The Necessary Angel

Last year’s COVID shuttering was probably less of a blow for the Frick Collection than for other New York museums, as the Frick had planned to close for major renovations and temporarily relocate to the former site of the Whitney. Frick Madison opened in March, but I was glad that, at the end of 2019, I got in a visit to Henry Clay Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion and some of the world’s greatest paintings.

The most memorable part of that trip, however, turned out to be a reunion with the bronze angel—forged in 1475 by Jean Barbet—that overlooks the fountain in the Garden Court. The slim, comely figure points his left index finger in a way that people used to do in mimicking Bogart-style gangsters. Or maybe it’s what the bartender in a polo shirt does when you ask for another round: You got it. I’d forgotten that when I first visited the museum in 1992, I came away thinking of Barbet’s sculpture as “the necessary angel of earth” from Wallace Stevens’s “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” the final poem in his 1950 collection, The Auroras of Autumn.

Stevens’s poem is based on a still life painted by the French artist Pierre Tal-Coat in 1943, the same year the Frick purchased the Barbet angel. The oil painting’s arrangement of objects (Venetian glass bowl and bottles and glasses) prompted Stevens to write a poem to help him make sense of its effect. He came up with “the angel of reality,” who is “Seen for a moment standing in the door.” To me, the gentle Barbet angel fit that bill—straight and pencil-thin, his wings like steampunk machinery he should not be able to support.

In 1992, I was fascinated by this artistic chain in which ordinary objects are rendered by Tal-Coat as abstractions and then this imaginative rendition of reality is translated by Stevens into another work of art that breaks down these abstractions into ordinary people and an angel that, to exist at all, must be perceived by these people. That is, the angel can only exist in a transitory state of human imagining:

I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.

An angel is a relic of religious belief, and Stevens uses this relic to show how what we imagine and then create allows us to define reality. We can achieve knowledge about ourselves in the world only by recognizing the limitations of human power. At the same time, each point of progress in our apprehension creates a “beyond” that only frustrates our need to define reality.

Stevens sees the human need to define reality as reliant on the erratic variable of the imagination and the constant “facts” of nature and the Earth. The Earth in Stevens’s conception is an absolute, the thing from which our minds create “reality” through art by always seeing it anew:

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

My 2019 reencounter with the angel of reality forced a painful realization: that any poetic assumption of a self-replenishing Earth had long collapsed—that our planet’s “tragic drone” is a climate changed by human activity. Now, all of our confrontation with limits and impossibility comes from nature, not religion or art.

In Pascal’s day, infinity was conceived as everything off-Earth—the stars and planets but also heaven with its flying angels; in Stevens’s day, it was conceived as off-Earth as well—in abstractions like painting and other art. Today, we risk the total degradation of the very Earth we need to form these conceptions.

And yet attraction-loving Americans ignore the perils of climate change in favor of off-Earth adventurism and fantasy. With their small-minded fatuousness, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are intent on extending the paltry human invention of capitalism into the solar system. And we recently learned that Americans don’t just believe in UFOs but no longer assume them to be hostile: 17% say they are friendly, 7% say they are unfriendly, and 74% say they are neither. Many among the burgeoning population of astrologists believe that we are finally leaving the era of Earth and entering the Age of Aquarius where we will soon connect with “intergalactic beings”—presumably someplace other than our trashed planet.

Perhaps only quantum physicists can understand how we will always hit the limitations of our humanity in thinking about the universe. We cannot apprehend scale—for instance, that in the time needed for presumably immortal intergalactic beings to reach Earth, their home star will have burnt to a cinder. In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (2021), Alan Lightman writes that “we have found limits to the smallest and largest things observable” and thus “we find ourselves at the abyss between nothingness and infinity.”

As long as we remain naïvely fixated on “space, the final frontier” as the only worthy focus of imaginative agency, we are complicit in our own destruction.

One last thing about angels and global warming: the Frick/Stevens reconnection prompted me to reread Muriel Spark’s “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” a 1951 story from which I learned useful details about seraphs that had not been made clear in Christmas carols. For instance, they have six wings (not two) and are literally on fire. In their fiery presence, things burn. They are the caretakers of God’s throne.

Spark’s story takes place in Africa—“four miles south of the Zambesi River where it crashes over a precipice at the Victoria Falls”—at Christmastime, when white people are preparing for a Christmas pageant amid sweltering temperatures. The stage makeup on the faces of the girls playing angels melts as it’s being applied. Into this bizarre scene flies a genuine seraph (at 70 miles per hour), raising the temperature to almost inhuman levels and causing the jealous writer/showrunner/garage owner to attempt to get rid of this heavenly being by dousing it with gasoline. The garage being used as a theater goes up in flames and burns ferociously to nothing. The 70-mile-per-hour seraph is later seen making tremendous steam over the Zambesi.

Of the Pacific Northwest heat dome that has already killed hundreds, the Washington Post reported that “meteorologists estimated that a heat dome of this size and scope is so rare it should be expected only once every several thousand years.”

Several thousand years would take us back to the origins of fiery angels and a burning hell in the Hebrew Bible. In a strange way, you might think that human beings assumed that their planet would eventually go up in flames given a destructive hubris that could never be expunged. And that they came up with memes like angels that would endure far into the future to serve as warnings of this destiny—subtle from the pen of Wallace Stevens, apocalyptic from that of Muriel Spark. §