Progress vs. Catastrophe: Underworld by and beyond Benjamin’s Angel of History

Posted by @ 1:50 pm on May 8th, 2012

A Brief Introduction to the Themes

In 1940, Walter Benjamin published an essay, consisting of a collection of brief reflections, titled “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”  The ninth thesis describes Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, in which an angel “look[s] as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating” (Benjamin 257).  Benjamin links this to “the angel of history” observing the world through the position of the past.  While the future pushes on inevitably—insists he take notice—the angel is turned away, caught up in the disasters of the past.  This overseer wants to arrest the present, stop progress altogether in order to amend the disasters and failures of history, and finds itself in a struggle against the powerful reality of the ever-advancing state of existence.  Thus, a rivalry between progress and catastrophe is established.

Don DeLillo’s 1997 magnum opus Underworld meditates heavily on Benjamin’s ninth thesis.  The progress of society, through the lens of the Cold War begins in 1951 and is presented in reverse chronological order, backwards from 1992, after the complete dissolution of the Eastern Bloc.  The undulating anxiety regarding Western society’s seemingly imminent doom is displaced by an anxiety within the context of the American Dream. Baseball, bureaucracy, sex, waste, art, religion, and crime take on the weight of the present’s baggage through the obsessive compulsions of the past.

There is no direct solution to the conflict of Benjamin’s thesis, just as DeLillo offers little individual resolution for his characters.  However, the driving force of salvation, the one in which we thrust our faith and loyalty, is the same in both dilemmas: the angel.  The angel of history is trapped in a moral and physical bind; it seeks some way in which to move on from humanity’s historical failings—the “single catastrophe”—and to avoid, or amend, the forthcoming quandaries of the world—the “storm” (257-8).  DeLillo’s angel, Esmeralda, extends this notion further, and acts as a Christ-like sacrifice for history and an entity from which to begin anew, look around, and turn toward progress.

Benjamin on Experience

One year prior to the publication of his historical theses, Benjamin focused his attentions on the urban masses.  “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” explores the nature of experience and its effects on a population.  Referring to Proust’s individual memory and perception of his childhood, he asserts, “Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past… producing the amalgamation of these two elements of memory over and over again” (161).  Later, in his discussion of Poe’s translation of “The Man of the Crowd” he states, “Poe’s text makes us understand the true connection between wildness and discipline.  His pedestrians act as if they had adapted themselves to the machines and could express themselves only automatically.  Their behavior is a reaction to shocks” (178).  These moments are particularly significant with regard to the ninth thesis on the history of philosophy.  We have discussed the angel’s role, but people, those whom the crises of the world affect directly, have an entirely separate reaction.  The sense of collective, mechanistic approach to memory, and history, can lead to serious coping issues, such as fixation, distraction, and deracination.  These cognitive departures due to some mass experience are at the root of dealing with history.  However pervasive and attractive these reactions, a society must overcome such avoidance techniques in order to face the future and communally advance.

A Further Synopsis of Underworld

DeLillo’s work spans several decades and covers a number of story arcs, yet there remain a few central key concepts.  The novel opens in the 1951 National League pennant playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, known commemoratively as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World.”  Pitched by Ralph Branca, Bobby Thomson’s game-winning walk-off home run becomes a national sensation.  The two players become icons of history, power, and ridicule, while the ball travels from hand to hand throughout the story.  That same day, just before the homer is hit, US Intelligence receives news of the first successful Soviet nuclear bomb test.  From here, the novel shoots forward in time 41 years and slowly travels back, as the reader learns about the fate of the American mindset, with the knowledge of the resolved Cold War.

