“Because they have seen angels, and other divine numina, represented by painters with a certain splendour and light, and have heard that these are spirits and are so called by theologians; so that in consequence they think that the spirituous stuff in our bodies must be similar.”
—Johannes Argenterius, De Somno et Vigilia, 1556
—Johannes Argenterius, De Somno et Vigilia, 1556
An angel faces the painting of the famous angel with sword looming above a battle. Figure blurred out, scene blurred out. The painted angel’s face like a thumbprint, darkened by two depressions, one above and one beneath. The difficulty with describing an angel or its movements: They lack organs of sense or motion. Their bodies defined by absence. The angel facing the painting reaches up toward its own body. Its fingers grope the tranquillity of that perfect head, smooth as a plate. It finds the middle of its face and pushes in. The question is: Can an angel become anything it has not already been?
The mouths of an angel are threefold: With one, he breathes of the pure and refined air of glorious realms, the light of God filling his body with lightness. With the second, he eats of the meat of the spirit and drinks in long drafts the clear water of the soul, both of which make heavy the banquet of God, and are eternal and immune to spoilage. With the third, he utters words of truth, handed down to him from the highest order. In man, however, the functions threefold are merged in one organ, and hence his purposes and the ends to which he applies himself shall always be indistinct, unintelligible.
The angels sit and weep. Just as suddenly, they stand and laugh. They are testing out their new-made mouths. The angels stick fingers in their mouths, one by one, and root around in them, scratching at the top, the soft yielding sides that bulge when tried. The angels scratch until they pierce membrane and nothing seeps through. The angels discover a funny sound made by squishing the cheeks in, then forward, so that the lips purse at the front in imitation of a fish. They lack respect for the bodily ideal, for its integrity and originary form. They heal before the wound can weep. The angels practice a self-mortification of such innocent clumsiness that it cannot carry any redemptive value: and, in any case, what have they to atone for? Virtue weighs upon them like a coat made of air.
Suppose that archangel Gabriel intends to have cognition of his fellow angel Raphael, but also of human beings, trees, and other things in the material world. To do so, he cannot simply observe or encounter the objects aforementioned: Without organs of sense or action, he must instead adopt his habit, a habit unique and individual, the fulfillment of which shall grant access to all things simultaneously, in their essence. In this manner, a knowledge perfect and unequivocal is achieved without returning to the problem of access, which is an issue only for beings of bounded material.
1. The mouths of angels are soft and sweet: Awake, they give off a scent like new leaves. Asleep, they smell of upturned roots, still moist with clinging soil.
2. From the mouths of angels come healing waters, light, the peace and quietude of early morning. Also numbers of things less lauded: water tasting of metal or lead, wax and string, small brown moths that turn to powder when crushed.
3. The mouths of angels are useless, a sort of inscription or sign, built in the shallowness of an inscription or sign, and serving no known function, as angels speak in a visual language of their own, one borne through gesture as an effect of and within the air.
4. If angels are creatures, they are of matter and form compounded. If they are spirits, they are of form set in motion. If they are matter, they possess the principle of change. If they are form, they possess the principle of destruction or preservation.
5. Their indivisibility, perishability.
6. The mouths of angels are a hoax made plausible by our own mouths, which we crudely attach to entities that possess neither body nor extension.
A round, yellow sun hangs over the landscape dotted with unshapen stones. Either the arrangement of the stones is random, or else it is of an incomprehensible order. A blue sky stuck through with clouds the size and shape of boats. Since angels do not have bodily organs, Alexander of Hales qualifies the word of angels as a “spiritual nod.” It is a nod insofar as it makes apparent what was previously hidden. In this regard the angel’s nod shows a certain similarity to the exterior word of man, as the nod, in a certain sense, is the vehicle of the angel’s inner word. In the distance, figures cluster on the earth like resting birds, tucking a seeping radiance within the folds of a garment radiantly plain.
The silence is bright blue, and everywhere. An angel arranges angels by order and ranking, a luminous line. They regard him with the round gaze of cattle. One at a time, he brings them forth with a movement of the hand, a hand extended toward the newer angel, the fingers of the senior angel each turned in toward the palm, forming a fist extended toward the newer angel, a fist that looks as though it might open up.
