Karl O Knausgaard picks his favourite depictions of these not always divine creatures
Light projection of a ‘Celestial concert of musician angels’ onto Le Mans Saint-Julien cathedral, western France.
Karl O Knausgaard is the author of A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, which reimagines key moments when men have come face to face with angels
Never having been interested in angels or religion, I suddenly stumbled across one in my writing. Mostly out of boredom with myself, really, and with the terrible, never-ending novel I was working on then, I thought I maybe should look into the subject. For the next year I was obsessed with angels, read everything I could find about them, and then I wrote a new novel.
Angels are connected with the divine, but also with men. Through this deeply archaic image, it’s possible to see how the relations between those two have constantly changed, in a polarity that has kept producing meaning, and still does. I hope my selections give some sense of this rich and strange tradition.
1 The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Salman Rushdie was the best novelist in the world. In 1988, to be exact, when this novel was published. Every sentence is full of life, and the life described is everchanging, unstoppable, in constant metamorphosis and flux, in opposition to the religious longing for one god, one people, purity and control. The angel in this neo-baroque world, Gibreel, is an Indian film star. I can´t think of any novel that treats the problems of our time better and more accurately than this one.
2 The Divine Comedy by Dante
Even though no author has given a richer and more complex picture of the angels in heaven than Dante, it is of course his fallen ones that are most memorable. The angels are connected with light and movement – everything in heaven is moving – in contrast to hell, where each circle restricts movement further. At the bottom of the universe, Lucifer himself reigns over a frozen lake. Hell is immobility, and in the intensity and concentration of this evil, where only the heads of the sinners are above the ice, heaven seems endlessly remote. Which it is.
3 Poems and Fragments by Friedrich Hölderlin
Normally, I can´t read these poems. They only give meaning when I´m almost violently happy. But then I drink them in like water. Hölderlin’s late hymns are all about the experience of the divine, and so beautiful that it hurts to read them.
Never explained nor described, the angels’ presence in the Old Testament is mysterious indeed. When where they created? Was it when the Lord said, “Let there be light”, as St. Augustine thought? Or was it before the creation Hieronymus? Or have they always existed, as Bellori thought? The first direct mention of them is when the Lord places cherubim with a flaming sword to keep man away from the tree of life. Their next appearance is much less ethereal, when two angels accompany the Lord on a visit to Abraham, and he washes their feet and shares a meal with them. Then they go on to Lot in the city of Sodom, eat his bread, listen to him talk, lead him out of the town the minute before it is destroyed. Was there maybe a lust for life, destruction, imperfectness in them? No sign of that in Genesis, but a lot of it in the surrounding apocryphal writing. Add the sentence “… when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them” and the enigma deepens: were “the sons of god” angels? Having children with the daughters of men?
5 Seraphita by Honoré de Balzac
One of his more obscure novels, this is set in Norway, probably the most remote place this Parisian man of letters could imagine. Into a romantically frozen world of mountains and glaciers, a strange and ambiguous creature lives. For some he is a young man, for some a young woman, for some a raving Swedenborgian. It all ends in a magnificent revelation: the heaven above the fjord opens up, divine creatures appear, and Seraphita leaved this world behind. Balzac himself considered this novel among his best. He was wrong, but it’s easy to understand why he thought so. For a novelist the temptation to explain everything is always a powerful urge. Here Balzac did exactly that, and the result is not good – but tremendously interesting.
6 The Hexameron by St Basil the Great
This book consists of nine homilies over the first six days of the creation, probably delivered in the year 378. The language is clear as water, and in it, Basil evokes the world seen for the first time. It´s wonderful. He writes about the sun and the moon, about fishes and whales, bees and eagles, horses and wolves, illuminating everything on his way. But then, at the end of the book, a sudden and wild rage turns up. What´s the problem? The sentence “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” is the problem – who’s “us” exactly? Certainly not the angels, writes Basil angrily, as the Jews, “these enemies of the truth”, want us to believe …
7 Pig Earth by John Berger
Hardly anyone writes better about animals than Berger, or about rural life in general. This beautiful book of stories is set in the French Alps, and has nothing to do with angels at all. The soil, the hay, the sheeps, the trees, the barn, the village and its inhabitants, yes – Berger’s subject is as solidly material as prose gets. But then a priest suddenly makes a remark about angels. Although the angels that Jacob saw, had wings, he says, they didn´t fly, but climbed the ladder step by step. That´s all there is about angels in this book, but like those occasions when everything is quiet, and you suddenly hear a noise, and then it´s quiet again – the meaning of the sentence echoes through whatever follows. Berger’s world of concrete detail and worldly toil is strangely reminiscent of the Old Testament’s world of very earthly toil. It’s as if he´s saying – it´s still all here, enough in itself, inside our reach. No need for wings.
8 The Valley of Confusion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Swiss playwright Dürrenmatt once said that a story is first thought to its end when it has taken the worst possible turn. In this his last book, a short novel, he certainly lived as he learned. The setting is a hotel in a small Swiss village, invaded by international millionaires in summertime, international criminals in winter, everything controlled by a shady law firm Raphael, Raphael & Raphael. The novel is bizarre, grotesque and funny. Everything in it, especially the divine forces, including God, the angels and Hölderlin’s poems, is mocked. It ends of course in an apocalypse.
9 The Nature of Angels by Antinous Bellori
Published in 1584, at the dawn of the age of enlightenment, this book deals with the angels as physical beings, and bases the argument not as much on the scriptures’ authority as on a kind of pre-scientific rationalism. So the big question in it is not Augustine’s “Where do the angels come from?” but rather “Where did the angels go?”
10 Tears and Saints by EM Cioran
After reading the church fathers and the saints, Cioran is a cold hand to a feverish head. “A St. Bartholomew´s Day massacre among angels would delight me immensely,” he wrote. I think I understand what he meant. The friction between the author, who was a hardcore cynic, and his subject, which was naivety and purity of heart, created sharp and wonderful one-liners, such as “Christian ascetics thought that only the desert was without sin, and compared it to angels. In other words, there is purity only where nothing grows.” Or ” Theology is the negation of divinity. Looking for proof of God´s existence is a crazy idea. The poor maidservant who used to say that she only believed in God when she had a toothache, puts all theologians to shame.”