On Angels and the Afterlife

I realize that most Late Empire Americans don’t literally believe in angels – celestial beings that predate the Earth’s creation, minions of the Creator, avian humanoids who play harps and warble hosannas.

Of course, some Christians literally believe the story of Gabriel’s Annunciation, literally believe insemination had come via the Holy Spirit, a Dove delivering via ear the Holy DNA, and I sincerely envy them.

I love the concept of Angels, thrill to see them aloft in Renaissance paintings, violating anachronistic Newtonian laws. When I was with Judy Birdsong at her bedside in her very last moments, I chanted, “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” over and over until it was over.

Nevertheless, questions arise: how are angels spawned, or begot, or ushered into being?  Fully formed with pubic hair?  Perfect fingernails never in need of clipping?

Or do angels grow like children, appearing post-fetal in an opening lotus bloom via asexual birth?

Do they, without lacking mothers and fathers, learn to fly via instinct?

You’d think angels would be the happiest of happy beings, winged Bodhisattvas, egoless, ennui an impossibility.

Not in Paradise Lost. Angels have not only personalities but hierarchal social status.

Nor do they seem all that happy in 15th Century painter Jean Fouquet’s Madonna and Child.

I’m not arrogant to declare there”s not an afterlife.  In fact, I’m a fan of the concept.  However, if there is an existence beyond this Vale of Tears, I bet it’s not all that anthropomorphic.

In other words, unimaginable, to which I can only say, “Praise God.”

 

Let’s Bring in Some Pillars and Resurrect Cecile B DeMille

I’m teaching Paradise Lost for the very last time, a poem I absolutely love.

I love its baroque poetry. Here’s Satan regaining consciousness after being flung across the cosmos into the fiery pit of perdition:

At once, as far as Angel’s ken, he views

The dismal situation, waste and wild,

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flames.

And I love Satan, tragic antihero extraordinaire.  Here he is, going all existential, vaunting heroically to his nearest mate Beelzebub:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less than he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

But later, outside the gates of Eden in a soliloquy to the sun, he becomes perhaps the greatest of all tragic heroes, giving voice to his anagnorisis:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven

Here he sounds like John Wayne in a western:

Whence and what art thou, execrable Shape,

That dar’st though grim and terrible, advance

Thy miscreated front athwart my way

To yonder gates? Through them I mean yo pass,

That be assured, without leave of ask of thee.

The poem encompasses all of time (the war in heaven precedes the creation of earth) and all of space (hell is on a distant planet on the opposite side of heaven).  Not only that, but Milton also evokes the Holy Spirit as a muse so he “may assert Eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men.”

I teach the poem as adventure, as a sort of Marvel/DC Comics movie wannabe with Satan as a super-super villain who out-Hulks the Hulk, o’er leaps Spiderman, makes Superman seem like a patsy in comparison.

For decades, I’ve put on this shtick where I pitch an investment opportunity to the students.  I argue that PL would make one kickass blockbuster recordbreaking animated epic motionpicture experience.[1]  For a mere 100K investment per student, I could get the project off the ground.

Truthfully, PL really would be, if you could get around the fullfrontal nudity of Books I & IV, profoundly entertaining.  Certainly, the poem’s noble aspiration to justify Christianity should offset the horror that the darkened pigmentation of aureoles seems to provoke in red-blooded Americans. After all, we could run this disclaimer from Milton himself:

Nor those mysterious parts were then concealed:

Then was not guilty shame. Dishonest shame

Of Nature’s works, honour dishonourable,

Sin-bred, how have ye troubled all mankind

With shews instead, mere shews of seeming pure

And banished from man’s life his happiest life,

Simplicity and spotless innocence!

But dig this: as I was scouring the internet looking for images the spiff up my Keynote presentation, I ran across this fake trailer for Paradise Lost, the movie. Dig it:

 

I mean, y’all, just sayin’.


[1]Look at me going all Joycean with these fused compound adjectives.

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth

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Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”

[Gross!]

Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.

farting-painting

This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”

“Huh?”

Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.

 

 

Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.

 

[I’ve modernized the spelling].

 

serpent