One at a time, he leans over each, pressing its head to the stone, back from the neck and deeply onto the surface of the stone, and with his thumb he creates an absence in the center of the face, a thumb-deep breach. The solid flesh moves like dough beneath the heavenly fingers: If it is of matter, it possesses the principle of change.
He digs two thumbs into the hole and opens it up, sideways, outward. And then their bodies too are penetrated by air. Their bodies too take a portion of the air away from itself and hold it within a chamber. That part of the body foreign to itself and capable, suddenly, of speaking in its place.
In 1258 in Siena, Italy, an angel is said to have appeared in the town’s central square during a festival honoring the sacrifice of St. Catherine. The angel, shrouded in a pure and glorious light, is reported to have consumed in curiosity a single grape from the well-stocked banquet, and fallen over immediately, killed.
A mouth is a tear in the wholeness of a being. From this moment on, he will find his breath leaking out from him continually, his body filling with the bodies of others, a circulation of others stepping in and out of the bounds of sensation. He will form the air into shapes with a meaning not his own, and he will hunger for the matter of others, transformed in the mouth into material raw and ready for reuse. In some accounts, a self comes into being with its first cry, its first utterance or gasp into a surround unmarked by its own voice. In others, a self is marked out only when it consumes living matter for the first time, asserting its own body upon the body of another and folding its life into that of its own. The mouth is a site of transformation at the boundary of inner and outer; it crushes the others up so that their thingliness can become someone else’s own.
The silent angel, his face smooth and markless as a piece of marble not yet shaped into statue. He sinks a whole fist into the mouths of the angels, twisting it this way and that, until the hole is large enough for the sounds of human language, for the words and full sentences. The wrist and forearm protrude from the heads of angels as he turns his fist around, creating space, and then opens it up slowly within the heads, making room for the teeth and tongue he will form from their matter.
The sun is quiet over the stones and the angels as they undergo their transformations. It will never again be so quiet in this field. The angelic mouths unmade, they have no way to gasp as the holes are put into them, as the pure and liquid tears collect around their eyes. All around them the stones are silent, the stones in the shape of whatever, in the shape of things that have no name but could, someday. Their necks each fit flush to their chosen stones, their stones cradling the necks that they may look up and out into the sky.
A Benedictine in 1120 AD testified that he was visited nightly by an angel who came to bear witness to the consumption of his simple meal of apples and bread. Questioned by his abbot as to the moral purpose of these visits, the man had nothing to report, save that his observer grew angry if an attempt was made to cover up or otherwise conceal his rations, particularly if the monk strove out of modesty to obscure the view of his mouth.
1. Because they are made in the shape of God, which is the shape of man and because they are man’s brethren.
2. Because they measure the distance that inheres within man himself, as do the beasts.
3. Because the body of the word and the body of the stone are not the same thing, or because they are.
4. Because an angel is said to perish from taking human food, when a man dies of choking we say that he has received a holy death, heralding his joyful passage into realms higher and more glorious.
5. The saliva of an angel is said to improve the quality of matter and raise it to a state of greater perfection, much as the saliva of man is said to degrade it, and it is reported that a mealy apple thus inserted into the mouth of an angel and stored there for a time shall emerge fresh and devoid of flaws when it is drawn back out.
6. Because the thing and the thought are not one, or because they are.
The angels mill about in the fields, picking things up from off the ground and sticking them in their mouths. The cattle regard them in passivity, and wonder. An angel discovers a small pebble and places it within the cavity. He extracts it, and behold: a pebble of the same size, shape, and specification—but now composed of solid gold. An angel regards a small flower, and plucks it from the ground. He places it in his mouth and, lo: What he removes from his mouth is no flower, but a single word. He holds the word up before the eyes of the other angels and they rejoice, marveling in the miracle of flesh made abstract. They pass the word from angel to angel, holy hand to holy hand, turning it over in their palms and observing it from every angle. The sun weighs on them from overhead, weighs like light upon them all, as they tilt their faces up toward the source, mouths open, joyful, and light touches the backs of their mouths, the unbroken backs of their throats.