History

The Angel of History

In an undergraduate literature class on trauma and memory, I was first introduced to the iconic painting of Paul Klee:

Klee, paul, angelus novus, 1920

To be fair, it wasn’t the painting that bowled me over, it was the interpretation given by essayist Walter Benjamin:

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.

The storm we call progress is the single most coherent description of the field we call history. It’s messy, personal, bitterly debated and cruelly used. Yet it is inescapable. It’s fascinating. In history I see my common humanity, spread out through times, locations, and events beyond imagining. The multitude of histories easily dispels nationalistic narratives and moralizing over right and wrong, good and evil. Instead we see our common humanity laid bare, in all the complexity of the human experience.

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