Angelology: a possible introduction to an imaginary book

March 6, 2018

The premises of this book are very simple: if we wish to exit the cage of our present reality and imagination, we need to be able to speak a different language from the language that we speak today. This is not merely a matter of changing our ‘style’ of speaking or writing, but of recognising, through our choice of language, that there are different dimensions of reality of which we cannot speak. Whenever we talk about fiscal matters or molecular biology, we are perhaps entirely justified to use the language of plain description. A dollar is a dollar, and a chemical compound is precisely just that. But in fact, the spectrum of reality of which we can speak with this level of descriptive certainty is smaller than we might expect. We are used to employing descriptive language to talk about everything and anything: we categorise objects by their physical qualities, citizens by their nationality, consumers by their predilections, lovers by their inclinations, and so on. In all these cases – as virtually in any case of our contemporary discourse – any word that we use is supposed to grasp precisely and exhaustively the thing of which it talks about. A dollar is a dollar, a British citizen is a British citizen: what more is there to add? Our confidence in a language that supposedly captures the whole of its object, derives not only by ingrained habits, but also by a shared – if silent – understanding of what the world and reality are actually made of. The consensus of the present age – particularly in the post-industrial West – is that whatever exists in the world, can doubtlessly be captured by a precise linguistic definition (even if only by a language that we don’t yet know, but could possibly invent). This certainty, in turn, derives from a darker aspect of our consensus, of which we are rarely aware: this is the invisible conviction that what ultimately, truly exists in the world, is just language. It is because we believe more in language than in its supposed objects, that we use an object’s ability to be exhaustively captured by linguistic definitions as a filter to what we deem as legitimately existing. Whatever doesn’t pass this filter – due to its inability or unwillingness to be reduced to pure language – is light-heartedly cast out of what we understand as ‘reality’. Think of the innate value of the preservation of the so-called ‘natural’ environment, which due to its very indescribability is so removed from our picture of reality, that we are unable to stop even our own descent into global devastation. Think of the condition of a stateless person who, in an age such as ours which has grown tired of the notion of ‘humankind’, is remorselessly abandoned to literally drown in nothingness. Think of our obsession with frantically inserting any possible shade of eros and agape in one or the other neat linguistic box. Think of the psychopathologist’s urge to acquire within their dictionary any form of existence which isn’t fully functional to the preservation of our present socio-economic system. And think of the nonchalance with which our present social institutions disregard any form of suffering which isn’t found in the medical lexicon…

 

Within the field of philosophy, this desire to reduce the world to language has long been a troubling temptation. Yet, at the same time, philosophy has grown its own antibodies, going to criticise the structure of the language which it uses. Philosophy has gained awareness of its own limits since its very beginning, at least since the time of Heraclitus and Parmenides. It is perhaps for this reason, that it has always sought the assistance of another art and another language besides its own. Typically, these have been the languages of the visual arts, of poetry and of music. To be able to say what they wish to say, philosophers have often invoked the artist and the poet as linguistic models, or as companions. But neither of these models or companions could truly satisfy philosophy’s anguish for its own limitations – even though they often worked as an excuse for philosophers who had run out of paces: ‘from here on, let the poet and artist speak!’ What did the artist or the poet reply to this invitation? Typically, they declined it with grace. Art, poetry or music, taken merely as expressive media, don’t suffice to venture beyond what can be grasped by philosophy. Let us think, for example, of the difference between a portrait and an icon. The former is a piece of decorative art (and frequently of furniture); the latter is a holy object. Poetry and art can function as vehicles to tackle the dimension of existence which exceeds descriptive language – but so can any other linguistic medium. An icon is a holy object not simply because of the way it is painted or of the fact that it is a painting. It is a holy object because the language it speaks is not the language of art. Artistically, the traditional icon can be certainly improved, or drastically innovated – yet they have remained almost exactly the same for over a thousand years. The reason for their apparent stillness, is that their plane of motion is not within the field of what can be linguistically described. An icon is an instance of prophetic language, rather than of artistic language. And prophecy speaks in a way that we have almost entirely forgotten.

