In Walter Benjamin – Out of the Sources of Modern Judaism, Gillian Rose’s wonders if we might be inclined to follow Klee’s Angelus Dubiosus rather than Benjamin’s preference for the Angelus Novus.


A Novus


The contrast between the two images is striking. As Rose asks, do we seek to aberrate mourning or do we inaugurate true mourning; do we rest easy in endless deferment and never quite arriving hope, our do we stake our solace in our transformation and the fact that our hunger, desire and eros presuppose satiation? Anything less, as Rose concludes, is sever eros from logos, which has become the driving characteristic of postmodern philosophy.

Summarizing Benjamin’s use of Klee’s Angelus Novus, Rose states:

In philosophical terms, I would argue, Benjamin only knew the dialectical image as a lightning flash, ‘the Then… held fast’, in the Now of recognizably. The rescue that is thus – and only thus – effected, can only take place for that which, in the next moment, is irretrievably lost. It is this unequivocal refusal of any dynamic of mutual recognition and struggle which keeps Benjamin’s thinking restricted to the stasis of desertion, aberrated mourning, and the yearning for invisible, divine violence… Unable to praise God, this is Klee’s traumatized Angel, who appears in the ninth thesis – the New Angel. Propelled backwards into the future by a storm from Paradise, he cannot stay and he cannot dissolve, but must impotently watch in horror the single catastrophe of History, the internal raging caused by the same paradisiacal storm, as it piles up its debris at his feet.

I prefer another angel of Klee’s, Angelus Dubiosus. With voluminous, blue, billowing and enfolding wings in which square eyeholes are cut for the expanse of rotund, taupe flesh to gaze through, this molelike angel appears unguarded rather than intent, grounded and slack rather than backing up and away in rigid horror. To me, this dubious angel suggests the humorous witness who must endure (209).

Rose phrase, “the stasis of desertion” seems so very important. It’s tempting to rest easy in endless deferment, to be ever clearing your throat but never saying anything. Such “aberrated mourning” is indeed static, it doesn’t do anything but cast the bereaved back upon the absence of death and back upon finitude that only finds meaning in “feeling” as reason is barred.[1] It misses the dynamic of the Angelus Dubiosus, the hope of the heavenly banquet that is intimated here and now with each paschal sacrifice.


A. Dubiosos


And there’s more. Rose’s Angel represents a humdrum hope of the simple garden variety. It does not mirror an ethics in extremis nor tend toward abstraction, but is characterized by bathos.[2] “It appears commonplace, pedestrian, bulky and grounded – even though, mirabile dictu, there are no grounds and no ground,” writes Rose (10). It is not beyond reason, nor beyond metaphysics, but firmly entrenched within – eros and logos together. For Rose then, hunger is not perpetual deferral, but the transformative energia of God. Our task then is to “break the hard heart of subjective judgment; to soften the rigid stare of the Angelus Novus, the angel of history” (182).

[1] Perhaps Rose is picking up on Hegel’s description of “Protestant grief” in Faith and Knowledge. “God is something incomprehensible and unthinkable. Knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing; it must take refuge in faith. All of them agree that, as the old distinction put it, the Absolute is no more against Reason than it is for it; it is beyond Reason.” Religion characterized thus for Hegel “ builds its temples and altars in the heart of the individual. In sighs and prayers he seeks for the God whom he denies to himself in intuition, because of the risk that the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”

[2] Ethics in extremis “irrupts into the political arena, but it does not fundamentally transform it. The political tends naturally to the uniform and degenerate, and the most ethics would appear capable of is to shake it up from time to time. One might contrast this with a socialist or feminist morality, for which political change is the ground of transformed ethical relations between individuals. Such politics on this view is not simply a superaddition to existing modes of political existence. Far from being an outside intervention into the polis, it is a specific way of describing it.” Terry Eagleton, The Trouble with Strangers, 244.