Ill angels

Angel of grief*

We typically think of angels as protectors and companions. Sometimes, they may be warriors. Destroyers of evil. Walking beside us. Keeping us safe.

But there are other angels who are not guardian angels. Not angels of “now I lay me down to sleep”. Not springtime nor summer’s day angels. Not by a long shot. Not someone to watch over you unless it be to watch you weep.

Angels of sorrow. Angels of loss.

Angels of dental work.

These angels are angels of uneasy nights. Of guilt, confusion, angels whose soul (sole) purpose seems to be to observe the senseless–tragedy, downfall, ruin. Loves gone wrong. Fortunes lost. Best laid plans gone off the rails.

These do not level Sodom and Gomorrah. They do not defeat heaven’s rebels or punish the wicked. Other angels bear heaven’s whips and scorns, but not these.

These are not the fearful scour of Allah’s desert wind. These are not angels of death. They do not bring peace at the end of the long and restless trail. These are the opposite of easy sleep and gentle dreams.

Angels of the answer no.

But they include more than the angels of sorrow.

These are also angels of dead glass eyes looking back out of the dark. The angels of late hours and miles to go. Angels of the weary restless, of unnatural sounds. Angels of “what was that” during hours when it might be better not to know.

These are the angels of false friendship, of spilled secrets, of abandoned defense. These are the angels of false hope and sickness. Angels of the empty road through tough territory. The angels of empty words and hollow crowns.

Angels of the darker swamps of the human soul. What swims beneath the murky water of our dreams? What rises from that black surface to gaze unsympathetic upon the sleeping world? What soft voice whispers promises after fatigue breaks down our sense of right and wrong? What hides in the jungles of the night?

Pin oak against cloudy skies. Author photo.

There it is again. That late at night sound. Surely it is just the wind. Maybe a cat.

The half seen motion. Figure darting out of sight. Edge of vision angels cloaked in shadow. Slipping around the corner. Melting into the darkest edges of the gloom. Our secret damnation. If only they knew. If only.

Retreating shiver dreams. Angels of doubt. Of suspicion.

Cary Grant in Suspicion, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

In Henry IV part 2, the Chief Justice tells Falstaff:

You follow the young prince up and
down like his ill angel.

Henry IV part 2, 1.2.166-7

While the words are often taken to mean an ill angel as someone who leads to harm or offers a bad example, the words also may suggest an angel who might be somehow ill in themselves. Diseased. Not altogether well or whole.

While the Justice implies that Falstaff is an ill meaning angel–a puck. misleading night wanderers, and laughing at their harm–his words also suggest something else. “Ill angel” may not be quite the same as an “ill-intentioned angel”, and certainly for all his vice, Falstaff is also no picture of good health.

We’ve written about Satan in previous posts.

Gustave Doré, illustration to Paradise Lost, book IX, 179–187: “he [Satan] held on / His midnight search, where soonest he might finde / The Serpent: him fast sleeping soon he found”.

The primary ill angel of western tradition, Lucifer’s exile from heaven presents a never ending dark night of the soul. The nature of the rebellion in heaven depends upon the tradition. It ranges from fomenting a conspiracy to an open and total war against those angels loyal to God. In the end, the exact circumstances seem to matter less than the aftermath.

For while Satan seems to excel at leading human souls astray, the banished former angel also remains a profoundly lonely figure. We picture him brooding over his lost kingdom of darkness on a lake of fire. Even with all the minions who serve him, Satan also seems to be perpetually accompanied by the angel of solitude. He is not only alone but also lonely.

Lone hawk, foggy field. Author photo.

Lucifer’s isolated landscape of smoke and blackened rock reflects both his outer and his inner reality. His own choices, impulses, or perhaps needs and characteristics have removed him from heaven’s table, and he has become an inversion of his former self. His fallen, diminished being contrasts his original magnificence. Other angels, erstwhile companions, have become adversaries. It is easy to imagine his dark turnings having congealed into a hard place within his heart.

Wrapped within the scope of those dark wings is the whole host of Pandora’s box. Worry. Trouble. Sorrow. Hurt. Those things which seem to walk beside us. With us. Always.

“Hurt” by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), 1994. Covered by Johnny Cash for the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002.**

Lucifer becomes the leading angel of the sunset. Batwings. Not only the sunset of angels, but our sunsets as well.

In a mythological sense, Lucifer comes to embody inversion and perversion. Just as the first sorcerer in Diné cosmology breathed widdershins–reversing the sacred life breath (níłch’i). Like the other trickster figures to whom he is related (often coyote and/or jackrabbit in Native American cultures, and Falstaff too, in a sense), Satan reverses the natural order of being. In healthy individuals or societies, Lucifer represents the ever lurking threat of disease or profound social unrest. Slowing. Breaking down.

