Benjamin’s Interruptions: Baudelaire, Angels, and the Cessation of Time

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire

In 1939, Walter Benjamin wrote a set of notes entitled “Central Park.”  These are preparatory studies to his book on Charles Baudelaire and are interwoven with his Passengenwerk entries, especially with the large sheaf of notes dedicated to the French poet.  Benjamin brings several threads of his notes together around the topos of interrupted time.

For example, he reflected at length on the role of allegory in Baudelaire’s poetry, which he characterized as deriving from a distinctively modern sense of time rooted in the cycles of valuation and devaluation of the commodity and in the disintegration of traditional experience amidst the shocks of metropolitan life.  He suggests that in Baudelaire’s poetry, allegory “holds fast to the ruins.  It offers an image of petrified unrest.”  He goes on to link the allegorical fixation to Baudelaire’s specifically destructive passion, a kind of intensive nihilism in which Benjamin saw adumbrated the downfall of the poet’s class.  He writes, “Baudelaire’s impulse is nowhere concerned with the abolition of what falls prey to it,”–in other words, he both destroys and presents the image of destruction in the preservation of the smashed object.

“To interrupt the course of the world,” Benjamin writes, “that was Baudelaire’s deepest intention. . . . From this intention sprang his violence, his impatience, and his anger; from it, too, sprang the ever-renewed attempts to stab the world in the heart or sing it to sleep.”  In both the stab and the song, perhaps, we discern the same gaping rictus of the face petrified into a mask, either of shock and pain or in a yawn: “When yawning, the human being opens like an abyss.  He makes himself resemble the time stagnating around him.”

From here, we may proceed to a peculiar detail Benjamin noted in his famous passage on Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, in his late reflections “On the Concept of History.”  How is it that Benjamin imagines the look of the angel of history? With the same rictus he imagines to be the mask of Baudelaire: “His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.”

Benjamin doesn’t say why the angel’s mouth is open.  Is he in pain over his useless wings and the continuous catastrophe he sees piling up into eternity?  Does he sing a song for an infinitesimal instant and pass away again into oblivion and uncreatedness, like the angels of the Kabbalah from which he sprung?  Or perhaps he hears from the distance below him, down in the great city, the allegorical song of the modern poet, and so yawns deeply before sleep carries him to another place somewhere in lost time.

Klee, Angelus Novus

Klee, Angelus Novus

His open mouth, in the very ambiguity of its gestus, is the image of redemption interrupted, the caesura of a yawn between sleep and awakening: “The angel would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them.”

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