 

At first glance, prophecy is a self-defeating form of language. It easily lends itself to the fraudulence of soothsayers and fortune-tellers, to the point that today it is most commonly associated with casting predictions about the future. It speaks of imaginary entities as if they existed on the level of factuality, thus allowing the assault of any form of historical or scientific criticism. It claims to be the message of an invisible speaker who is nowhere to be found, thus stimulating the most farcical forms of fundamentalism and cynicism. Yet, prophecy should be understood on a plane which is not that of mere literality. As claimed by Shi’a Islam, a Prophet would be mute without an Imam who is able to interpret his Revelation beneath the level of mere literality. An icon is a holy object, while a royal painting by Velazquez isn’t, because an icon is not a medium but a place where the ineffable dimension of existence makes itself manifest. Likewise, a sacred stone in archaic societies is not substantially unlike any other stone: what marks it as a holy object (Mircea Eliade would say, as a theophany) is the fact that it is a place where the divine makes itself manifest. But what is it, that turns an object or a linguistic medium into an example of prophecy? Is it the work of its creator, or that of its interpreter? Is an icon painter (or even a saint-painter, as Florensky advocated) enough to create an icon, or is it rather the faith of its viewer that is capable of placing the ineffable dimension of existence within it? Certainly, prophecy is a collaborative form of language. The interpreter is at least as important as the prophet, and any attempt at using prophetic language can be rendered futile by the audience’s inability to interpret it. But even when it is not (or no longer) understood, prophetic language remains a passage stretching beyond the limitations of our traditional uses of language. Neither descriptive nor sentimental, neither imperative not entertaining, prophecy acts as a form of language which alone is capable of reminding us of that dimension of existence (including of our very existence) which is beyond the reach of any language.

 

Prophecy has nothing to do with foretelling the future or conveying the will of ‘the true God’. By definition, the future, as a linguistic construction, exist in the linguistic series of linear time – and as such it cannot be foretold since, if we did, it would no longer be ‘future’. The notion of God, on the other hand, is to be understood accurately. If we think of a Demiurge, a superhuman artisan who created the world like a potter makes a vase, then we can possibly imagine divining Its will. But if we think of a divine principle that is irreducible to any precise comparison with the world that can be described linguistically, then we cannot feasibly conceive the notion of a divine ‘will’. Prophecy as such, has one aim only: to remind its audience that the limits of language fall far shorter than the realm of what there ‘is’. And nothing more. To do so, prophecy proceeds cosmologically, that is, by offering a depiction of the world that implicitly requires a field outside it. The message of prophecy rests beneath different and at time contradictory linguistic contents, since it does not concern the factual ‘world’ as we commonly understand it, but rather the very notion of ‘world’ as that cosmos which can be created through the ordering action of language. Even religious prophecy concerns not only what follows the first instance of God’s speaking, but more importantly the silence that came before God’s first word and that still accompanies God’s ongoing world-making speech. Yet, prophecy cannot speak about this silence. All it can do, is helping its audience to approach it in the same way that we approach a memory: by chasing it while its rushes away from us, ultimately retaining of it only a vague nostalgia coated in fragments of dream.

 

To this aim, prophecy has to devise a particular relationship with the common tropes of descriptive language. It cannot abandon them altogether, lest remaining entirely silent. Yet it cannot even embrace them with excessive confidence, lest creating idols which would shield its actual objective. Prophecy has to speak a human language, but it does so grotesquely: it employs often implausible imaginal entities as characters of a narrative that is supposed to take place at the level of factual existence, willingly exposing itself to inevitable factual disprove. But by doing so, it ultimately embodies its ineffable object within its very language. Of the ineffable we can have only something like a memory, which we can chase if we are able to bend our language (and our actions) in a way that no longer confines our attention within the field of what can be described, but that reminds us of the proximity of the ineffable beyond it. Prophecy is always a memory palace – similarly to those Renaissance-era, imaginary landscapes that would help a person to re-approach certain memories. And like those memory palaces, each prophecy employs the form or content that is most suitable to host certain specific memories. Thus, prophecy often resorts to employing a number of recurring linguistic tropes, such as ‘God’, ‘angel’, ‘daemon’, ‘spirit’, ‘heaven’, ‘apocalypse’, and so on. Over the centuries, certain linguistic tropes have proved to be effective vectors to push our attention towards something like an awareness of the ineffable, akin to our awareness of a memory. Some forms of prophetic speech that employ these tropes might be more effective than others in letting us see through their language towards what is ineffable. Yet, an equal responsibility befalls their audience and their ability to move beyond their awkward linguistic appearance.

