Pamela Carralero

Royal Holloway Creative Writing Anthology 2012

This is How One Pictures the Angel of History
(Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’)
Pamela Carralero

Carl Jung believed that while 20th century consciousness had expanded spatially, developing an understanding of the matter that makes up the world and the human body, in terms of temporal dimensions mankind was left without a “living sense of history”.[1] The ability to create this living sense of history is not attributed to the factual historicist, but to the writer, who, creating his art by drawing on the literary tradition that preceded him, procures “the consciousness of the past.”[2] In accordance with Walter Benjamin’s description of the angel of history in ‘Theses on Philosophy’, the angel can be pictured as the writer who consciously exists within the spatiality of time, is exposed physically through time, and is exposed non-physically through his text.

Like Benjamin’s angel of history, the writer consciously exists within the spatiality of time. The angel of history’s desire to “make whole what has been smashed”[3] in the wreckage of the past marks the angel as a historical materialist. It is this historical materialism that allows the writer to be considered an angel of history, giving him a consciousness of how his self and society are positioned not only within his contemporary time period, but within and in relation to the entire historical continuum. This consciousness transforms the writer-angel into an angel of redemption.

According to Benjamin, “only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past”.[4] Each generation of society is given the opportunity for a “Messianic power”[5] of consciousness, an understanding that their historical-temporal spatiality within the world is not a chronologically segmented chain of events, but a flowing continuum. This opportunity for redemption is presented through the work of the writer-angel, who conserves and presents the truth and image of the past through his writing, hoping that society will recognize this image, understand it, and consequently ascend to consciousness.

Benjamin’s angel does not see history as a chain of events, but as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”,[6] making it clear that the writer-angel is unable to help those involved in the catastrophe of the past. While able to give mankind the opportunity for redemption, he cannot lead them to it as he is separated from society by his Messianic consciousness, seen in his movement through time. Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s angel of history as facing the past while being blow backwards by the wind of the present’s progress into the future. For while mankind tends to see his present as made up of the ‘here and now’, fixed instead of continuous, the writer-angel understands that not only does he exist within the wind that is the continuous present, but is simultaneously situated within the past and the future.  Carl Jung attributes a different spatiality to his concept of the modern man, who is “wholly of the present…fully conscious of [his] existence”.[7] The modern man’s intensive consciousness equates him with the writer-angel. Jung describes his spatiality as:

upon a peak, or at the very edge of the world, the abyss of the future before him, above him the heavens, and below him the whole of mankind with a history that disappears in the primeval mists.[8]

Like Klee’s angel, who has his back to the future, the modern man cannot anticipate the future from his position on the edge of the razor-sharp now of the present, which only acknowledges the future as “a void out of which all things may grow.”[9] Mankind can be envisioned as situated within a narrow valley below, a symbol of the unconsciousness of their currently unredeemed existence where they live under the pall of the “primeval mists” of the “participation mystique”.[10] The participation mystique is a primitive unconscious state that establishes identities and relationships based on historical archetypes. Jung considers this as existing wholly within the past instead of within the present, since “to be wholly of the present means to be fully conscious of one’s existence as a man”.[11] The subjects of Benjamin and Jung’s spatial models are distinctly separated from mankind through their consciousness, and yet still face it. For while the writer-angel exists within the present, his work draws from the unconsciousness of mankind’s participation mystique, since the “primordial experience is the source of his creativeness”.[12] This is not a return to the past, but proves the writer-angel’s Messianic consciousness through his ability to assimilate the past in relation to the present. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, the writer consciously exists within the spatiality of time.

The writer-angel consciously makes the decision to surrender his body to time through falling, exposing his body by transforming it into a unique slapstick object. The traditional slapstick body, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s, is situated outside of time, immortal in its apparent inability to be broken, scarred, bruised, or crushed. The writer-angel’s body, however, is situated within time through his creative work, and is thus exposed to the buffets and blows of time.

We become most subjected to time when falling, where we lose control of ourselves and the space around us. It is in this meta-space that the body loses its shape as a structured, upright being, and becomes a rag-doll, subjected to time’s imposition upon it. The writer-angel’s surrender to his creative work is a surrender to falling, a release from the constraints of the daily world and an entrance into a free-flowing creative current. This creativity, as Catherine Clément recognizes, is a syncope that results in an expansion of consciousness. [13] It is an ultimate surrendering to time that transforms the writer-angel into a type of tragic hero.

Jan Verwoert describes the tragic hero as “someone who takes the conscious decision to carry out a plan that will inevitably lead to his fall”.[14]  Though the traditional tragic hero’s fall is an unforeseen fate, the writer-angel is constantly aware that his plan will self-instigate his fall, which will transform him into a sacrifice that will bequeath an understanding, and thus redemption, to society.

