On freeing ourselves from being held captive by a particular picture of history
|Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920 (source)|
A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein memorably noted in his Philosophical Investigations that:
§.115 “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
Wittgenstein recognized that the influence of our inherited pictures of the world, often served to obscure important truths from us, and as an illustration of this, he once offered his students a thought experiment: Imagine a rope tied tightly around a perfectly spherical Earth, without hills or water. If we add a yard to this rope and stretch it evenly out, how far off the ground would it now be? Most people think it would hardly lift off the ground at all. This assumption is based on the exceptionally captivating picture that it is always the case that by adding a small amount to something large, there will be an almost negligible consequent effect. Think, for example, about adding of a jug of water to the ocean. In this case, the picture is true enough. However, by adding a yard to a rope stretched tightly around the whole world that is nearly 44 million yards long would, in fact, raise it by almost six inches, 5.73 inches to be exact. That’s astonishing, isn’t it! It’s astonishing, of course, because of the picture that continues to hold us captive — it certainly holds me captive — that by adding a small amount to something large, there will be an almost negligible consequent effect. And this continues to make us feel that Wittgenstein can’t be right. But it’s easily checked out by simply going back to your school maths lessons and looking again at that old equation C=2πR.
Now, why am I telling you this today? Well, it is because of something I have noticed in connection with the current, utterly horrific and still unfolding of events in Israel and Gaza. But please take careful note that the phenomenon about which I am talking is present in every conflict everywhere, from the largest to the smallest.
To help you to see what I am seeing, I firstly need to tell you a modern myth written in 1940 by the German critic and theologically inclined philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).
In 1920, a friend of Benjamin’s, the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, produced a monoprint called “Angelus Novus” (New Angel) which was bought by Benjamin the following year. Well, Benjamin treasured this picture, and in the ninth thesis found in his last, and perhaps most famous essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written in 1940 just shortly before he took his own life whilst fleeing from the Nazi regime, he wrote the following:
“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.”
The combination of Klee’s monoprint and Benjamin’s words make for a very powerful picture, do they not? It’s certainly a pessimistic picture of history that has held captive many commentators in my own political-theological circles for over 80 years.
And today, right at this moment, having witnessed the extreme, murderous violence and destruction meted out upon innocent Israelis by Hamas on the 7th October, and now as we are witnessing the extreme, murderous violence and destruction being meted out by the Israeli armed forces upon innocent Palestinians, I found that I could not but help see in these events a similar picture of the world and our place in it to the one Benjamin thought the angel of history saw. Who among us at the moment does not feel, for at least some part of every day, that everyone is being blown helplessly backward by a storm from paradise that is piling wreckage upon wreckage, body upon body, and hurling all of them in front of the world’s feet?
But, although there is much about Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s monoprint that seems to me to speak accurately about how we many of us are often *feeling* at the moment — I stress the word “feeling” — one major aspect of it strikes me as being wrong, dangerously and delusionally wrong. It is the picture of history that Benjamin believes that the angel of history can see clearly. To remind you, Benjamin says:
“Where we perceive a chain of events, he [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
This picture — that ultimately everything can be traced back to a single cause — is one that continues dangerously to hold captive many Israeli and Palestinian politicians and ordinary citizens, as well as many politicians and ordinary citizens elsewhere in the world, including, of course, here in the UK.
It’s a dangerously simple picture of how the world is and our place in it which allows people to continue to think and act upon the belief that the horrors we are currently seeing in Israel and Gaza — and which we see in every other conflict on earth throughout history — that all these horrors can somehow be traced back to either a single guilty and evil perpetrator, or to a single, evil initiating event. One dark consequence of this simplistic, binary picture of the world is that it allows people to think it is possible to say “I am a wholly innocent victim whilst you are a wholly guilty perpetrator.” But, as I pointed out to you at the beginning of this current conflict, the Israeli author, public intellectual and historian Yuval Noah Harari is keen to encourage those of us, who are neither Israeli not Palestinian and, therefore, removed from the direct conflict, to continue to insist clearly that nothing, but nothing, can ever be solved by attempting to simplify the world by dividing it into only victims and only perpetrators, insiders and outsiders, the for and the against. This dangerous simplification is something that, alas, continues daily to be done, especially in the realm of public news and debate. It’s being done, of course, because it presents people with a captivating picture as simple, strong and as wrong as the one which stops us from easily seeing what the addition of a single yard of rope to 44 million yards of rope will actually do.
Consequently, it appears to me that Benjamin’s picture, that is to say his interpretation of Klee’s Angelus Novus as being the angel of history, is dangerous, deluded and wrong. History has never been something started by one single catastrophe but is always “a chain of events” or, more properly, an interdependent, intra-active, infinitely interlacing chain of events. There is no single, independent, first cause or perpetrator of anything, no single original sinner, such as Lucifer, no single sinner, crime, nor act of any kind. We’re all, always-already in this world together, all potential sinners and saints, victims and perpetrators in one body, and whether that one body is understood as our own individual bodies or the collective body of culture, religion, or of the whole universe to which we all inevitably belong.
As some of you will already be aware, I am speaking about something called the principle of dependent origination (因縁 所生). This was intuited by Shakyamuni Buddha in the moment of his own enlightenment or awakening. He suddenly saw a picture of how the world is and our place in it that is quite different from the picture Benjamin imagined he could see through the eyes of his angel of history. Instead, Shakyamuni saw that nothing has an independent, permanent, or absolute existence, and that everything is part of an infinite meshwork of intra-connections which is continually transforming or metamorphosing. Shakyamuni realised that the appearance of our world — which, of course, includes its history — always-already arises from complex causes and conditions, and this, in turn, is always-already combining with other causes and conditions to produce countless effects. It’s an insight echoed in different, but not unconnected, ways in the modern, natural sciences.
Knowing this principle, truly knowing this, and daily living by it, seems to me to be the only place where compassion and love for both our own self and the self of the other, truly begins. And it is only in the moment of realising the principle of dependent origination that the possibility of real, lasting forgiveness and healing can arise and genuine cooperative community can come into being; whether we call that community the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha or the Ideal Community, can come into being.
So please, please, please, in these increasingly divisive times, do not let yourself continue to be held captive by the idea that you, or anyone else, can see and point to one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of the world’s feet. It does not exist.