The ‘Angelus Novus’ or the Angel of History



HAPPY New Year. The words sound wistful at best, delusional at worst. Even as we watched the fireworks gloriously light up the night sky, raised a glass in a toast, and fervently wished ourselves, our loved ones and friends, the happiest New Year, how many of us felt anxiety and dread in the pit of our stomachs?

Newspaper headlines and social media declared 2016 the year that was resoundingly bad for humanity. The list of horrors seemed inexhaustible: The election of dangerous, foul-mouthed, self-centered, reckless, demagogues. Tick. The global transmission of disease epidemics. Think the Zika virus. Tick. Terrorist attacks. Tick. Accelerated climate change. Tick. The death and destruction of an entire civilization. Think Aleppo, Syria. Tick. The spread of xenophobia and intolerance. Tick. Widening social inequality. Tick. Sexism. Racism. Double tick. The bombardment of bad news was unrelenting and emotionally bruising. Whatever our geographic location, we were steeped in the entire planet’s felt experience of tragedy and misfortune. We carried the awfulness of everything around with us in our daily lives, and made sure that we shared all manner and all forms of bad news at all times, urging as many people as possible, with every Facebook post, to keep thinking about how terrible things were–from the most mundane of concerns (the inconvenience caused by poor restaurant service, delayed flights, slow broadband speeds), to the shatteringly profound. A myriad of digital portals delivered the barrage of bad news without filter and without respite, heightening, enhancing, intensifying our sense of fear, anxiety, dread and powerlessness over just about everything.

Historians are inclined to throw perspective on this despondency. We can be assured that there have been far worse times in the past. Filipinos of the wartime generation, now dwindling, might point to the end of 1944 as the most abominable time in living memory for the country. Mass starvation under the Japanese occupation saw hordes of people, young and old, dying on the streets. They were neighbors, friends, and relatives. There was nothing to eat but kangkong, kamote, and rats. One eyewitness wrote: “On the sidewalks hobbled the wretched wrecks of humanity–beggars of all ages–cadaverous in their tattered rags or jute sacks, gathering the last morsel of food, with the smell of their festering putrid leg ulcers permeating the air.” Whole families perished. Children and grandchildren were lost to hunger, malnutrition and disease. Corpses piled up like stacks of firewood. Compounding the despair were lawlessness, violence and societal breakdown. Robberies, burglaries and murders escalated. Vindictive, vengeful, or plain fearful neighbors could easily become informants, and accusations of being a guerrilla ended in a bayonet in the stomach or decapitation. Panic and despair led to mass evacuations. Towns all across the country, according to wartime dispatches, were laid waste, leaving their inhabitants homeless and destitute.

Angelus-Novus by Paul Klee

Angelus-Novus by Paul Klee

At year’s end, as 1945 dawned, American forces neared Manila. The conflagration that engulfed the city, by some scholars’ estimates, was roughly equivalent to “an early nuclear weapon detonation”. Manila was turned into a funeral pyre. In the wake of the Japanese withdrawal, 100,000 civilians were slaughtered. Countless more were brutalized. Liberation finally came, and those who survived still have joyous memories of American soldiers arriving in jeeps giving out canned milk, bread, eggs, candies and chocolate. The devastation, however, had been absolute. Agriculture, power resources, transportation, manufacturing facilities, had all been destroyed and disease epidemics gripped the country.

Wartime memories fade and new nightmares take their place. A later generation fingers the martial law period and dictatorship. Tortures, disappearances, and the country pillaged by a rapacious family and their cronies made the Marcos period, for some, the worst time ever.

All this relativity gives cold comfort to the current generation. It is becoming all too apparent that President Duterte intends to govern with fear, intimidation, and impunity. Over 6,000 killings of the very poor and marginalized have occurred since he took office. Politics has been coarsened. His pronouncements, hyperbolic, “urban legend,” or otherwise, are received with international alarm and domestic embarrassment. Opposition, what little there is, is co-opted, silenced, paralyzed. Women politicians who voice their criticisms are publicly demeaned and debased. Yet Duterte is merely a tinpot tyrant. The American electorate has handed immense power to Donald Trump. How much damage and how many dangers will now ensue remains to be seen.

We await what 2017 will bring us with great trepidation. We have a bad feeling about this coming year because it seems, more than ever, that the painful gains that were made at home and abroad, over decades and generations, gains that worked toward safeguarding the security and well-being of the planet, our communities, and relationships with other people and nations, are being eroded, undermined, set back.

In 1920, Paul Klee (1879-1940), the Swiss-German artist, produced a drawing of an angel, which he titled “Angelus Novus”. The German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) came to possess the sketch and, meditating upon the image, wrote the following description:

“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 that keeps piling ruin upon ruin…The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. 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.”

We stand before the Angel of History and the storms are swirling about us. Every generation has its own worst years. These are ours.
Twitter @RachelAurea


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