Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 3 (extract)
As noted in part 1, in Four Jews on Parnassus, Carl Djerassi – through his invented conversation between four immortal German-speaking Jewish intellectuals and playful digital graphics (part 2) – justified his feeling that Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ does not deserve its iconic status quite as much as some other picture in the painter’s angel series (about fifty works) might have done.
He offers his own graphic suggestion of an angel more expressive of Walter Benjamin’s idea of an angel of history with ‘wreckage upon wreckage’ piled at its feet, mouth open wide in horror.
His imaginary dialogue is often reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s wiser, as opposed to merely clever, dramas.
Here are short extracts from that conversation – which nimbly avoids lecturing, as it introduces readers to Benjamin’s sad and beautiful metaphor for the story of mankind. German philosophers seem wonderfully preoccupied with winged beings. Think of Hegel’s conception of the owl of Minerva, flying only at dusk – to convey his idea of philosophy as inevitably retrospective – only capable of enlightening us about reality after we experience it: ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. … The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only within the falling of the dusk.’
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG [addressing Walter Benjamin] : … “Angelus Novus” was the title of a literary journal you founded.
BENJAMIN: Indeed. (Draws quotation marks in the air.) “We are touching now on the ephemerality of this magazine, for it is the just price to be paid for promulgating genuine topicality.” That’s what I wrote in the prospectus. […] And why did I choose the title? Because Gerhard [Scholem], the Talmudic scholar –
SCHOLEM: Gershom the Talmudic scholar!
BENJAMIN: Because Gershom … steeped as he is in angelology … pointed out that, according to the Talmud, angels are created all the time … just to utter praise before God … and then to disappear into nothingness. One issue of the magazine after another.
SCHOENBERG: […] You wrote something else about the angel. … You both know what I am talking about (to Benjamin), your “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
BENJAMIN: The ninth thesis. (He quotes.) “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look.”
SCHOENBERG: One moment. Now really look at him. It is true his eyes are wide and his mouth open, but what made you write, “This is how the angel of history must look?”
BENJAMIN: Please let me continue. I then wrote, “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”
SCHOENBERG: Okay … understood. But what do these words have to do with Klee’s image? I don’t see the angel’s face turned toward the past! I see no wreckage before his feet! And how are you going to convince me that his hapless Angelus sees a catastrophe? You may see one, but Klee’s Angelus?
BENJAMIN: (becoming irritated) You must simply let me finish quoting my own essay. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm has been blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings. It is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”
SCHOENBERG: And you see all that in this image? I don’t see any storm. I don’t think his wings are caught in it. … I don’t see him driven anywhere. I didn’t see any debris at his feet … and I certainly don’t see any rising toward the sky. I see an angel looking sideways timidly towards God, raising his wings to his praise –
BENJAMIN: That’s all?
SCHOENBERG: That’s all. Now I do not question the text of your “Theses on the Philosophy of History” … not even this rather emotional ninth one. All of us, including Klee, have passed through this type of history, but putting these words into the image of this Angelus? You needed a metaphoric illustration and because this is the only Klee you owned –
BENJAMIN: Not the only one.
SCHOENBERG: I forgot! Your wife had bought you Vorfuehrung des Wunders … […] Here … let me show you another angel … one I might call Angelus Benjaminianus …
BENJAMIN: Good God. I had never seen that one before!
SCHOENBERG: I was sure none of you had. But this one* does do justice to your labored interpretation. Notice how you say, “His eyes are wide … his wings are spread.” But these wings are really spread and come from another Angel by Klee, which he also created in 1920.
* ‘A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast, Angel Brings What is Desired’.