Monday, March 12, 2012

The Viability of Art Apparently Devoid of Grounding References to Human Beings, Prelude

What follows is the story "Archangel," a quasi-short-short by John Updike that originally appeared in his collection Pigeon Feathers. I put up the whole thing, hoping that either 1) no one comes across this blog who might care about the fact that I've posted an entire piece of someone else's fiction, or 2) I'm legally in the clear, and have not, in fact, violated some literary executor or publishing company's copyright by making the text in its dazzling entirety available to "the public." You will find it after the jump. 

Be warned, though; it's a tough nut to crack. My recommendation is to wait until a quiet, serendipitously free half-hour presents itself, and then to make some tea, and then to sit down and read the piece maybe three times through—slowly, perhaps out loud. Let it wash over you. The goal of comprehension in this case should be subordinate to the goal of sheer aesthetic appreciation. I have read it probably ten times, most recently on a weekly beat going back about a month, and honestly, I am still at a loss to say who is being addressed, whether the narrator is trustworthy, where this scene could be taking place, and so forth. But I love the story all the same, not least for the density of its play of sounds and images. In the future I intend to write a followup with some thoughts related to the theme of this post's title. But anyway. I hope you get a chance to savor this before I receive my "Cease and Desist" letter:

Onyx and split cedar and bronze vessels lowered into water: these things I offer. Porphyry, teakwood, jasmine, and myrrh: these gifts I bring. The sheen of my sandals is dulled by the dust of cloves. My wings are waxed with nectar. My eyes are diamonds in whose facets red gold is mirrored. My face is a mask of ivory: Love me. Listen to my promises:
     Cold water will drip from the intricately chased designs of the bronze vessels. Thick-lipped urns will sweat in the fragrant cellars. The orchards never weary of bearing on my islands. The very leaves give nourishment. The banked branches never crowd the paths. The grape vines will grow unattended. The very seeds of the berries are sweet nuts. Why do you smile? Have you never been hungry?
     The workmanship of the bowers will be immaculate. Where the elements are joined, the sword of the thinnest whisper will find its point excluded. Where the beams have been tapered, each swipe of the plane is continuous. Where the wood needed locking, pegs of a counter grain have been driven. The ceilings are high, for coolness, and the spaced shingles seal at the first breath of mist. Though the windows are open, the eaves of the roof are so wide that nothing of the rain comes into the rooms but its scent. Mats of perfect cleanness cover the floor. The fire is cupped in black rock and sustained on a smooth breast of ash. Have you never lacked shelter?
     Where, then, has your life been touched? My pleasures are as specific as they are everlasting. The sliced edges of a fresh ream of laid paper, cream, stiff, rag-rich. The freckles of the closed eyelids of a woman attentive in the first white blush of morning. The ball diminishing well down the broad green throat of the first at Cape Ann. The good catch, a candy sun slatting the bleachers. The fair at the vanished poorhouse. The white arms of girls dancing, taffeta, white arms violet in the hollows  music  its ecstasies  praise  the white wrists of praise  the white arms and the white paper trimmed the Euclidean proof of Pythagoras' theorem its tightening beauty the iridescence of an old copper found in the salt sand. The microscopic glitter in the ink of the letters of words that are your own. Certain moments, remembered or imagined, of childhood. Three-handed pinochle by the brown glow of the stained-glass lampshade, your parents out of their godliness silently wishing you to win. The Brancusi room, silent. Pines and Rocks, by Cézanne; and The Lace-Maker in the Louvre hardly bigger than your spread hand.
     Such glimmers I shall widen to rivers; nothing will be lost, not the least grain of remembered dust, and the multiplication shall be a thousand thousand fold; love me. Embrace me; come, touch my side, where honey flows. Do not be afraid. Why should my promises be vain? Jade and cinnamon: do you deny that such things exist? Why do you turn away? Is not my song a stream of balm? My arms are heaped with apples and ancient books; there is no harm in me; no. Stay. Praise me. Your praise of me is praise of yourself; wait. Listen. I will begin again. 


  1. I’d completely forgotten this story, but it is very lovely and interesting. Lemme see. The archangel offers things and memories that allure the listener, and promises that every bit of remembered dust shall be saved and even expanded. He wishes to be loved and praised; he is parallel to Christ, as his side bleeds honey, and he offers a kind of abundance of life. But the listener draws back, does not appear to believe his promises and does not accept… Then the archangel, who wishes to save everything of earth and even make it larger and better, attempts another “saving” action—that is, he will begin again because he refuses to let the listener turn away. Praise of the archangel is praise of his outpouring gifts, which appear in at least some cases to be drawn from the listener’s memories and predilictions—and so praise for him becomes praise for the listener as well.

    You could certainly look at it through a lot of different lenses. Archangel as, indeed, messenger with gifts, archangel. Archangel as artist transforming the mundane for the listener-reader. Archangel as muse, fount of image and idea. Etc. Shall have to think about it some more… but not just now. Poor Archangel--more turning away.

    1. Wow, Marly—your explication threw open a door on this story for me! I guess I'd been hung up on the trustworthiness of the Archangel, taking him to be a sort of ambiguous figure—overwhelming, beautiful, and solicitous, as God sometimes appears, but also as a devil might appear. The descriptions of the gifts and the promises for the redemption of memories pass in a sepia-toned blur when I read the story, so that the archangel almost seems coercive. But then again, I suppose a clear view of glory cannot but reorient a person's will.

      Praise is really interesting here too; I love the connection you made clear for me between praise of the archangel and praise of the listener, for the archangel's gifts drawing from the memories of the listener. In his memoir _Self-Consciousness_ Updike writes a great deal about the way his antinomian Christian faith infused his writing with praise and love for the glory of the world, so it seems fitting that the representation of the divine here would direct his listener's praise back to his listener's own window on the world.

      Thanks again for re-illuminating this story for me! I think I will read it a couple more times today with your observations in mind.