Friday, May 10, 2013

Brown Study

There's something melancholy about sitting by an open window late at night, writing, listening to a train whistle on the edge of town. I often hear them in the hours after midnight. When I see them during the day they're always full of gravel. There are big strip mines in the desert west of the city, beyond the river, which is perennially dry. Lately a forest of wind generators has cropped up on the desolate hills where once a mad Frenchman lorded it over the native tribes, back when this was part of Spain. It's strange, how the same people who decry strip mining seemingly don't mind filling the earth with these symbols of progress which, once the subsidies stop coming in, will surely be allowed to fall to pieces. As long as it isn't within sight of Aspen or Park City, I suppose.

But I digress. I was writing about the sad sound of the train, which I can still hear humming up at the north end of town. I have the window open, and the lace curtains keep blowing against me. It rained earlier and the air is cool now.

There's a scene at the end of David Lean's Doctor Zhivago that often comes to my mind. It's the one where Yuri is staying with Lara and her daughter at Varykino, which has stood long empty, sealed off by the government, surrounded by vast empty fields of snow, encased in ice. At one point Lara wakes up, hears the wolves howling. "This is an awful time to be alive," she says. "No," Yuri replies, with warmth and certainty. And it's there that he writes his greatest poetry.

I've never read the book. But for me the meaning of the film is that life must go on—will go on—no matter what happens in the world. Poets will keep straining for beauty. If the world hinders them, well, they'll do it in spite of the world. The more harried and oppressed they are, the more pure and refined will be the fruits of their hearts and minds.

I hear another train whistle.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Angels

For my birthday I received a complete set of the Britannica Great Books collection. Neoluddite that I am, I can now rest assured that I, for one, will survive the coming collapse of civilization. I'll be a cultural ark, if you will, floating on the waters of oblivion; all you other people relying on your e-readers (i.e., rented electronic secret decoder rings) are screwed. The firemen of the future will have to come personally to my house to spew kerosene all over my secret collection. Your collection they'll just delete from the main office; or maybe they'll simply change the password. Actually, since we all know that a sprawling bureaucracy will cripple the future state, they'll probably never get around to coming for me at all.

Be that as it may, I've been perusing the collection. One thing that made its publication a truly great undertaking is its preface, the fat, two-volume Syntopticon, which lays the Great Ideas out under one hundred headings, cross-referenced with the other volumes in the set. The first entry is "Angels," and it is that of which I wish to speak. You must forgive me if the discussion sounds rather professorial; I am, after all, a professor. Though a mathematician, I think about angels a lot, as my idea of them plays a significant role in my writing.

Angels are one of the great myths of our culture. They're part of a continuous tradition stretching back into the mists of prehistory, from the astral religion of Babylon to the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Koran; from the speculations of the pagan neo-Platonists to the great philosophers of the Middle Ages, Jewish and Muslim and Christian. And I'd wager that most Americans believe in them today.

So, what is an angel? A guy with wings and blue jeans? A vision of fire and light? The fullest, most detailed account of their nature is to be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the "Angelic Doctor." This Scholastic vision is woven from several historical strands, the first of which is, of course, Scripture, together with Patristic exposition.

Now, the few angels we encounter in Scripture are either mysterious and aloof, like Abraham's guests at Mamre and the angel who wrestled with Jacob, or frightening, inhuman beings, a far cry from Clarence, Michael Landon, and their descendants.
And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands… And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning. Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel… The four wheels had rims and they had spokes; and their rims were full of eyes round about… Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
It's a commonplace that these conceptions borrow from the astral worship of ancient Mesopotamia.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
The connection between stars and angels is clear even in something as late as the Book of Revelation.
And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth.
This borrowing or cross-fertilization wasn't a secret waiting to be uncovered by modern professors of comparative religion. It's no accident that Magi from the east were led to Bethlehem by a star.

