"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."
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," Benjamin says in another section of his Theses. Leaving aside the problems of the word barbarism, I agree with the general sentiment. We write, we reach for incredible goals in communication, knowledge, science, and art. But we're also building - we are only able to build - on the backs of bloodshed. Peace comes at a price. And we're treading on dangerous territory when we give ourselves a self-satisfied pat on the back simply for looking back. Boy, aren't we civilized for understanding the awfulness of our own history.
Watching the footage of the ceremony at the Cenotaph this morning I was struck by the stilted performance of commemoration. There was something deeply weird about the ritual of wreath-laying - it just felt off, somehow - visually grand, but lacking in depth. I found myself chuckling a bit at the stern faces and choreographed placement. Perhaps it was symbolically impressive, but it felt emotionally hollow - so stiff, so focused on a couple of faces performing attention to death. Personally, I'd find it more resonant to have a quiet, intimate, individual moment to contemplate the immensity of mortality. But that's me. It's hard to generalize an experience, and it's hard to individualize a mass moment like remembrance.
We need to examine the past, just as much as we need to plan for the future. We need hope and pain in equal measure to remind us of the important issues in the present. But given the chance, who wouldn't want to "[blast] out of the continuum of history"? To break the cycle and create a world where there are no meaningless deaths or wars or violence, no societies that break individuals or individuals who break societies.* (Just dreaming for a minute here.)
Rather than "what did we do this for?" I'd like to see people asking "what are we doing now?" It's not enough for political leaders to dress in black, lay a wreath, and then go about their business. Days of remembrance can be opportunities to take stock. They can mark our failures, our successes, or just the continuum continuing.
*Revolution's all well and good, I'm thinking dictators in this context.