We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair. Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia … these too would be beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all.
– Paul Valéry, La crise de l’esprit (1919)
It is August 1914, and the continent of Europe is well embarked on the grotesque misadventure of the First World War. Battalions are torn to ribbons in Belgium and the Balkans, cathedrals and libraries are reduced to rubble, trenches and mass graves are hastily dug in the loamy soil, and the German Expressionist painter Paul Klee, comfortably ensconced in his studio, is responding to this spiraling geopolitical maelstrom as only a true artist can. Indifferent to the “pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war,” and unconcerned with the prospect of collective civilizational suicide, Klee instead records in his diary the self-interested hope that the intensifying conflict will usher in a “national upswing,” one which will bring not Teutonic supremacy, or at least some lasting geopolitical equipoise — nothing so banal as that — but rather “the means (courage and money from patrons and publishers) withheld by the pressure of recent years.”
With the Central Powers’ military offensives stalled, casualties mounting, and those on the home front subjected to the privations of a “turnip winter,” it became increasingly clear that the envisioned superabundance of patronage and commissions was no longer in the offing. The painter grew withdrawn and introspective. “I am forearmed, I am not here,” he wrote in his diary, “I am in the depths, far away … I am glowing among the dead.” Klee began affecting a studied nonchalance towards it all: “I have long had this war in me. That is why, inwardly, it is none of my concern.” Such a limited and purblind conception of total war, with all its far-reaching social, political, economic, and aesthetic ramifications, was never likely to make it all the way through the war unscathed.
By 1916, when Klee found himself conscripted as a Landsturmsoldat, two of his fellow Expressionists, August Macke and Franz Marc, had already fallen in clashes in Champagne and at Verdun, respectively, while another colleague, the poet Georg Trackl, had suffered grievously from shell-shock, and was later to take his life in a Kraków military hospital. For his part, Klee managed to keep a relatively safe distance between himself and the trenches, working mainly, and appropriately enough, on aircraft camouflage. But the war still exacted a psychic toll on the painter, as Der Tod für die Idee (Death for the Idea), one of Klee’s haunting wartime lithographs, makes abundantly clear. From out of a lone supine battlefield casualty, who like Polydorus of Troy clutches his guts as they gush to the ground, emerges a dizzying hotchpotch of lines and hatching, ascending higher and higher until a looming, minatory cityscape begins to take shape. It is an evocative illustration of how what we call modern civilization, that grand idea for which so many have paid the ultimate price, has been ground-wrought upon a bed of bones.
Following the cessation of hostilities, Klee took up a position at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, where he taught bookbinding, stained glass painting, and mural painting workshops. His own artwork became steadily more abstract; later he would make the penetrating observation that “the more terrible the world becomes, the more abstract the art becomes.” And he began to paint angels, almost obsessively, hundreds of them, a practice he would continue until his death from scleroderma in 1940. One of his earlier efforts, the Angelus Novus of 1920, would rise above the rest, even coming to play a central role in European art and letters for years to come. It was this “New Angel,” painted using an idiosyncratic oil transfer technique all Klee’s own, which Walter Benjamin purchased almost exactly a century ago, in the spring of 1921, for 1,000 marks (roughly $400 today, going by Bidwell’s Currency Conversion Tables), and which would accompany the peripatetic German philosopher the rest of his days, gracing the walls of his lodgings in Berlin, Frankfurt, Capri, Heidelberg, Paris, Ibiza, San Remos, Svendborg, and elsewhere.
What was it about the Angelus Novus that so captivated Benjamin? Chronologically and stylistically, the painting straddles Klee’s mystical-abstract and cubist phases and features an unconventional, even puzzling little angel, one wholly unlike the iconic seraphs of Giotto, Raphael, Caravaggio, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Klee’s version is snaggletoothed and chicken-footed, with unfurling scrolls for hair, and it floats awkwardly, its wings upraised in a gesture of surprise or surrender, against a featureless background. Seemingly apprehensive, the heavenly being looks out from the corners of its almond-shaped eyes as hazy smudges of brown and speckles of black intrude from the four corners of the page, suggesting smoke and soot, and ash and slag, and all the other squalid sullage of industrial society and the wars it wages.
