On Angels

A post this past week over at Course of Mirrors prompted me to brush up on Angels. I have not read the book mentioned in the post, “The Wonderful Visit,” by H. G. Wells, but according to Ashen, it’s about an angel shot from the sky by a hunter all atwitter after a strange bird has been sighted in the area. Imagine shooting an angel. I’m going to have to read Wells’s “The Wonderful Visit.” Ashen says it followed “The Time Machine,” yet I don’t even recall ever hearing of it, let alone reading it. Well, Wells was a super-prolific writer, an angel of a higher order. Part of Ashen’s theme, I think, is that we have come to think of angels as cute, cuddly Cupids, innocuous Hallmark Card versions of a much more potent and potentially dangerous entity.

Was Rainer Maria Rilke a blogger? In “The First Elegy,” he wonders if any angel might hear him, “wenn ich schriee,” (“if I cried”). But various translators (perusing the Web) have given, “if I cried out” (but not William Gass, whose version I want to read). My copy of the “Duino Elegies” (The Norton Library, N155, 1963) shows the German next to the English, and was translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. They give, “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders,” and in their introduction they explain that Rilke was visiting a friend, a Princess Marie, at “Schloss Duino,” a castle near Trieste. He’d received a disturbing letter, a “business letter,” and went out onto a castle “bastion,” for a walk, and “a voice had called to him” with what became the first line of the Duino Elegies. According to the introduction, there was a “roaring wind” blowing around the castle. No one would hear him if he cried, or if he cried out. Yet surely an angel can hear through the noise.

Still, to “cry out” suggests some danger or risk at hand, some fear escaping in a scream of alarm. To simply “cry” does not necessarily suggest a yell, and might not mean a sound at all, but to cry tears, which can be done quietly. The German word Rilke used is “schriee,” which seems in German a form of yell, scream, and cry. Yet, it may not matter, for Rilke decides, in “The First Elegy,” to “keep down my heart.” He does not cry or cry out. For if he did, and an angel did hear him, and suddenly embraced him, he would disappear into the Angel’s super human existence. Yet, the angel “disdains to destroy us.” The angels ignore us, our cries, our crying, our predicament. Yet the “Elegies” might be Rilke’s cry, or his crying.

Here’s the opening of “The First Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Leishman and Spender:

“Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Each single angel is terrible.”

I posted my own version in a comment to Ashen’s post, thinking of updating the Rilke to a contemporary setting, keeping the irony. I’ve added to it just a bit here:

I rant in a memo to an Angel
perched high on a wire
of flow chart bureaucracy,
but her beauty ignores me;
it’s just as well,
for the beauty of her instant reply
would replace me.
Every memo from the angel is terrible.

Rilke seems to be suggesting that an angel, compared to the human, is like a light bulb to the moth. The moth is drawn to the heat and light by some desire to fly out of the shadows of its nightly existence, but is consumed by the giant bulb. And Rilke calls this being consumed by the object of one’s desire, “beauty,” which is why he says “terrible beauty,” which is why the angel is terrifying. Yet Rilke also says the angel “disdains to destroy us.” Apparently, we can only just bounce off the light bulb. We can’t penetrate it, and its light does not embrace or consume us. We cannot fully embrace beauty, which is a terrible predicament.

Joseph Campbell has an interesting discussion of angels, and of Satan. Satan was thrown into hell, Campbell reminds us in “The Power of Myth,” but why? What did he do wrong? Campbell suggests that God wanted the angels to serve his new creation, man, but that Satan so loved God that he refused to bow to any other. He was thrown into hell for not bowing to man. Thus man had bagged his first angel.

“The Second Elegy” begins with a line from the first. Rilke’s not giving up on his angels:

“Every Angel is terrible. Still, though, alas!
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing what you are.”

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

Where John Cage Lip-synchs with Lloyd Thaxton while Playing Guitar Hero

“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell advised, while Humanities instructors encourage students to “write about your passion.” But what if we find ourselves blissless and passionless? Or if we are passionate about anything, the last thing we want to do is to write about it, for that will suck the passion right out of the marrow. Better to write about what we lack passion for, about that which we know nothing. Then, like Beckett, we might write about the condition of our very blisslessness, blisslessly laughing at characters hoping for something to happen that might arouse their passion.

Following one’s bliss might involve endless hours of playing Guitar Hero. Kiri Miller, an ethnomusicologist at Brown, writing in the Journal of the Society for American Music, challenges the common assumption that virtual instrumentalists have different values (want something different) than real instrumentalists. “Trouble,” the Music Man persuaded the good folks of River City, is a pool table; better to lip-synch with virtual instruments – the confidence man encourages learning music through the “think method.” Combining Miller’s Guitar Hero analysis with the Music Man’s “think method,” we might call reading a kind of virtual writing. When we read, we recreate the text, like a Guitar Hero player recreates the text of a song. Lloyd Thaxton was the king of lip-synchers, and on his show, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, real musicians lip-synched through canned performances of their own songs.

Miller briefly evaluates the electronic music of John Cage in her article (pp. 404-405). Cage might be a precursor, probably not, but we can easily imagine him taking an interest and no doubt incorporating a Guitar Hero guitar into a composition. Cage also sums up the debate of the usefulness or value of virtual versus actual experience. In his manifesto on music, written in 1952, he says that “nothing is accomplished by writing [hearing or playing] a piece of music: our ears are now in excellent condition.” Yes, and ready for real guitar, Guitar Hero, or to read something by Beckett. Or, as Garry Moore said of Cage’s “Water Music”: “I’m with you, boy.”

Love and the Age of Democracy

Imagine life as a serf in an empire. Your father wants to give you to a neighboring monastery in exchange for a pig. But this is actually better than his first proposal, in which he promised your hand in marriage to an old man in a neighboring village. Fortunately, the old man died before the deal could be sealed.

In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell argues that the emergence in the middle ages of romantic love as expressed by the troubadours created individual consciousness. “Campbell: But with Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for. It’s a personal, individual experience, and I think it’s the essential thing that’s great about the West and that makes it different from all other traditions I know. It was important in that it gave the West this accent on the individual, that one should have faith in his experience and not simply mouth terms handed down to him by others. It stresses the validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system. The monolithic system is a machine system: every machine works like every other machine that comes out of the same shop” (p. 187).

Campbell is talking about consensual marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage. Even today, the price paid for consensual marriages, in that they often go against the grain of the parents’ wishes for their children, as in the Tristan romance, and again in Romeo and Juliet, is personal freedom and existentialism. You’re on your own. This is the same price Jesus paid, but the Church did not follow Jesus, instead creating a new monolithic system. “Come follow me,” Jesus said; we’ll make our own way, against tradition. This is the creation of the individual as an entity separate from the earthly lord who gets his authority from the state or church or both. In consensual marriage we find the roots of egalitarianism and democracy. What’s love got to do with it? All you need is love, and the courage to, as Campbell says, “follow your bliss.”

Modern corporations are not democracies, nor is the Church a democracy. Men who marry their jobs or the Church can not live an existential life. They are not free. They have no individual consciousness, and they pay no price, as long as they stick with the arrangement. But these marriages are not based on Amor, which is freedom and personal identity for which one pays own’s own freedom and assumes responsibility for oneself. To become one with a desk? Come, follow me. Sit here. Break is at 10:15.