The Heavens Opened: Notes on Seeing Angels

By Ben Nadler.

I live in the United States, a place where people regularly encounter angels. If you spend any amount of time traveling through this country, you will meet plenty of folks who have seen one. These divine beings seem to appear just out of reach, beside hospital beds and car wrecks, outside windows, deep in the desert, in solitary prison cells. They guard and protect, offer mercy, and, above all, deliver messages. The message is often some variation of what the poet Rilke learned while viewing a fractured statue of the Greek god Apollo: “You must change your life.” 

I have no reason to doubt these accounts of angelic visitation. Of course, when you are a Jew traveling on the evangelical highways of the U.S.A., you must be wary of narrative deployed in the service of proselytization. And sure, it’s easy enough to waive away supernatural stories as meth- or trauma-induced hallucination. But I tend to believe the stories that people tell me about angels, as a matter of faith. Not a religious faith, but the faith of a fiction writer. Fiction relies on the understanding that invented stories are true, perhaps especially so, and that it is possible for readers and listeners to wholly believe them. 

If someone tells a story well, I pay close attention. W.G. Sebald, a German gentile author who mixed fact and fiction freely in his Shoah-limning work, argued, “If the story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right.” I’m hesitant to proclaim anything “morally right,” but I do maintain an artist’s conviction that there is an aesthetic path to truth and divinity. I have read of a Hasidic concept that good deeds–and words–create angels who advocate for us, while bad deeds create angels who prosecute us. As a fiction writer, I suppose I believe that crafting vivid and beautiful enough words can create actual angels. 

The late American writer Denis Johnson–who saw divine grace in sites of deepest abjection–narrates his characters’ encounters with angels in several of his books. The most famous of these moments, found in the story “Emergency” from Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, is an outright mistake: The book’s drug-addled narrator, Fuckhead, initially observes that, “the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” Soon, however, Fuckhead realizes that the torn sky was actually just the screen of a drive-through movie theater, operating, inexplicably, in a snowstorm. The angels were merely mechanical projections. (I should note here that Johnson was a deeply Christian writer, but also that Jesus’ Son is very consciously indebted to Jewish art: the novel’s title and epigraph are from song lyrics by Jewish American counter-culture-icon Lou Reed, and the book’s structure is modeled after story Red Cavalry, a cycle by the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel.) 

A more compelling image of angels appears in Johnson’s less-read first novel, entitled, naturally, Angels. A woman named Jamie has been forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital after her boyfriend is arrested for killing a guard in a bank robbery. In this moment of despair, when her children, lover, physical freedom, and most basic agency have been taken from her, “She looked up out of her voice and saw the angel.” Johnson describes the angel in a dazzling mix of tenses and images:

“He will have ears like a cartoon of organic growth. He is yellow with light but covered with mobile shadows, animated tattoos. His face kept changing. His voice will come from far off, like a train’s. His body is steady and beautiful and hairless, the wings white, incinerating, and pure, but the head changes rapidly—the head of an eagle, a goat, an insect, a mouse, a sheep with spiraling horns that turn and lengthen almost imperceptibly—and the entire message had no words. The entire message will be only the beat and direction of time. Yes is Now.”

This angel strikes me as very much a Torah angel. For one thing, Johnson’s angel is first and foremost a messenger, a malach. Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian Jewish poet and songwriter, discussed literary references to angels in a 1984 interview. He affectionately mentioned the vague way that Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg used the term “angel”: “I never knew what they meant, except that it was a designation for a human being and that it affirmed the light in an individual…I always loved reading their poems where they talked about angels. I don’t have a clear idea of what angels are.” Shortly after, however, Cohen hits on a more precise–and more scripturally-grounded–understanding of angels: “An angel has no will of its own. An angel is only a messenger, only a channel.”

Not only the function, but also the imagery of Johnson’s angel feels very connected to Torah. In our April LABA study session, we read through the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. It was this session that prompted me to go back and revisit Johnson’s writing. Living in exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel has an experience where “the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.” (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America, modern Babylon, a country built on–and continuously devoted to–captivity, is so filled with visions of angels.) 