We are introduced to a number of recurring and connected characters.  Nick Shay is a waste management executive in a highly bureaucratic position, possessor of the prized baseball, guilty of a youthful homicide, as well as a number of significant transgressive experiences.  His brother Matt is infatuated by detail, investing his youth in the complexities of chess, later submerging the game to replace it by other means.  Klara Sax goes through a lifelong struggle to come out an actualized and proud artist.  Marvin Lundy tracks and shares the history of the ball over decades and across oceans.  Sister Edgar is a nun in the devastated South Bronx, whose faith is tested at the hands of a derelict, homeless child, Esmeralda.  The end of the novel reveals the purity of the child as an inexplicable miracle after her brutal murder.  A number of other characters and events come into play, but the grand scheme revolves around the fixated distraction of these individuals during the threat of the Cold War.

Collective Anxiety and Displacement

The Cold War can be viewed in Underworld as the experience Benjamin outlines in his 1939 essay on Baudelaire and mass reaction.  There is a collective consciousness regarding the ongoing struggle between the Communist Bloc and democratic-capitalist West; however, the reality and urgency of the conflict, rather than directly drawing response from the novel’s characters, is manifest through a number of displaced obsessions.  Like the ninth thesis’s angel “about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating,” we find the American people invested in seemingly personal distractions.

The most significant and obvious of these fixations is the baseball.  More than a few characters are indebted to the ball in some form, but each individual conception is shaped by its combination with some collective perception.  Shay explains the origin of his desire: “I didn’t buy the object for the glory and drama attached to it.  It’s not about Thomson hitting the homer.  It’s about Branca making the pitch.  It’s all about losing… It’s about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss…  But it’s the only thing in my life that I absolutely had to own” (DeLillo 97).  The ownership of the ball, the search for the ball, is all about commemoration of tragedy.  It travels, it is lost, it is hidden and examined for historical accuracy, compared, and horded.  It is the physical connection to the incomprehensible nature of utter destruction.  “Because certain events have a quality of unconscious fear,” Marvin Lundy muses on the pennant game. “I believe that people sensed some catastrophe in the air… the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball” (171-2).  The attention to the ball, the date, the focus of the loss rather than the win, all stand in place of the war itself.  The ball is the bomb and the threat of an amalgamated humanity’s annihilation.  If characters such as Lundy and Shay can attain this relic, they feel as though they can hold, control, and smother the future.

Chess appears throughout the novel as another anxiety displacement.  Historically, the game played a key role in the psychology of the Cold War and an object of conflict, which diverted from yet heightened nuclear apprehensions: “all those layers of Slavic stealth, those ensnarements and ploys… Bobby Fischer had all the fillings removed from his teeth when he played Boris Spassky in 1972… so that the KGB could not control him through broadcasts made into the amalgam unites packed in his molars” (251).  Matt Shay, Nick’s brother, is a childhood chess savant turned bureaucrat.  His obsession was alienating and full of failure.  Free time was spent studying and practicing; the extent of his limited social interaction revolved around the game, and still he found himself unable to excel to the next level.  Later in life, “His chess was old dark difficult history, suppressed forever.  The history of a chess homunculus.  No one knew about his chess” (413).  In Matt one experiences the transfer of significance and concentration from the harsh realities of global tensions to the surface of the board game.  As an adult he follows the taped event of a serial murder fanatically, precisely, calculating every move and moment in a recording he has memorized completely.  The character’s ignorance of the world outside his hobby, followed by his suppression of chess entirely to be supplanted by further infatuation within the strict confines of bureaucracy, exposes humanity’s anxieties, avoiding—“mov[ing] away”—from the issues of the late 20th century.

Klara Sax’s 1974 New York socialite summer, which opens Part 4 of Underworld, reflects on the apprehensions of success.  She floats around the city, drinking on rooftops, attending garden parties, having vague relations with acquaintances.  She is weakly distanced from art and her self.  She watches the construction of the World Trade Center.  It follows her everywhere, haunts her; the towers combine as a “single entity” in her perception (372).  Sax is constantly looking up and around this summer.  Little action occurs beyond internal reflection and strained conversation.  The rising twin towers hang over the season and represent the progress of the United States, a massive erection of capitalism amid President Nixon’s impending resignation.  Sax distances herself from her own failures in art and marriage in reaction to collective uneasiness of society.  The future, building and growing, progressing blindly—such is “the storm”—seems bleak.  The power and success of America are coming into question without a clear direction or assurance of resolve, and the Klara Sax’s tension takes form in the ignorant distractions of the decadent summer.

