The recurrence of Walter Benjamin

In 1989, Laurie Anderson released her third album, Strange Angels. Many people, including myself, continue to feel that much of her best work is on the album. Her songs here are brilliantly expressive and coherent; lyrically, many of them read like short stories.

When I was in high school, probably my favorite track was “The Dream Before”:

Laurie Anderson – The Dream Before from J. Christian Guerrero on Vimeo.

I remember being fourteen or fifteen, sitting in the living room of a beach house on a tropical island at night, my mom and younger sister asleep, listening to this song and being filled with youthful directionless yearning. Ultimately, it inspired me to write two short stories which were later published (but are now, thankfully, forgotten). One of the stories was also called “The Dream Before” and included a note to Laurie Anderson acknowledging the debt.

Of course, what I didn’t realize at the time — which only occurred to me years later at college — was that Anderson’s song is itself based on a famous passage written by Walter Benjamin in his essay Theses on the Philosophy of History.

Benjamin himself was writing in reaction to Paul Klee’s 1920 painting, “Angelus Novus”:

Of this painting, Benjamin wrote:

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 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.

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