Whether or not one agrees with Stuart Jeffries, who has called the angel “goofy,” with “googly if rather melancholy eyes,” is immaterial for our purposes, as our principal history concerns Benjamin and his deeply felt relationship with Klee’s creation. One of Benjamin’s friends, Charlotte Wolf, noted how, upon receipt of the painting, the philosopher, an otherwise “gauche and inhibited man,” seemed to be in a state of ecstasy, behaving “as if something marvelous had been given to him.” Another lifelong friend, Gershom Scholem, likewise understood just how much Benjamin’s new acquisition meant to him, and dedicated a poem, “Greetings from Angelus,” to Benjamin as a birthday present on July 15, 1921:
My wing is poised to beat
but I would gladly return home
were I to stay to the end of days
I would still be this forlorn
Not particularly festive, but Benjamin would have appreciated the sentiment, as he was in the process of forming a sort of symbiotic relationship with Klee’s curious figure, one that would indeed stay with him to the end of his days.
Later that same year, Benjamin founded a literary journal named after Klee’s print, in his words “because of the attempt to draw a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the period and the Talmudic legend about angels who are being constantly created and find an abode in the fragments of the present.” Again and again in his writings Benjamin would return to the Angelus, crediting it for helping him “to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction,” and thanking it for reminding him of “all from which I had to part: persons and above all things” after being forced into exile by the Nazi regime. Most famous of all was his treatment of the angel in the ninth of his posthumously published Über den Begriff der Geschichte (Theses on the Philosophy of History), in which the ostensibly Marxist philosopher abandoned dialectical materialism for something far less progressive, but far more truthful:
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 his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin himself would perish in that storm. He took his life on September 26, 1940, overdosing on morphine in the Catalonian coastal town of Portbou, right after having been refused entry at the Spanish border. (Adding to the tragedy, the border temporarily reopened the very next day.) For once, the Angelus Novus was not with him. Benjamin had left it, along with his collected papers, in the care of Georges Bataille, who safeguarded it in the Bibliothèque Nationale before handing it off to Theodor Adorno, who in turn passed the work along to Gershom Scholem, who had already emigrated to Jerusalem, which is where Klee’s angel now resides, in the Prints and Drawings wing of the Israel Museum.
Klee’s Death for the Idea provides us with a worm’s-eye view of modernity’s “single catastrophe,” a view from the trenches, gazing up at the wrack and ruin. The Angelus Novus, meanwhile, provides us with a bird’s-eye view, with the peculiar little angel, like the philosopher, or the historian, or the bombardier above Coventry, Dresden, or Hiroshima, soaring over the wreckage from the blockbusters, incendiary bombs, and gun-type fission weapons. Neither the soldier nor the angel can see the complete picture in all its granularity, nor could Walter Benjamin — though by early 1940, when he wrote his Theses, he had a fairly good idea where things were headed. He did not live to accompany the Angel of History as it was propelled blindly into the future, over the debris of the genocides, cultural revolutions, purges, struggle sessions, and ethnic cleansing campaigns that would mark the rest of the 20th century, taking tens of millions of lives in the process. But then the Cold War abruptly ended, and we arrived at what Francis Fukuyama famously described as “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Now the Angel of History, after its harrowing flight over the course of the 20th century, could finally fold its wings and rest.