Sister Edgar walks the same South Bronx streets day after day for decades bringing food to the hungry, clothing the naked, and dedicating her life to the Catholic Church.  Her anxiety is clearer.  She fears for humanity in these dark times, and she fears specifically for those who have been forgotten.  Edgar’s obsession with the adolescent running girl Esmeralda becomes an obsession to save the world.  The child, however, has no interest in being caught, in education or protection.  A new concern arises for Edgar through this story.  The world is in peril; she knows this.  She knows about the drugs and the sex, the AIDS and the murder, but after a lifetime of sacrifice, poverty, and public service, she is faced with the scenario that perhaps the world does not want to be saved.  Edgar is portrayed always as frail, and often confused, as the constant evolution of culture puts the validity of her practice and ideologies into question.  For instance, “Edgar had stopped hitting kids years ago, even before she grew too old to teach, when the neighborhood changed and the faces of her students became darker.  All the righteous fury went out of her soul.  How could she strike a child who was not like her?” (238).  She lacks the confidence and resilience that once defined her.  The notion that the future presents a state of affairs in which no matter how much one desires to help, help is no longer beneficial, or even possible, is more distressing than any circumstances of a measurable tragedy.  We see in Edgar, as in the other characters, a deep disquiet penetrating the consciousness of society—“a reaction to shocks.”  They are fixated on displacement objects and emotions, dettached from the realities of progress and the future, and invested in collective digressions of culture and failure.

Waste

The squandering of emotions and attentions in the characters discussed above establishes a sense of disorder, or imbalance.  This notion of avoidance and non-confrontation, of a society that would rather transfer obsession or ignore the situation at hand, permits the metaphor of one who would rather throw away a faulty device than have it repaired.  The device is collective experience and reaction.  The throwing away can be seen literally in the piles of waste that consume the novel and its protagonist.

After the folly of youthful violence, Nick Shay is determined to maintain control over his life.  Waste management becomes a neurosis.  He must direct the failings of the world—the discarded sludge, the neglected possessions—and keep it all contained, somehow, from rising up again.  He too is invested in the past here, but what the waste holds is a way by which to handle said past:

We were waste handlers, waste traders, cosmologists of waste. I traveled to the coastal lowlands of Texas and watched men in moon suits bury drums of dangerous waste in subterranean salt beds many millions of years old, dried out-remnants of a Mesozoic ocean.  It was a religious conviction in our business that these deposits of rock salt would not leak radiation.  Waste is a religious thing.  We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread.  It is necessary to respect what we discard. (88)

This musing on waste represents a desire to submerge history.  Shay’s spiritual fascination with managing the damages of society is reminiscent of Sister Edgar’s struggles.  He seeks resolution, but is misguided.  The faults of society can remain underground, but they are not forgiven.  Where there once existed a number of separate anxieties displacing the superseding fears of the Cold War, garbage combines them all.

Benjamin’s ninth thesis shapes the “chain of events” comprising the past into the angel’s perception, as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet” (257).  The ultimate concept of waste as some collection of the transferred emotions exerts a force on the consciousness of the past.  Shared experience and its myriad effects are able to gain some common ground and influence over awareness.  Though a step in the right direction, it fails to offer deliverance from the threats and concerns of the 20th century.  Waste is at the epicenter of discerning the problems of progress versus catastrophe in Underworld: it offers a context for failure and a jumping off point, but does not address how to fix the problems that have amassed on the American frame.

