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The remaking of angels, their rank and sweep

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — on, i suppose, the uphill slog or seduction of genius — or a very different take on complexity? ]
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Paul Klee‘s Angelus Novus — described by the Verso writer Stuart Jeffries as “this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes”:

was admired and bought for a thousand marks by Walter Benjamin, and moved with him from one lodging to the next until her fled Germany and the onrushing Nazis. It is also:

Benjamin’s most famous image, in the 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: the “angel of history” who is blown backward into the future by the storm of progress.

or to quote Benjamin himself:

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 upon 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 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.

**

At a time after Darwin, Marx and Freud have dissolved the basics of fundamentalism, and before the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the brilliant Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “the new atheism” in an easily-won contest with that same low, popular religiosity — all but ignoring the retreat of angels from Renaissance tryptich to Hallmark Card — we might do well to carry the God-NoBoDaddy debate up an octave, and consider the possibility that once angels have been more or less erased from modern western consciousness, they may, as in a palimpsest, reappear in new-old guises..

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Principally, I think here of Rilke‘s angels in the Duino Elegies:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

Ah!

Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya.

**

Let Rilke have traveled next to India or China, the apsarases and gandharvas of Hinduism and Buddhism might have affected him, with their sensuality, their song, their dance..

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But while gandharvas and apsarases capture us by their powers of seduction — in some ways like the houris of Islamic paradise — with Rilke’s angels, drawing no less on the Old Testament than on the Qur’an, our surrender is to elemental force:

I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

**

Constantly greater beings, with which we may if we are spiritually fortunate, wrestle — these are Rilke‘s angels, and they fill the gap in the once-dominant Great Chain of Being paradigm, on a rung above human usualness, demanding, promising, skirmishing, delivering…

To be carried in the arms of an apsara, to be swept by the gale-force storm of an angel, these are human experiences of the transhuman kind, and we need words for them, both forgetful of any surrounding dogma and delighting in their strength as imagery — gandharvas and angels named as such, and constantly revivified by the poetic imagination.

Klee, Benjamin, Rilke, but also Jacob wrestling with — who? a man, angel, God? — and becoming IsraelGiotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo who wrestled form from Carrera marble, Dogen Zenji for whom mountains were the sages into whom, living among them, he blended.. Kalidasa with his yakshas in Cloud Messenger and perhaps supremely in the gandharva marriage in his Shakuntala..

Isaac becoming Israel, Shakuntala the mother of Bharata.. Of such are sacred nations born.

**

Yet this world is wide and deep, the beings above us multitudinous, and the humans touched by them more than a single mind can comprehend. And:

The problem of god is a problem in ballistics, Icarus discovered this,
that to shoot for the sun is to fall short of it, those who shoot
for beauty achieve prettiness, there is a gravity in aesthetics as there is
in physics, and theology too has its fall, the problem of god being
that the mind falls short of what is huge enough to conceive it, give
conception whatever relevant definition you choose, too vast
to think of, give birth to it — no, no, mind has sheer cliffs of fall, and
to shoot for a conception of god is full speed ahead to fall, fail ..

I bow, salute, prostrate, pranam, bow gassho.

Better angels and air traffic controllers

Monday, January 14th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — the curious, little noticed replacement of the heavens by the sky ]
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In the introduction to my What sacred games shall we have to invent? — one of my favorite instance of the HipBone Games, take a look — I wrote:

The great German engraver Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) differ from contemporary televised images of warfare not only in terms of the armor and weaponry used, but also and more importantly by recording two worlds, the visible and the invisible, where the television camera records only the visible. The sky in television reports of war contains missiles and warplanes, and if anything “invisible” is depicted, it is invisible only by virtue of being viewed in the infra-red portion of the spectrum via night scope. Dürer’s sky is not merely “sky” but also “heaven”, and thus depicts that “war in heaven” alluded to in Revelations 12: 7, with its angels and demons and dragon, its Lady clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and crowned with the stars…

A crucial shift in the way in which we envision “reality” has occurred between Albrecht Dürer’s time and our own, and that shift has indeed largely deprived us of a real sense of the existence of an “invisible world” — whether it be the invisible world of faerie or sacrament, of poetic vision or apocalypse. That great modern prophet William Blake both predicted and lamented this loss, and his entire corpus of poetry and paintings can be viewed as a singular attempt to replace in our culture that visionary quality that our increasing scientism so easily deprives us of.

