Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

25 May 2010

Makropoulos & The Angel of History


The date that I claim as my birthday in this current
era of my life is also reported to be the day on which
Walter Benjamin chose to die.

Not in the same year, mind you.

Many sources report that Benjamin died 9/27/1940.

I claimed my current identity 18 years later, on 9/27


This is a neat date because it's really
a repetition of the same number:

Ten is the number of absolute completion,
but nine is the number of accomplishments 
coming close to completion;
it is a very human number:
it wants to celebrate its 
but it's not perfect

Nine is a mysterious number;
a number of plenty;
the number of months
a human female nurtures a child
inside her body,
it is a Motzkin number (I never knew
that before);

It is voluptuous, a triple three,
a shade away from etenity,
9 is me.

Walter Benjamin is best known for a couple of things:

He wrote a very influential essay called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which I'll talk about later this week.  I hope.

What I'd like to talk about a little right now is his article called "Theses on the Philosophy of History," because it is directly related to the character of Makropoulos:

(see wikipedia on "The Turk")

The First Thesis by Benjamin:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.

Makropoulos - this cyber-facade behind which I hide - is nothing more than a Mechanical Turk - an apparatus constructed to move the pieces of a complex narrative I'm trying to weave about history, time, mirrors and theology.

(from: Benjamin, )
Benjamin's Thesis number IX  (yeah, that's right, that's a nine):

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück.
Gerherd Scholem, 
‘Gruss vom Angelus’

(My wing is ready for flight,  
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time, 
I would have little luck. )

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 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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a 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.

Makropoulos is the Angel of History: a textual incarnation of a literary figure who has been wearily plodding from lifetime to lifetime, not because she has artfully avoided death, but rather, because she has been unable to die.
She watches the wreckage gather.  It horrifies her, and gives her great pain.  She has seen the causes of the wreckage, she has seen them in a continual cycle.  And it wearies her and worries her.  All she can do is write.  It is true, she seeks to "awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed." 


A woman burdened with 424 years of life, and a library of knowledge and experience
in her head
is inherently historical,
even if she does not want to be.
Her every word is
even if she does not want it to be.
Her - I mean my impulse to speak of history,
and especially the beginning of history,
parrallels the compulsion to
retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man
(or woman)
singled out by history 
at a moment of danger.
The danger affects both the content of the tradition
and its receivers.
A moment of danger surrounds us,
so apparent in the Signs of the Times:
in the Gulf bleeding oil,
in the thoughtless wars
and thoughtless deaths,
fueled by greed for oil
that bleeds in the Gulf,
in the mutant fish washing up on 
beaches all over the world,
in the plunging stock market
in the howl of my deaf cat,
in the chatter of the birds,
in each human's insistent urge to serve their selfish needs:

these are the symptoms
of dangerous times.

I don't want to be interpreted
as apolocalyptic, 
not in the sense of those who
forecast gloom.
But neither can I advocate
because complacency is the most
sinful of sins.
So is pretending this is all a 
passing phase,
or trying to get things back
to the way they were.
Those are errant games,
and they assure an
ongoing reign
of evil.
They are, for lack of a better word,
the manifestation
of the presence of Antichrist.

We, all of humanity, are
in essence,
the embodiment of Antichrist.
Our continued collective destruction
of each other
and of the planet
embodies the destructive force 
that all of history has feared.

Likewise, collectively,
we can be 
the Messiah,
if we develop 
our minds and our actions
towards our own
peaceful advancement and preservation.

Jesus will come as the Scholar in the Age of the Grid,
if we all opt to be scholars.

The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,
he comes as the subduer of Antichrist
Only the historian will have 
the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past
who is firmly convinced that 
even the dead will not be safe from the enemy
if he wins (Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History,
thesis number VI)

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