A Dim Capacity For Wings: Angels, Flies and the Material Imagination
A paper given at the University of Stirling, 10 November 2004
The human preoccupation with wings and winged creatures is long-established, widely-diffused and extremely stable. The symbolism of winged flight is a staple of comparative mythology and psychoanalysis. There would seem to be little that is mysterious or surprising about the kind of commentary this topic has attracted. Wings and the power of flight they convey signify freedom, desire, purification and transcendence. Metaphorical transfer allows such flying dreams to be expressive of sexual desire.
I want to see if a slightly different kind of question can be formed about flight. As Gaston Bachelard has suggested in his Air and Dreams, the dream of flight also forms an important part of the material imagination. A word about this phrase and what it means for me may help.
The study of text in culture is a study of culture as text. The great legacy of the linguistic turn has been that cultural study became able to assimilate almost anything to itself provided it can first be given in, or taken to have, a textual form. I am interested in the things that cultural studies has turned out not to be very interested in, indeed, has systematically and rigorously set aside as none of its, or anybody’s, concern. I mean the experience of the world, and in particular the multitude of ordinary, extraordinary, unregulated, unsuspected, insignificant, but rarely disorganised experiences that belong to the living of the cultural world. Here I make two blood-curdling admissions: I believe that the world exists. And I believe we can think meaningfully and with a chance of discovery about human experiences of that world, about what things are like. I spurn as tedious and self-refuting the near-universal spurning of empiricism, along with the belief that we can only ever talk intelligibly about the representations or constructions of experience, never about experience itself. In short, my working assumption is, if you can talk about constructions of experience, then you can talk about experience. If you can’t talk about experience, then you can’t talk about constructions of experience, as a result of exactly the same epistemological niceties.
I am interested in the history of material thought, the long and unconcluded history of attempts to understand the nature of the material world which we inhabit. Traditionally, this has been the province of the natural sciences, while the humanities or what is called in France the human sciences occupy themselves with art, morality, selfhood and social life. Much of what I seek to do falls between these two alternatives, or loops them through each other. This is because I am persuaded that our conceptions of the self and social life have always been formed partly in terms of the theories, curiosities, obsessions and errors that we entertain about the nature of the material. As Michel Serres puts it, ‘our metaphysics, metaphorically, feels the effect of our physics, it feels keenly the effect of the privileges granted, by our science, and by us, to this or that state of matter’. Every metaphysics comports and consorts with a physics. Or, as Gaston Bachelard has put it, somewhat more fancifully, the elements are ‘the hormones of the imagination’ (Bachelard 19).
What I offer here today is a paragraph within a longer enquiry into the material imagination of the air. I draw this phrase ‘material imagination’ from Bachelard, who uses it to describe two intersecting things: firstly, the ways in which the material world is imagined, not just by scientists, but by everyone, all the time, not just scientists, but also poets, children, cultural analysts, cabdrivers, medics and mad Hatters – the ‘material imagination’ as the imagination of matter. However, there is no way of imagining the nature of the material world which does not draw on and operate in terms of that material world. So imagination is itself always implicated in the world that it attempts to imagine, made up of what it makes out. This is not least because the merely visual or image-making faculty suggested by the word ‘imagination’ is always toned and textured by the other senses. Imagine a muddy field, or a clear sky. Is it possible not to imagine such things in a muscular fashion, in terms of the resistance or release that we would feel in encountering them, in other words in terms of the theories of the nature of such material forms that are embodied in our habitual or learned comportments towards them and our likely or possible bodily interactions with them? The image in each case would be much more than something merely seen; it would be, it must be, not only image but also usage. So the phrase ‘material imagination’ must signify the phusis of imagining as well as the imagination of the physical.
