Strange Angels

Friday, April 7, 2017

In late 2015, I wrote some of my thoughts about Marseille:

A real city is big, dynamic, energetic, it is a grown-up, it is not a debutante at a ball, it is not a country cousin, it is a priestess with a mohawk, a social worker with chain studs, a person with tattoos welcoming refugees, it is art in the galleries and shit on the sidewalk, it is shiny glass towers and broken glass windows, it is life itself with all its foibles, wearing its scars and bruises like jewelry. A city is human, it is us.

Around the same time, Stuart Jeffries too wrote about Marseille in The Guardian, echoing some of my feelings more eloquently and in many more words. Much of that eloquence came from Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher (1892-1940), who wrote about Marseille 80+ years ago:

“I now suddenly understood how to a painter – had it not happened to Rembrandt and many others? – ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty, better than any treasure cask, a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.”

In the words of Jeffries, “Benjamin encountered in his (hashish induced) Marseille trance what his beloved Baudelaire had found when taking the same drug in Paris nearly 70 years before: an artificial paradise.” But that paradise is now being normalized, “sandblasted and civilised.” Jeffries writes:

Marseille has been overwhelmingly horizontal since Greek graders founded it 2,600 years ago, its terracotta-roofed buildings spreading inland from the bay. Now it’s going vertical, with new skyscrapers glassily returning your gaze, looking like a Mediterranean sibling for those other formerly raffish docklands made safe for business suits – London, Hamburg and Baltimore.

Benjamin loved cities, but he didn’t romanticize them. Leading with André Breton’s observation that, “The street… the only valid field of experience,” Benjamin wrote:

Marseilles: the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth. When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink. This comes from the tartar baking hard on the massive jaws: newspaper kiosks, lavatories, and oyster stalls. The harbor people are a bacillus culture the porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings. But the palate itself is pink, which is the color of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the faded women of the rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.

— Walter Benjamin - Selected Writings, 1927-1930

Benjamin realized that, Jeffries realizes that, and I realize the same. The ugliness on surface hides lessons on how we can live together in peace while the normalized, santized and homogenized malls populated with stores of global chains offer a sameness that may seem pretty on surface but is dehumanizing in its lack of purpose. After all, if I can get the same thing in one place, devoid of the local color or passion, why even go to another.

Strangely, I didn’t know about Walter Benjamin until a few weeks ago. Here is how that story goes—

One of my favorite musicians is Laurie Anderson. She has a song called “The Dream Before” in her 1989 album Strange Angels.

The lyrics of the songs are:

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well
And they’re living in Berlin
She is a cocktail waitress
He had a part in a Fassbinder film
And they sit around at night now drinking schnapps and gin
And she says: Hansel, you’re really bringing me down
And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch
He says: I’ve waited my life on our stupid legend
When my one and only love was the wicked witch.
She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress

As much as I enjoyed that song, I never really understood the words until recently when I happened to read about Walter Benjamin and his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Paul Klee Angelus Novus

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.

This progress is afflicting Marseille, San Francisco (my last hometown in the United States), Washington DC (on paper, my current hometown), and many other places. And this progress also consumed Benjamin. As he philosophied in his Theses, “Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein.

Benjamin died as he believed. From the Wikipedia:

The historical record indicates that (Benjamin) safely crossed the French–Spanish border and arrived at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia. The Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and ordered the Spanish police to return such persons to France, including the Jewish refugee group Benjamin had joined. It was told by the Spanish police that it would be deported back to France, which would have destroyed Benjamin's plans to travel to the United States. Expecting repatriation to Nazi hands, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of 25 September 1940 while staying in the Hotel de Francia

Strange angels indeed.