The Burden of the Eastern Bloc

The final scenes with Shay unsurprisingly reflect on the future of garbage disposal.  We return to present times at the barren landscape of the Former Soviet Union, where a new method for expulsion will be implemented.  A nuclear explosion within a massive underground dumping site in Kazakhstan propels the business of waste management to its imminent destiny.  For the first time, Shay seems unsure of his feelings toward his occupation: he sees his partners “hurtling through darkness” and senses “a curious connection between weapons and waste” (DeLillo 791).  Here, approaching the novel’s end, the bureaucracy and its principle enemy become one.  The bomb is the historical inverse of solution, and its current comrade.  The scene continues and heightens the mediation: “Because waste is the secret of history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort of bone heap and broken tool, literally from under the ground.”  The character’s placement in the post-Cold War territory is not by accident and reveals the underlying misperceptions and misapprehensions of the novel—that in order to advance, society must understand the nature of its obsessions and face the heretofore-avoided subject.

There are hints of this earlier in the novel as Marvin Lundy travels through the Eastern Bloc, a honeymoon spent searching for his half brother after the Second World War.  We have already briefly explored Benjamin’s Proust figure for which “certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past.”  Similarly, in Lundy’s journey, he confusingly loses control of his psyche and bodily functions when he crosses the Iron Curtain.  Insecure in the company of his newly wed wife, the fanatic begins to notice a change in his bowel movements.  “[They] were turning against him… grew steamier as they traveled up through eastern Poland” (DeLillo 310).  “The deeper into communist country, the more foul his BMs” (311).  What Lundy experiences is Benjamin’s proposal of the combined perception of history.  It is the single catastrophe versus the chain of events.

The enclosed borders making up the Eastern Bloc physically uphold all the concepts of difference and danger at the root of the Cold War.  The fears of the unforeseeable future are collected in that space.  The physical and psychological changes which take place in Underworld’s characters behind the Iron Curtain account for history’s weight and the urgency of its threat to the American Dream.  Each character’s—and all of western society’s—individual goals and motivations are devoted to America’s success.  This collective desire is put in jeopardy within the boundaries of the Eastern Bloc.  Shay and Lundy’s visits shake the men’s confidence in their selves and their lives’ works.  They are both dedicated to the destruction of supplanted anxiety through some physical creation.  The possession of the baseball is meant to culminate in some inner peace about failure, loss, danger, and desire.  The complex of waste is to control and lay to rest the toils of history.  The eastern territory is a reality check to the futility of their measures.  It is a reminder of the superseding current of influence and fear.  It is the burden of humanity.

There is no escape from the progress—progress pushes on; there is only escape from the catastrophic past.  Benjamin’s angel “would like to stay, awake the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise… This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (257-8).  The escape, or the ability to move definitely into the future, is irresistible in nature, unwelcome but necessary.  It is death.

Looking Back

Before we can address the end of the novel and the culmination of Benjamin’s thesis, it is worth considering at the structure of Underworld in regard to the themes discussed thus far.  The novel is broken up into a number of different sections, including a prologue, the baseball game and Soviet bomb test; an epilogue, the most contemporary period after the War; six parts beginning with Spring-Summer 1992, in which Nick Shay happens upon the opportunity to meet up with Klara Sax, his brief, estranged, forbidden lover of 40 years prior, the now ex-wife of his brother’s childhood chess instructor, and moves backward to the Mid-1980s-Early 1990s, Spring 1978, Summer 1974, Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s, and ends with Fall 1951-Summer 1952; there are also three sections interspersed throughout the novel which follow the fate of the cherished baseball from the hands of its original owner to its second and third.  Benjamin emphasizes that the angel of history is positioned with his “His face turned toward the past” (257).  DeLillo’s complex web of presentation is at the heart of the novel’s issues with how to face and construct progress in a world of confusion and incongruity.

