“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we just barely endure and we admire it so because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is dreadful.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies
“One can provoke considerable abuse by the truthful observation that the Western worship of divine beings is grounded in several distinct but related instances of literary representation.” — Harold Bloom, Fallen Angels
For three millennia, the vogue of depicting angels in literature has waxed and waned but has never been fully eclipsed. From their origins in Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia and the Old and New Testaments, literary representations of angels became increasingly complex, refined, and contradictory, reaching an apogee in The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, where they were enlisted in no less a project than justifying “the ways of God to men.” Angels have fallen far since. The millennium brought a host of angels in books, movies and television shows but without flaming swords, fire and brimstone, or joint-dislocating wrestling matches. Instead, the angels were mostly depicted as kindly, maternal women of a certain age eager to help those in need or bumbling middle-aged men somewhat gone to seed. Shelves of self-help books guide readers through the finer points of angelic numerology and advise them on how to be in touch with their own, personal guardian spirits. Recently angels have begun nudging vampires off the young adult bestseller lists. To do this, they are necessarily more threatening and sexually assertive than the admirably self-controlled blood-sucking Edward of Twilight. More Nephilim than putti, these angels are simple variations on familiar villains of the thriller genre. God’s dread messengers have become as domesticated as the once formidable adjective “awesome”.
There have been a few bracing antidotes to this epidemic of angelic schlock. The most recent is the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything. Part biography of Antinous Bellori, a fictional sixteenth-century theologian and angelologist, part alternative Biblical exegesis, and part reimagining of the stories of Noah, Lot, Ezekiel, and Cain and Abel, it is a looser, baggier monster than anything Henry James might have been willing to recognize as a novel. Still, this is a work of impressive ambition and considerable, if intermittent, power.
It is a visionary exploration of the nature of the divine, of knowledge and belief and the authority of scriptures, religious and secular. And if its visions are digressive, idiosyncratic and anachronistic, they have their own internal logic and seductive intensity. The novel’s imaginative ground is a fault line between two world views, the transition in the sixteenth century from medieval thought to seventeenth-century Enlightenment, a move brought about by thinkers confident that “truth lay outside collective knowledge.” Knausgaard posits Bellori in the company of Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and Newton, members of a new intellectual species, for whom “knowledge was indissolubly linked to their individual lives, severed from the general context from which it had originally been won, with all the resultant loneliness, spiritual crisis, and megalomania.” They were not unlike hermit crabs changing shells, “quite naked and vulnerable, always alert, always on the brink of scampering back to the old shell, until they’d crossed the invisible line and the new shell lay closer.” But Antinous Bellori chose a different shell than these Enlightenment pioneers. Their writing, once daring and revolutionary, eventually hardened in familiarity. Knausgaard interrupts that epistemological dynamic, in which writing simultaneously preserves knowledge and distorts it by encapsulating it, shell-like, outside the context in which it was formed, by creating a new context for canonical works. To avoid calcification, we must constantly recover writings eclipsed by others, for “our world is only one of many possible worlds, something of which the writings of Antinous and his contemporaries serve to remind us in no small measure.” A Time for Everything is a vivid thought experiment in alternate world-views, in what would have happened had Bellori’s ideas prevailed over Newton’s. One can’t argue with gravity, of course, but what if?
The novel opens in the early 1560s. Lost in a dark wood early in his life’s journey, the eleven-year-old Antinous Bellori stumbled on two angels standing in a river. Far from the majestic luminous beings come to earth bearing God’s message in the Bible or the chubby, rosy-cheeked cherubs that crowd paintings of the Baroque and the Renaissance, these angels are almost loathsome. Trembling with hunger, they tear at the flesh of the fish they have caught, scales clinging to their chins. “Their face are white and skull-like, their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, claw-like fingers. And they’re shaking. One of them has hands that shake.” The angels’ wings glimmer green and black and their porcelain-blue eyes stare ahead fixedly, strangely independent of their movements. They examine Antinous, lying prostrate with fear, then disappear in a blaze of light. Antinous will devote the next four decades of his life to recapturing the sense of terror and joy of that sight, searching throughout Europe for traces of angelic visitation and completing his monumental treatise, On the Nature of Angels.
