‘This storm is what we call progress’
I have been thinking about angels.
When I was in Kangaroo Island recently to report on the Australian bushfires for National Geographic, I stood in the ruins of a home gutted by the fires and spotted an angel with broken wings. She had a plaintive, wistful look which seemed in keeping with the tragedy that has consumed Australia this fire season, and which has directly affected more than half the population.
That angel reminded me of one of the most famous angels in modern art: Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, which the Swiss-German artist made in 1920. It was famously discussed by philosopher Walter Benjamin, who bought Klee’s print in 1921. Here’s what Benjamin wrote:
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.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The darkness where the future should be” made me think that if Benjamin were writing today he might reconsider where the angel is looking. Perhaps his face is turned not to the past but the future. Perhaps the horror on the angel’s face arises not from what has been but from what is coming.
Could we, in fact, rephrase Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s angel like this: “His face is turned toward the future. 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, sound a warning about what is coming. 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 coming horror, even as he attempts to back away to safety. This storm is what we call progress.”
A friend writes in response: “This makes me ponder the notion of guardian angels from my Catholic childhood and their purported protective role. Yet here we are in a situation where the vocation of the angels is nigh on impossible.”
I, too, grew up with the knowledge of angels hovering round. Can it be that the hubris of the Anthropocene reaches even to these heavenly companions?