Let me suggest the simplest example of the materiality of our theories of materiality. When we think about thinking, most of us have in our minds (and so necessarily also in our mouths and at the tips of our tongues), an idea that thinking is an altogether more airy and gaseous affair than the objects to which it attends. Objects are, we dream, solid, stony, densely insensate, resistant, extended, but also determined in space and time. Thoughts, signs, representations, by contrast, are ghostly, feathery, insubstantial, at best a soft, sifting sort of mist that settles on things. Thought is thinner, faster than things. Maxwell’s demon, the imaginary creature who might inhabit the threshold between matter and thought, form and information, who by sorting molecules might create energy, adumbrates a world on which matter, or our account of matter, might itself have softened and diffused. Wittgenstein offers some reflections on the perplexing effects of these metaphors:
At first sight it may appear (but why it should can only become clear later) that here we have two kinds of worlds, worlds built of different materials; a mental world and a physical world. The mental world is in fact liable to be imagined as gaseous, or rather, aethereal. But let me remind you here of the queer role which the gaseous and the aethereal play in philosophy, – when we perceive that a substantive is not used as what in general we should call the name of an object, and when therefore we can’t help saying to ourselves that it is the name of an aethereal object. I mean, when we already know the idea of ‘aethereal objects’ as a subterfuge, when we are embarrassed about the grammar of certain words, and when all we know is that they are not used as names for material objects. That is a hint as to how the problem of the two materials, mind and matter, is going to dissolve. (Wittgenstein 47)
For all his embarrassment about the difficulties caused by figurative language (and is that language itself ‘aetherial’ or ‘substantive’?), Wittgenstein almost wilfully privileges the term that is causing him difficulties when he promises that problem oif the two kinds of material is going to dissolve. Here is an implicit theory of matter which might change the nature of what we think thinking might be. There is no account of the operations of thought, and therefore, perhaps, no experience of the operations of thought, no epistemology or thinking about thinking, which does not operate in terms of such embedded experiences and expectations of the nature of matter.
In other words, there is nowhere where the material imagination is more necessarily and powerfully requisitioned than in the thought of the immaterial, or fantasies of escape from it. The imagination of flight involves a dynamic engagement with the thought of air, which has long been the favoured element for the projection of the nonmaterial, the insubstantial, the invisible. Flight signals the meeting and cotenancy of the material and the immaterial. When imagination itself has often been thought of as a kind of flight, imagining flight itself enables and requires a sort of folding over of thought on itself that is often a feature of the material imagination – for one is enjoined to imagine the ways in which one imagines states and actions of matter.
More than this, flight, as the tenancy of or compounding with air, is the coming, or bringing to life of matter. Air is not only the liveliest of elements, it is also the warrant of material animation. Bachelard has written strikingly on the effects of insufflation, through the history of processes such as fermentation. Life lifts, or strives to rise: it is flighty.
It is easy, when using a phrase like the ‘material imagination’, to subside, as Bachelard so often does, into talk of archetypes and universals. While I am not phobic about such talk, I am uninterested in it. I do not imagine or offer any kind of myth or archetype of flight, either deducible from or at the root of its various manifestations. I imagine that the concerns with which I am concerned form a kind of temporal structure: a loose weave or wave current, drawn out and diffused across many different times and places. In a sense, my subject is constituted by the effort of attention which I am bringing to bear on it, though I am also inclined to suggest that there is a communication between the notions I am visiting. Following it through may be more like tracking the flight of a fly than following out a more straightforward airline.
The soul has long been taken to be a winged thing, and the relationship between body and soul to be that between the heavy and the light. Plato argues that it is only when the soul has lost its wings that it sediments down into mortality. Indeed, Plato seems to identify the soul with the wing itself:
The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of the gods. More than any other thing that pertains to the body it partakes of the nature of the divine. But the divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and all such qualities; by these then the wings of the soul are nourished and grow, but by the opposite qualities, such as vileness and evil, they are wasted away and destroyed. (Phaedrus 246e)
It may be partly this conception that has encouraged the association between the soul and the butterfly, a creature that is almost all wing. Marina Warner has pointed to the deeper associations of the butterfly, ‘in models of a generative process, which figures the emergent butterfly as the vital essence which is inherent within the cocoon and other metamorphic stages’ (Warner, 90). The Ancient Egyptians saw the body as the cocoon from which the soul would break free, a conception that passes across into the traditional Christian conception that is so brilliantly corporealised by Emily Dickinson in the poem which gives me my title:
My cocoon tightens – Colors tease,
I’m feeling for the Air –
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear. (Dickinson 496)
Rather than butterflies, I would like to begin with angels, though it will not be long before we lurch from angelology to entomology. The literature on angels is extremely abundant, and is plumped out daily by the many websites and similar sources of popular speculation and testimony regarding angels. My concern here, however, is hardly at all with angels as religious phenomenon. Rather it is, in what might seem a lamentable literalism, with a single aspect of angels, namely that they are powers and inhabitants of the air. It is as a vehicle of the material imagination of the air that I will be treating angels. It is easy for institutional religion to scorn those who allow religious thought to get tangled up with bodily questions and obsessions. But popular thinking about angels is usefully, if grotesquely materialist. Somewhat surprisingly, the absurdity and vulgarity of angel-thinking is a strong recommendation for it. The material imagination is never more in evidence than in its efforts to get beyond itself.
