I WAS BORN DEAD. This is the single most interesting thing about me, at least, the single most interesting thing that is suitable to be condensed down into factoid form to be blurted out when the situation demands (“Let’s go around the room, everyone say your name and one interesting thing about yourself!”). I wouldn’t be so self-deprecating as to call myself boring, but neither would I presume to describe myself as a woman of intrigue. So, this is what I’ve settled on to serve as my ready-made proof that I am, indeed, a unique individual, distinguishable from other individuals. I’ve “seen the other side.” Of course, I don’t remember it, and it holds no bearing on my identity today. Sure, the infant I grew from was present in flesh and bone, but it is such an auxiliary role we play in our own birth. It is something that happens to us, we have no agency in its coming to pass. So can I truly call the juxtapositional circumstances of mine an interesting fact about me? Each of us is totally helpless, pathetic, slimy, scrunched-up and wretched, wholly incognizant of the drama and emotion surging around us, about us. Really, we’re lovable only due our novelty – we haven’t yet done anything worth loving. Add to that the fact that I was a purple-grey dead baby – no breath, no pulse – tiny fingers limp and still, failing to fulfill my infant duty to meet those expectations of new life with squalling (an utter dud of a child), instead allowing silence to swell and tumefy. The one thing that can fester in a sterile room.
My parents don’t know how I was resuscitated. When things like that happen, you don’t ask questions. I was whisked off by a whirlwind of nurses, spirited away toward life, and was returned a proper screaming infant, emitting shrieks out into the world the precise patterns of amplitude, pitch, and tone of which had never been heard before. My death had been postponed until further notice.
Many years later, I read Walter Benjamin’s description of the Angel of History before I ever saw the monoprint to which he referred, Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. The first time I saw it, I laughed out loud.
The angel looks like a toddler’s scribble, with bulging eyes, a strange goat-like nose, buckteeth, the head equivalent in size to the rest of the body. Set against an unpleasant tawny background, I wondered why Benjamin was so drawn to the figure. He must have spent hours looking at it before and while writing his influential interpretation. He must have known something about art that I don’t.
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.
Sitting in a local dive with friends, the conversation turns to someone’s roommate and his upcoming nuptials. “Wait,” says another. “He’s engaged?” Yes, the roommate is indeed engaged to be married. “But I just matched with him on Tinder last week.” The three of us are quiet. The one whose roommate is implicated gazes down into his half-full beer. “Well,” he says. “I guess this is the upside of this myopic society we live in. I don’t feel any ethical obligation to get involved.” Only God can judge. And hadn’t you heard? – God is dead now, anyway.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
For a few months when I first moved to Chicago, I was seeing someone. I mean we were “seeing each other” in a more literal way than it is usually used to exude a cool, detached, je ne sais quoi attitude towards a relationship.
We saw each other aesthetically, with our five senses only; there was no plumbing of the depths.
He stayed over maybe once a week. We would cook dinner and talk at the tiny square table in my tiny square studio apartment on the South Side. He was a post-doc in the economics department, which is to say, we saw the world differently. I listened to him talk at length about his work (as men do) because his research had to do with behaviorism, emotions, and reexamining the conception of the rational actor beyond the cult of Friedman’s positivist choice theory. Once, as I clumsily explained one of my projects over coffee, my tired brain grasping for words, having never been capable of sleeping well next to someone else, he interrupted me (as men do). “Please tell me you recognize the irony in all this.” What do you mean? “You write about the inherent contradictions of individualism in modernity, but you do it in isolation. You sit by yourself in this apartment for days and complain about how alone we all think we are.” The irony had indeed been lost on me.
For what it was, it was good. We performed affection convincingly when we were together and didn’t cross each other’s minds when we were apart. There was none of that unbearable ache of frustration that comes with realizing the futility of trying to understand another person. Then, he went away on a long trip. There was no obligation to keep in touch, but at one point he sent a photo from the beach in Tel Aviv, of the book I had recommended he read, Albert Camus’ The Stranger. All I could think to reply was a vulgar remark about how he had better not get any ideas, better not kill any Arabs because the sun was in his eyes. How could I say something like that to someone I barely knew? But every other response I drafted in my head seemed contrived, phony, an interaction for interaction’s own sake. Maintaining the simplicity, daydreaming we were islands, became a taxing exercise, a commitment in its own right. Aporia. In that moment I was overcome with panic that we had, with so little difficulty until then, feigned tenderness – all of a sudden it felt obscene, like sacrilege. So I didn’t message back, and we haven’t spoken since.
Why did Mersault kill the Arab? Surely we’ve all been hypnotized by the destructive sublime at one point or another, some of us more than others, but this chaotic impulse seems not quite accurate in describing this particular act. René Girard characterizes it as a declaration of self-exclusion: a scream into the void. The murder itself could just as well have been an accident. It was only a means to the end of forcing others to participate in a fantasy of seclusion. Mersault’s performance of homicide is intended to prove to society and himself exactly how little he has to prove. As for the Arab, he is collateral.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them.
The crisis of modernity, they say, is that the political has been subsumed by the economic. In a society that has no sense of collectivity, where the common good consists of a million individual goods hypostatized, the political can be nothing but the amalgamation of an infinity of ostensibly rational, calculated, self-preserving decisions. Yours and mine and his and hers and theirs, none of us knowing any better than anyone else what the hell is going on, none of us daring to admit it. Hannah Arendt writes, “Nothing perhaps distinguishes modern masses as radically from those of previous centuries as the loss of faith in a Last Judgment; the worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope. Unable as yet to live without fear and hope, these masses are attracted by every effort which seems to promise a man-made fabrication of the Paradise they had longed for and of the Hell they had feared.” Our trust in progress is a simulacrum of a sacred teleology, despite the prevalence of what we believe to be a radically secular ideology.