This shift in our understanding becomes exceedingly important when we come to consider the awesome potential of weapons now in the human arsenal: and nuclear weapons in particular. For while the “rational” conscious mind is considering Hermann Kahn’s Ladder of Escalation and other more recent “scenarios” and “game plans” in the “theater of war” with characteristic dispassion, the imagination by necessity views the imaginal… and our dreams, our hopes and fears are filled with those same ancient forces that John of Patmos perceived in his visions, and which Albrecht Dürer depicted in the imagery of his own time. As a culture, we are now largely “unconscious” of the war in heaven — but it has not ceased to influence our lives.

I remembered this when MSNBC host Bryan WIlliams told the presidential biographer Jon Meacham a day or two ago:

if you’re going to clear those better angels of yours fo takeoff, remember the air traffic controllers are working without salaries..

I don’t suppose Williams‘ mind made a big deal of the mildly ironic conflation of heaven and sky, angels and air traffic controllers, he’d managed here in what was surely a passing comment — but the juxtaposition is in fact a significant one, as significant as John Donne’s celebrated juxtaposition of the pre-scientific square earth and the scientific spherical one in the brilliant opening lines of his sonnet:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels,

**

Of such juxtapositions are light laughs and great poems made..

Borders as metaphors and membranes

Monday, January 14th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — i continue in the opinion that limina, thresholds borders, have an archetypal importance that transcends and is embodied in individual cases ]
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With the Wall the dominating issue of the current US government shutdown, tracking the penumbra of borders is all the more important: things look very different when you squint at them.

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Previous posts in this topic area:

  • Zenpundit, Liminality II: the serious part
  • Zenpundit, The Korean border / no border dance
  • Zenpundit, Borders, limina and unity
  • **

    Alexis Madrigal, A Border Is Not a Wall:

    Borders are an invention, and not even an especially old one. Predated by the printing press by a good 200 years, borders are constantly under revision. Even the zone of a border itself, the Supreme Court has held, extends far beyond the technical outline of a nation. Imagine a border as the human-made thing that it is, and it’s no longer surprising that it takes a multitude of forms: a line on a map, a fence, a bundle of legal agreements, a set of sensors, a room in an airport, a metaphor.

    As Elia Zureik and Mark B. Salter explain in a book on policing, a controlled border creates the notion that domestic space is safe. Protecting “the border” safeguards the home, the family, and a way of life. This idea of safety is so potent that it has shut down the United States government.

    But the border itself—the line on a map, or the gate at a crossing—isn’t what’s at issue; it’s the idea of the border, a membrane that defines a nation while maximizing its market power.

    **
    _
    Humanitarian concerns:

    Dr John Sullivan‘s paper, Determining Reasonable and Proportional Use of Tear Gas offers a number of provocative insights, including the prohibition on the use of tear gases (CN> CS< CR), pepper spray (OC, capsicum), and sleeping gas on battlefields -- provocative since we normally think of battlefields as "worse" than peacetime situations, and thus that what's prohibited in wartime should be so a fortiori in times poof peace..

    Here’s the border-specific instance / comment that caught my eye:

    In the border control setting, the recent use of tear gas by CBP agents against migrants seeking asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others. The cross-border issues are also controversial and Mexico has demanded an investigation into the use of nonlethal weapons in the Tijuana incident.

    **

    In another post I hope will follow quickly on the heels of this one, I quote MSNBC host Bryan WIlliams telling Jon Meacham:

    if you’re going to clear those better angels of yours fo takeoff, remember the air traffic controllers are working without salaries..

    That’s an interesting juxtaposition if you think about it: angels and air traffic controllers f unction in two different above-earth atmospheres — heaven and sky, respectively — which used to be one at a time when myth and history were one, astrology and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry.

    Might we say there’s now a border between heaven and sky? If so, that next post can be considered an entry in this series, too.

    **

    Addendum, 1/15/2019:

    An excellent set of photos under that title educates us via our visual sensibility on the history and variety of walls:

    The current debate in the United States about building up and reinforcing the border wall with Mexico may have distinctly American roots, but the problems, and the controversial solutions, are global. Growing numbers of immigrants, terrorist activity, continued drug trafficking, and protracted wars have sparked the construction of temporary and permanent border barriers in many regions worldwide.