It is now 1989, that fateful year zero of universal liberalism, and the German sculptor Anselm Kiefer is at the Paul Maenz Gallery in Cologne, unveiling a work that we may lump together with Death for the Idea and Angelus Novus so as to complete our 20th-century triptych: Poppy and Memory, which now resides not far from Klee’s Angel, in the Israel Museum’s Contemporary Art wing, on permanent loan courtesy of the Friends of the Israel Museum in Germany. This sculpture of Kiefer’s was in fact directly inspired by Klee and Benjamin, though its title is borrowed from Paul Celan’s post-Holocaust poem “Corona.” Poppy and Memory takes the form of a roughly formed 16-foot-long lead airplane, reminiscent of a strategic bomber, to my eyes at least, but with its payload consisting of massive lead books containing dried poppy plants, and with its fuselage studded not with flak shrapnel but with poppy seeds; a placard is affixed, reading, “Silence, as if Sown by a Poppy.” Klee’s angel had its shocked face turned back towards the past; Kiefer’s version is forward-facing, ready to rain forgetfulness down on the populace below. Having reached the “final form,” the apotheosis of mankind’s political evolution, all that was left was to befuddle the masses with poppies, usually metaphorically, though sometimes literally, as in the case of the ongoing opioid epidemic. But at least we could leave all that rubble in the past.
Yet just as, in Baudelaire’s words, “la plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas” (“The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist”), so too the greatest trick modernity ever pulled off was convincing us that the Angel of History had been rendered surplus to requirements. It is, admittedly, quite easy to lose sight of the Angelus Novus as we are cast about in what Pentti Linkola called the “derailment of the human species into the whirlpool of the technological religion,” and as the ubiquity of digital life causes us to be ever more disconnected from analog reality. The rubble piles up all the same, with humanity still “proving itself by destruction.” I suspect our dying culture realizes this, but it cannot help itself, for it has opted for the poppy and flatters itself that it has made a wise and progressive choice.
It was Julius Evola, in his Rivolta contro il mondo moderno, who most eloquently pushed back against the “harmful myth” of the “superiority of modern civilization,” which has proclaimed itself “sovereign at the crossroads of the plebeian ideology from which it originated”:
How low has mankind gone if it is ready and willing to apotheosize a cadaverous wisdom? For this is how we should regard the perspective that refuses to view modern and “new” man as decrepit, defeated, and crepuscular man, but which rather glorifies him as the overcomer, the justifier, and as the only really living being, Our contemporaries must have become blind if they really thought they could measure everything by their standards and consider their own civilization as privileged, as the one to which the history of the world was preordained and outside of which there is nothing but barbarism, darkness, and superstition.
This myopia, both a catalyst and an accelerant for our materialistic age of brutalism and technocratic sludge, has led to what Evola called the “inner disintegration of the Western world,” a phenomenon on display all around us, with the modern world resembling nothing more than a “lifeless body falling down a slope, which nothing can possibly stop.” There are diseases, wrote Evola, “that incubate for a long time and become manifest only when their hidden work has almost ended. This is the case of man’s fall from the ways of what he once glorified as civilization par excellence.” It is only now, with our body politic wracked with internal divisions and our interventionist foreign policy in tatters, that we are able to see just how much the disease has spread, and how much our reach now exceeds our grasp.
Our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into improbably long-running sores, and however much those like Robert Kagan insist that they have been “relatively low-cost,” they have led to the rise of ISIS, the liquidation of ancient religious minority communities, the devastation of cultural heritage, geopolitical chaos, unprecedented growth in the production of opium, the return of widespread bacha bāzī among the warlords, endless rounds of military deployments, and the humiliating failure to dislodge the Taliban — and ever more rubble. Indeed Afghanistan has become known as “America’s dustbin,” and a flourishing market in scrap metal has arisen, in which, as Nicholas Kristof observed, there are even “farmers who pretended to set up Taliban camps that the US would then bomb. The farmers would collect the remnants of millions of dollars worth of bombs and sell them for $100 as scrap metal” — a circular economy quite in keeping with the ethos and foibles of our age. That, apparently, is what we call progress. Our encouragement of the Arab Spring led to a Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist takeover of Egypt, and it took the prospect of fuel shortages and famine to bring a military junta back into power. Our intervention in Libya likewise proved catastrophic, and if images of Muammar Gaddafi being sodomized with a bayonet were immensely gratifying to some (“We came, we saw, he died”), such triumphs have been rather offset by the Copts martyred in Sirte, the slave markets erected in Tripoli, the cemeteries desecrated in Benghazi, and the human waves washing up on the shores of Lampedusa. And so the pile of debris grows skyward.
