificial distinction between history – or past, as you also call it –, present , and future, you guys have established a situation in which you do not recognize the projection of fears, hopes and desires on events that are perceived as belonging to the past or the present, and, especially relevant, you do not allow those things that you see as ‘history’ to influence you directly. Of course, history influences all of you, but due to these three separated concepts you can’t accept these influences, so you put them away in an unknown part of your being that you don’t want to know, which you then call ‘unconsciousness’.
I was created by you, so I fit in your concept of time, a linear, one-dimensional concept that has carefully been constructed by Christian tradition with its paradoxical focus on the coming end of time on the one hand and the promise of eternity on the other, and by ‘enlightened’ rationalism that created the basic ideology on which modern thought and science are based, with its most influent prophet Immanuel Kant, who not only let his personal life be completely restricted by his vision on time as an absolute dictator but who also introduced the dogma that time is a fundamental reality, a God, which means that everything we perceive is perceived in terms of its position within this reality. Hence you have come to live in a situation in which you are not able to perceive and experience anymore outside these self-imposed boundaries of time.
You created me to have someone protect you from the chaos you unknowingly created by believing that your actions are performed in the present, and in nothing but the present. I am cleaning your room. I am chained in time, because I depend on your idea of time. You have the power over me. History is your slave! How could I guide you, stop you, control you?
You see so many things that we don’t see. You don’t perceive them as something distinct, something that’s over and therefore can’t be changed anymore, like we do. You are constantly trying to change things that can’t be changed, as a Tantalus with wings. But there’s one thing I don’t understand. Don’t angels usually have a function as messenger, as a provider of information? Even though you may not be able to guide us, stop us, control us; even if you are merely an illusion, why in heaven’s sake don’t you TELL us when you see that something is going wrong? I totally agree that we ourselves have the responsibility to change certain things, but maybe you can warn us. If you’re in the midst of something, it is difficult to completely see what’s going on, so maybe sometimes we really don’t know until it’s too late – so if you notice something terrible is happening, at least send us some sort of message!
Did you hear what you were saying?
What do you mean?
You were saying: ‘why don’t you tell us when you see that something is going wrong’.
Yes, that’s true. So why don’t you?
First of all, I’m not in a position to judge on good or wrong. Those are also just categories you invented yourself to distinguish between things you want to identify yourself with and things you don’t. You guys come to me with stories about the Holocaust – which you really don’t need to cause I’m facing it continuously, I know what happened – and expect me to say I’m sorry for it. But I wasn’t the one who decided that the Holocaust was wrong. You did – after it had taken place! Before, you invented it, you executed it (a process in which thousands of people were involved – just think of the logistic aspects of this project!), those who were fighting the regime that conducted the Holocaust completely ignored it – ever heard of a British plane dropping a bomb on the railroad to Auschwitz? Only many years later did you decide that this was something wrong! And then you came to me, saying: ‘This was wrong! And you saw what was happening! Why didn’t you warn us?’ But even though I may have my personal opinion on things, I am in no position to force this opinion on you. I am history, remember? I am not God – though at the time you wouldn’t even have listened to Him if He would have personally sent His Son to tell you that the Holocaust was wrong. You’d probably sent him to Auschwitz where he could die anonymously. In fact, maybe God did send His Son again – who knows?
You were just saying that God should acknowledge the fact that He is dead…
Which means, maybe you should be willing to let Him go.
Yes, and that we in fact are God and we are able to create and everything… But then you come up with this story about His Son. That’s not very consistent, is it?
What’s the point of being consistent? I am just trying to show that you are constantly changing the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘wrong’. Usually, you perceive history as consisting of many ‘wrong’ things. But at the time these things took place, there were several reasons why you decided on doing them. It is easy to judge history, say it’s ‘wrong’ because you don’t want to identify with it, without realizing that right now you may be doing something ‘wrong’ without perceiving it as ‘wrong’, because when you are acting you tend to identify with your actions, which makes it much more convenient to perceive them as ‘good’, or at least as ‘necessary’. I used the example of God to show that what you were asking, a message that something ‘wrong’ is happening, doesn’t have any effect if this thing is not perceived as ‘wrong’.