 

This relationship between prophecy and its recipients – that is, the core of prophetic language – is well expressed by the figure of the ‘angel’, as it is often interpreted in the main religions of the Mediterraean region and the Middle East. Since Greek antiquity, the figure of the angel has been crafted as an intermediary between the realm of ineffability and that of descriptive language – as in the seminal case of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, particularly in its later re-interpretations. Even though the appearance of the angel has varied over time and in different regions, its fundamental structure has been extremely pervasive and persistent. Between the dimension of what is entirely ineffable (to the point of being irreducible even to the notion of existence) and the realm of what can be grasped through descriptive language, angels act as treacherous bridge – like the angelic ladder of biblical memory. The angels circle God’s throne – some of them are even supposed to act as His throne – and their eyes are ceaselessly pointed towards Him. Yet, they are not God. Even if some of them might rebelliously claim for themselves the place of God, they can’t aspire to becoming anything more than a Demiurge. What marks this character of the angels and their position as intermediaries, is the fact that they combine a direction towards what is non-manifest, with a manifest presence of their own. They are like actors on a bright stage, facing one spectator sunk into darkness. To what extent they resemble their only spectator is impossible to say, since we look at them from the backstage. And even if they are made of the same substance of their spectator, they differ from him by the fact that they are cast in plain light – by their being actors.

 

Vis-à-vis the angels, the human position has been variedly interpreted between the poles of familiarity and of incomparability. In the prophetic tradition there is a form of similarity and almost of latent competition between angels and humans, as exemplified by the Islamic tale of Iblis (equivalent to the Christian Lucifer), whose fall is due solely to his refusal to obey God’s order to bow in from of Adam. Angels and humans are in a position from which they can see each other, even influencing each other’s describable appearance and function. Yet they are unlike in their respective position towards what is entirely ineffable: while the angels point directly towards it, humans have to pass through angelic mediation. Neither of them is capable of describing the ineffable or of grasping it, yet the angels are pointed straight in its direction. Their function to human onlookers, who spy from behind the scene, is to remind them that the spectacle exists because there is a spectator, sitting in pitch darkness beyond the stage. The difference between prophecy’s linguistic tropes such as ‘human’, ‘angel’, ‘God’, refers to different positions in the spectre between solid descriptive knowledge and a vanishing memory: ‘human’ is the position of those who know, ‘God’ is the position whose presence can only be remembered. They all exist in the same theatre, which at once contains and connects their respective notions of what counts as ‘reality’ or ‘the world’: indeed, the theatre itself is the ‘angel of the world’.

 

This characterisation of the figure of the angel is perhaps best exemplified by the theosophy of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. According to Ismailism, in a fashion that reveals affinities with Neoplatonism, what we commonly call ‘God’ is in fact just an angel, since the true God is beyond any possibility of comprehension and of worship. Angels are the manifest dimensions of a God who is entirely non-manifest in Himself, and they have been actualised by God in order to quench God’s own primordial sadness and nostalgia. Non-manifest even to Himself, the God of the Ismaili would have no knowledge of Himself if He couldn’t see His own reflection in the mirror of the angels. Our world is one such angel, and humans are contained within it in the same way as droplets of glass and silver are part of a mirror. As claimed by the great Iranologist Henry Corbin, Ismaili angelology appears to contain elements that will appear in the West only with the advent of phenomenology in the 20th century – yet, it approaches these issues with a language which is not that of philosophy, but of prophecy. In doing so, Ismaili thinkers are able to avoid the deadlocks and limitations of contemporary philosophical language. Instead of talking about concepts, they talk about angelic ‘persons’; instead of saying ‘they are like angels’, they say ‘there are angels’. It is precisely in this movement beyond the metaphor and towards a personification of imaginal figures, that lies a crucial feature of prophetic language. Prophecy doesn’t create conceptual structures or narrative plots: it produces cosmologies that are inhabited by imaginal ‘persons’, each of which is irreducible to a purely self-contained entity as we could encounter at the level of ‘factual’ reality. These are not just any kind of cosmology, but they are carefully crafted so to facilitate in their audience a resurgence of the memory of what cannot be conveyed by any language – not even by prophetic language. For this reason, we tend to encounter prophetic language in the mystical or esoteric branches of most religions, even though there is no strict necessity that prophecy has to be uttered in a declaredly ‘religious’ context. Just like Greek-Roman oracles used to be conveyed in perfect poetic form, so it is possible to encounter cases of prophetic language in any creation of a symbolic cosmology that is pointed towards the ineffable. This can take place in non-religious art, poetry, music, and so on. It is not the immediate, literal content of an utterance that defines it prophetic quality, nor is it the socially recognised context in which it takes place. Indeed, there is often a certain ‘etiquette’ and a number of social conventions that surround prophetic speeches – but, as well exemplified by the socially transgressive Muslim mystics known as Malamatiyya (‘those who are to be blamed’), there is no absolute necessity to respect such etiquettes or conventions. Prophetic language is a method to bend language so to help its audience to chase the fleeting memory of that which lies beyond any possible conceptualisation, and thus to re-value their experience of linguistically describable, ‘factual’ existence within a broader perspective.

