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  • Sasha Durakov Warren

The Choking Angel

Franz Karl Bühler, "Der Würgengel" (The Choking Angel), 1909.

"Established and circumscribed boundaries remain, at least in primeval times, unwritten laws. A human being can transgress them unawares and thereby succumb to expiation [der Sühne verfallen]. For this encroachment of law, summoned by the violation of the unwritten and unknown law, is called expiation, as distinct from punishment. But with whatever misfortune expiation may befall its unsuspecting victim, its occurrence is, for the purpose of law, not an accident but rather fate." - Walter Benjamin. "Toward the Critique of Violence," 56.

"Phony prophets stole the only light I knew

And the darkness softly screamed

Holy visions disappeared from my view

But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams

I wonder what it means" -Judee Sill, "Crayon Angels", 1971.

Franz Karl Bühler, "Der Würgengel" (The Choking Angel, or, more commonly The Avenging Angel), crayon on paper, 1909.

Madness as a legal construct shares at least one feature across the vast majority of its specific forms: the mad cannot be culpable for a crime while in the throes of madness. Modern legal reason holds that the mad cannot be the object of state violence because they fail the law's demand for reciprocity: their recitation of statutes simply rote echolalia; their guiding light emanates from the star of a blinding illusion; they lash out wildly, drowning in a deluge of emotion. Standing before the law in their naivety, the mad walk across borders in a state of unawareness, placing them in a class with children, or even animals. True transgression implies insight. In theory, the state, when faced with a mad person acting outside the bounds of circumscribed law, ought to eschew retribution and strive to care for this unfortunate person. Whether the state does so as an end in itself or solely in order to reestablish competence for a future punishment is a separate question.

In his 1921 "Zur Kritik der Gewalt" ("Towards the Critique of Violence"), Walter Benjamin holds that a critique of violence is only possible in its relation to law and justice. Violence is said to belong to the realm of means, justice to that of ends. Natural law posits a state of nature where violence is a means available to all, but which is abandoned with the contract form of the state; positive law relegates violence to historical becoming [Gewordenheit]. "Natural law strives, through the justness of ends, to 'justify' the means, and positive law strives to 'guarantee' the justness of the ends through the justification of the means." (40) Natural law and positive law share the same dogma that "just ends can be attained by justified means, and justified means can be used for just ends." (Benjamin, 40) In other words, they are trapped in a tautological circle that presupposes that means and ends can justify one another such that the standards used to evaluate violence apply properly to its legal application.

In his consideration of the mass strike and militarism—writing in the wake of a World War and the brutal repression of the German Revolution—Benjamin introduces a second couplet representing violence as means: law-positing violence [rechtsetzende Gewalt] and law-preserving violence [rechtserhaltende Gewalt]. Constitutional laws, for example, point to violence in both forms: they stand on the violence of their origins in military conflict or conquest and they rely on the possibility of preserving themselves through force. In this light, it takes little effort to see the forced care described above as a form of law-preserving violence. Benjamin points to the widespread fascination and fear elicited by the figure of the great criminal, who posits his own law through cunning force. Great madmen—especially the figure of the psychopath—elicit the same response, because their acts attest to the possibility of positing strange, subjective laws simply through the conviction of violence. A similar principle applies in less extreme cases where the threat of simple disorder surrounds a person's existence on the street. In this imaginary, forced treatment does not enforce this or that law, but protects the law itself from foreign powers operating within its own territories. Any and all rights of madness to exist under certain conditions are granted by the wielder of greater violence and can be revoked, for, in the law, there is no "equality," but only "equally sized magnitudes of violence." (56) Declarations of the "rights" of madness by Dalí or even Artaud still merely address themselves to the law as the wielder of overwhelming violence.

But what of those forms of violence that are not a means but a "manifestation?" Benjamin is adamant that we are already aware of these non-mediate forms from everyday life. Rage, he writes, "leads to the most visible outbursts of a violence that is not related as a means to a predetermined end" (54). Benjamin refers to the manifestations of violence that occur so frequently in myth as "mythic violence:"

In its archetypal form, mythic violence is a mere manifestation of the gods. Not a means to their ends, scarcely even a manifestation of their will, but in the first instance a manifestation of their existence. Niobe’s arrogance conjures up the disaster that befalls her not because it injures law but because it challenges fate—challenges fate to a combat in which fate must triumph, bringing a law to light, if need be, only in its victory. (55)

Mythic violence bears such a close relationship to law-positing violence as to appear identical at times for the positing of law is not simply the application of violence as a means to erect a legal order, but a manifestation of violence that lays down borders or boundaries [Grenzen] and posits a power [Macht] to act within that territory. Victims of this violence transgress a boundary they could not possibly have recognized, and, in the act of bloodletting, they are simultaneously "expiated" and "inculpated" by the law.