There is a tendency to associate angels with the air that is their element. In his Celestial Hierarchy, pseudo-Dionysius writes that angels are sometimes known as ‘winds’, a name which ‘denotes their swift operations, and their almost immediate impenetration of everything, and a transmitting power in all realms, reaching from the above to the below, and from the depths to the heights, and the power which uplifts the second natures to the height above them, and moves the first to a participative and providential upliftment of the lower’. In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, the prophet is told of the numerous winds blowing under the wings of the Cherubim, including the Wind of Jealousy, the Wind of Wrath. ‘And Satan is standing among these winds, for “storm-wind” is nothing else but “Satan”, and all these winds do not blow but under the wings of the Kerubim, as it is written (Psalms xviii.11)’ (Odeberg, 83). For Bachelard, whose meditations on air, ascension and flight in Air and Dreams are positively angelic, flight always exceeds or surpasses its forms and vehicles: the bird is not only a denizen of the air, but seems formed of it, even as the movement of its flight effaces the bird (Bachelard 86)
Angels are of course definitionally winged creatures. Wings imply freedom and soaring, celestial loftiness. ps-Dionysius explains the fact that, according to Isaiah, one of the three pairs of wings possessed by the seraph has the function of covering the feet, as a denial of the cruder forms of locomotion:
Wherefore the prophet described the feet of the Celestial Intelligences as being covered by their wings which symbolize a swift soaring to the heights, and the heavenly progression up the steep, and the exemption from everything earthly through the upward ascent. The lightness of the wings shows that they are altogether heavenly and unsullied and untrammelled in their upliftment on high.
The wings of angels also denote their capacity to transmit thoughts instantaneously and without the need for a medium. Perhaps the wings of angels are best thought of as figures for their immateriality. Angels, we know, do not subsist on solid food, do not require language to convey their thoughts to one another, and can traverse large distances instantaneously. They are the thoughts of God, or God’s thought in action. They fill space, but in doing so, abolish it, forming a bridge (or, in Jacob’s dream, a ladder) which leaves no nook or loophole.
Angels inhabit air as light rather than air as element or elastic substance. In ‘Angels and Cosmology’, the final chapter of his The Dynamism of Space, Iain MacKenzie attempts to bring together the speculations of theology and physics about the nature of space, concluding his meditation with an approving reading of Robert Grosseteste’s identification of angels with the principle of light in his Hexaemeron: MacKenzie stresses ‘[t]he “instantaneity” of creation, and the “place” of angelic beings as existences of pure light as over against our existences of refracted light’ (MacKenzie 164).
There is also something paradoxical about the wings of angels and the manner of inhabiting the air that they denote. Wings imply the mechanical struggle against gravity and the resistance of the air. For Bachelard, the representation of wings is always allegorical, or the defeat of the dream of movement by the fixity of rational form, and by the suggestion that the power of flight is localised in a particular part of the body, rather than being a power of the whole being. This explains the conspicuous dynamism of Michelangelo’s angels who, unfurnished with wings, are given the knack of swimming through the air, turning and diving with the merest flick of foot or wrist. Some representations of angels cope with this visual excessiveness by the device of nonfunctional wings: the angel may be shown suspended in mid-air, though with wings folded or drooping. The dynamic fact of flight is both a necessity – for how else are angels to occupy and navigate the air and whatever occupies the space between the human and the divine? – and a gratuitous embarrassment. Some of Giotto’s depictions of angels show wings trailing off into cloudy vapour or even bursting into flames. As Nancy Grubb has observed, the developing interest in anatomy and mechanics during the Renaissance produced more and more muscular and realistic depictions of wings in painting. From the fifteenth century onwards, ‘flight no longer seemed an act innate to an incorporeal spirit but rather the sometimes strained effort of a weighty body’ (Grubb 85). Angels, this is to say, are, among other things, devices for acquainting the mind with the paradox of the material torsions of immateriality.