This contrasts any number of great goddesses (especially in Celtic tradition) who represent fertility. They not only project power and authority, but they also lend these to their partners (often through sexual relations which underscore the fertile nature of their being). Sex with the devil, however, made mortals into witches***, giving them powers to commit malevolent acts instead of abilities which might allow them to command, lead, unify, or rule. Witches became agents of disease. They eradicated ease and disseminated dissension.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 is filled with images of disease and its cousin, rumor (which spreads like disease). And although Falstaff characteristically deflects the idea, there is an underlying suggestion that he may be an ill angel indeed:

FALSTAFF  Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my
PAGE  He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy
water, but, for the party that owed it, he might have
more diseases than he knew for.
FALSTAFF  Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me.
The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is
not able to invent anything that intends to laughter
more than I invent, or is invented on me. I am not
only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in
other men. I do here walk before thee like a sow
that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one. If the
Prince put thee into my service for any other reason
than to set me off, why then I have no judgment.

2 Henry IV, 1, 2, 1-14.

Instead of confronting his own illness, Falstaff becomes a kind of devil, pointing up the pride in others. He deflects his page’s words about the doctor’s ominous evaluation with the idea that men “take pride to gird” at him.

Similarly, when Satan notes that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven”, his pronouncement carries the whiff of sour grapes along with a determination which has been wrung into especially ungenerous wine.**** His own illness and dissatisfaction shine even more brightly through the smoke and mirrors of his self delusion.

The adversary wears many seductive guises, and it employs many different kinds of angels. Adam and Eve’s serpent helps to engineer their expulsion from Eden. Beyond temptation the empty figures of rank solitude and desperation lie in wait. The seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, all of which are mentioned in previous posts) are only a beginning.

Yet seldom does the inversion confront us directly. The metaphor of Pilgrim’s Progress becomes just that, a rhetorical device. A counterpersuasion.

Christian’s battle with Apollyon*****

Usually, the demonic remains hidden, working more subtly.

We all know the deal too good to be true. Attractive stranger, cash offer, or the golden ring spotted lying in the street.****** The innocent kiss on the cheek. A seemingly genuine hug. The friend who isn’t. The user. Slipping tiny gifts to hook our interest. The extended hand seeming righteous and royal, promising affectionate fidelity.

Promises. Promises.

Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees, Dir. George Abbot and Stanley Donen, Warner Brothers, 1958.*******

But what of Lola’s own contract? The sick angels of what we most desire–love, riches, or fame. How easy might the rule bend, or the shorter path arrive? It certainly can’t hurt us just this once.

Iago cautions Othello about jealousy, obliquely suggests that there may be reason to be jealous. Then Iago uses the word repeatedly, hammering it into Othello’s heart.

OTHELLO:  By heaven, I’ll know thy thoughts.
You cannot, if my heart were in your hand,
Nor shall not, whilst ’tis in my custody.
IAGO:  O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves!
OTHELLO:  O misery!
Poor and content is rich, and rich enough;
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good God, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy!

Othello 3.3.191-206

Iago sows the idea of jealousy, and then fosters it. Angel of bad seeds. Ungenerous, pretending loyalty and honesty while secretly malevolent.

As ubiquitous as grief are these angels of uneasiness. They plague humanity endlessly. Our individual and collective blood pressure spikes each time someone opens fire in a cinema/supermarket/school/hospital/public place. Even miles, counties, states, or countries away it affects us. No person an island. One country invades another. A country forces down a passenger plane to jail a dissenter. The march of rising prices, failing healthcare, our lives described by the pronouncements of billionaires.

We engineer machines to think without really knowing what might happen. We practice eugenics without understanding how the human organism works. We believe that our little bit won’t really make a difference in the fight against climate change. We trust that God (or billionaires or corporations or someone) will take care of it before it gets too far out of hand.

Medicine runs to “one size fits all” protocols while insurance companies or government budget offices dictate what treatment people receive, dictating what they will cover and what they will not. Meanwhile large pharmaceutical companies focus on marketing, on selling. The financial bottom line, profit, supplants wellness as a goal.

Society goes on baking Gordon Gecko’s lines from Wall Street into our psyche. Every week the financial news has a new article about people not needing more education, not needing university. All the while most people can’t seem to think their way through a wet tissue while the fonts of critical understanding, literature, drama, art, history, and philosophy, continue to vanish from the education marketplace. Because they don’t make money. They don’t make us billionaires.