The writer-angel as tragic hero can clearly be seen in the conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, whose body becomes his text, where his fall is the literal falling of his body through space. Ader’s short film “Fall 1” is a visual of how the writer-angel becomes time’s slapstick object through his work. In the film, Ader, perched on a chair on the roof of a house, causes himself to fall. The body’s movement is clearly visible to the audience: the swaying forward on the chair, the fall off the chair, the tumble down the side of the roof, the fall through space. The key physical movement, however, is Ader’s sudden loss of his shoe, signaling a complete loss of self-control to a force strong enough to unwrap the body. Whatever original comic absurdity was evoked in Ader’s purposeful fall is quickly eclipsed by the awareness of the presence of true danger and true pain.

While Ader’s body presents a mixture of tragedy and theatrical slapstick , the unwrapping of the body turns horrifically violent in Richard Drew’s 9/11 photograph The Falling Man, where Drew’s sequence of pictures show a violent stripping of the man’s white coat from his body as he fell. In his tragic decision to fall, this man becomes a writer-angel, transforming his body into a symbolic text. His head-first position is an imposing image of physicality, one which emphasizes his physical exposure and helplessness by falling through a meta-space between living and dying.

The conscious relinquishing of physical self-control is the sacrifice that delivers an understanding to society. “Fall 1” and The Falling Man provide the opportunity for society to attain redemption if it understands that the only way to ascend to consciousness is through a surrendering.

Neither in Drew’s photograph nor in “Fall 1” do we seen the writer-angels’ falls terminate. Their bodies are consumed by their acts, consumed by ever-continuous time and thus unable to be finalized through death. Our inability to see when Ader hits the ground moves him out of society’s view and to the precipice of Jung’s modern man. The falling man, however, remains provocatively suspended above mankind’s valley, fully in view of all eyes. He becomes a temporal focal point, an instantaneous view of the past, present, and future as the ultimate image of sacrifice, bequeathing a personal, national, global, and historical understanding of tragedy. The writer-angel’s conscious decision to surrender his body to time thus exposes it to society.

It is easy to see the way the writer-angel is exposed when his physical body is present within his work, yet when that physicality is removed, the writer-angel is exposed through his text. When time slapsticks the writer’s body, it strips the writer angel of all social and cultural constructs and presents him to society as a new being in his nakedness, exposing him to the gaze of society. This exposure, however, does not always center upon the physical body, such as with Ader and the falling man, but is also an exposure of the writer-angel through his poetic text. By creating the work, the writer-angel surrenders to the work, thus entering a state of falling where he becomes a slapstick subject to the reader’s gaze. The gaze is a current between two subjects, an interaction where the ‘sending’ side of the gaze makes a mark on the ‘receiving’ side. The receiving side, the writer-angel, is passive. Jean-Luc Nancy defines passivity as not “the property of being passive”,[15] but a “presence of difference”[16] that allows “such or such a mark be given or imprinted”.[17] This mark, a reaction to the gaze, creates the change in the writer that accounts for him becoming a slapstick subject, meaning that change is created through the gaze. The gazing reader is equally passive. By gazing, by reading, he is imprinted by the work itself through the intellectual interaction of trying to understand it.

In my portfolio collection, Lingua, I attempt to amplify the text’s gaze by envisioning each poem the size of a wall or billboard. If enlarged to the appropriate size, their minimalistic visuality and their dimensions would confront and entrap the reader within an extremely strong gaze. Hopefully, the strength of this gaze, of its presence, would mark the reader through creating introspection, Messianic consciousness, and, consequently, redemption. “For”, according to Peter Brooks, “it is sight…and fixation by the gaze, that traditionally represents knowing, and even rationality itself.”[18] Thus, through the reader’s gaze, a knowing and understanding of the Self as existing within the continuum of history may be attained. The writer angel thus becomes exposed through his text and the gaze of his reader.

The attainment of consciousness effaces the Self of the writer within society, rebirthing him into a universal temporal spatiality as the writer-angel. Like the Ouroboros, the symbolic snake eating his own tail, the writer-angel becomes immortalized in the continual self-consummation of his creative act, constantly giving mankind the chance to understand their conscious existence and be redeemed. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history can be pictured as the writer, who consciously exists within the spatiality of time, is physically exposed through surrendering to time, and is non-physically exposed through the gaze of the reader upon his written text.

[1] Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (Oxon: Routledge, 2001), p. 181. (abbreviated as Modern Man)

[2] T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent,

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 249.

[4] Ibid, p. 246.

[5] Ibid, p. 246.

[6] Ibid, p. 249.

[7] Modern Man, p. 201.

[8] Ibid, p. 201.

[9] Ibid, p. 202.

[10] Ibid, p. 201.

[11] Ibid, p. 201.

[12] Ibid, p. 168.

[13] Catherine Clément, ‘Syncope’s Strategies: The Creative Act and the Un-Governing of the World’, in Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, trans. Sally O’Driscoll and Deirdre M. Mahoney (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 236.

[14] Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader : In Search of the Miralculous (London: Afterall Books, 2006), p. 28.

[15] Ibid, p. 29.

[16] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 29.

[17] Ibid, p. 29.

[18] Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 9.

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