In 1940, shortly before the deadly end of his escape from Nazi persecution, the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin devoted the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (“Über den Begriff der Geschichte”) to a meditation on Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus. In Benjamin’s vision, Klee’s image represents the Angel of History, sucked into the future by the storm of progress, his face looking back to the catastrophic past. The posthumously published fragment not only has a troubled exegetical history, but also inspired numerous creative works.
This course, rather than searching Benjamin’s critical corpus for ciphers to decode the fragments’ philosophical meanings, focuses on the complex literary afterlife of the Angel of History. Drawing on works by such diverse writers as Anna Seghers, Bruno Arpaia, W. G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro or Rabih Alameddine it stresses the particular capacity of what (with Jacque Derrida) might be coined literary hauntologies to bring the past into an dialogue with our uncanny present.
The writings to be read, presented, and discussed in class re-imagine a here-and-now as it presents itself unexpectedly, in moments of danger. Narrating emergency situations as they flash up in (post-)traumatic memories these writings intentionally explode the continuum of history. Instead, they articulate a ghostly state of temporal disjointedness in which human presence is always-already haunted by the events of the past and so-called states of exception cease to be exceptions (Giorgio Agamben).
Class participants are invited to explore the post-Beniaminian aesthetics of counter-memory and secular redemption in selected literary angelologies of the 20th and 21st Centuries and to discover these works’ power to question dominant narratives of linear historical progress which disavow the experience of the oppressed.