Literary works, primary as well as secondary, are each named ‘Angelus Novus.’ They are angels looking as though about to move away from something fixedly contemplated. Their eyes are staring, their mouths are open, their wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angels of history. Their faces are turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, they see one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of their feet. The angels would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm blowing in from Paradise has got caught in their wings with such a violence that the angels can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels them into the future to which their backs are turned, while the pile of debris before them grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the
Philosophy of History, IX” (variant text,
Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” stands to twentiethcentury Western culture as its inspiration, Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” stood to the nineteenth. From their outset both documents proved essential points of departure for reflecting critically on the relation of intellectual work to the condition of society at large.
Benjamin remains especially relevant—in the presumption of this book—because he refashioned Marx’s theses along a specifically aesthetic line. In this respect Shelley is Benjamin’s closest English-language forebear. Both had what Shelley called “a passion for reforming the world” (“Preface” to Prometheus Unbound). Unlike Marx, however, Shelley and Benjamin were men of letters, not social scientists. Because they engaged the relation of aesthetic work to social conditions from an inner standing point, their positions are at once more trenchant than Marx’s and far more troubled. (For Marx, art was “not among