The absurdities of society—of fixation, alienation, and fear of impending doom are heightened as we work our way through the text.  Ironically, while the characters experience tension and anxiety regarding the future, we are introduced to these themes in a calculated reverse chronology.  We, the reader, experience everything with the knowledge of what has already happened: we know Klara Sax has reached self-actualization and worldwide acclaimed success, we know that the ball has moved from the hands of fourteen-year-old Cotter Martin to Nick Shay over the course of nearly forty years, we know Matt Shay has long given up chess, and we know of Nick’s criminal history and his relationship problems; and yet, we don’t know why or where these things come from.  We invest in the past to inform us more and more on the present and the future.  Once again, “the chain of events” which forms catastrophe comes into play.  The novel itself stands in as the single event, the pile of “wreckage upon wreckage.”  Everything that we experience as the reader plays into this collection of devastation.  We see a chain of characters and their chains of consciousness, individual and shared, building a historical notion of looming disaster.  And when the object of such fear dissolves, they are left with an unqualified mass of human failure—the stagnant American Dream—without a context from which to take off.

Vulnerability, Doubt, and Consequence

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history… But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in the wings of with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This 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 257-8)

In his ninth thesis, Benjamin describes the overseer of history in a situation of deep vulnerability.  He stands essentially gaping, wings susceptible, entirely exposed to the dangers of his environment.  The scene is one of the sublime.  The heavenly being is thrust from its comfort, its desire to remain in hindsight.  Like DeLillo’s post-Soviet America, the angel has no choice but to move forward, but lacks the ability to suitably adjust to this reality.  All of its attentions have been focused for so long elsewhere: toward past events, games and summers, relationships with strangers, failures to trace the origins of the serial murders, the missing links in the baseball’s history.  Humanity is unfit to move forward in such a way.  Underworld’s society is at risk and the awareness that something must change soon if there is to be a chance to deal with and advance into history is beginning to take hold.

In his rehabilitation after the murder, Nick Shay describes the work of his psychologist: “Dr. Lindblad tried to work on my soul.  She believed in my salvation.  She probed all the forces in my history and she gave me books to read, and I read them, and she advanced ideas about what had happened, and I thought about them.  But I didn’t know if I accepted the idea that I had a history” (DeLillo 511).  Here, the link between understanding history and the nature of salvation become one.  But Shay is weak; like the majority of the novel’s characters he buries himself in doubt.  He nears a sense of confrontation but abandons the attempt.  History of his self blends into the dangers of the world—they don’t exist, or if they do, the desire to master such peril is futile.

Sister Edgar experiences a similar discontent as the work nears its end.  She turns to judge, condescend, disgrace.  Ismael, the young graffiti artist turned freelance social worker becomes a subject of her silent fury.  She convinces herself he is a sinner, a homosexual, perhaps a heroin addict, has AIDS, and pushing aside all of his contributions to the impoverished and suffering community, Edgar, symbol of decency and principles comes to despise the man.  “Does Sister want him to be deathly ill?  Does she think he ought to be punished… Everybody’s watching TV except for her.  She’s watching Ismael.  No pallor or weight loss or lesions or other visible symptoms… Why does she want to see him suffer?” (813).  Edgar’s lack of faith and buoyancy submerge her objectives.  She has given up on altruism and given into hate and ignorance.  Her doubt in mankind and her community mark the inability to progress.  The American Dream is buried further in the hopeless frame of the past’s catastrophes.  Her goal to save is departed, and it comes not without consequence.

The vulnerability of society, even without threat still positioned on the edge of destruction, and the rising doubt, which shapes Underworld’s consciousnesses, are manifest in the death of Esmeralda.  Sister Edgar seems to have learned to forget the child when her partner approaches her, three weeks after the above instant, with the news: “Somebody raped Esmeralda and pushed her off the roof” (814).  The twelve-year-old who was always running, abandoned and refusing to take the nun’s help, must have slowed down.  In her death, the innocence and ignorance of humanity die as well.  She is the victim of the great failure, of civilization and culture’s failure, the personal failures and fixations and displacements.  She is the irresistible outcome of the storm “blowing from Paradise.”  And only from here, can humanity attempt to look forward, “propel[ed] into the future,” and into progress.

