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The Angel of History

Our playoff aspirations are finished. Behind us is the rubble of the past, but the storm of progress drags us forward. What should we be feeling? Walter Benjamin explains.

"Angelus Novus," Paul Klee
"Angelus Novus," Paul Klee
Paul Klee

A Klee drawing 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 that keeps piling ruin upon ruin 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.

— Benjamin, Walter, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History'

That's one version of the angel of history, anyway. My own version would be something more like this: His sweatshirt is inside out. He sits in a pile of discarded socks and tries to remember the words to that Depeche Mode song; compulsively he shrugs, fending off with both hands the suspicion that he does not exist. But then, I think I'm just describing my own state as the final whistle blew on the DC match and NYCFC's inaugural season.

And yet it is also true that "a storm is blowing from Paradise." For the NYCFC supporter, now somewhat dogged and frayed, any sense of despair has to give way to a wry grin and, yes, a shrug. The reason is that we very well could have been here weeks ago. For my part, the first conviction that our playoff push was over came when we lost at home to Columbus at the end of August. In hindsight (the angel of history's hindsight, full of debris), the more significant result was the loss at home to Montreal on August first, and indeed it may have been the moment when our fate was sealed. But there was time on August first, whereas by the month's end, it had begun to be clear that there might not be enough of it.

I don't think anybody would have predicted the month that followed, though perhaps more of us should have. Lampard has been the messianic figure he was supposed to have been much sooner, in more ways than his stats reveal. He has had a calming influence on a squad too often given to panic when it can least afford it. That influence has translated into more purposive possession, and it's a joy to watch—as anyone who attended both home fixtures in September can attest. That confident patience was in evidence beginning with the Dallas match, even if it didn't quite make the difference until that glorious stretch of Toronto, San Jose, and Vancouver.

He made the difference for much of the match in DC, as well. His goal, cool as you like, speaks for itself more eloquently than any summary could. But the goal is almost beside the point: the combination of tactical assuredness and quiet creativity led to a few wonderful chances, albeit chances that were ultimately wasted. It turned out we couldn't afford to waste them; it seems we could also not afford to lose his command of the midfield. Although the tide had turned by the second half, things didn't fall apart until he was subbed off in the seventy-first minute. Espindola scored in the seventy-second. From there, the concession felt preordained.

Here's the thing, and I'm hardly the first to say it: next year, we have him, Pirlo, and Villa not only present from the start of the season, but acclimated from the start of the season. On the same page and teeing each other up. Able to work with Kreis and communicate a coherent tactical message to the team. Reducing the incidence of mistakes in a league that thrives on them. Lampard will have been around for long enough to assume some measure of authority, and he will continue what he has begun, translating his experience and vision into an ethos.

So what am I saying? Here's what I'm f*cking saying. Frank Lampard is the wind "blowing from Paradise." [Insert fart joke/pie joke here.]

Walter Benjamin's angel of history is only able to contemplate the past as it is drawn inexorably toward the future, is conscious solely of the rubble that history kicks up. It is unable to repair that rubble, project into the future, see the progress carried in the maelstrom. The angel of history does not have the complete view. Unable to think the future, he is likewise unable to form a coherent narrative out of the unconnected mass of events. Unable to "make whole what is smashed," the angel of history is shit out of luck. And if that's what NYCFC wants to do, they will be, too.

So that can't be the focus, neither for the club nor its supporters. The way forward for NYCFC is precisely that: forward. The only way of thinking about the past is as a prelude to future—the best way to think about what has gone wrong this season is to ask how it can change in 2016. To seize on the chain of events out of the appearance of chaos. The angel of history is irrelevant to a team with no history. We have to think of the "storm...blowing from Paradise," to be dragged forward out of the debris.

What is the blogger's angel of history? I've mentioned the socks. I think it has to be the number of times an article boils down to this: "It will get better, it will get better; if it doesn't get better, we can at least always say it will get better. Now go have a beer and a nap, you slob."

Every few weeks, Ninety-Plus of Blue discusses NYCFC's fortunes in terms set by one literary or philosophical quotation. It's literary aesthetics meets aesthetic football. The full archive can be found on our site.