Bellori published this work anonymously in 1584 to avoid being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. His fundamental conclusion was more than cause enough for him to be burned at the stake. Bellori’s close study of the 189 angelic manifestations in the Bible, accounts of non-Biblical manifestations, along with “every conceivable and inconceivable text in which angels figured,” led him to question the very nature of God. “It is not the divine that is immutable and the human that is changeable,” he wrote. “The opposite is true and is the real theme of the Bible: the alteration in the divine from the creation to the death of Jesus Christ.”
Furthermore it was human understanding that had wrought the change. Bellori believed that “the worship of its immaterial aspects had distorted the divine and turned it into something else, into something abstract and written, while in reality it was corporeal and concrete, as the angels he’d seen quite clearly showed.” Soon after On the Nature of Angels was published, it was placed on the Vatican’s index of forbidden books. All but a few copies were burned. Bellori’s anonymity did not protect him for long. He was found out and interrogated. He recanted, convincingly pleaded insanity, and was released. Although he never published another word on the subject, he persisted in his quest, spending his final queers tracking the degenerate angels. Forty-three years after his first sighting, he found the angels again, considerably more decrepit, desperate, and savage, snarling at each other over a slaughtered roe deer calf. His diary breaks off abruptly after he describes this encounter, with an explanation that he must confirm a suspicion about the angels. Sometime later a body, presumed to be Bellori’s, was found, mauled beyond recognition on a remote mountainside in 1606.
At this point, the novel’s unidentified narrator, previously measured and self-effacing, becomes more intrusive and the theological speculation more extreme. From posthumous papers, he reconstructs Bellori’s second revelation, more revolutionary than the mutability of the divine. In the Cappella della Scrovegni in Padua, Bellori had seen the fresco of Christ’s Passion and was dumbstruck by Giotto’s depiction of the angels’ frenzied grief, a painterly truth that ran counter to and, for Bellori, superseded the medieval thought he had spent his life examining. The angels above the Crucifixion scene
seem to be breaking forth from the somber heavens. Their movements are violent and expressive, they fill the sky with motion and drama, I contrast to the lifeless Christ, the grieving Mary. The picture is condensed: there is redemption here, resignation, adoration, sorrow. It shows the moment when Jesus is most like us, he’s dying like a man, at the same time he’s moving away from us … presence and absence at one and the same time, God and man.
Yet the angels evince none of this resignation. They see, better than any human had then or since, the true implications of the crucifixion.
One of them closes his eyes, his mouth twisted in tears, as he clutches his face with both his hands, fingertips to his cheeks as if about to claw himself. Another is pictured in a strangely distorted posture, the upper half of his body lifted as if in ecstasy. A third opens his arms as if in embrace or surrender. … God had emptied himself into Christ and become man. And as a man he’d died. The angles alone remained, that was why they were insane with grief, and why their lives had altered so dramatically in the centuries that followed. God was dead on the cross, and the angels were imprisoned here.
Bellori had noted that after the Annunciation, no angels appear again in the Bible until Christ’s death, as if they had warily withdrawn in puzzlement awaiting God’s next move. And upon Christ’s death, the angels, God’s messengers, were stranded. They belonged neither on earth nor to heaven. This was their final fall.
The angels, caught in the gravitational pull of base, earthly desires, began to proliferate but could not leave this world. They lost more and more divine attributes, degenerating into the creatures Bellori happened upon over 400 years ago. Concerned that if humans saw the extent of their “hunger, lust, and savagery,” they would be hunted down and killed, the angels took on what they thought would be the most innocent form possible, that of “human, baby-like beings.” In the early seventeenth century, hundreds of chubby, winged, naked children spread out over Europe as reflected in the paintings of the time. At first the cherubs were greeted with joy and affection, but their undiminished hunger In the early seventeenth century, hundreds of chubby, winged, naked children spread out over Europe as reflected in the paintings of the time. At first the cherubs were greeted with joy and affection, but their undiminished hunger and greed eventually turned men against them. They had to be chased from the rafters with broomsticks. Windows had to be kept shut and larders locked against them. They were soon reduced to scavenging for food in refuse piles and back alleys. At this point their physiognomy began to change rapidly. They shrank in size, and feathers sprouted not just on their wings but all over their bodies. After a few generations of starving and squabbling, they were indistinguishable from seagulls, and the connection between these creatures and their divine ancestors slipped from collective memory.
