Conclusion: An Allegory
For my final analysis, I return to the last essay Benjamin wrote, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” He analyzed Klee’s 1927 Angelus Novus, giving a persona to the watercolor. I would like to do the same, giving a creative voice to what I had identified in my research as Chicago’s Sentinel of Time, Chester Daniel French’s Republic, which stands at the entry to Jackson Park. In this imagined dialectical, allegorical exchange, her voice interacts with that of Benjamin’s, who wrote that Klee’s Angelus Novus “shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring” (1968, p. 257).
“He is horrified by shock,” the Republic explains.
“His mouth open,” Benjamin added, while she notes, “in a silent scream of horror.”
“His wings are spread,” and she adds, “as if he longs to take flight, yet he remains transfixed, immobile, flightless, a fallen angel in the throes of death.”
“This is how one pictures the angel of history,” Benjamin continued. “His face is turned toward the past. Where we…” (ibid).
“As critical beings,” she adds, while Benjamin continued, “perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet” (ibid).
She observes, “He is a sentient being, only ‘seeing’ the ‘wreckage,’ whereas Chicago’s collective, ‘we’ are capable of reflection able to discern the progressive ‘chain of events’ rather than a pile of rubbish.”
“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed,” Benjamin added (ibid).
The Republic notes, “History looks upon rubbish, longingly, nostalgically wishing to magically summon the dead, the ghosts, those past figures upon which history itself has been written.”
“But a storm is blowing from Paradise,” Benjamin continued, “it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them” (ibid).
She notes, “The storm approaches from behind, which would be the future since the Angel of History has,” as Benjamin noted, “his face turned toward the past” (ibid).
She observes, “The winds of the storm, rather than giving him flight, only serves to further fix him in his place where events pile higher as though they were objects in an overcrowded landfill.”
Rather than fleeing, Benjamin noted, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (ibid).
“The storm’s power gives flight to the rubbish, the ‘chain of events’ because we,” Chicago’s Republic posits, “have ‘critically’ perceived them.
Because of his fixed position, History sees only ruins piling at his feet, and he is helpless, horror-stricken, shocked into a fixed position of immobility. And the storm? What is it that thus threatens history and its ruinous monumentality,” she asks?
“This storm,” Benjamin concluded, “is what we call progress” (ibid).
According to legend, if one plucks even a single feather from a fallen angel’s wing, one may secure the power of eternity itself. As educators, when we return to the pile of ruins, the debris at the foot of History, we are able to pluck the feather of eternity, scattered upon the wind of progress. While we may no longer rely upon allegories in our art or academic practices, through them we have the freedom to approach both our academic and artistic pursuits from a number of different theoretical perspectives, and through rich artistic heritages, as educators, we hold in our grasp a feather of the fallen angel of History’s eternity.
As ruins, older works of art become removed from history. As those who share the democratic educational space surrounding these ruins, we may respond to them in a number of ways, perhaps dismissing their presence, as many do who rush toward their next destination. Or we may look toward them as allegorists, and write our own lessons upon their corroded, dog-eared books; flapping bronzed coats; cold, stern glares, and hollow, frozen gestures. As ruins, these monuments are no longer tributes to America’s forefathers or wealthy donors but rather become works with a gaze echoing a face whose jaw-line reminds us of our uncle or grandfather, a gaze passing beyond us, looking into the promise of the future, a connection from the past with the present leading us toward our futures we build together. As allegorical figures, these ruins are a hybridization of past, present, and future, shocking montages of shared experiences in which the monuments serve as medium, not just artistic, formal, plastic, but medium in the metaphysical sense, a bridge, a path, a passage from one generation to the next, a lesson yet to be taught, yet to be learned, but always remaining learnable, always critical, always meaningful, always transformative.