Angels and Insects
Angels and flies are both powers of the air, though in starkly contrasting fashion. Angelic air is ethereal, infinite and infinitive, associated with the abundant and absolute lucidity of the sky. What we may term entomological air is thick, contagious, close, foggy, nebular, shifting, swarming. Where, like Yeats’s Magi, angels inhabit the ‘blue depth of the sky’, flies and flying insects take the ambivalent and quasi-choate forms of clouds. Nevertheless, there is a peculiar commerce between angels and insects. Perhaps the most important mediator of this is the angel who becomes most subject to the power of gravity, Lucifer, or Satan, whose lieutenant Beelzebub is the ‘lord of the flies’ – a title that is also sometimes given to Satan himself. It is as though, where the Lord God sits, throned ineffably amid light and flame, and hymned eternally by seraphim and cherubim, Lucifer must be content with the buzz and stink and pullulation of insects. The analogy between angels and flies is also suggested by the minor forms of divinity represented by certain kinds of flying insects, especially nymphs and butterflies, Most importantly, there are the fairies, which began to take on entomological forms from the eighteenth century onwards, most notably in respect of their lacy or gauze-like wings. Katherine Briggs dismisses this tendency in a chapter of her history of fairies entitled ‘Whimsy’, saying that ‘[w]hen they were given butterfly and dragonfly wings they were reduced to almost the status of insects, and in the sheltered days of the twentieth century every care was taken to render them unalarming’ (Briggs 249).
Where the flight of angels is a kind of superlative flight, a flight that outdoes its vehicle, the flight of flies is lowly, spasmodic, obstructed. Flies do not soar, like the lark, but dart, swerve and skid restlessly. What is more, they are bound closely to the ground. Flies are popularly imagined getting trapped or stuck, sometimes by the effect of their own appetites, as for example in Thomas Blague’s little moral fable of gluttony in his Schole of Wise Conceytes (1569): ‘Flies flew into a holeful of honie, wherof they did eate: their feete stucke fast therein, that they coulde not escape, who being nigh choaked, sayde: Ah wretches, which for a little meate doe perishe’ (Blague 138) The close association between flies and the flightless, wriggling maggots from which they are formed also assists the sense of their earthliness. Indeed, one might say that flies represent a kind of oxymoron: they are a kind of corruption on the wing, a flying verminousness. Perhaps the many flying worms of legend and pseudo-medical fantasy, including, of course, dragons, are further enactments of this oxymoron, that we might call a low or terrene form of flight. Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’, with its evocation of the cankerous corruption that flies in the night like an ‘invisible worm’, draws on this conception. Where angels may be protectively at hand, as guides or guardian spirits, flies embody the uneasy, sticky proximity of those parts of ourselves of which we can never completely dispose, as they endlessly bring us back to ourselves.
Angels and insects are related, not just as opposites, but also because they occupy the point of transition between two material orders. The anonymous author of the treatise Scala Naturae (1647) offers a naturalist argument for the existence of angels, namely, that in a universe organised hierarchically from bottom to top, and filled with creatures occupying and exemplifying every degree of creation, angels are a necessary filler for the gap that would otherwise exist between man and the realm of the spiritual. The analogy between angels and the lower forms of life is secured by the belief that such forms of life are the emanations of vegetable matter, such that it is ‘but one remove from Vegetable to Sensitive Beings’ (Anon 13).
So shall we find some Vegetables which in a manner partake of Sensible Nature, and are productive of the lowest size of Animals; as the meer Earth produces the meanest Vegetables. Witness those small Insects which are bred in Flowers and Herbs. The flies which are lodged in Oak and Elm leaves, being bred in small Cavities thereupon; and those Grubs to which the Oak-Apple and Hazel-Nut are as a Matrix. So that here you have the Nexus Naturae vegetabilis & sensitivae, the Link which unites the Vegetable and Sensitive Natures together, and thereby makes all the steps in this Scala Naturae, this Ascent of Nature to be even, and of equal distance from each other, and suffers no chasme or gap in the Climax of Nature. In short, Insects are the Flos Naturae Vegetabilia; the very Flower, Yeast, and highest Working of Vegetable Nature. (Anon 14-15)
As the fly marks the nexus of vegetable and animal, or earth and air, so the angel marks the nexus of animal and spiritual. The concern with quantity and degree, with the regulated articulation of what would otherwise be empty space, seems to be a recurrent feature of thinking about angels. St Paul may have begun this line of thought, when he speaks of ‘principalities and powers in heavenly places’ (Eph 3.10) and of ‘thrones and dominions’ (Col 1.16). Ps-Dyionsius in his Celestial Hierarchy brings back a report from his translation to the seventh heaven, where his authority is St Paul himself. He divides the realm of angels into three orders, each with their distinct function, and each of these three itself divided into three ranks. First come the seraphim, cherubim and ophanim (the last sometimes also known as thrones and depicted in the form of burning wheels). Their business is the adoration of the Almighty. Then follow the dominions, virtues and powers, who oversee the operations of the stars and cosmos. Finally, there is the third order of angels specifically pledged to the service of mortals, as messengers. This rank is divided into princedoms, archangels and angels. (Angels are therefore the lowest of the ranks of the beings to whom they collectively give their name, and even the grandly named archangels merely a kind of corporal in the ranks.) The necessity of ranking in series seems to be a response to he fact that angels constitute such an overwhelming host, as instanced in Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days: ‘thousands of thousands ministered to Him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before Him’ (Daniel 7: 9-10).