The most prolonged angelic appearance occurs in the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit. (Centuries before modern searchers into ancient secrets were discovering obscure gnostic gospels hidden on the racks of Barnes and Noble, Catholics had their very own secret suppressed texts about prophets and angels.) Tobit describes the adventures of a young man named Tobias who journeys to the east on his father's business. With the help of the angel Raphael he weds the girl Sarah and vanquishes the demon Asmodeus, who had destroyed seven of her suitors. The angel reveals himself at the end:
"I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One." They were both alarmed; and they fell upon their faces, for they were afraid. But he said to them, "Do not be afraid; you will be safe… All these days I merely appeared to you and did not eat or drink, but you were seeing a vision."
Scriptural and Patristic ideas about angels found an echo in the speculations of the neo-Platonists, who, led by a philosophical instinct, wanted to see a continuous gradation of spiritual beings from the gods down to men. The word "demon," which appears so often in the New Testament, is a Greek word, and carries connotations from the Greek conception of the world of spirits. Modern philosopher-types seem inclined to pass over theories of angels as partaking more of mythology than metaphysics, but they shouldn't be. These theories reflect various solutions to the problem of how the human mind relates to the body. The vein passes through the schools of Plato and Aristotle, the neo-Platonists, Dionysus the Areopagite, the Arabian philosophers, Moses Maimonides, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.

Reading Aquinas himself, you might get the feeling that you're in the realm more of science fiction than fantasy. C. S. Lewis has one of his characters in That Hideous Strength refer euphemistically to angels and demons as macrobes; the word seems particularly apt. Aquinas asserts, first of all, that, not only are angels incorporeal, they are immaterial as well. The words have different meanings. The word matter in his usage has a broader import than in modern scientific jargon; it refers to that which distinguishes one member of a species from another. Since angels are immaterial, then, each angel must be its own species.

Some people, whose minds have been formed by modern physics, imagine that angels must be beings of pure energy like something out of Arthur C. Clarke. Passing over the ignorance of special relativity implied by this, we just have to say that angels aren't that kind of thing at all. They aren't physical. They can't be studied by physical methods.

On the other hand, as regards the plain physicality of many angelic apparitions in Scripture, Aquinas holds that angels are able to compact air particles so as to appear in human form and interact with human beings. But the bodies they assume have only the semblance of life, as Raphael explains to Tobias. Also, an angel can't be said to be in a place in the same sense that a man is in a place. An angel is like a living stream of thought; it becomes "present" at a location through a focusing of its power, but "whereness" as we generally conceive of it is limited to material beings. An angel's mode of apprehension is simple and direct: it doesn't abstract from singulars perceived through the senses or reason from premises to conclusion. On the other hand, no angel can read the secrets of a man's heart. They do have access to occult information, however, and may be able to discern the import of physical or psychological processes in the human brain.

Aquinas, following the Areopagite, separates the angels into three main classes, each of which is further divided into three ranks. The classes reflect the relative exaltedness of the angels' perception of truth. The highest perceive things as they emanate directly from God; these include seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. The middle class—dominions, virtues, and powers—perceive the reasons of things in the plurality of universals. And the lowest class perceive intelligibles in the multitude of particulars. These include principalities (who oversee nations and peoples), archangels (like Gabriel), and angels properly so-called (e.g., guardian angels).

Recently I told my four-year-old son about the idea that every human is guided by his own guardian angel; surprised, he thought about this for a moment, then asked (somewhat skeptically): "Are there seven billion angels?" To which Aquinas would reply: There are many, many more than seven billion. In the Middle Ages it was commonly held that angels oversaw the motion of the heavenly bodies, and it's a myth that the medievals thought we inhabit a flat earth in a small universe. A casual perusal of the books they studied and wrote suffices to explode the idea. Well, Aquinas opined that the number of angels is finite but vast, with far more angels than there are material objects, so that there's a fairly smooth gradation from the most exalted down to man. This desire to "fill in the gaps" strikes a common chord with the pagan philosophers as well as the great fantasists of modern times.