“The Angel of History”
By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Contemplating a painting he had purchased by the Swiss modern artist Paul Klee, the esteemed German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin once wrote down these foreboding words:
“A Klee drawing 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. 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.”
Some years before Benjamin set down his dystopic vision, the Czech genius Kafka wrote, resonantly, in his diary:
“I have been forty years wandering from Canaan…It is indeed a kind of wandering in the Wilderness in reverse.”
This sort of “wandering in reverse”—emblematic, broadly, of modernist experience and art (“losing one place without gaining another,” as Zadie Smith puts it, perceptively, in her essay on Kafka)—is of a piece with Klee's evocative painting no less than Benjamin's unsettling epiphany. Benjamin, during the course of his foreshortened life, would come, increasingly, to an understanding of Kafka as the modernist prophet who had, above all others, “mapped out the spiritual territory of the modern condition.” Benjamin sensed in Klee's painting the essence of what Kafka, too, had spent his life contemplating: a longing for paradise/revelation/Canaan and the gathering storm we mistake for progress. Benjamin used the painting as a mandala of sorts, an object for focus and reverie. Following his suicide (after being turned back at the Spanish border while attempting to flee the Nazi occupation of France), the painting joined Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem, scholar of Jewish mysticism, in Jerusalem where it remained until Scholem's own death many years hence.
For Benjamin, revelation, both personal and collective, is to be found in a numinous, yet dimly perceived and ambiguous, past. I have observed over the course of many years that humanistic psychology sets it sights more emphatically on possibility (oftentimes overly optimistic conceptions of what lies ahead and our own place in a triumphal narrative) than on destiny (frequently disarming news remaining hidden from consciousness and everyday view). Not unlike our political candidates, we look more determinedly forward and without than backward or earnestly within. It is interesting to note that both major presidential candidates in the recent election spent very nearly all their time in respective campaigns pointing at what was wrong with their opponent; remarks about original points of departure, not to mention overarching visions, were both fleeting and appallingly trite. By way of significant contrast, Bernie Sanders spoke forthrightly the morning after the election of Trump's ability to speak, however disingenuously, to many about glaring socio-economic and political disparities perpetrated by both major parties over several decades: the election was about more than racism, sexism and xenophobia, though it was no doubt, troublingly, about these phenomena as well.
We humanistic psychologists who embraced Barack Obama so enthusiastically have still not come to terms with the manner in which he immediately lined his economic team with Wall Street insiders; eight years later, not a single one of the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis has been prosecuted. An administration that promised a jaded electorate greater transparency than ever before has been typified, it would seem, by the most aggressive pursuit of avowed whistleblowers in American history. (“How much truth can you stand?” chides Nietzsche; this becomes, increasingly, the “real measure of value” for the philosopher.) Hillary Clinton, whatever else she may be, has been a longstanding champion and, indeed, benefactor of these unsavory alliances and policies.
Operating, in our Nobel laureate's words, “on a whole other level,” Benjamin obeisantly follows those texts that most call out to him, intuiting that such a pursuit has the power to reveal—albeit only to the most reverent readers—“new aspects of the inner self.” One assimilates, so to speak, the text of one's own life and those more literal texts by which it is both informed and illumined. Such painstaking work, expressed religiously, is the work of the scribe.
I have been reading lately the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann's essay “ Jacob and Esau,” a posthumously published study of twin brothers and, ultimately, the adversary within. I think of it in regard to an older brother of mine whose life took early on a course radically different than my own. Decades later, I sometimes muse upon this image: lives that began literally in the same room of the same home end up, seemingly, on opposite ends of the human spectrum and galaxy. My brother, in the parlance of preeminent psychiatrist Roy Grinker, is a “homoclite”—like Esau, a conventionally-minded, even well-intended, member of the visible world and establishment; I am, more like Jacob, an inwardly-attuned contemplative by no means immune to recurring dark nights of the soul. My path in life has carried me far beyond familial/ethnic/cultural origins and codes. Still, age-old currents and correspondences oughtn't be denied. Neumann insists that there can be no self without shadow. There is a need for ongoing re-appropriation of the “archetypal antagonist ”-- “my twin, that enemy within,” as Dylan puts it in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat),” the twinning titles suggesting some sense of the paradoxical tension we are attempting to underscore . (“The voice is Jacob's voice,” proclaims Isaac in Genesis 27:22, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.”) Only when the projection is withdrawn, Neumann insists, does “the actual image of the other become visible.” Not unlike those mysteriously aligned particles observed by the quantum physicists, fundamental connections are neither wholly severed nor forgotten, indeed remain irrevocably linked in ineffable ways, reverberating in the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts.