The problem that the idea of angels is supposed to solve is that of how the divinity could ever reach outside of itself to touch man while remaining one with itself. Occupying the space between sky and earth, angels are bound to encounter the risk of corruption, which is perhaps why St Paul warns against becoming too preoccupied with them: ‘Let no man rob you of your prize by a voluntary humility and worshipping of the angels, dwelling in the things which he hath seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind’ (2 Col. 18). The apocryphal Book of Enoch relates how, at the beginning of creation, wicked angels fornicated with the comely daughters of men, producing a race of destructive giants, and describes his vision of the hell that is set apart for the sinning angels. Ps-Dionysius frets about the animalising of angels, emphasising that ‘theologians, in depicting wholly incorporeal natures under bodily forms should, as far as possible, make use of fitting and related images, and represent them by the most exalted, incorporeal and spiritual substances amongst ourselves, and should not endue the Celestial and Godlike Principles with a multitude of low and earthly forms’ The danger is that ‘we might even think that the supercelestial regions are filled with herds of lions and horses, and re-echo with roaring songs of praise, and contain flocks of birds and other creatures, and the lower forms of matter, and whatever other absurd, spurious, passion-arousing and unlike forms the Scriptures use in describing their resemblances’ (151).
Angels and flies have in common a quality that we might call expatiation, the tendency to saturate the vacant spaces of the air with their prodigious multiplicity. Perhaps the demonic associations of flies are assisted by the fact that demons, like angels, were believed to swarm thickly, but invisibly in the air, as attested, for example, in Rabbi Huna’s exegesis of Psalm 91:7, ‘Everyone among us has a thousand demons on his left hand and ten thousand at his right’ (quoted without source, Penney and Wise 627). Hence the phrase ‘counting angels upon a pinhead’, used to ridicule absurdly minute and sophistical reflections. The notion may well have its origin in Thomas Aquinas’s refutation of those who ‘crediderunt quod angelus non posset esse nisi in loco punctali’ – who believe that an angel is not able to exist except in a punctual position. (Summa, I q.52 a.2 resp.) In fact Aquinas did not believe that angels occupied space, or indeed needed to traverse it to get from point A to point B, and is here arguing against such notions, but the idea that he did survives in anti-Catholic and anti-Scholastic polemic. In the preface to his Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1638), William Chillingworth inveighs against the belief in angels, demanding ‘How is it possible any thing should be plainer forbidden, then the worship of Angels, in the Ep. to the Colossians?’, and uses the idea of debates about the space-filling capacities of angels to pour scorn on Catholic dogma and to defend Protestants against the suggestion that they have no rational method to match those of the Scholastics. In the process he brings angels and flies together in a way that may continue to buzz around the little phrase thereafter:
As if forsooth, because they dispute not eternally, Vtru~ Chimaera bombinans in vacuo, possit comedere, secundas Intentiones? Whether a Million of Angels may not sit upon a needles point? Because they fill not their brains with notions that signify nothing, to the utter extermination of all reason and common sence, and spend not an Age in weaving and un-weaving subtile cobwebs, fitter to catch flyes then Souls; therefore they have no deepe knowledge in the Acroamaticall part of learning! (Chillingworth, 12 [unnumbered])
Henry More also refers to this notion, in defending his idea that the soul separate from the body was ‘a substance extended and indiscerpible’. This idea, he thinks ‘may stop the mouths of them that, not without reason, laugh at those unconceivable and ridiculous fancies of the Schools; that first rashly take a way all Extension from Spirits, whether Soules or Angels, and then dispute how many of them booted and spur’d may dance on a needles point at once’ (More 341-2).
