Cold War Trivia: "The Angel of History"
The former presents images of several East German products, which I found interesting because I spent six years living in Germany, from 1989 to 1995, and watched the Berlin Wall come crashing down in late 1989 ... from a distance. I was studying in Tübingen, not Berlin, and felt that I couldn't spare the time and money for a trip just to say that I had taken a hammer to the wall and helped to 'deconstruct' communism. I'm still kicking myself for not going at a moment when the tectonic plates of history were shifting.
I didn't actually get around to visiting Berlin until the spring of 1990, but that allowed me to enter the yet-indepedent state of East Germany. I only stayed for one day, and the place was still depressing despite having opened up to the world. It didn't last much longer as an independent state.
Steinhauer's second entry presents images of a particular Romanian product: Nicolai Ceausescu. This specific product would be fitting for a particularly apt if ironic analysis in terms of Marx's fetishism of commodities. A product of the Romanian culture industry, Ceausescu was manufactured for public consumption as a fetishized image in the cult of personality.
Those of us living here in South Korea know about this sort of fetishism, for North Korea has it in spades with their leaders, a link that Steinhauer explicitly makes in noting that "Nicolae Ceausescu got it into his head that his friend, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, had a pretty good thing going in regards to his personality cult," so he decided to have his own produced by Romania's centrally directed 'economy of salvation' -- if I may borrow and secularize a soteriological expression.
Steinhauer's images of Ceausescu brought back memories of Christmas 1989, for I was visiting my friend Tim Anderson -- an old Baylor buddy and fellow NoZe Brother -- in Fribourg, Switzerland when the cracks opening in the Cold War wall had finally reached Romania. I remember sitting up with Tim, listening to news reports about political unrest in Romania. We were growing increasing excited, and probably inebriated, laughing with joy at Ceausescu's impending political demise and joking about his attempt to escape Romania by car.
Spurred by this reactivated memory, I posted the following comment to Steinhauer's piece, but I admit -- in this case -- to having presented an expanded and imaginatively reconstructed memory of how Tim and I ridiculed the 'escape' of Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu:
As for the demise of Ceausescu...
I was in Fribourg, Switzerland over Christmas 1989, staying with a friend and listening to the BBC as it attempted to track the 'escape' of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena:
"Last seen rushing off in a blue car, heading for the Yugoslav border..."
Or something like that. My friend and I imagined the two of them arguing over directions:
"Damn it, Elena! Hand me that map! I'm the 'Great Conductor.'"
"Shut up, you deviationist idiot! I'm the one who's always told you where to go!"
"Yeah, and look where it's gotten us! Stupid woman!"
"Me stupid! Hah! I told you to make more promises to that crowd today, but you didn't listen! Some conductor you are! You didn't manage to conduct yourself very well today. Turn here!"
"That's what the map says!"
"Woman, you can't trust that map! I had it made wrong to confuse the enemy."
"You think I don't know that? I'm the one who gave you the idea! But some turns are right, and this one's right! Turn right!"
"Right?! Wrong! I'd never design a leftist map with a correct right turn! Give me that damn map!"
"Nicolai, don't you dare dictate to me!"
Or so we imagined...
Ah, 1989, a moment when the future seemed open to possibilities. Then came Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, then the breakup of Yugoslavia, then one damn thing after another, culminating in the great wake-up call of 9/11.
So much for the end of history.
One wants history to make sense, and we Westerners like to think that it's heading someplace better, whether we accept a possibly secularized belief in progress leading to Kant's "Perpetual Peace" or hold to a belief in the traditional Christian history of salvation culminating in the eschaton. But as the postmodernists are ever eager to point out, we live in a world of conflicting grand narratives, and 9/11 is a reminder of a different, competing view of history.
But there are subnarratives in the West, too, and I sometimes think that Walter Benjamin had it right about history:
A Klee drawing 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 that 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 got caught in his wings with such 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.
I don't usually succumb to pessimism, but I do, at times, think that we're moving backwards into the future, our eyes fixed on the past -- like that angel of history.