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Discourse 24.1 (2002) 23-37
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Kneeling Angel with Mountainous Wings (a.k.a. Toward a Title for a Gibran Watercolor Left Untitled) 1
Dedicated to Patrick Bokanowski for L'Ange
He was at an impasse in his pondering the fall of bodies: how could a rock, albeit a Taoist one, permeated by emptiness, and a feather fall at the same speed? He prayed for God's assistance. There is no prayer without listening ("Why do you want me to be in your religious film, when you know that I am not only an atheist, but also a libertine? Is it the Falconnetti syndrome?" "It is because you listen so well, even when you are talking. I think you would be wonderful at prayer.") To encounter someone who is inept at listening is to know that he or she is inept at praying. If power makes it extremely difficult for its exerciser to pray, it is because it makes it very difficult for him or her to listen. 2 To pray is to invoke while listening: what is invoked is God's help . . . to listen even more intensely—until one hears "as only / saints have heard: heard till the giant-call / lifted them off the ground; yet they went impossibly / on with their kneeling, in undistracted attention: so inherently hearers" (Rilke, "The First Elegy," Duino Elegies). After an extended time, the levitating saint screamed, to stop such extremely intense listening, and fell to the floor. 3 [End Page 23]
One day, on turning upon hearing a sudden silence, he perceived through the window a nude humanoid figure standing before the mountain that faces his study. The mountain seemed transfigured, purplish. The angel was hovering in a kneeling posture three inches off the ground. The witness could hear the sound of the wind and simultaneously the silence of the angel. When the angel spoke, the wind in no way obstructed what he was saying: "I need wings to alleviate the fall implicit in the cadaver you virtually are." No angel who appeared to a non-mortal had wings, since these, often portrayed conventionally in Christian, Moslem and Jewish art, are to counter the fall implicit in the cadaver that the mortal human is virtually. The wind moved the grass beneath the angel's feet, but no air stirred in his hair nor in the mountain. The witness felt conjointly a most intense nostalgia and an awful dread. "Every angel is terrifying" (Duino Elegies), 4 as even Rilke, who "stroked, as if it were a great old beast, the little [mountain] Muzot that had sheltered all this for me . . ." 5 knew. From whence came his impression that the mountain was the angel's wings? Was it because the closely arranged transfigured paren the non-linear nallel rocks looked like the feathers of a wing? Was it because through an effect of foreshortening, the angel's arms seemed to be attached to the mountain? There was an additional reason: while the halo of the angel delineated him from everything else in the landscape, it did not do so from the mountain. True, a minimal demarcation subsisted. He could figure it out only when he jotted down "The angel was in front of the mountain" and realized that his words were inaccurate. He found himself revising the sentence to: "The angel was before the mountain." It then became clear to him that the angel was not only in front of the mountain but prior to it, and not merely historically, but also in the present he shared with it. We, humans, wait for the angel in the temporality of chronological time, yet when he, eternal, shows up, he has always been before us in the present. 6 The angel, even a guardian one come to help us in an emergency, has all the time he needs to observe us in the present: "In the hills, an old man read The Odyssey to a child, and his little listener stopped blinking" (Wenders' Wings of Desire). Against the...