The ambivalent relation of angels to space often expresses itself through paradoxes of scale. When he evokes the building of Pandemonium at the end of Book 1 of Paradise Lost, Milton emphasises the bee-like industry of the devils, equating their swarming with a miniaturisation. It is as though there were a strange double correlation between energy, multiplicity and magnitude, as though an exces of energy could make you both smaller and more swarmingly expansive:
With hundreds and with thousands trooping came
Thick swarm’d, both on the ground and in the air,
Brusht with the hiss of russling wings. As Bees
In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus rides,
Poure forth thir populous youth about the Hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Flie to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,
The suburb of thir Straw-built Cittadel,
New rub’d with Baume, expatiate and confer
Thir State affairs. So thick the aerie crowd
Swarm’d and were straitn’d; till the Signal giv’n,
Behold a wonder! they but now who seemd
In bigness to surpass Earths Giant Sons
Now less then smallest Dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless, like that Pigmean Race
Beyond the INDIAN Mount, or Faerie Elves,
Whose midnight Revels, by a Forrest side
Or Fountain some belated Peasant sees…
Reduc’d their shapes immense, and were at large
Here, the devils both ‘swarm’ and are ‘straitened’. Confined in a narrow space, they nevertheless ‘expatiate’. Even in fallen form, angels represent the divine principle of emanation, a power that cannot merely remain or subsist in itself, but must be at large, extending its scope and multiplying its forms while never becoming other than itself. This will take the form of an explosive or inflammatory fire, the active and generative form of the air according to Stoic conception. Flies represent this process at the other end of the scale, and operating in the other direction. The fly assists in the process of putrefaction and decomposition which nevertheless tends to produce airs and vapours. The process of putrefaction was most commonly known after all as ‘blowing’, as in Cleopatra’s cry ‘on Nilus’ mud/Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies/Blow me into abhorring!’ (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2, 69-71). Cleopatra’s suggestion here that she be laid ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ the mud of the Nile suggests that there is a kind of productivity in this abhorrence. The fact that flies and maggots subsist upon decomposing tissue has occasionally led to the fly being seen as the agent of a refining transformation, rather than associated with the corruption on which it subsists:
The elements of the tissues, instead of decomposing into poisonous and ill-savoured compounds, and filling the air with miasma pregnant with pestilential disease and death, at once spring phoenix-like into life again, and in a few days there appears the animated form of the Fly, which only an Omnipotent hand cold have moulded with such rapidity and accurate design… [T]he elements of the flesh and tissues rise, to form a living creature of the air.
More often, the reduction of the body to gas – first through the bloating and then through the drying and attenuation of the body – is seen as a horror, to be mitigated by the practice of interment in the earth. In the laws of purification in the Vendîdâd, a compilation of religious laws and mythical tales forming part of the Zend-Avesta, (of c. 330) the sacred book of the Parsis, followers of Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, the impurity that enters the body at death is described as a fly-like demon, drawn by the smell of decay:
Directly after death, as soon as the soul has left the body, O Spitama Zarathustra! The Drug Nasu comes and rushes upon him, from the regions of the north, in the shape of a raging fly, with knees and tail sticking out, all stained with stains, and like unto the foulest Khrafstras…On him she stays until the dog has seen the corpse or eaten it up, or until the flesh-eating birds have taken flight towards it. When the dog has seen it or eaten it up, or when the flesh-eating birds have taken flight towards it, then the DrugNasu rushes away to the regions of the north in the shape of a raging fly, with knees and tail sticking out, all stained with stains, and like unto the foulest Khrafstras (Darmesteter 75)
Both burning the body and burying it are held to be sacrilegious in the Avesta, since the elements are holy and are defiled by death:
Therefore the corpse is laid on the summit of a mountain, far from man, from water, from tree, from fire, and from the earth itself, as it is separated from it by a layer of stones or bricks. Special buildings, the Dakhmas, were erected for this purpose. There far from the world the dead were left to die, beholding the sun. (Darmesteter xci)
The most important feature of the process of corruption as it is imagined in the Vendîdâd is that it involves prodigious multiplication:
