Sunday, January 27, 2008


I don't believe in God but I do believe in angels.

One great inspiration is Rilke's Duino Elegies. But as I started to write, I found that the copy I used to have has gone. It was a nice book. It was very thin, a littlePengun Modern European Poets, but it belonged to Charles Lambert, a wonderful gay poet I went to college with, now a tranlsator, whose sister I once lodged with in a little, very smelly council flat in London. Don't get me wrong, very clean,. but she had a tomcat which she refused to spay, and which wouldn't venture outdoors because the rest of the estate cats were twice its size and armed to the teeth. So she used to bathe in a very strongly scented bath oil that permeated the place permanenetly with a mixture of tomcat and pinefresh chemicals. It was their parents' copy of the book, and had been rescued from a devsatsting fire. Almost everything they owned had gone up in smoke (though their father, who was dramatically affected with Altzheimer's, never realised, and would constantly look for things that had gone in the flames). Only the books, which had been squeezed tight in their shelves, so tightly they wouldn't burn, had made it. This copy was smoke blackened, with water stains throughout at the edges of pages. But it made it. Alson thinks our friend Dymphna probably took it back to England, because we had a great maudlin evening once here at home, she and I, talking about just this issue of angels.

At the time I was writing what is now a chapter of a book, a chapter devoted to Sam Peckinpah. You probably know that Peckinpah is famously a very violent director of very violent films, a tortured man who claimed all sorts of histories in the Old California which he had never known, and who said the only technologies worth having were a six gun and a movie camera. In one of his films, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bob Dylan plays a minor role and also sings one of my favourite songs on the soundtrack. The chapter began writing itself some years ago when I was asked to contribute something to a conference on Bob Dylan in memory of Bob Shelton. Bob was one of Dylan's biographers, a larger than life character who, for reasons I never understood, quit his seminal role in the East Village scene to live in Brighton. His bio is a lovely book, full of personal memories of the folk club scene in New York back in the early sixties, a secene which, to my amazement, included as prominent figures and pals of Dylan's, the Clancy Brothers, a rather stage Irish group specialising in Irish songs that my Dad always loved. We had two of their LPs in the house as I was growing up. I know, even now, every word of every song, not just because of the records, but because Dad useed to sing them, in the car as often as not, along with his own repertoire of traditional ballads and music hall songs. And I had the fondest memories of Bob, massive, generous man that he was, singing Dylan songs in the flat of an old girlfriend in Bloomsbury, and arguing over the relationships between the Grateful Dead and holocaust denial or something equally bizarre with a book seller who, at the time, was hot on the trail of an Audubon.

Audubon was an artist who painted the most exquisite images of North American birds, and printed them in a huge and exquisite book.There are nine copies in existence, three in Russia, and it is the most expensive book in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Alan, the bookselller, had found a dealer who knew someone in Petersburg with an avenue to someone who might be willing to establish a consortium and sell one of the three Russian copies of the book. I have to say, Bob and I both thought the whole deal stank, and that it was likely to lead Alan into some seriously bad company. But this was in the days before the internet, and Alan was confident it would all happen. Of course it didn't. And then poor old Bob upped and died. I still have a couple of his articles, one on Roots, the other on the Grateful Dead, in a German journal of American Studies called Stars und Träume, Stars and Dreams. It was that phrase, and the strange set of consequences linking the East Village circa 1962, my old dead dad, Russia in the moment immediately before the collapse of socialism, the task I'd set myself of talking about Peckinpah's movie at a Dylan conference in Liverpool in 1999 and Audubon's exquisite birds. Wings.

Rilke's angel is a messenger. The power and awe the angel inspires derives from two aspects - that the angel is not, and is more than, human, and that the angel communicates between two worlds, two incommensurable orders of being.

The co-presence of different worlds is mysterious. But there are analogies with human experience. The French psychoanalyst Lacan has, as the title of one of his seminars, the phrase 'être-ange', literally 'being angel', a phrase that, when spoken, sounds like 'étrange', stange. One translation refers to 'the angel of the odd', doubling Lacan's angel with the famous one by Paul Klee so memorably described by Walter Benjamin as being driven backwards out of paradise by a storm called progress.

In the end, all I managed to say was that Dylan (described in one of Allen Ginsberg's poems as angelic) has two roles, on the soundtrack and as a character, that almost never touch, except at one odd incidental moment when the lyric and the action match. I wanted to say that here two worlds intercepted. And that in a certain sense, their interchange was at once angelic - a dialogue of incommensurable universes, different dimensions – and mundane.

Because at the heart of my ideas and my idea of myself is a belief in beauty. Rilke's angel is, on the other hand, a figure of the sublime. The difference, for me, is between what is communicable - beauty - and what is beyond speech and understanding, and therefore beyond humanity, beyond change, and beyond history: the sublime. I am on the side of beauty, the changeable, the common, the sharable, beauty for which human beings have to take responsibility. I think I'm on the side of the angels, but maybe the angels are on no side at all, but in the interstices between what's understood and what isn't. My angels are not the voices of an eternal verity. They are the voices of what doesn't exist yet.

My angels come, not from eternity, not from what exists before all time, but from what does not exist at all, from the future. To that extent, my job, as a thinker, writer, teacher, and across all my life, is to bring angels into existence.