Sebald And The Angels Of History

Evan Fleischer
14 min readMar 10, 2020

Truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense.
— W.H. Auden, “New Year Letter”

Walter Benjamin spoke of an “angel of history” in his unpublished-at-the-time essay, “On The Concept Of History,” writing that —

His [that is, the angel’s face] face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling 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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a 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.

Benjamin’s definition of ‘the angel of history’ enables us to look a little bit more closely at the function of the symbol and the idea of ‘an angel of history’ in The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. It’s also in discussing both Walter Benjamin’s angel and The Rings of Saturn that we can discuss Wings of Desire and take note of how the three engage with the other.

There are literal connections and all but literal connections that can be drawn between the three texts: in the library scene in Wings of Desire, per the screenplay, one reader studies Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” which is referenced by Walter Benjamin in relation to “the angel of history” (and which prompts the above-quoted paragraph), which itself serves as a point of intellectual reference in The Rings of Saturn.

Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history — blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the