Salvation

We have studied Benjamin’s ninth thesis on the philosophy of history.  We know the nature of its ending—that it doesn’t have one.  The angel is caught in the storm; it flies along without struggle or resistance, ripped from its position of obsessive hindsight.  But what happens next?  Is existence bound to such a lens?  Forced to move on from its fanatical investment in the tragedies of the past, imprisoned in a progress it refuses to face?  Walter Benjamin leaves it open-ended.  Experience is a “collective past,” it is a “reaction to shocks.”  But this is cheap.  It is a theory without a position, an examination of advancement without the confidence to take claim of the future.  In Underworld, DeLillo provides an ending to this thesis.  There is the death, but there too is a departure from the death.  A salvation and an actualization of development.

As with Shay, left to his own devices as he exits the novel “long[ing] for the days of disorder… the breach of peace, the days of disarray” (810), Sister Edgar finds herself at a loss for what is next after Esmeralda’s death:

She sees nothing for the rest of that day and the day after and the two or three weeks after that.  She sees the human heart exposed like a pig’s muscle on a slab… she believes she is falling into crisis, beginning to think it is possible that all creation is a spurt of blank matter that chances to make an emerald planet here, a dead star there, with random waste between.  The serenity of immense design is missing from her life, authority and moral form. (817)

There is no present here, and no notion of past.  Her passions were for naught—a distraction from the realities of America’s shortcomings, the overriding arch of global threat, of nothingness and annihilation.  And yet there seems to be something further in Esmeralda’s death, a release from the shackles of misperception.  Edgar feels without “authority and moral form,” but is this not her boost into reality?  There is libertion in this lack of overriding control; it is a form of secularism, which has shaped the movement of free thought and philosophy.

Soon news of a miracle begins to circulate throughout the community, a superstition drawing in numbers.  In the South Bronx, on an orange juice billboard—the object a keystone of American enterprise—the lights of passing el trains illuminate Esmeralda’s face.  She is called an angel, and the people come in droves to stand on a median strip overlooking the Harlem River, to gaze at the face of heaven.  She looks over the crowds for moments every night, takes them in, their humanity, their city, their history; and in turn they are her disciples.  They love her and trust her, hold vigils, host news trucks and helicopters, buy souvenirs, and all watch together.  Then one night, the billboard is blank, and just as she as she appeared, she is gone.  The people wait for her, mourn her, need her, but their angel has left them behind, has hurtled into nothingness.  Yet, the event leaves behind a peace—an answer.  Esmeralda is the sacrifice of human failure, the anxieties of the American dream, lighted up on a manifestation of capitalism.  They war is over; we won.  The anxieties have nothing to displace.

Sister Edgar understands the sacrifice and its necessity.  The failures of society need a context and they need a victim.  Free trade and Christ are the foundations of the American Dream.  The future revives and maintains the American Dream.  “There is nothing left to do but die and this is precisely what she does, Sister Alma Edgar, bride of Christ, passing peacefully in her sleep” (824).  The rest of the humanity has been saved, can look to the future, can progress and build and be, and Sister Edgar too advances into her future.  On the final pages, we experience her afterlife: “But she is in cyberspace, not heaven… The jewels roll out of her eyes and she sees God… No, wait, sorry.  It is a Soviet bomb she sees, the largest yield in history” (825-6).  In death, we can see, Edgar too flows always into the future.  Technology, progress, danger are intertwined here, and she can see it all.  The Internet is immaculate, all encompassing, the culmination of human progress.  Cyberspace is collective.  It is a reaction to the every shock in history.  Turn on a computer in Budapest, and you can access the same websites as you can in Malaysia, Greenland, New Orleans.  Yes, in death Underworld seeks conclusion to a thesis on the philosophy of history, but it does not have to be one’s own death.  It is a sacrifice, or a whole history of death, an entire chain of history of deaths collected in a mass perception and faced, repeatedly, which hurtles us into the future, into and against our fears—a society in progress.

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Works Cited

  • Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.
  • DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. Print.