Andy Warhol as the Angel of Anachronism
Marilyn Monroe and Charlie McCarthy
by Joyelle McSweeney
I’ve been thinking through a theory of Anachronism lately. My thinking goes that Art is a kind of Anachronism, breaking into, collapsing, and convulsing conventional ‘straight’ time with media, and, reflexively, turning conventional chronology into a kind of medium for convulsive, Anachronistic time. In genre writing, it’s genre itself that deforms conventional narrative form and distends it with excessive contagious, intolerably Anachronistic material. In working against progress, unity, sanity, hygiene, tradition, cause and effect, temporal order, antecedence and posterity, Art’s Anachronism may be seen as diabolical.
In Benjamin’s much discussed parable of the Angel of History, the Angel is paralyzed with his face to the past in which “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Meanwhile, from Paradise (pre-history?) blows a storm which besets his wings 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.”
Puzzling over the physics of this image, it’s easy to overlook that the image is doubly ekphrastic, framed by both an epigraph from a poem, Scholem’ s “Gross vom Angelus”, and a description of a Klee painting, “Angelus Novus.” Benjamin’s parable of paralysis and saturation, by both a vision of wreckage and an irresistable flow of violence, is thus itself doubly saturated by media. His Angel of History retroactively overwhelms and saturates the two other art pieces, just as those art works impel, permeate, and script Benjamin’s parable. Read this way, the parable seems to spasm with saturating forces; it seems to enfigure mediumicity, saturation, violence, and paralysis. The Angel, itself a medium, a would-be vehicle for God’s agency, is instead evacuated of agency and beset, paralyzed, and saturated with other media, including art, writing, the medium of violence and the medium of sight itself.
1) Andy Warhol as an Ill Child, in bed with a ventriloquist’s dummy.
I had three nervous breakdowns when I was a child, spaced a year apart. One when I was eight, one at nine, and one at ten. The attacks—St. Vitus Dance–always started on the first day of summer vacation. I don’t know what this meant. I would spend all summer listening to the radio and lying in bed with my Charlie McCarthy doll and my un-cut-out paper dolls all over the spread and under pillow. […] My mother would read to me in her thick Czechoslovakian accent as best she could and I would always say “Thanks, Mom,” after she finished with Dick Tracy, even if I hadn’t understood a word. She’d give me a Hershey Bar every time I finished a page in my coloring book.
2) Andy Warhol at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens.
The thing I most of all remember about the World’s Fair was sitting in a car with the sound coming from speakers behind me. As I sat there hearing the words rush past me from behind, I got the same sensation I always got when I gave an interview—that the words weren’t coming out of me, that they were coming from someplace else, someplace behind me.
In both these poems—I mean tableaux—we see Benjamin’s Angel of History reworked around an absolutely unheroic, paralyzed male figure. In the first, the child Warhol is three times possessed by an illness which is itself figured as a kind of possession—St. Vitus Dance—which plunges him into a syncope, a removal into a timeless, that is, temporally saturated, seized, anachronistic space, an aperture in temporality which is somehow the same every summer. In this state he is beset, like the Angel of History, with media—the radio, Charlie McCarthy (a celebrity radio ventriloquist’s dummy, itself a paradoxical mash-up of visibility and invisibility, sonority and silence,angency and non-agency, a mise-en-abyme of media within media), uncut paperdolls (ditto), a mother reading a comic strip (another medium for media), Hershey Bars. Saturated by Media to the point of immobility, he is also saturated with proper nouns (St. Vitus, Charlie McCarthy, Czechoslovakian, Mom, Dick Tracy, Hershey Bar) just as he would become a medium for brands and celebrity in his adult life. Finally, he is saturated with incomprehensibility—he doesn’t understand his illness, he doesn’t understand his mother’s words. Unlike Benjamin’s Angel, his saturation is such that he cannot advance into the future, but is possessed by a repeating and durational anachronistic present, a kind of Arcadia as Anachronism, glutted with non-advancing time, with media, and with disease.
In the second anecdote, we see a spatiality and a saturation that more closely approximates—that is, both resembles and departs from— that is, convulses—Benjamin’s Angel. Here, Warhol sits facing the World’s Fair, a kind of scaled mockup of the present tense, fitted with the present tense’s kitsch versions of the past and the future. This mocked-up heap is before Warhol, while from behind him comes a stream of words which are “the sound, ”pure material, non-semantic, non-expressive, issuing not from a person or voice or body but from the car’s body, from its “speakers”. Just as Pop comes from the outside, so words, traditionally associated with interiority, personhood, communication, expression, come from the outside, from media, and rush past one. This is even true in that would-be paradigm of interpersonal access, the interview; even in an interview, one’s own words come from someplace else, like and as Pop. This stream of sound doesn’t propel one into the future, as in Benjamin’s model, but, coming from “behind me”, that is, from that which surrounds him, from media, from technology, from the present as it edges into future, floods to reconnect with the heap of the present, with the World’s Fair. The present wants to become saturated with more of itself. It wants to supersaturate. The Angel Warhol is paralyzed and saturated and situated within the vehicle of the present, within the spasming, mutating, supersaturated, medial, anachronistic body of the present tense. He is the Angel of Anachronism.
Piece crossposted with Montevidayo