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24 september 2005

Angels In America

...my own private Perestroika

I've lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children - they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope.

That was said by Prior Walter, one of the characters in Tony Kushner's breathtakingly terrifying and hopeful Angels in America.

He's speaking to a bureaucratic committee of Angels who offer him to stay in Heaven (a city, much like San Francisco) instead of return to life, to his life, down on Earth. He's trying to explain to them why things must always change, progress, move forward.

God left Heaven and left the Angels to their own fates a while after He created humans and since that time, when humanity changes, Heaven suffers seismically, they explain to him, demanding he make humanity stop changing.

And I suppose that's enough of a backstory to at least anneal the ends of the quote, to make it self-contained and presentable at least in a limited way.

The story has fucked with me mightily. I was explaining this to Scott this evening, along with my own epiphany that Angels are the most horrible and obscene creatures. Something analogous to the deadly traps and catches that guard the Holy Grail, I suppose. Know I a messenger than is neither utterly forgettable nor annoying beyond all patience?

I told Scott that the moment the Angel of America, of terrible terminations, with frightening flapping wings, causing violence and destruction in entrance and departure, bellows, “I, I, I, I, I...” I knew Angels to be obscenities. Horrific obscenities.

Strength beyond a man and willing to use it however unfairly; stooping to unheavenly intervention yet superiorly levitating, always above.

I read the two plays, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika in 1994. It was May or June. I was with Allen and we were on Saint Thomas, a first-prize won on the Family Channel's call-in quiz thingy (to this day, I relish the fact that Pat Robertson and crew paid for us two faggots to spend an all-expenses-paid week in the Virgins). They knocked me on my ass back then, but now I suspect I was mainly out of my depth in that the worst of the pathology of Allen's AIDS was yet to come and I was still living in that never-changing bubble of denial.

I saw the second play, Perestroika, in previews at ACT in San Francisco as well. Again, with Allen and my friends Dave & Lisa (priorly referred to in these pages as my sherpas to the liberal and lovely world of Northern Californian culture and politics). The production wwas just starting previews and the cast and crew working out logistics and allen was sick and Perestroika took 4 1/2 hours to put on and it took Allen days to recover from the loss of sleep and interruption of schedule and heat of an air-condition-challenged theater.

I missed the Angels in America miniseries when it was on HBO, but I bought the DVDs when they first came out.

They remained in shrinkwrap until last night, when I had the house to myself, my brain to myself, and the need to find motion—any motion at all. I guess I knew what I was doing in choosing to watch this. But I didn't know exactly why.

And I certainly didn't expect to be so fucked by it.

Then again, with almost a full day's worth of time between me and the watching, I should have expected it.

I think about what one of the ghosts of a prior Prior Walter said:

The twentieth century. Oh dear, the world has gotten so terribly, terribly old.

and I can't help but apply it to myself. The I, I, I, I, I have been has gotten so terribly, terribly old. Far too long without the personal renewal I've had the privilege of welcoming on a regular basis here in my City so much like Heaven.

The motion I seek is not specific: when lost in the desert, one direction is as good as any other. And being lost and losing things and losing people and losing out should, like all Absolutes, be also labeled: Temporary.

As Harper Pitt says from her airplane window while on a “Night flight to San Francisco - chase the moon across America”:

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there's a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that's so.

I'm sure I'll be considering, with heart and with head, concretely and abstractly, the contents of Angels in America over the next few however-long-it-takes's (and fuck you, too, it's my blog :).

And so I pray your patience on that. Much of my legendary patience may be spent on my own personal restructuring for a while. In the meantime? Renewal.

Nothing's lost forever. [...] There is no zion save where you are.

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One of my favorite Rainer Maria Rilke poems, the first of the Duino Elegies, begins:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?

and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Every angel is terrifying.

Posted by: Ron at 26 september 2005 11:15

"The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone." - George Elliot

Posted by: palochi at 26 september 2005 12:21

Everyone likes books and movies with super- things - superheroes, supernatural, etc. It's exciting and cool. But stop to think how terrifying - how helpless - the ordinary mortals are in those worlds. Beset by forces that are, by definition, unknowable, uncontrollable. Blind nature and my fellow humans are enough wonder and terror for me, thank you. The poor souls in those imaginary worlds might envy *us* - free of their gods and monsters.

Posted by: Clever Monkey at 26 september 2005 20:07

I'm afraid i'll be heartbroken if I watch it.

Posted by: Tina at 28 september 2005 11:53

You will be, Tina. But you'll also be renewed.

Posted by: GodOfBiscuits Author Profile Page at 28 september 2005 13:39

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