Turning the Angel of History Around
What if we turned Benjamin’s anguished angel around, seeing the past pouring out behind her not as debris, but as fertile compost for a brighter future?
It is a difficult balancing act to introduce precious young minds to the truths of history.
On the one hand, we should never whitewash the truth, and the truth about human history is filled with deep dark abscesses of nightmarish episodes. We have been so cruel to each other and to other species. We have been so destructive to this Earth.
But on the other hand, we are also capable of tremendous love and altruism and cooperation. We are incredibly creative beings, and our art bears witness to our capacity to appreciate and produce beauty.
We must present all of it, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, in such a way that young people learning for the first time about the horrors of the past come away resolved never to knowingly repeat such mistakes and alsoinspired by positive models from the past and present to do their best to make their own epoch in history a brighter one.
Part of today’s widespread mental health crisis can be attributed to our society’s focus on the dark. This takes many forms, which I’ll be discussing over time, but here I’m thinking about the way we tend to focus, in teaching history and reporting current events, on the horrors of the past, the disasters and cruelties of the present, and the expectation of catastrophe in the future.
Young people are depressed and anxious with good cause! In self-defense against this relentless barrage of negativity, they have to shut down their minds and close their hearts. Bent in a self-protective crouch, they do not have the buoyancy of spirit to remember positive aspects of the past, point to what’s good about the present, or dream into the joyful futures they might yet create.
The “great books” of the vaunted Western Canon have certainly played their part in this focus on the darkest aspects of history and the human spirit.
For years, following the required general education curriculum for all students at my college, we descended into Doestoyevsky’s surly underground and shadowed Hamlet on his tragic last days in rotten Elsinore. We read the commentary of dark prophets like Freud, Darwin and Marx, while accompanying Dante on his grisly journey through Hell, and Kafka through the stifling, claustrophobic corridors of The Trial. We felt the ground rush up to meet Septimus Smith in his suicide leap, while, in Woolf’s stark vision, Mrs. Dalloway’s party went on. We lingered over The Last Days of Socrates, when the great teacher agreed to his own execution in obedience to the will of the state, even though, at least in the eyes of his stricken students, all he had done was to question authority.
When some of the younger faculty finally succeeded in wrenching the required curriculum away from their elders’ endless return over this anguished terrain of western European literature, some newer North American texts were introduced—but the darkness remained, as we led students into the horrors of American slavery and its aftermath, the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their current difficult circumstances, and the relentless hostility of earlier settlers towards contemporary immigrants.
I would never call for a Pollyanna approach to history and literature. No whitewashing over the scars of the past or the struggles of the present. But perhaps we could do a little more to let the light in?
Photo by J. Browdy
How we present history and current events matters. Feeding ourselves, and especially our impressionable young people, a steady diet of catastrophe is unhealthy, and untrue. Yes, bad stuff happens every day. But good stuff happens too, every day! Yes, there are serious problems to be confronted daily, but there are also droves of people working on solutions. Yes, it’s likely that there will be serious disruptions to ordinary life as we move on in the troubled 21st century, but there is also the possibility that in the shake-up of established institutions and patterns, we can invent a better form of “ordinary life.”
In the Winter Solstice of 2021, I kept thinking about Yeats’ nightmare vision of the “rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”—another one of those dark “classics” from the Western Canon that is constantly returned to and taught to young people. I was moved to reimagine Yeats’ vision in a new, brighter light, and I used my version of the poem to inspire students to do the same.
Photo by J. Browdy
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only Light can do that.”
This year, it was Walter Benjamin’s depressing vision of the Angel of History who kept haunting me around the Winter Solstice, and when I finally responded, I realized that this was another dark influential vision in need of brightening.
In the famous passage from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written in 1940 just months before he committed suicide, Benjamin writes:
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.
Benjamin was living through a terrible time in history; it’s not surprising that his vision of the Angel of History was so dark. But we study history not to steep ourselves in the nightmares of the past, but to learn from them so that we can create a brighter future.
In my new version of “The Angel of History,” Benjamin’s anguished angel turns her face towards the future, the past pouring out behind her transformed, composted into fertile seedbeds for better futures to come.
Photo by J. Browdy
Education should give young people an awareness of their own agency to create the future they want to live into. We do not have to go passively along with the negative flow presented by the media and the curricula. We can pick our heads up and say wait a minute, there’s more to the story. Yes, there is darkness, but there is also, always, light. Yes, we have come through terrible times. But history is not doomed to repeat. There is always the gleaming potential of a new dawn.