From Fallen Angels
We want demons and devils to entertain us, at rather a safe distance, and angels to comfort or look after us, again at a safe remove. But fallen angels can be uncomfortably close, since they are ourselves, in whole and in part. Our Frankenstein movies have given us a famous monster who simply does not exist as such in Mary Shelley’s Romantic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In that book, Frankenstein is the Promethean scientist who creates not a monster, but a daemon, who makes a remarkable appeal to his morally obtuse maker: “Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency, and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
Mary Shelley’s poignant sentences render the fallen angel another form of Adam, which seems to me exactly right. In relation to death, we once were the immortal Adam, but as soon as we became subject to death we became the fallen angel, for that is what the metaphor of a fallen angel means: the overwhelming awareness of one’s mortality. Hamlet’s angelic apprehensions are sharper intimations of mortality than are elsewhere available in imaginative literature. The dilemma of being open to transcendental longings even as we are trapped inside a dying animal is the precise predicament of the fallen angel, that is to say, of a fully conscious human being. Old age, illness, and death itself were regarded as demons in most of the world’s traditions, and the doublet of “death and the devil” is one of the most famous of Christian phrases. Fallen angels, not in any ideological sense but as images of the essential human predicament, are far more central to us.
I think now that current American post-millennial obsession with what we call angels is mostly a mask for the American evasion of the reality principle, that is, the necessity of dying. There is very little difference between the so-called near-death experiences and the popular cultivation of the angels. Both near-death experiences and angelicism have been vigorously commercialized and remain growth industries. Deep reading conversely is in decline, and if we forget how to read and why, we will drown in the visual media. Fallen angels, as Shakespeare and Milton emphasize, should never stop reading. The sacred Emerson once remarked that all Americans were poets and mystics, and he is still accurate, even if their poetry and their mysticism is now all too frequently debased. But this is the Evening Land; our culture, such as it is, ebbs into twilight. The angel of Evening is at hand, fallen yet imbued with a final vitality. Is not the United States now such an angel? Knowingly to be a fallen angel is not the worst of conditions, not the least imaginative.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is probably our most recent American instance of the sense in which all of us are fallen angels. Kushner’s angels have been abandoned by God and decide to sue him for desertion. Unfortunately for all of us, God retains the truly Satanic Roy Cohn as his defense attorney, and so the angels will lose their case. As a parable for our current situation, Kushner’s vision is beautifully appropriate.