Just imagine I would have come flying down during World War II to give you this message. First, I would have gone to the highest Nazi-officials, saying ‘this is wrong’. They would have replied: ‘What is wrong with purifying our nation, with eliminating parasitical elements? Besides, we are doing it in a very humane way. We were thinking about bringing them to a colony, far away, but that’s too expensive, especially during war time, and we hardly have any colonies. So we kill them, in the most painless and effective way possible. Shooting them all, that would have been much more cruel, wouldn’t it?’. Then, I would have gone to the office workers in Berlin that were arranging trains, food, the whole logistic operation, saying: ‘this is wrong’. They would have replied the same thing as the officials, adding: ‘Besides, I need my job. There’s too little food here, and I have children to feed. Do you know what’s wrong? Those planes that are bombing our city every night, randomly killing thousands of innocent women and children. That’s much more cruel than what we are doing, isn’t it? We kill people, but we have no choice but doing so, and we kill them fast and painless. Those British guys, though, throw bombs on places where many people live, just to make the suffering and despair as large as possible.’ Next, I would have gone to your average German village, telling them what was happening in the east, saying ‘this is wrong’. They would not have believed me, and if they would, they would have said ‘there’s nothing we can do about it’ or ‘there’s so little food, my son’s fighting in the army, my other son died, I really can’t see why the dead of a few Jews is more important than the dead of so many others.’ Next, I would have gone to the highest officials of the allied forces, saying: ‘You know what’s going on in Poland, don’t you? You should stop them, because this is wrong.’ They would have replied: ‘Sure, there are camps, we know that, and in some camps excesses may have taken place, but we are trying to win a war here. Freeing camps is of no strategic importance, but it does take army units, weapons, et cetera. In order to win this war, we have to take priorities; those living in the camps can return to their homes once the war is over. Besides, our countries accepted many Jewish refugees; do you realize the costs of that?’
Do you see? I have no influence on your decisions whatsoever. But there’s another point. What was it you were asking me?
I asked you why you don’t tell us when you see something is going wrong. But now I understand. Which isn’t really a relief, though.
‘When something is going wrong.’ What tense is that?
What do you mean?
‘Is going.’ What tense? Grammatically, I mean.
Present tense? Present something?
Present continuous tense. The name is not important, though. What’s important is that your whole language system is based on your view on time. Language is an institution that serves the common worldview. Whether that worldview corresponds to reality is not important, as long as no one seriously challenges the worldview by introducing a reasonable alternative. One way this worldview has managed to remain unchallenged, is by permeating the one institution that has come to be your most important means of communication, language.
I know, but what’s wrong with that?
I’m not saying it is wrong. How could I?
You know what I mean. You keep on saying that the concept of ‘time’ is something artificial, that it is constructed, but what if this construction allows us to give meaning to the world in which we live? If there is no such thing as time, then what is that makes creatures get born, grow, die? What is it that makes the sun rise and set? If there were no time, what would remain of ‘change’?
I never said time doesn’t exist. What I have said is that your categorization of time in terms of history, present and future has become a self-imposed restriction, that has alienated you from everything you put in the closet with the label ‘history’ on it. The problem is that you don’t perceive change as such; you only perceive it in terms of causes and consequences. A causes B causes C. Because of your linear perception of time, events have to follow each other. What you see as change, A becoming B becoming C, is in fact an artificial distinction between A, B and C. This is completely opposite to the actual meaning of the word ‘change’, which is that there are no fixed entities in time, that there are no real distinctions, because there are no real entities that can be distinguished. Change is not a single process leading to something; change is at the same time the process, its causes and its consequences, encompassing and unifying them. Change is not the water that flows through a river; it is the entire river, if I may use that metaphor. Therefore, if you were to perceive time not in terms of fixed situations, not as a series of moments that are following each other, but as the very process of change, you would no longer be able to separate yourself from what you call ‘history’, because you are shaped by it, it defines your being.
But actually, that wasn’t what I intended to say when I asked you this grammar question. Do you agree that you’re language is largely based on your perception of time?
I guess so. Though this isn’t my language.
Any European language.
So you agree that this artificial distinction between past, present and future is reflected in our use of language?
Yes, of course. What does that have to with grammar questions?
I’ll explain. You were using a present tense. You were saying: ‘when something is going wrong, why don’t you tell us?’. When right now, in the present, something is in the process of going wrong. Your question was about the present situation, wasn’t it?
Sure. If something has already gone wrong, it’s too late to change it – at least in our perception of time, and I still don’t believe there’s much I can do to prevent, say, the Second World War. So there’s no point in you flying down to the earth in the year 2005, saying: ‘The Holocaust is wrong! Stop it!’ That’s why I asked why you couldn’t warn us in the present. But you already convinced me that it’s not as easy as it seems.
There’s another problem with the present.
What do you mean?
Who am I?
You’re the Angel of History, aren’t you?
What is it I’m facing?
History, of course. That’s what you told me. We created you to face history in our place. Wasn’t that your point?
It exactly was.
What are you trying to tell me?
As I told you, I am chained in your concept of time. I may not believe in the distinction between past and present; but because I was created to clean up your history, there is only one direction in which I am able to look.
You mean that…
I don’t see the present. I can only see what you label as history. I don’t ever see what’s going on. Once I see something, it has been labeled history. It can’t be changed anymore. I am trying to, but there’s not much I can do.
You really don’t know what’s going on right now?
I can guess. From the traces you are leaving behind, I can tell some things about the present. But it is merely speculation, based on the history.
Like you’re in the back of a car, and you see the tracks and the exhaust and everything, and you can tell you’re in a four wheel jeep even though you can’t see the car?