Our recent attempts to intervene in places like Syria, Russia, Belarus, Hong Kong, and Myanmar have, thus far at least, made rather less headway, putting me in mind of James Poulos’ recent rhetorical question: “What if you threw a global domination and nobody came?” China is now learning how to play the game, accusing the United States of being “the biggest source of chaos in the present-day world,” while subjecting American diplomats to scatalogical humiliation rituals for good measure. The liberal world order is crumbling, civilization-states are on the rise, but the current administration is pressing forward, both abroad and at home. After all, “there’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” as President Biden put it in his February 4, 2021, speech at Foggy Bottom, and the campaign to “acknowledge and address systemic racism and the scourge of white supremacy in our own country” is now explicitly linked to the global defense of democracy against “authoritarianism’s advance.” The very notion that, as the White House maintained in a March 2, 2021, proclamation, “the situation in Venezuela continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and that such a situation has any bearing on our own identitarian political struggles, would seem risible on its face, as is the case for continuing our disastrous, and at this point borderline onanistic, intervention in Syria into its second decade (or into a third decade in the case of Afghanistan). But our leaders have become as attached to interventionism as the opium-eater is to his dram.
Aside from the cultural destruction and geopolitical mayhem being broadcast, our natural environment similarly finds itself on the receiving end of our blind folly. While politicians and corporations fixate on carbon emissions, with the ultimate goal of creating multi-trillion-dollar speculative trading schemes in the form of spot and derivatives markets for greenhouse gases, the damage is spreading unchecked elsewhere. Each year we add millions of tons of plastic to the oceans, while micro-plastic suffuses our entire world, now even showing up in the placentas of unborn babies. Monoculture farming is laying waste to biodiversity, drastically reducing insect biomass and species richness, while the almost satanic cruelty of many factory farms, partially obscured by “ag-gag laws,” continues unabated. The insidiousness of endocrine disruptors is only now filtering into the popular consciousness, with Nicholas Kristof recently amplifying concerns about the “grotesque effects” of “some very common hormone-mimicking chemicals” on animals and humans, including “breast cancer, infertility, low sperm counts, genital deformities, early menstruation and even diabetes and obesity.”
For every spectacular Bhopal, Chernobyl, or Exxon Valdez of previous eras, there are now innumerable instances of what anthropologists call “slow violence,” the endemic, if sometimes subtle, damage done by toxic mud from mining waste, toxic runoff from Russian nickel mining sites contaminating heretofore pristine Arctic waterways, toxic air at ship-breaking sites in Bangladesh, toxic dust from insulating asbestos fibers affecting Senegalese railway workers, toxic pesticides and herbicides, thousands of tons of glyphosate entering our food chain, trash mountains 15 stories high in Indonesia, the very existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which indicts civilization itself — this litany could go on and on, but I do not need to belabor the point further. It suffices to say that our ongoing “inner disintegration” is having ramifications on a geological scale.
We can respond to the disintegration and dissolution inherent in modern life in a number of different ways. The first is to adopt Paul Klee’s pose, and declare that “it is none of my concern.” This was the approach of the French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau (1816–82), another notable critic of the very idea of progress, when he bemoaned the “age of national mediocrity” into which he was born, and declared that “I no longer believe in anything nor have any views.” In 1856 he informed his good friend Alexis de Tocqueville that he had come to “corrupt with acids and not with perfumes,” and to tell his contemporaries not that “You are acquitted” or that “You are condemned,” but that “You are dying”:
Far from me to pretend that you are incapable of conquering or unable to be moved and transported by sporadic spurts of energy. I neither impede nor do I push you. This does not concern me in the least. What I say is that you have spent your youth and you have now reached the age of decline. Your autumn is more vigorous, undoubtedly, than has been the decrepitude of the rest of the world, but it is autumn nonetheless; the winter will come and you will have no children. Establish kingdoms, dynasties, whatever you want; these things may be possible. I am not opposing you. Go disturb the Chinese in their home, polish off the Turks, drag the Persians into your schemes; these things may be possible and even inevitable. I shall not contradict you, but in the final account, the causes of your enervation are gathering and they will continue to gather by these very actions. And no one will replace you when your degeneration is completed. That thirst for material pleasures now tormenting you is a positive symptom. It is a sure symptom, like the rosy cheeks of those who suffer from maladies of the chest. All civilizations in decline before you had it and, like you, they seem to have enjoyed it.