Those Dakhmas that are built upon the face of the earth, O Spitama Zarathustra! and whereon are laid the corpses of dead men, that is the place whereon the troops of fiends rush together, that is the place whereon the troops of fiends come rushing along, that is the place whereon they rush together to kill their fifties and their hundreds, their hundreds and their thousands, their thousands and their tens of thousands, their tens of thousands and their myriads of myriads. (Darmesteter 88)
The corpse needs to be set in a place far apart precisely because of its tendency to expand and multiply through space. Angels and flies are joined by the principle of expatiation, of a boiling, foaming multiplication so prodigious that it not only fills space, but overflows it, setting at naught distances, magnitudes and scales. In this kind of inflationary ferment, space itself is reformed, as it were from the inside out. Space as stable or empty frame is abolished. Though theologically at opposite extremes, angels and flies both prefigure a bacteriological consciousness, or the apprehension of the straining, saturating and bursting of space that may determine that consciousness. It is given substance in the sudden opening up of awareness of the subvisible world that took place in the wake of the microscopic revolution through the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which suggested that creation might extend as far downwards below the visible as it had previously been thought to extend upwards through and beyond the visible. Suddenly, it seemed as though the crowding of space by the invisible agencies, both angelic and demonic, of earlier conceptions, was being borne out in actual fact, in the wriggling vermicelli of aerobiological forms with which the air was shown to be filled. In later centuries, a kind of superstition grew up during the nineteenth century that, in terms of relative magnitudes, the humble fly marked the median point in the scale of creation: in other words, that there were as many creatures smaller than the fly as there were larger than it. Once again, the fly is a turning-point, a nexus naturae.
Flights of Fancy
I began by saying that the imagination of air and its powers is in part a reflection on the mind’s favoured image of itself and its own airy actions. One might see the angel, the incorporeal embodiment of the thought of God, as an image of thought in its fullest and most infinitive form. The angel represents the promise of a soaring, expansive, ascensional thought utterly unconstrained by matter, space and time, a thought which arises and subsists in its self-surpassing. Interestingly, the fly has also been implicated in the self-imaging of thought, though in a very different manner. Flies buzzing around one’s head are at once a distraction to thought and an image of thought distracted, pulverised and pulled apart. The association of the fly with decomposition perhaps helps motivate this association with distraction and madness. The visitations of the gad-fly were well-known to produce fits of desperate fury in oxen and cattle among the Greeks. Virgil describes the herds driven By the dire sound [of their humming] … from the woods and shady glens around…Their lowings shake the woods and shake the sky’ (I, 148-9). The Greek word for the fly, ‘oestrus’, came to be applied to such temporary fits of raving madness in human beings.
Maggots have the same power to cause extreme disordering of the wits. The Emperor Titus, the sacker of Jerusalem, was believed to have been tormented by a biting fly which had bored into his brain; after it had eventually killed him, his skull was opened to reveal a fly the size of a pigeon. A similar story is found in Arabic sources concerning Nimrod, who was promised a thousand-year dominion over the earth. After three hundred years, he started to be tormented by a fly in his brain; he retained his human faculties for four hundred years, but spent the last three hundred years of his life in intellectual twilight (Klauser 7, cols 1114-15). In the version of the story given in the Tales of the Prophets by 12th-century writer al-Kisa’I, God employs the services of a gnat to effect the final defeat of the tyrannous and God-denying Nimrod after his long persecution of the prophet Abraham:
God sent gnats down on Nimrod’s army and so the whole world was filled with them. They caused the death of so many people that the rest went into their houses, lit fires and locked their doors, all of which they did to no avail. A gnat fell on Nimrod and came to rest on his beard. He was about to kill it when it entered one of his nostrils and crawled up to his brain and began to gnaw at his flesh, marrow and blood, praising God. Forty days passed during which Nimrod could not sleep, eat, or drink, so he had an iron bar made with which he ordered his aides to strike his head, for every time they struck him the gnat would be still.
Those who struck his head were only of the highest rank; [149-50], but, after forty more days had passed, one of the viziers, a man of enormous strength, struck his head so hard that his skull split in two, and the gnat emerged like a chick from an egg, saying “There is no God but God; Abraham is the apostle of God and His Friend.” (Al Kisa-I 149-50)
Proverbial expressions in many languages preserve this sense that to be mad is to be besieged by flies in the head: in French, avoir une tête emmouquée means to be crazy or distracted.