    Recommended!

    **

    Additional addendum:

    Ha, yes!

    Sanctity of the unsavory 2

    Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — art meets theft, the theft of art meets the art of theft ]
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    That Modigliani, Woman with a Fan (Lunia Czechowska) — detail:

    **

    Foreground:

    Today I was reading The French Burglar Who Pulled Off His Generation’s Biggest Art Heist. The burglar is named Vjeran Tomic, and known to le tout Paris as Spider Man.. It’s a fascinating piece, and inter alia illustrates once again the loose array of phenomena I’ve been noting under the rubric of unsavory sanctities..

    At the =age of sixteen, magic hit Tomic:

    Tomic was enraptured by Renoir’s glowing renderings of happy childhoods: kids playing with figurines, practicing the piano, snuggling with mothers. As Tomic saw it, Renoir had used his paintbrush to create a “parallel universe”—an enchanted version of the grim Parisian life he had known. “Renoir has a way of seeing life from a magical realm,” Tomic wrote to me. “It’s as if he even came from this place.”

    Add a youthful, “devious” tendency to scaling walls, running roofs and theft, and you have the makings of a spectacular, special thief:

    One night, he had a vivid dream in which he stole five paintings from a museum. He took it as a portent. As he wrote to me, “I knew that someday I would do something great.”

    Even those he robbed could admire him:

    I’ve always had respect for his style — an admiration for his temerity — and a sort of intimate affection for him … It was very much a Gentleman Burglar situation, Arsène Lupin style.” (Lupin, the quintessential debonair thief, was invented by the French novelist Maurice Leblanc, in 1905.)

    And his friends:

    A friend of Tomic’s described him as “brutal and a little wild.” At the same time, she said, he had a charming range of passions: “He is into aesthetics, classical music, nature, animals, epicurean pleasures—wine, cheese. He is very out there in his style, even his clothing.” (Tomic favors G-Star pants, New Balance sneakers, cashmere ski hats, and Lacoste underwear.) She said that Tomic was “like a poet,” noting that “he talks about the moon.”

    It’s that last quote, of course, that perks me up, “poet” as applied to a master of theft strikes me as analogous to “saint” — and “he talks about the moon.” clinches the deal. More prosaically, “The Impressionist art feeds the poetry that is in him.”

    By way of confirmation:

    A friend of his compared him to a “shaman,” and added, “A work of art emits a vibration, a palpable energy, and Vjeran is able to connect to it.” When I asked Tomic about this assessment, he agreed, observing, “I love to touch antique objects, and I sense a great past—of generations and generations—that I think are a part of the works.”

    A court-appointed psychologist came to a similar conclusion, noting that Tomic had described himself as a “visionary.”

    **

    Read the rest yourself, and you’ll discover, if you’d never known, or like myself you’d forgotten, this intriguing and peripherally related fact:

    In 1911, a relatively uncelebrated painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Mona Lisa,” was stolen from the Louvre. It took twenty-eight hours before anyone even noticed that it was gone. The painting was missing for two years and, during that time, a great many people went looking for it, and the media attention helped turn the “Mona Lisa” into the most famous painting in the world.

    And much more — including the present uncertain fate of that Modigliani.

    Here.

    **

    Background:

    We’d established (in Sermo I: Sanctity of the unsavory) that popular disposition extends the realm of sanctity to encompass some less than savory personalities:

  • Anthony Bourdain, for his charming habits with disgusting foods, televised..
  • Jesus Malverde and other folk saints in the Mexican tradition, including Santa Muerte
  • Master P, by implication in Heaven for a Gangsta?
  • I want to add, from British tradition:

  • Robin Hood, who is effectively a folk-saint who robs from the rich tom give to the poor
  • **

    Now let’s add art theft by colorful second story men to our categories and examples.

    Slope #2: How’s the Annunciation doing these days?

    Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — art historian manqué ]
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    Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar, recently beatified. His Annunciation the San Marco convent in Florence is accordingly a work of devotion, free of irony {upper panel, below]:

    The New Yorker’s current cartoon [lower panel, above] caption reads:

    “I’m really excited about this opportunity, but I’m hoping there’s room to negotiate the title? What about ‘Rises-to-the-Occasion Mary,’ or ‘Cool-Under-Pressure Mary’?”

    **

    That’s it.


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