I am convinced that Franz Bühler (one of Hans Prinzhorn's "schizophrenic masters" referred to by the pseudonym "Franz Pohl") produced one of the most significant non-classical representations of mythic violence with his piece "Der Würgengel" ("The Choking Angel"). Franz Karl Bühler was an artist-blacksmith before his illness. His craftsmanship with gold even earned him an award at the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Five years later, in a state possibly precipitated by professional disappointment and failure, he leapt into a Hamburg canal in a desperate attempt to escape from shadowy enemies and the menacing eyes of strangers. After a failed trial with rest cure in Switzerland, Bühler ended up spending his days confined to bed in a surveillance ward at Illenau for two years. This too failed to have any effect and Bühler was again transferred, but this time to the hospital for incurables at Emmendingen where he made his picture.

Bühler's crayon drawing depicts a man being choked by an angel. A halo juts out over the angel's grey hair and red diadem in gold lines of unequal size, giving way to what looks like peacock feathers at semi-regular points. Though the streaks of the halo are sharp, they pale in this respect when compared with the high-contrast, thick black outlines of the body. The angel's mirror-like skin and sword both eerily reflects the environment so that its downward face matches the green of the forest floor, and its sword and its hands shine gold like the halo. A spectrum of light ranges from the soft and glowing blurriness of the upper right hand corner near the man's flailing feet—the quadrant closest to the angel's head—to the sharp but earthy body parts, and vegetation in the lower left—the portion which contains the victim's head.

This angel of death snuffs out its victim dispassionately. I see a tinge of something like pity in its downcast eyes. But the pity is serene. No discernible cause brought about this act of killing; the scene is regulated by fate, and the man dies not on account of anything he did but because of who or what he and the angel are. The angel chokes with a foot, rather than with the free hand. Why not simply cut the man down with the blade that shimmers and vibrates with holy light? The sword is a tool of combat or weighty executions, implying mutuality in rites of conduct and honor. These might be cruel or violent, but they are based in a recognition of a worthy opponent. As tools for killing, the feet are reserved for bugs or rodents. Fate's agents bear no burden of guilt.

Following a suggestion by Charlie English, I cannot help but think of Bühler's own death in light of this terrifying scene. In March of 1940, Bühler was loaded onto a Gekrat ["Gemeinnützige Krankentransport GmbH" or "ambulance of the common good"] bus with fifty-three other Emmendingen patients to Karlsruhe. A year earlier he, along with thousands more, had been marked with a red "+" signifying that he was some mixture of unemployable, chronically ill, criminally insane, or of non-German descent on the fateful "Reporting Form 1" sent out to psychiatric hospitals around Germany. This marked him for death in the National Socialist Aktion T4 program, designed to rid Germany of the economic burden and social and genetic threat of psychiatric patients and disabled people, an early test run for a program of mass murder.

For years, the Nazis had cast mad people as "lebensunwertes Leben" or "life unworthy of being lived," pumping out dozens of propaganda films portraying a life of insanity as a fate worse than death. Their biological deaths, then, would be "Gnadentod," ["merciful death"] a passive word that does not even name the act of killing, as if their death at the hands of Nazis amounted to an act of destiny. No imagined crime or transgression stood at the origin point of Aktion T4. The very existence of mad people threatened the fate of the Aryan race and state solvency, two problems so closely aligned in National Socialist propaganda as to appear identical.

The angel of purity carries a holy sword, but does not use it. Staying with Benjamin's terms, the mythical character of this violence comes forth most clearly in the way the disabled and mad, in the moment of their death, were simultaneously inculpated in being a genetic-sexual threat to a racially pure society and expiated from burdening others with maintaining a life of vegetative suffering. In other words, in the moment of death, in some cases before they even knew what happened, the mad were simultaneously charged with the guilt of existing and found absolution in their own sacrifice to the race.

"What is schizophrenic about this picture?" (228) asked Hans Prinzhorn in Artistry of the Mentally Ill, referring to the graphic composition of Bühler's "Würgengel." Considering the condition of German mental patients like Bühler in 1909, the social resentment towards them growing into a frenzy, and their eventual fate at the hands of militant fanatics for racial purity, the very same question ought to be asked in terms of its symbolic content.


Walter Benjamin. "Toward the Critique of Violence," Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

Charlie English. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler's War on Art (New York: Penguin Random House, 2021).

Hans Prinzhorn. Artistry of the Mentally Ill (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1972).

The image below is a second angel picture by Bühler, depicting a man being operated like a puppet by another dispassionate angel.

Franz Karl Bühler, "Engel" (Angel), crayon on paper, 1909.

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