In England, madness or intemperate fancy was attributed proverbially more often to the internal operation of maggots than of flies. From the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth, maggots referred not just to physical creatures, but also to unpredictable fancies. To be governed by a maggot is to be in the grip in an uncontrollable obsession or delusion; to be maggot-pated is to teem with such fantastical whims or caprices. To do something ‘when the maggot bites’, is to be driven to it by an urgent, irrational impulse. The speaker in Robert Lloyd’s poem ‘Genius, Envy and Time’ reassures Genius that he need take no account of transient reactions born of envy, which will subside into ‘Mere excremental maggots, bred/In poet’s topsy-turvy head,/Born like a momentary fly,/To flutter, buzz about, and die’ (Lloyd I.51).
The biting of the maggot of whim or madness was often associated with the effects of ungoverned reading. The extravagant fantasies of Don Quixote drew the following judgement from Edward Ward in his English rendering of Cervantes’s tale:
Idle-Tales, adorned with Wit,
And hurtful Books with cunning writ,
In shallow Brains strange Maggots breed,
And make Men Act the things they read. (Cervantes I.188)
The corresponding itch to write also had something of the maggot in it. Samuel Wesley published in 1685 a book of poems entitled Maggots: Or, Poems on Several Subjects, Never Before Handled, which opens with the lines ‘The Maggot Bites, I must begin:/Muse! pray be civil! Enter in!/Ransack my addled pate with Care/And muster all the Maggots there!’ (Wesley 1).
As an image of thought preying upon and discomposing itself, the wilful, whimsical, light-minded but predatory maggot is the opposite of the lucid radiance of the angelic imaging of thought. The angel and the fly represent the holiness and the horror of lightness. And yet, though polarised, the maggot, the fly, the demon and the angel all seem allotropes of the same thinking air, airy thinking. Both are forms of the formless and thus both impregnate and (ps-Dionysius’s term for the action of angels), impenetrate the climate formed out of their meteorological circulations.
Al Kisa-I (1978). The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i. Trans. W.M. Thackston, Jr. Boston: Twayne.
Anon (1695). Scala naturae: a treatise proving both from nature and scripture the existence of good genii, or guardian-angels. In a letter to his much honoured friend, J.B. of C.
Bachelard, Gaston (1943). L’air et les songes: essai sur l’imagination du mouvement. Paris. José Corti.
Blague, Thomas (1569). A Schole of Wise Conceytes: Wherin as euery Conceyte hath wit, so the most haue much mirth, Set forth in common places by order of the Alphabet. Translated out of diuers Greke and Latine Wryters. London: Henrie Binneman.
Briggs, Katherine (1967 repr. 2002)). The Fairies In Tradition and Literature. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Cervantes, Miguel de (1711-12). The Life and Notable Adventures of That Renown’d Knight, Don Quixote De la Mancha, Merrily Translated Into Hudibrastick Verse, Trans. Edward Ward. 2 Vols. London: for T. Norris, etc.
Chillingworth, William (1638). The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation. Or An Answer to a Booke Entitled Mercy and Truth, or, Charity Maintain’d by Catholiques, Which Pretends to Prove the Contrary. Oxford: Leonard Lichfield for John Clarke.
Darmesteter, James, ed. and trans. (1995). The Zend-Avesta. Part I. The Vendîdâd. Delhi: D.K. Publishers.
Dickinson, Emily (1970). The Complete Poems. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. London: Faber and Faber.
Lloyd, Robert (1762). Poetical Works. 2 Vols. London: for T. Evans.
Odeberg, Hugo (ed. and trans.) (1928). 3 Enoch or The Hebrew Book of Enoch Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grubb, Nancy (1995) Angels in Art. New York and London: Artabras.
Kauser, Theodor, ed. (1969). Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum: Sachwörterbuch zur Auseinandersetzung des Christentums mit der antiken Welt. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.
MacKenzie, Iain M. (1996). The Dynamism of Space: A Theological Study Into the Nature of Space. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
More, Henry (1659). The Immortality of the Soul, So Farre Forth As It Is Demonstrable From the Knowledge of Nature and the Light of Reason. London: for William Morden.
Penney, Douglas L. and Wise, Michael O. (1994). ‘By the Power of Beelzebub: An Aramaic Incantation Formula From Qumran (4Q560)’. Journal of Biblical Literature, 113, 627-50
Warner, Marina (2002). Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wesley, Samuel (1685). Maggots: Or, Poems on Several Subjects, Never Before Handled. London: John Dunton.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1969). The Blue and Brown Books, 2nd edn. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.