There is a colorable argument that we find ourselves in just such a time, having all the selfsame symptoms, from the need to drag far-flung nations into our schemes down to the (in our case very real) malady of the chest. But in our degeneration we are further afflicted with a stifling technocracy and with spiritual and physical lockdowns preventing even the most “sporadic spurts of energy.” Are you even enjoying this age of decline, as Gobineau suggested was once possible? I doubt you are; even those in the political ascendancy often seem to exist in a suspended state of outrage and hysteria.
The indifference of Klee, or the nihilism of Gobineau, can lead to the debauch of the accelerationist, who positively revels in this process of disintegration, those like Guido De Giorgio, who in his esoteric 1930 essay “Crollano le torri” proclaimed, ”Go ahead! Achieve all your goals! Break all the dams! Faster! You are unbound. Go ahead and fly with faster wings, with an ever greater pride for your achievements, with your conquests, with your empires, with your democracies! The pit must be filled; there is a need for fertilizer for the new tree that will grow out of your collapse.” With the immiseration that will attend such a collapse potentially irreversible, the traditionalist instead urges us to rethink our very idea of progress, with G. K. Chesterton arguing that “real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them as from a root,” and with C. S. Lewis similarly suggesting that there are times when “going back is the quickest way on.” Yet the very conditions of neoliberal modernity are designed to make this return as difficult as possible, trapped as we are in a world dominated by presentism, from which the average lotus-eater has no desire to emerge. This is why Nietzsche referred to “progress in my sense” as a “return to nature” achieved “not going back, but coming up.”
And so we return to Evola and his Rivolta contro il mondo moderno. The “materialism for which our contemporaries should be reproached,” Evola demonstrated, is that which “pushed man onward,” into the storm, and over the rubble, generating in him “the need for an increasingly greater number of things; it has made him more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.” On the other hand, “according to Tradition, every authority is fraudulent, every law is unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless they are ordained to the superior principle of Being, and unless they are derived from above and oriented ‘upward.’ ” That the former, and not the latter, is thought of as progress surely must be the most damning imputation against our age.
Now we find ourselves back in 1920, the year the Angelus Novus was brought into the world, and Paul Klee is at Hans Goltz’s gallery in Munich, enjoying the acclaim that his first one-man exhibition is bringing him. For the exhibition’s catalogue, Klee has provided his personal motto, which would also serve as the epitaph engraved upon the tombstone erected over him in the Schosshalde Cemetery in Bern:
Diesseitig bin ich gar nicht fassbar
Denn ich wohne grad so gut bei den Toten
Wie bei den Ungeborenen
Etwas näher dem Herzen der Schöpfung als üblich
Und noch lange nicht nahe genug.
[I cannot be grasped on this side of things
For my dwelling place is just as much among the dead
As with the unborn
A little closer to the heart of creation than usual
And not nearly close enough]
Klee, like Walter Benjamin, stood on the threshold, “glowing among the dead” but bravely looking towards a future that, from their perspective, presented itself as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” We, too, stand on such a threshold, and we would do well also to seek out the heart of creation as best we can, and to dwell with the dead and the yet unborn, while heeding the timely warning of Klee’s Angel of History, who demonstrated just how much damage can be done by a humanity that proves itself by indiscriminate destruction, and then dares call it progress.