Sunday, April 23, 2006

Cold War Trivia: "The Angel of History"

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

Olen Steinhauer, over at Contemporary Nomad, has a couple of Cold War entries focused upon East Germany and Ceaucescu's Romania ... or, rather, Romania's Ceausescu. The first is titled "Temporary Cultures: Artifacts," and the second has the similar title of "Temporary Cultures: More Artifacts."

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.

As I said, this is a bit reconstructed and elaborated, based as it is on an giddy, inebriated memory, but it captures the moment and our humor of the moment when we heard reports of Ceausescu racing off in a blue car ... or whatever color it was supposed to be.

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.

This is from Benjamin's "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History," reprinted in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken, 1969), pages 257-258, which I read in Martin Jay's intellectual history course at Berkeley many years ago, and it reflects the pessimism of the Frankfurt School.

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.


At 7:50 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

I hope you're wrong about our regression...

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Deeapaulitan said...

Hello! I just stopped in to see what you were up to... Guess I caught you getting up on the wrong side of the bed! Grampa would say "mullygrubber".

At 12:21 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

This backward movement is precisely the Greek metaphor for Time. We, today, think of moving through time with our backs to the past, our face to the future. That's our metaphor. The Greeks thought of it with trepidation, knowing the past, as they could plainly see it, backing reluctantly into the unknown, blindly.

I have noticed in my life that there are coexistent parallel strands of worries, some growing, some shrinking. Intractible problems that occupy too much of my worryspace, sometimes just disappear in a puff, and I forget that they're no longer there. Other problems and fears of incomplete answers expand to replace the departed ones. The worries that I cling to today seem to stretch behind me and forward forever.

It reminds me of a sound experiment that Bell Labs created years ago. A series of notes seemed to keep rising in pitch while some sort of lower octave sound was building in amplitude. No matter how long you listened, at least to my ears, the pitch kept rising but somehow never really changed.

Good things have happened. Broken bones have healed. But tomorrow comes and brings its load of sorrows. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe a better metaphor would be a kaleidoscope. As Time turns the pebbles in the box, some sparkle as others grow dim. It's all remarkably unchanged and intriguingly different at the same time. It fails, however, on this. We can reach into the box and change things around.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Deeapaulitan, I visited your blog just yesterday. Lovely photos there, as usual. When are you coming to Korea?

My entry today didn't start off pessimistic, but somehow it developed that way. Odd...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJM, interesting points. I had forgotten about this Greek conception of time. In some ways, it makes more sense than our own.

That Bell Lab experiment sounds interesting. I don't think that I'm familiar with it. Maybe Wikipedia has something.

Reaching down into the kaleidoscope, that's a good metaphor for what we've tried to do in Iraq. The problem is that even if you remove a few colors and add a few, you still don't know what sort of pattern will emerge.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, if we're regressing, it's into the future.

Sort of a ... progressive regression.

And think of my blog entry as a type of regression analysis.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a beautiful blog post that summed up exactly how I often feel about the current direction we're all headed in. I fear that I will live to see everything beautiful be smashed by violent thugs in the name of their god.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, I hope that you're wrong, but in my moments of pessimism, I fear for the future.

Jeffery Hodges

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