Inexorably, all things are “managed” these days—health care services, journalism, elections and, increasingly, even psychology. As much as humanistic psychology prides itself on a recovery of largesse and awe, the more penetrating truth is arguably to be found in the dwindling imagination and sheer redundancy typifying much of our work in recent times—repetition underwritten in large measure by a refusal to look more rigorously within. Eugene Taylor, I recall, offended many by suggesting that we had created nothing especially noteworthy or new in the past fifty years, and Rollo May, in his last major work, laments (with a wisdom and grace that continues to elude us) the entropy that inheres, ominously, in a world shorn of proportion and mythological imperatives and forms. Eventually, even existential-humanistic psychology will be stamped and approved by self-proclaimed “masters” (whereas May hesitated even to call himself “expert”) serving as gatekeepers in a brave, new world of tendentious reduction. It is not the medical doctors that ought concern us so much as a self-indulgent mediocrity perpetrated on both sides of our respective APA divide.
We are living, wittingly and more often unwittingly, as Benjamin put it in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in a world typified less by a recovery of awe than “the decline of aura.” It ought not surprise us that perspicacious words jotted down while contemplating Klee's evocative painting should catch the attention of performance artist Laurie Anderson, who sets them to music in her own ironical rendering, “ Progress (a.k.a., The Dream Before ).” In Anderson's postmodernist telling of things, fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretel find themselves alive and only moderately well and living in Berlin. Gretel works in a bar, while Hansel seems to rest on metaphorical laurels after having once played a part in a Fassbinder film. Late at night, the two sit around drinking discontentedly while pondering the radical ambiguity of things and the Angel of History. I imagine that many of you have not yet heard or seen it, so I am providing a link here for your conjoined edification and enjoyment: Progress (a.k.a., The Dream Before)
Klee, Benjamin, Kafka, Neumann, Anderson, Dylan, the late Leonard Cohen—these are a few of the voices upon which I have been lately musing. Some of the words and images are now a century and even more old. Still, there is much here that is prescient and strikingly relevant that informs and inspires us in ways that the current work in psychology and medicine rarely, if ever, does. We are going to have to reconcile and, like Jacob, wrestle with the “Other”—our adversarial angels and twins at the ends of our respective journeys and days. (Listen to Dylan's early “Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues” for a darkly humorous, yet instructive reminder of what I am talking about. Dylan, we recall, retreated from politics early on in order to commit himself to a still ongoing exploration of the politics of nuanced relations and composite selves.) We are going to have to enlist the guidance of our most visionary spirits (native psychologists whose talents handily surpass our own) if there is going to be any hope of moving inward, backward, and—only then—cautiously forward. (“Attentiveness,” observes Benjamin, “the natural prayer of the soul.”) Otherwise, it is going to be more of the same and the storm we are quite likely mistaking for progress.
In memory of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016).
Alter, R. (1991). Necessary angels: Tradition and modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Benjamin, W. (1969). Illuminations: Essays and reflections (H. Arendt, Ed.; H. Zohn, Trans.). New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Cohen, L. (1992). The future. On The future [CD] . New York, NY: Columbia.
Dylan, B. (1963). The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll. On The times they are a-changin' [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
Dylan, B. (1978). Where are you tonight? Journey through dark heat). On Street legal [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
Dylan, B. (2004). Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues. On The bootleg series, vol. 6: Bob Dylan live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
Kafka, F. (1988). The diaries of Franz Kafka. New York, NY: Schoken Books.
May, R. (1981). Freedom and Destiny. New York, NY: Norton and Company.
May, R. (1992). The cry for myth. New York, NY: Norton and Company.
Neumann, E. (2015). Jacob and Esau: On the collective symbolism of the brother motif (E. Shalit, ed.; M. Kyburz, trans.). Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications.
Smith, Z. (2008). “F. Kafka, everyman.” In New York Review of Books, LV:12, 14-17.