“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, January 22, 2007

the politics of angels



I saw by night, and behold a man riding upon a red horse, and
he stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom; and
behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white.

001:009 Then said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that
talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be.

And the man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and
said, These are they whom the LORD hath sent to walk to and
fro through the earth.

001:011 And they answered the angel of the LORD that stood among the
myrtle trees, and said, We have walked to and fro through the
earth, and, behold, all the earth sitteth still, and is at
rest. – Zechariah

Well, to cap my return to my past – plunged into it as I was by Bob Solomon’s death, and the pretty marvelous ceremony to commemorate his life Saturday – I sat down and watched an old 80s movie that was particularly important to me back in the days before the Wall fell: Wings of Desire. By coincidence, the woman who played the trapeze artist, Marion, (Solveig Dommartin) died a few weeks ago of a heart attack. My generation is not going to go out raving in the street a la some Ginsberg poem, but prematurely wearing out their hearts like they were so many rainsoaked grocery bags – thus saith the industrial fats upon which we have steadily gorged, plus of course the coke and heroin and – let’s admit it – the occasional speedball.

Anyway, I did rain down tears for that time, and for some still marvelous parts of the movie – not so much the plot but simply seeing Berlin.

However, I know more about the politics of Satan and the angels now than I did in those dim days. I know the politics – and I know this from having looked it up after reading Mailer’s new novel, for which I penned a commendatory review in yesterday’s Austin Statesman (much better, my review, I must say, than the thing produced by Janet Maslin for the NYT last week – and as for Lee Siegel, well, I just can’t read Lee Siegel). Zechariah is generally considered a post exilic book, and the notion of these walkers abroad has roots, according to some scholars, in the Persian and Egyptian spy systems. In effect, both kingdoms had stumbled upon the idea that lightbulbs its way into the head of every Behemoth since – let’s spy on the population. Even better, let’s turn certain people. Let’s just do it, pour encourager les autres. Turning people. From the Pharaohs to the FBI and the DEA, this practice has a history that bears a double aspect: on the one side, politics, and on the other side, demonology.

While Satan already plays the role of a sort of egger on in Job, the importance of Zechariah is that Satan, for the first time, resolves himself clearly into the role by which we know and love him best: the adversary.

“And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.

And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan;
even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not is not
this a brand plucked out of the fire?”

Whose fire is it, o Lord? – for isn't this the template of the millions of conversations over the millenia that have unfolded behind the iron curtain - by which of course I mean the curtain between the powerful and the dispossessed? Here we are eavesdropping - the prophets are such snoops of the divine, counterspies in the house of Daddy Love - on the tyrant and head of his secret police, president and advisor, sheriff and jailhouse bird. It was how Stalin handled Mandelstam and Pasternak. All brands are, virtually, in the fire, and the fire is the nation. The Joshua that is the case before us tonight is, of course, a high government exec – a high priest. Those are the ones. The system rewards those who damn their brothers by allowing them to climb up to another niche, but the system will, and this is the justice of it, award even those who damn the ones who have damned their quota. Credit systems or politics, computers or the old fashioned way of entrapping your prey in a bar on the Tex Mex border with the offer of some good shit which both of you can cut and make beaucoup bucks - it is all the same, ever ancient, ever the poem, from Jerusalem to Juarez. When Satan accuses Joshua, the machinery that is set in motion is not too much different from the finger that was put by some Satan on Mandelstam, and Mandelstam had survived so far only through the protection of the secret police chief, Ezhov, through Ezhov’s wife.

LI's definition of utopia: a society in which there is no system wide incentive to damn another. That's it. On that day, hell will truly be purged from our lives.

In Wings of Desire, of course, the angels are Rilke’s angels, supposedly purged of that sinister etymological connection with the men on the red horses. They spy, but only as the eye spies – joy and function merged. There is, however, a missed opportunity here – everyone has felt that the sentimentality at the center of Wings of Desire is discrediting, however beautiful the movie is in its collection of modernist tropes. And of course, this city in which the angels spy like hippies is a city of much more professional spies. Pynchon saw so much further - he knew that hippies made the best narcs. The humint that flows through Wenders angels must be woven, in the center, into a world of accusation, where Satan stands on the right hand and resists – since his bureaucratic role is, of course, to play the resistor. How can one condemn to eternal fire those who are guilty of nothing and not be guilty oneself? Even God needs some savior - or rather, scape goat - to carry off his sins or give him, at least, official deniability – hence Satan. Satan, the prince of deniability.

And no one saw the carney go, no one saw the carney go…

3 comments:

Amie said...

LI, some post!
re Wings of Desire, I seem to remember WW saying that in the script for the film the other angel - Cassius - also becomes mortal, but in his case it is because he is fascinated by evil. Apparently there were scenes in which Cassius is having a fun time in crime. They were never filmed, since WW ran out of money!
It's been quite a while since I saw the film, but I remember some marvelous moments, others that made me cringe. Like that long lugubrious monologue at the end! I prefer Peter Falk's improvised skits in the film to much of the Handke script. Like that scene where he tries to turn the angel by telling him coffee and cigarettes are great!
well, I guess they must have good health insurance in Germany, unlike the Home of the Free and the Brave...

roger said...

As far as the script goes, I guess my favorite moments are the scenes where the sound track is filled with the anxious whispering going on in a crowd of heads. And I liked the old storyteller, however hokey it was to yank him out of Benjamin (more hoky as the years go on).

But I think the ending monologue came out of a softness in the whole movie that ... that I don't want to say I disliked, but that is simply there. I'm no enemy of sentimentality per se, but I do like to see what it is doing. And I couldn't help but think of the enormous effort on both sides of the Wall to get to that point where one did hear people's thoughts - which of course brings us back, inevitably, and as always, to the AIR LOOM GANG!

Amie said...

LI, your comment on Himmel uber Berlin, sentimentality and softness, somehow reminded me of a couple of passages.

The first is from Pericles' Funeral Oration, where he warns the Athenians against the Oriental vice of softness. The second is Winckelmann exhorting 'modern Germany' - in the throes of its birth pangs - to the effect that for Germany to be properly German, it has to imitate the Greeks.
(Now there's a double bind!)
I can't really say I'd have a problem with sentimentality or softness in HUB - or anywhere else - if it has a sense, a measure, of tact and exactness and isn't the mush of effusion. While trying to understand why I found that last monologue in HUB so murky, it occurs to me that its recourse to the 'themes' of destiny, the new beginning, the typification of the Man and the Woman, their communion as they gaze into the other's eyes, all this is a recourse to Myth. As if the only way to exit the double bind was through a new mythology, cinema as a new mythology?
(I hope this isn't totally unfair to a film that I haven't seen in years, or to your question of the politics of angels.)