We don’t need to improve ourselves. We need to make money. We’re told that the average American had better retire with three million dollars if they’re to retire comfortably. Rising costs of medical care? Vanishing Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid?

And you folks in Europe or the British Isles reading this, remember Boris Johnson conferencing with Trump about privatising the NHS? That can’t and won’t happen there though. It will never happen there. The people would never let it, would they? They would rise up in revolt.

Yet Brexit was never going to pass either. The possibility was ridiculous. Who would vote for mere rhetoric, for proud sounding words like “independence” and slogans about “control of our own destiny” when they could participate in something bigger than themselves? Never happening, I tell you.

Bring me my Ruger plated gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my AR 15. Fire!

It will be okay. It will be okay. We won’t circle the wagons that far. We wouldn’t become medieval fiefdoms again–bordered, separated. Segregated. Bigoted. Keeping out the others–the Syrians, Afghans, refugees, or Hungarians who might be stealing our jobs, corrupting our kids. The Hindus, the Muslims, the (insert faith which isn’t my own here), the great manipulators of minds, thieves of our children’s souls.

The “look who’s talking fallacy” rears its ugly head out of the dark swamps of the human soul. Nations built on bigotry. Built on walls and separation. Anyone can become president, but for everyone else, much of day to day life in the United States remains an exercise in running to keep ahead of the financial reaper. Death and taxes, but taxes first.

STEM, STEM, STEM. No mention of arts or drama or literature or history. No philosophy. Such nonsense topics are poor choices in higher education. Parents need their children to make money. They cannot, will not, pay for foolishness. Poetry is fluffy nothing. Quit school and work. You could become manager. You might even move up from there.

Some will. But the lie remains that hard work can get you there without generous scoops of luck. Hard work certainly. But people seem to overlook luck and connections. Cleverness and who one knows. The right place at right time-ness of it all.

Keep the majority under employed. Keep them birthing to feed the corporate machine. Local labor nickle and dimed to death in an endless stream of economic attrition. The world runs on debt and it follows us on long, quick striding legs. Follows us in our days. Follows us in our dreams.

The terrifying uneasiness always snapping at our heels.

There will be those chiding the ghost for saying this. There will be those who respond, “Yeah, but I know a guy who became a billionaire selling t-shirts”. Of course you do. So do we all. People become movie stars and opera singers, sports personalities, and billionaires of all stripes every day. But the truth remains that many many more do not.

Do billionaires chill out in front of Netflix? Not so often it seems. Too busy reading, making, minding, or cultivating their billions and their minds. Honing critical thinking even when their ideas prove crackpot. New deals. New ideas. Vending machines on Mars. Quadrilateral exoskeletons. Buying social media platforms or sports teams.

Do these folks go see Shakespeare? Well, not in the United States, at least, where the fabled Oregon Shakespeare Festival seems to be fighting for its very financial survival. Too bad they missed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

And what about non-billionaires? Eight hours of sleep a night when they can? Reach the age of forty and wonder why a solid manager’s salary no longer pays for much. Why they can’t afford eggs. Movies. Gasoline. Chewing gum. Does anyone still chew gum?

What of the machinery itself? To function, a capitalist society needs worker bees–those who will continue to labor at the lower tiers to support the economic tiers above them. The people with money still need relatively affordable soap, dishes, fans, clothes hangers, clothes, computers, and (these days more than ever) phones. Even with the spread of robots (ask Cathie Wood, unless a trading AI takes over her job) someone has to help manufacture these.

In the meantime, in the U.S., degrees in English literature have become viewed as mostly useless. STEM is where we must compete. Listen to statesfolk. Congress. State legislatures. Staple passers. Selling gas. Selling staples. Talking. Passing.

Listen to the investors. Read the financial news. They’ll tell you just like they’ll tell you what you should buy, tell you what’s on sale on Amazon, and what latest skin product favored by celebrities. How did X get that glow at the Met Gala? Who’s going to that coronation anyway?

Meanwhile, an increasingly uneducated population becomes unable to comprehend political and social mechanisms, incapable of steering the ship of state. From veering to careening we go. Merrily we roll along, only voting what we see on television or what someone tells us. What we hear in church. At work. Or on the news. Fox crowing loudly until someone says, “Prove it.” Oops.

Years ago, when the ghost was a person, it met a French lady who was working in a shop. She lamented the state of retirement in the U.S., the devastating lack of imagination.

“Mon Dieu!” this lady exclaimed. “People retire here in the United States and then they go and get another job! Or they go play golf! Can’t they think of anything better to do with their time?”