 

This central function of prophetic language accounts for its importance even today, in an age that has seemingly overcome any attachment to ancient practices such as prophecy. If we consider our contemporary world, we can’t help noticing how our daily existence has been almost entirely confined within the bounds of what can be grasped by one form of descriptive language or another – may it be the language of science, of finance, of citizenship, of gender, and so on. Whatever refuses or is unable to be reduced to a stockpiling of units of information, is destined to be banished from legitimate existence altogether as a form of superstition – much as it happens to those undocumented migrants whose life has lost access to the linguistic series of citizenship, or to those impoverished classes who desperately struggle to hold onto ethno-nationalist categories just as they slip out of the linguistic series of the economy. As I argued in my previous book Technic and Magic, it is only through a deep re-imagination of our understanding of what constitutes ‘reality’, that we might be able to break out of the cage of this kind of metaphysics and of the field of the ‘possible’ which it goes to create. In the following pages, I try to build on the ideas expressed in that book, focusing on how we could re-imagine our relationship with cultural production, in the light of a renewed awareness of an ineffable dimension within existence. My attempt doesn’t wish to bring back old religious or ‘spiritual’ categories, but it also doesn’t wish to reduce the “dreadful and fascinating mystery” of religion (to borrow Rudolf Otto’s expression) within the constraints of a philosophical discourse. Rather, my wish is to reclaim room for prophetic language alongside the language of science or of philosophy. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one can prophesize, in the hope of remembering and of helping others to remember.

 

A rediscovery of prophetic language alongside the language that is currently hegemonic, is an important factor in that quest for a fundamental re-imagination of reality that I proposed in Technic and Magic. In that book, I called for a possible shift of our ingrained metaphysical convictions about what kind of things exist, how they exist, and so on – moving away from our belief that the only thing that truly exist is language, towards a re-centring of our cosmos around the notion of the ineffable lying at the heart of existence. Here, I would like to suggest one important trait that should characterise any cultural production that wishes to proceed along that route. If we wish to incorporate the ineffable within our imagination of what constitutes ‘reality’ – thus, for example, re-discovering an ontological solidarity among all that exists, and resisting the societal annihilation of anything that is unclassifiable within one or the other form of descriptive language – then we must be able to bend and expand our language is such a way that allows for its inclusion. My claim is that a rediscovery and a re-interpretation of prophetic language could serve precisely this aim, acting as a complement to our contemporary culture and counter-balancing our presently hegemonic oblivion of the ineffable.

 

In the first chapter of this book, I begin by surveying the limits of some of the main languages employed in the contemporary intellectual discourse such as philosophy, science, art and poetry. By drawing on the extreme edges of our contemporary linguistic abilities, I attempt to summon the shape of the kind of language that can lie beyond these limits, stretching towards what lies beyond the grasp of any possible language. Adjacent to those limits, we can find a type of language that for millennia has characterised prophetic visions and utterances. The pages that follow, proceed describing the fundamental traits of prophetic language, drawing on its extant historical sources in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 

In the second chapter, I single out the figure of the ‘angel’ as the symbolic embodiment of the man traits of prophetic language. This is followed by a historical overview of the different and common traits that have been attributed to the angels by different discourses over the course of time. Among these, I focus in particular on the figure of the angel in Ismaili theosophy (as briefly sketched above), on the basis of its significant proximity with the same epistemological concerns that innervate prophetic language. Through this analysis of Ismaili angelology, I attempt to re-connect the cultural discourse over prophetic language, with the unveiling of the metaphysical roots that are necessary to sustain it. The angel thus functions here both as a symbol of prophecy, and as a reminder of the metaphysical axioms that are required by it.

 

The third chapter continues the previous one, by analysing the metaphysics that are implicit in any use of prophetic language. However, since this metaphysics is entirely orientated towards that which is ineffable, it would be a futile attempt to continue this discourse with the same, descriptive, conceptual language that I have employed so far. For this reason, I attempt to put in practice what I have theorised so far, describing these metaphysics through the language of prophecy, rather than of philosophy. This is, of course, a largely unorthodox, if not downright unacceptable, way to conclude a book of contemporary philosophy. But this is precisely the claim that runs through this entire volume: where philosophy ends, there begins prophecy, and that the two are to each other like Virgil to Beatrice – courteous and respectful of their limits.

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