And this is not just about the evident difference between public and private life, not just about the fact that a CV will not list how people came and went, how loves were found & lost and found & lost again. It is about the amazing fact that a CV does not give the slightest hint of one’s sense of self , does not give a single clue to one’s inner life (be it of the mind or of the soul).
Imagine then a thematic CV, built around one’s defining insights, passions & obsessions – a CV full of objective information diligently based on say, significant evidence found in one’s cupboards & book-cases – such as fading photos with pin-holes testifying to a former personal iconic status; such as doubly & triply -underlined sentences in books, ….
- but all in all, what sets the tone of the theme is rather the somber & knowing reflective-ness of angels, their powerless sympathy with vainly striving humans.
Chronologically Wim Wender’s film “Der Himmel über Berlin”/ “Wings of desire” has to feature first on the CV ( with the mention it is the only film I ever went to see three times in the same week, & with the mention I saw it at age 22, just before I had to plunge headlong in the work-experience as detailed on the official CV).
Oh, it was all there – humans and their catastrophic history, and their eternally clashing or frustrated desires, and their loneliness, and their longings.
And the melancholy sense of this human condition which only the contemplative, the irrelevant members of society truly have.
Thus, seeing and pitying human drama & comedy is the task of powerless , eternally silently murmuring angels. The task of angels, because humans are too wrapped up in their own present battles – too busy preparing the future.
Yes – it was all there (2) , and this poignant image of the powerless, horrified and sympathizing angel has accompanied me for the next twenty years. And surely it is no coincidence that all of my most cherished writers and artists did have something to say about angels ... Like the perfect sentence to resume our dependence on angels as our non-judgmental witnesses of last resort, I found it somewhere in the works of Anna Blaman (3): “only the powerless attentiveness of sympathizing angels”.
Later of course, I could feel challenged by the Rilkian despair that not even angels would hear us: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? “ (4)
And then, ah, the encounter with Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, which does merit a lengthy quote :
“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 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 caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This 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.” (5)
Only angels can thus bear to view & remember history as this catastrophe of human suffering. Only angels, or perhaps also some rare melancholy contemplative humans (the kind of irrelevant individuals which are disqualified anyhow for the optimist task of building the future).
So it’s clearly in this sense that I interpret Benjamin’s insight of history “ as a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly”. (6)
Now I shall refrain from a brief history of angels in art (7), and only quote the very latest acquired angelic reference (for which I have to thank a certain flowervillain ) : here’s Gombrich on a statue by Anna Mahler:
“ [..] the entrance of a cemetery for which she created a model twenty-four years ago: the erect figure of an angel standing on a high square pillar, wiping his tears with one of his wings - an austere vision, utterly devoid of sentimentality”
More specifically, the growing realization that in the practical world, wanting to hold high moral values of human sympathy and wanting “to stand guiltless” in fact condemns one to irrelevance and powerlessness. ( And people may even despise those who have not the power to help them).
What a choice – either compromise on tender moral feelings, play the game and be rewarded with at least some relevance in the world (including the power to, maybe just maybe, right some of the wrongs).
Or stand unwaveringly guiltless and therefore renounce any position of real power in the world and so be condemned to “powerless sympathy” … (8).
CV’s don’t carry footnotes, do they?
(1) Paraphrasing Anna Achmatova
(2) Not all was there : I don’t remember for instance much insistence on angels’ androgyny . Angels not being trapped in human genetics, they’re of course neither male nor female. An d their androgyny is obviously integral to their impotence/ barrenness, which in turn guarantees their disinterested attentiveness : indeed, they’re not propelled by selfish genes bent on reproduction.
(3) Anna Blaman: Dutch writer, active in the 40s & 50s – I don’t know whether she’s still read today – I suspect she’s far too pathetically-earnestly existential for our ironizing times. Here’s the quote (as I remember it, I couldn’t track it down) in Dutch: “ Alleen de machteloze belangstelling van sympathiserende engelen”
(4) It is such a strong line that I have to quote it “jeder engel ist schrecklich”, but clearly it does not at all enter in my personal iconology of boundlessly empathizing angels
(5) From Benjamin’s “Theses on the philosophy of history” as compiled in Illuminations
(6) Straying from angels to melancholy writers such as W. G. Sebald and Orhan Pamuk – at the core of their work there is this same reflective and pitying sadness, a sadness of knowing too much, a sadness of too much moral non-judgmental sensitivity, too much understanding while “speaking of very ugly matters” .
(7) Though what a history that is!!!! The little shrieking & crying & hand-wringing angels of Giotto (as described by Proust), the grave Renaissance angel-musicians, the many impetuous Annunciation angels with fluttering wings , the sensuously swinging angels of Bernini, the angel accompanying Tobias on his winding road, Dürer’s terrible angels, not to mention the many weeping angels at graves, and the irreverent little fat putti so far removed from both heaven and hell …
8) a good occasion to quote from Pamuk's Snow (that sublime, melancholy, moving, kind, desperate novel): "an honest and well-meaning man, like those Chekhovian characters so laden with virtues that they never know success in life - full of melancholy"