Nothing against golf, but no. We either do not or we cannot think. We are forgetting/have forgotten how. Our constant feed of electronic streaming “content” robs us of our imagination.

Loneliness, Surgeon General? We discuss little with anyone. We only watch. Our French lady could not imagine a more terrible fate than to work all of one’s life and then, faced with the opportunity for a departure into something creative, to instead go back to work again.

Yet, we can lay these ailments at the door of capitalist society if we wish, for we must continue to work. We must chase the three million gold pieces at the end of the rainbow even as the amount becomes five million, eight million, ten, twenty. Just over that hill. Remaining elusive for most folks even in a world where new billionaires seem to pop out of the woodwork.

Distant gold. Author photo.

Once one grows too “mature” for whatever one does, one must transfer to other industries. Not always less glamorous, these occupations may or may not pay the bills, but at least they contribute. Store clerk. Warehouse worker. Dog walker. Someone who spent a life in the insurance industry can always become a consultant–giving seminars on insurance options or how to retire.

How to retire. The brass ring at the end of the road. Retirement. Freedom.

Some angel beckons. Let’s hope it is an angel of satisfaction, and not the angel of despair.

Or that old angel of envy. “Be thankful for what you have”. Yes. Yet, when you are eighty and can no longer pay your medical bills, fewer roads remain open to you.

Satan takes Job’s life in hand, and that expression about the patience of Job comes from the patience of Job. Exemplary. Exceptional. Is the reward of patience really patience? What good does that do us in the end, St. Augustine, if we can no longer live on what we have?

Sage advice? Platitudes?

Yet many would have us believe that people are only poor because they are lazy.

Oh, but we do not condemn. We are not the executioners. Not us. We’ll elect the next politician and they’ll do better for us. They’ll help us stop this madness.

For we have run mad. The angel of madness hovers close at hand. So close.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare companies, theatre companies, simple drama groups close left and right and roll up the sidewalks for lack of funding. Who has time? There’s so much to see on Netflix, on Prime, on Hulu, Disney, Apple TV, and it’s cheaper than those tickets for live theatre. Less chance of catching something too.

Besides, Shakespeare? Really? It’s so passé. We had to read one of those in high school, the one about the lovers who kill themselves because the message doesn’t get through? I’d rather watch Virgin River on Netflix. Something with language you can understand. More modern. Who wants to listen to that old crap? Who wants to support the words of the ancient, white, patriarchal, western European establishment?

And yet, and yet, and yet. Who did not read Shakespeare? What writers and thinkers have not?

Falstaff is a kind of fallen staff, bending the truth like balloon animals. His moral decay is cautionary to us. We should avoid becoming such a masterpiece of ruin.

The relationship between Falstaff and Hal remains as complicated as any modern plot with a touch of angel woven into it. For as much as he expects eventual advancement of the prince, Falstaff also loves him. And in some sense, Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (once Prince Hal has become King Henry V) is deeply painful. Tragic.

In Henry V, when Falstaff lies dying, Hostess Quickly says, “By my troth, he’ll yield the crow a pudding
one of these days. The King has killed his heart” (2.1.85-6).

There’s the true illness. The sad angel peering out of the play at us. For although physical ailments may be daunting, even unbeatable, death of the heart leaves us no escape. No exit, if you will.

Miracles do happen. We may yet recover from cancers and all manner of sorrows. But the loss of a profound love? That may be the rub. That late thought in all the remaining empty nights of our lives.

When love has gone, by death or doorway, do we ever fully recover from the blow? True loss, true grief, true despair, is like the angel at top of this page. A stone too immovable to shudder in its sorrow. Still, cold, and weeping in the elements forever.

*Angel of grief, 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story which serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife Emelyn at the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran aka Carptrash 17:52, 7 August 2006 (UTC).

**”Hurt”, directed by Mark Romanek, the video won a Grammy and a Country Music Association award for best video.

***These witches described in early modern demonology texts should not be confused with wiccans–with followers of old natural/healing religions–although they often have been and still are sometimes. Worth remembering that there are contrary wiccans too.

****John Milton. Paradise Lost, 1, 263.

*****H. C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo – The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come by John Bunyan with notes by Rev Robert Maguire and illustrations by H. C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo London, Cassell, Petter and Galpin c. 1850. Public domain.

******One possible opening ploy of the infamous “pigeon drop” con game, often worked by gangs around heavy tourist areas like Times Square in New York, or the Opera or Tour Eiffel in Paris.

*******Film based on the play of the same name by George Abbot, Douglass Wallop, Richard Adler, and Jerry Ross, based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop.

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