Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

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.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

The storm is too powerful for the angels to change course, but as they stumble backwards, they still have some control over where they place their next step. They must do the best they can to tread carefully, anticipating the ground on which their feet will land. Though the future is unknown to them, and their gaze is restricted to the past, it is also within the angels’ gift to look down to what is immediately underfoot.

Perhaps they find themselves walking along a coastline. Along the shore lie swamps in which the angels might sink, and stones to turn an ankle on, and debris that has come in on the tide. At times the sand mounts up, and they must climb a steep dune which prickles with beachgrass.

Alongside natural hazards they encounter obstacles which have arisen from design or neglect or misplaced good intentions: trenches and pipes which run into the sea, coastal defences constructed to impede erosion, a scattering of trash and broken glass spread out like a trap for the barefooted angels.

Each step is taken in the knowledge that these things might await, or that conditions might be more favourable: a gentle downward slope which is easy on aching legs and, on its lee side, provides partial shelter from the wind; a patch of sand that offers firmer going; a natural path; a spill of greenery that is cool and soothing underfoot.

Though the angels can only look back, each of them sees the landscape quite differently. Some fixate on trying to see the present beneath their feet as clearly as possible, even as the terrain continues to unspool. A few such angels even convince themselves that at the leading edge of their heels they glimpse the future, just beyond their frame of vision.

Others look further into the past, and seem trapped by it. They are lost in memories of a time when they walked a stretch which now lies on the distant horizon. They remember it fondly or with regret. They re-fight old battles as the storm drives them on: if only I had changed course back then, I wouldn’t be picking my way through the weeds and rubble now.

But for some who look back, the act informs their progress along the coast. They see that hope and hazard lie not just in whether the next step is a trip or a trap, but the broader shape of the landscape. They realise that sand has been giving way to rockier terrain for some time, or that the ascent they now make ends not in a dune-top but a cliff edge. They see changes missed by those attending only to the next immediate pace.

Gradually, these far-sighted angels grasp that they are each seeing the landscape differently, and every perspective has value. What is more, the angels are not moving at the same speed, and at different times, they can see one another too. They realise there is no need to march alone.

Gradually, step by step, some angels manage to converge and link arms against the storm. It’s not enough to let them turn back, nor even hold still, but it helps them brace against the terrible wind that howls all around. Some of the angels look to the far horizon, remembering how it was to walk that part of the coast, and recount what they learned from the experience. Some see the curve of the shoreline and speculate on where the storm is taking them in the long term. Others fix their gaze directly underfoot and try to keep their neighbours from falling at the next step.

Some of the angels predict, project, say what they think is likely based on what they’ve seen before. Some are overconfident, but the landscape inevitably teaches those a lesson sooner or later.

Some ask more challenging questions, using their imagination to ask, What if the next step takes us somewhere we don’t expect?

They remind their comrades and kin that they’ve never walked this current stretch before, that the storm winds bring tears to their eyes and their sight is always imperfect. The stories such angels tell can stretch others’ sense of where they might be headed. The stories form part of the chain that holds them together as they walk, arms linked, braced against the storm, away from the past and into the future.

And they might find that, walking in this way, despite the tears brought to their eyes by the force of the storm, they even have the chance to smile, and laugh.

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