A Privileged Source of Information


Jörg Trempler


Tradition has it that a gust of wind or a squall is always also an impulse to a movement, an impetus for a new age. Calm is interrupted, the former movement disrupted. In Christian cultures the wind even represents something like the primeval age or the impulse for creation in general: after all, the biblical story begins at an airy height: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.” (Gen 1, 1-2) This “hovering over the waters” can be regarded as primeval breeze itself.

However, this does not apply solely for the period before the creation of people or up until their expulsion from Paradise. For Old Testament man, the first stage of capturing the divine spirit is experiencing the wind as a force going back to Yahweh. This becomes clear at the point where God ends the Flood. Here he does not calm the churning waves, but sends by way of reconciliation a squall that drives away the rain clouds (Gen 8, 1): he “made a wind to pass over the earth and the waters subsided.” Yahweh – when translated, the Hebrew word also signifies breath, which in turn later denotes the “spirit of God” – manifested himself as lord of the wind. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the term here is “Pneuma”. This word, which means both spirit and breath or air, likewise implies divine enthusiasm. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit in theology is therefore also called pneumatology. Wind, then, can be considered as the basic model for humanity’s practical knowledge of God’s work in general.


If the wind had previously been a religiously inspiring event, examples now follow in the Old Testament in which the divine wind brings death and decay upon its enemies. The first example originates from the time of the Israelites in Egypt. Of the well-known ten plagues that descended upon the country at the time, one was the plague of locusts. A divine wind is indicated as the triggering force: “The Lord brought an east wind on the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.” (Ex 10, 13) The end of the plague can be read about accordingly: “The Lord turned an exceeding strong west wind, which took up the locusts, and drove them into the Red Sea. There remained not one locust in all the borders of Egypt.” (Ex 10, 19)


Still better known is the exodus from Egypt, during which Moses divides the sea in order to be able to proceed through it with his people. By contrast the pursuers, after the Israelites have passed through the sea dry of foot, are snatched by the deluges and killed. The cause of this movement is, once again, a squall (Ex 15, 10): “You blew with your wind. The sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” This point appears in the so-called Moses hymn of praise, which begins as follows: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and said, ‘I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously. The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.’” (Ex 15, 1)


It would equate to a form of religious fundamentalism to try to bring these Old Testament precedents straight into line with the trials of the present day. On the contrary: the link with our highly turbulent times discloses itself less in religious contexts or in the ever more popular metaphors for transitoriness (“gone with the wind”) than in a changed world experience which, although established in the religious tradition, is clearly distinct from it. In order to illustrate this, let us quote from the famous description of a watercolour by Paul Klee which Walter Benjamin published in section IX of his treatise “On the Concept of History”:

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 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.


The original Creator, who saw on the seventh day that everything was “very good”, has become here an angel of history regarding his own catastrophe. But it is of utmost importance that the angel is no longer really involved. He is not moved by the storm, but is even prevented from flying away. He is distinguished less by an action than by an act of looking.

Something of today’s televisual worlds seems to come true in this “regarding”. On 29th August the USA remembered the devastating hurricane “Katrina”, which one year ago reached New Orleans, ravaged the city and killed around 1500 people. Yet “Katrina” was no isolated case, for in the past year the Caribbean and the USA have experienced one of the most devastating hurricane seasons of all times. The tsunami in the Far East or the terror attacks on the WTC and their consequences could also be mentioned in the same breath: we look back in these turbulent times to one single catastrophe. This has also come to apply for the future. Meteorologists are predicting a very active hurricane season for 2006 with eight to ten serious storms.

In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin coined a concise formulation for this catastrophe-laden vision of the future as well: “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever present possibility but the given in each case.” (Arcades Project N 9 a, 1)

In a certain manner, therefore, the spirit of our times manifests itself in present catastrophes. Just as the gentle gust can be an impulse for a movement, the turbulence of time finds expression in a growing number of catastrophes. These events are, so to speak, the rhythm of acceleration. If a long time passes without a catastrophe, a long time passes without anything at all.

When Benjamin recorded his observations, television did not yet exist, and there were also no private broadcasters driven to elevate every event to a status of a catastrophe. It is all the more astonishing that, today, a large proportion of the world’s population sits in front of the television like the angel of history in Benjamin’s description. A violent storm of catastrophic images emerges from the box to confront them, rendering them incapable of getting up and looking away.

Therefore, to conclude, just one small gust of wind in the opposing direction of the turbulence of time. The biggest collective television event was, without doubt, September 11 2001. Innumerable people across the world followed the events live. Precisely at this juncture, the fifth anniversary of the event, there is a renewed torrent of commentaries, analyses and interpretations. Did any reporter, five years ago, think for one breath of a second to switch off the cameras and TV stations? This simple concept appears inconceivable. But this is not intended to be an accusation against the television companies, since every single television set also has an on/off switch. I have frequently heard people talking about when and where they switched on the television on September 11 – I have not learned, to this day, when they switched it off again.