Knausgaard’s mysterious narrator substantiates Bellori’s theories and investigations with reinterpretations of Biblical stories, expanded with faithfulness to poetic truth rather than historical accuracy. The land of Nod, where Noah prepares for the Flood, resembles a pastoral nineteenth-century Norway, with fjords. The inhabitants have guns, stoves, and kitchen sinks. They use sleds and cross-country skies. Noah’s brother-in-law tries unsuccessfully to raise mink for their fur. Cain and Abel live close enough to the Garden of Eden to see the light of the cherubim guarding it, yet in winter, they wander through snow-covered mountains. For the local harvest festival — they live in a village, not alone on the earth with Adam and Eve — they put on their best clothes: white shirts, button-fly trousers, and red suspenders. By decontextualizing these familiar stories, Knausgaard sharpens his focus on the protagonists’ inner lives, for which the Bible spares not a word.
From twelve verses in the Old Testament and an apocryphal fragment of fifteen lines that tell of Abel’s attempt to reenter the Garden of Eden and find the tree of life, the narrator spins out an encapsulated novella of 100 pages about the brothers, familiar in outline but wondrous strange in detail. Cain is taciturn, melancholy, awkward and, despite his feelings of inferiority, utterly devoted to his charismatic younger brother. He is contented with his lot as tiller of the earth, but Abel cannot resist the pull of knowledge — he eviscerates a dying shepherd in order to find the sources of his life and his pain — much less the promise of eternal life. After several attempts to sneak by the cherubim guarding the tree of life, Abel is a wreck, raving, delusional, burned over most of his body. Cain kills him not out of jealousy but to save him from a worse fate.
Knausgaard’s version of the great Flood is twice as long as his retelling of Cain and Abel. His Noah is a reclusive albino, beekeeper, and natural biologist. His father Lethem, at the summer fair, stands for hours to see the remains of a grotesque, humanoid creature with a face of surpassing beauty. Despite his revulsion, Lethem studies it carefully, knowing of Noah’s fascination with all life forms. It is one of the Nephilim, the antediluvian angels mentioned in the Old Testament, the “sons of God” who were so taken with lust for the “daughters of men” that they interbred with them bearing progeny who were neither angel nor human. Noah hears God’s word and follows his instructions to the letter. As the waters rise over the land of Nod and its inhabitants retreat to ever higher ground, Knausgaard charts their progression from denial through resignation to despair. The ark must float by these mountaintop islands within earshot of their huddled refugees, among whom is Noah’s sister, beseeching his help. These stories also provide fodder for the narrator’s theological speculation. He offers textual evidence from the Bible and from Bellori’s treatise to support his claim that God’s wrath was not caused by man’s wickedness but by the Nephilim’s miscegenation. It was they He wanted to annihilate in the Flood, not mankind.
The narrator’s identity is revealed only belatedly in a coda whose only apparent connection to the preceding 450 pages is thematic echoes. The narrator, Henrik Vankel, has exiled himself to a remote, barely inhabited Norwegian island as a result of an unspecified transgression. He slashes his chest and face with a shard of glass in a desperate attempt to achieve a sense of transcendence through pain, but he gets no existential relief. Cut off from the divine, he cannot atone for his sin.
Although Knausgaard’s faux-theological pedantry occasionally drags, he is a gripping storyteller. His eye for detail is precise and judicious, and his orchestration of interconnected themes adept. For all its dizzying layering of texts within texts, this work is itself the second section of a much larger, three-part fictional autobiography. Archipelago Books will publish the multivolume third part, Min Kamp or My Struggle, with its intentional allusion to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in the next year or two.
In his book-length essay, Fallen Angels, Harold Bloom attributes our widespread New-Ageist trend of sentimentalizing angels to “the American evasion of the reality principle, that is the necessity of dying.” Yet, this hunger for divine kitsch is more complex than a simple refusal to face reality. Americans do appear well-steeped in denial about the inevitability not just of death but also of aging. Still, Knausgaard’s suggestion that our representations of angels are both determined by and in turn influence the fluid relationship between the human and divine is more intriguing and satisfying than simple denial. On the evidence of popular and even middlebrow culture, we often call on angels, directly or indirectly through the medium of New Age angelicism, to intercede in our lives, to solve our problems, to save or cure us, to answer our prayers. A Time for Everything investigates the sources of the modern longing for belief without faith, the hunger for certainty, and the triumph of wishful thinking. And what it offers are the rigors of imagination as an equally intangible, but more substantial consolation than mere wishfulness.
The Hudson Review Volume LXIII, No. 2 Summer 2010