We’ve created for ourselves a strange Frankenstein’s monster of a God. We trust not in each other – never in each other – but wholly in the illusion of an immanent entity of our collective making.
Ours is a blind faith that we know better now how to be human than at any point in history, that we are headed straight for nirvana. The invisible hand is pointing the way.
The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
Jean-Pierre Dupuy writes of our time as being one of economystification: “Economic theory, which is unaware that it is itself a species of theology, has unwittingly made equivalent assumptions: the assumption of perfect foresight, the theory of rational expectations, and so on…” In our insistence that we are the masters of our own fate, we reject the idea that the future can be forecast, because we ourselves make it. Our late-capitalism is at once radically optimistic and fatalist – relying on a limitless future (speculation requiring promises made at present will be kept, investment requiring that there will be demand for supply), it also assumes that whatever comes to pass is what had to come to pass. The idea is that sacrifices must occasionally be made to the capricious whims of the market so that we might have a hope of restraining those murderous impulses that lurk within us all, but this is a necessary evil and a small price to pay for freedom, autonomy, liberty, all those things which Enlightenment’s rejection of the hegemonic Scriptural narrative afforded us. Capitalism permanently fixes horror to holiness in its reduction of the unknown future to an extension of the rational understandings we hold at present. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized: “The cry of terror called forth by the unknown becomes its name.” This is the eschatology of modernity that naturalizes horrors like the Holocaust as so many bumps in the road.
This storm is what we call progress.
I wonder what inspired Benjamin to read the Angel of History into Angelus Novus. The drawing itself, at least for me, is unspectacular, though of course Klee’s purpose in making it was never to drop jaws. His style ranged greatly over the years, reflecting the goings-on at the time. He was conscripted during World War I, and said satirically of it, “I have long had this war in me. That is why, inwardly, it is none of my concern.” Did Benjamin read this and see in the angel a resignation to its fate, a realization that the evil of war between men is a natural destiny, that we are bound to destroy each other and call it collateral damage on the path to enlightenment? In Klee’s words, did he hear the echoes of the Protestant reformation and the Calvinists who knew they were saved by their own faith, but were compelled to work anyway? Or did the drawing’s monochromatism remind him of a dense, billowing fog, the future that stretches out endlessly and opaquely before us, through which we grope and lurch like zombies, stupidly but always in the direction of progress? Was it the angel’s bug-eyes, gawking to its left while its head faces straight ahead, that evoked a feeling of terror and transfixion, strapped in to the haunted carnival ride? Did Klee’s one-dimensional, vaguely cubist linework bring to mind a child’s haphazard collage, cut-out pieces of paper glued together to create something – anything – that will be hung on the refrigerator and praised like an icon for years to come, until it fades, tears, exposes itself for the piece of junk it is? Did the goat-like nose speak something sinister to him, something not-so-angelic after all?
Purchased in 1921, Benjamin mused on the angel for almost two decades before writing his reflection in 1940, very shortly before fleeing Vichy France to Spain, where he killed himself to avoid Nazi capture. It was to be published posthumously in his Theses on the Philosophy of History in 1942. In the interpretation of some, the Angel of History, more than a critique of modernity, represents the historical process as a never-ending cycle of despair. I wonder about Benjamin’s thoughts, his feelings before he died. Did he feel as the angel, propelled toward an apocalyptic end he had not chosen?
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
This is my favorite line of Benjamin’s reflection. At the time he was writing his Theses, each day must have been permeated with dread. He must have sensed all around him the banality of evil. And yet, in the midst of this, he wrote into his essay the most radical image of hope there is: resurrection. Despite being overwhelmed by the violent winds, still the angel imagines a turning-back of time, a second chance, the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. Rebirth.
Even faced with this formidable immanence, for Arendt, the phenomenon of birth is all the proof we need that something new is possible. Each time an infant takes its first gasp of air, in preparation to send forth its first ear-splitting howl (of… what? Pain? Hunger? Fear? Does it matter? It is new.), the capacity to perform miracles, to awaken the dead, to make whole what is smashed makes itself known. “The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”
This idea has always seemed naïve to me. Perhaps that’s the point. Something guileless, innocent, is exactly the remedy to the problems wrought by a cynical philosophy of intrinsic enmity. What is needed is a shout, a cry, an infant’s bawling to interrupt the banality of evil, a brand-new creature with wide, staring eyes that declares itself helpless and demands love because of it, requires that we get involved. It is as if Benjamin’s angel was able to fight himself free of the winds caught in his wings that are blowing him backwards, turn his head to see what lies ahead, and then turn back around to exclaim, “Look at this fucking mess. You can’t pretend this is the unavoidable price to be paid for progress anymore.” Nobody knows exactly what newborns are screaming about, but we can know for sure their cries say at least this much: here is a second chance. Don’t ask questions. If you try too hard to wrap your mind around it, you might strangle it back to death.
The author is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Chicago. She enjoys running, drinking beer, and falling into Wikipedia wormholes.
"Salinas Hills" by Laura Donworth