Exactly. Thanks for the nice metaphor. The problem is not so much that I can’t see the car, though. The problem is that I can’t see where we are going. I am trying to heal the wounds of the past, but you keep on moving forward without allowing me the time I need to do so. It feels like a storm is blowing me forward, but I can’t see where I am going, because there is this huge mess that almost buries me, people are crying from their graves, but I can’t reach them, because this storm has decided that we must move on, move on, like you’re chasing after something that’s moving faster and faster so you also have to move faster and faster, ignoring everything you’re leaving behind, leaving it to me. In the process, you are producing so much history, that I’m running out of time. It’s getting more and more. If I don’t clean it, it is likely to swallow you, but no one is helping you. There’s no one who says: ‘Let’s stop chasing after this thing we’re chasing after for a while. Let’s stop being obsessed with ideas like making progress, moving forward, finding more and more, making things better and better, growing without any reason, just for growing’s sake. Let’s stand here for a moment, right where we are now, let’s leave this storm this storm, let’s turn towards the past and help this poor angel heal the wounds of our ancestors, our parents, our childhood, yesterday. Let’s take a breath.’
But you’re not the only one who can’t see where the car is going. Most of us can’t. Like you said: we use the category ‘future’ as something we can project our fears and desires on. We don’t perceive it as real, as existent, just like we do history. The future is unknown, is distinct – so why would one take responsibility for that? I’m not saying this is good, I’m just saying that this is the way many people think.
So that’s why you guys are making all this mess. You’re not only ignoring your own history, you’re also ignoring your own future. You’re desperately running forward, away from your history, but you don’t see where you’re running to, is that what you’re saying? So that’s why you don’t realize what you are destroying while you are chasing after this thing called ‘economical growth’. Don’t you see that by doing this, you will have to keep on producing more, consuming more, demanding more, producing more, utilizing more? There is a limit to the natural resources you can use. There is a limit to the human resources you can waste. The percentage of people that are extremely poor, people that don’t have any perspectives than a life in hunger and poverty, due to the way you monopolized the use of natural resources and the exploitation of the soil in order to feed your God called ‘growth’ – a God that can never be satisfied, of course – is constantly increasing, and already a vast majority of the population of your planet is this poor. You, the rich minority, keep on showing them your wealth, making them crazy with your financial institutions that are only based on making their dependency on you bigger, so they won’t have any choice but to accept your demands, that only serve to make your ‘economy’ grow. Tell me, what does ‘economy’ mean? Is it much more than a commonly shared set of beliefs by which a small part of humankind manages to exploit a large part? An unchallenged set of beliefs that is confirmed and controlled by your institutions? The system you are now trying to implement on your entire planet, you call it ‘liberal capitalism’, is based on this set of beliefs; it’s nothing but an ideology to legitimize the use of power by this small, wealthy group, of which you are a member. An ideology of ‘chasing after’ something that can never be reached, of going faster and faster all the time, at the cost of others – and of your planet.
I know, I know I am a member of the rich minority. I know I am consuming more than a guy my age who lives in Chad. What can I do? Send him a bread? I’m sorry if I sound cynical. I just can’t stand those people saying that I’m exactly the same as those people that are exploiting peanut-farmers in Senegal or wherever, just because I am taking a plane to study in a country that’s far away. I do feel guilty. I do feel the urge to change this system. I completely agree with you that this system is bound to blow itself up, and maybe not only itself. But what should I do? Withdraw from society? Who am I going to help when I do that?
I don’t know what you can do. That’s something you will have to find out yourself. I am making a diagnosis of your system, based on my experiences of recent history – for, as you know, I don’t know what’s going on in the present. I am not offering a solution. The only thing I can advise you is try not to separate yourself from history, nor from the future. Don’t see them as distinct categories. Don’t run all the time without allowing time for noticing the way on which you’re running and its surroundings. I guess it won’t always preserve you from taking decisions that will later be perceived as ‘wrong’– but it may help you to be at least careful when you make decisions.
But is that a solution? The only solutions I have ever been taught is cleaning garbage and healing wounds.
That may be the best thing one can do.
It is not. At least, it shouldn’t be the only thing. I am cleaning a room while ten children are playing in it and making it dirty all the time. It is very good that there are people in your world willing to offer comfort; people who heal wounds and clean up dirt. After all, there have always been people who were aware of their responsibility. People who, like me, are running after the jeep, sadly looking at the tracks. But sometimes the car should be stopped for a second, so that we can take a rest and are able to oversee the situation.
Can I ask you the question I wanted to ask you in the beginning?
You wanted to ask me a question?
Yes. You thought I wanted to accuse you.
You didn’t, did you?
I don’t think so. At least not intentionally. How could I blame someone who is trying to heal a Lost Paradise?
Thank you.
Can I ask you my question?
Go ahead.
What would you do if the storm would stop and you would be able to close your wings again? Would you turn around and face the direction in which you have been blown all the time?
I would try to heal the wounds of history.
I would invite you all to take the wreckages and build something new out of them.
Do you think we would?
If the storm would be over, there would be no more reason for running away. There would be no reason for not building. I think you would love to.
What is it we would build?
Our lost paradise.
But then you would cease to exist, because you wouldn’t have a function. We wouldn’t need you anymore.
So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment