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Gersholm Scholem: Walter Benjamin and His Angel

Gersholm Scholem’s main focus is to discuss Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the painting Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee.  He shows how Benjamin’s interpretation follow a dialectic between mystical intuition and reason. His main discussion revolves around the first two drafts found in a notebook in Benjamin’s literary remains in Frankfurt written August 12th and 13th, 1933, named “Agesilaus Santander.”  In it Benjamin discusses the relationship between a Jew and their secret religious name, an allegory for his relationship to Angelus Novus that Scholem exposes. The examination takes a route of literary and philosophical analysis accompanied by the author’s stance that he knew Benjamin on a very personal level.

       According to Benjamin in his first interpretations as described by Scholem, Angelus Novus strives after “true actuality”; comparing it to the throng of angels created every moment to sing God’s praise and then disappear into nothing. He sticks to this Talmudic conception of an angel that exists for a fleeting moment, and pays less attention at this time to everlasting angels and Lucifer. Combined with this was his view that each human has a personal angel, represented by their secret name of mature moments, as discussed in “Agesilaus Santander,” that is for a fleeting instant joining in the choir of God’s praise. The heavenly part of every human sings God’s praise, and Benjamin saw Angelus Novus as the depiction of his angel.

       By 1933 Benjamin had expanded his interpretation to include his observation that the expression of the angel contains “satanic features- with a half suppressed smile.” Scholem comments that this came after Benjamin smoked hashish for the first time, going through what he described as a “satanic phase,” where he smiled with an “expression of satanic knowing, satanic contentment” and “satanic serenity”. Dialectical thought evolved his view of the angel as time progressed, with deeper meanings being revealed. Thus in “Agesilaus Santander” he captures this with an anagram to the name of the Klee painting, a technique Benjamin was fond of, in the name Angelus Satanas. That the angel was also a devil had foundation, says the author, in its “claws” and “sharp wings”.

       Since Benjamin’s discussed piece is written while he is a refugee, away from his family and his favorite angel picture, he realizes that the angel is both what he is in essence and what he is not. At this point Benjamin sees his angel as coming from the future, to bring the chosen at whom the angel is staring with it. He said that the Angel’s movement means that to return home is precisely the way into the future.

            The Angel of History is Benjamin’s final comment on Klee’s Angel is a culmination of his life experience and philosophies.  He refers to the Angel in his essay on historical materialism. Even though the Angel is reflective of Benjamin’s personal view, it makes the switch from being his Angel to the Angel of all of History.  The Angel is now representative of all historical progress.  The essay was written in 1940, the last year of his life, after he had lived in exile and experienced the numbing terror that was Nazi Germany.   The Angel has made the switch from being a patient lover to a storm from paradise.  The Angel of History does not posses the previous hope of the other angels.  The angel is not even capable of looking toward the present; the catastrophe of the Holocaust requires its full gaze.  The Angel of History is one of melancholy, but at the same time it ties in the theological aspect of Benjamin’s work.

According to Scholem, the Angel of History shows Benjamin’s understanding of the dialectical relation between the Christian baroque and the Jewish mysticism.  The Christian view is that history is a “process of incessant decay.” (Scholem 85) The decay is the wreckage, pile of bodies, and general catastrophe that the Angel is not able to turn away from.  The opposing view, that of Jewish mysticism, is the belief that according to the kabbalah it is not the angel’s responsibility to make whole the catastrophe of history, it is the Messiah’s responsibility.

Benjamin stipulates that historical materialism, the subject of his “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, cannot be successful without the Messiah.  The historical materialist’s way in which to move into the future is problematic because even if it does take the past into account and consider humans as historical beings, it does not and can never redeem the catastrophe of the past.  When historical materialism constructs “an act like redemption or revolution, continues to have about it something of that leap into transcendence which these theses seem to deny but which is even then implied in their materialistic formulations as their secret core”  (Scholem 84). This is where Benjamin makes the leap to the messianic belief.  The past is so horrific that even if one is the ideal historical materialist that will not redeem the past it cannot penetrate the “secret core.”  For Benjamin, the only way the redemption can come is from the Messiah.   

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