Ezekiel’s first divine vision is of creatures moving together like a chariot. He describes their appearance in great detail:

“They had the figures of human beings. However each had four faces, and each of them had four wings; the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were like a single calf’s hoof; and their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze. They had human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four sides. Each one’s wings touched those of the other. They did not turn when they moved; each could move in the direction of any of its faces. Each of them had a human face [at the front]; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right; each of the four had the face of an ox on the left; and each of the four had the face of an eagle [at the back]. Such were their faces…”

The passage then goes on to provide detailed descriptions of the creatures’ wings and surrounding flames, the eyeball-covered wheels they ride on, and the throne they carry. Although these beings are just referred to as something like “living creatures” in this passage, we are told explicitly later in Ezekiel that these are “cherubs,” a particular type of angel. 

Living in late-20th and early 21st-century America, I have been inundated with visual depictions of winged humanoid angels: the memorial tattoo on the forearm of my 9th grade girlfriend’s father, the Catholic pamphlets taped to my upstairs neighbor’s apartment door, the streaming adaptation of Good Omens, the cover of the Nirvana CD In Utero, paintings of The Annunciation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cherubs, in particular, are often portrayed as fat, harmless, winged babies. The description of angels in Ezekiel–and in Johnson’s Angels–is so far beyond these manageable images that it disrupts my categorical understanding of what an angel could be. I think this is part of what angels are supposed to do: traversing between the heavenly and human worlds, they have to disrupt categories of experience. It is a testament to the power of the description in Ezekiel that we can still find it so disruptive more than twenty-five centuries later.

In literary terms, we can attribute the effect of Ezekiel’s vision to what the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization” (also translated as “estrangement”). Shklovsky wrote about how perception becomes habitual, and after we see the same things over and over, we cease to perceive them at all. “And so in order to restore the sensation of life,” writes Shklovsky, “in order to feel things—to make the stone stony—we have something called art. The purpose of art is to convey the sensation of an object as something visible, not as something recognizable.” The sensation of life has been restored to Ezekiel through his vision. Now, it is incumbent upon him to restore sensation to the Jewish people. It seems that the artist and the prophet have similar missions. 

I think it’s clear by now that I am approaching the topic of angels as someone who writes and studies fiction, not someone who studies Torah. I don’t know much about the complex mystical implications of Ezekiel’s “chariot” vision, or anything about Maimonides’ ranking of angels. Indeed, as a “secular” literary scholar, the scriptural angel I have wrestled with the most is Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History,” from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin wrote this essay at the end of his life, shortly before committing suicide while fleeing the Nazis. In the essay, Benjamin describes The Angel of History: 

“His eyes are staring. His mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”

While I spent a year of graduate school pondering what Benjamin is saying about history in this essay, our study of Ezekiel made me realize I hadn’t much considered what Benjamin meant by angel. I knew the image was drawn from Paul Klee’s painting Angel Novus; that it stood as a countering figure to the “Mechanical Turk” automaton Benjamin uses to represent historical materialism; and that it was wrapped up with Jewish imagery of the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic age. But I hadn’t thought much about why Benjamin specifically spoke of an angel. 

Angel Novus by Paul Klee

Now, I see the Angel of History as very directly related to the angels Ezekiel encounters. In both texts, angels come from outside of human experience, in order to disrupt the habitual nature of our experience. For Ezekiel, the disruption is primarily spatial, as the shape, directionality, and connectivity of bodies in space are completely reordered. For Benjamin, this disruption is more temporal, as a directional flow of historical time is disordered. The Hebrew readers at our April session pointed out that the book of Ezekiel switches from first to third person narrative voice. Still, whether in first-person or close-third-person, we perceive the angels from Ezekiel’s point of view. Benjamin asks to move from our human POV (“where we perceive”) to an angelic POV (“he perceives”). I can’t help but wonder about the further, non-linear narrative possibilities of angelic point of view narration. 

I confess that, after all this, I don’t have any conclusions to offer. Like a stranger on the Greyhound bus, I’m just rambling to you about angels. For the time being, I’m reading these stories, taking them in, digesting them. I have a lot more reading to do before I can speak authoritatively on angels, let alone in their voice. Being a fiction writer–for me at least–is as much about consuming stories as it is about producing them. In this regard, I feel a bit like Ezekiel in the chapters following his initial vision. After encountering the angelic chariot, Ezekiel hears the voice of God, who tells him that he must become a prophet and deliver messages to the rebellious, exiled Jewish people. First, though, Hashem tells Ezekiel to, “Open your mouth and eat what I am giving you.” Ezekiel is fed a double-sided papyrus scroll, filled with “written lamentations, dirges, and woes.” I myself have spent many of my days and nights devouring such writings. “Mortal,” Hashem says Ezekiel, “eat what I am offering you, eat this scroll.” Ezekiel eats it, and it tastes like honey.