Reading this morning a poem by Richard Wilbur in the New Yorker, a reverie about flying, which reminds me of a well-lubricated dinner party a few week's ago at which I mentioned how lovely it would be to have wings -- big, fluffy, white angel wings. When I was a young child, a picture of an angel hung on the wall above my bed, a beautiful winged creature guiding a boy and girl across a rickety footbridge. I think even then I identified with the angel, rather than with the kids on the bridge. I knelt by the bed and said the traditional prayer -- "Angel of God, my guardian dear..." -- but I tucked away in my brain the fantasy of flapping into the treetops. Some kids wanted to grow up to be firemen, or Buck Rogers, or even President. I wanted feathers. Nothing religious, mind you. Even then I was skeptical of angels of the heavenly sort. It was self-propelled aviation I had in mind. Later on, as an adult, I even gave hang-gliding a try, ending up bruised and battered in a treetop. Not exactly the landing I had imagined.
Anyway, when I expressed my ornithological fantasy at the dinner table, my friend Barbara plucked from her shelf (she was our hostess) a novel called Mr. Pye, by Mervyn Peake, with the implication that I should read it.
As I did. It is a quaint fable from half-a-century ago, about a chubby little man with pink cheeks and a pointy nose who -- well, we needn't go into all that. Even with his wings, I wasn't taken with the infuriatingly pious Mr. Pye. What I had in mind was rather more like Pygar the blind angel who shared his nest with Jane Fonda's Barbarrella (surely one of the most embarrassingly awful scenes in the history of cinema).
Of course, that kind of angel is anatomically improbable from an evolutionary point of view. We can imagine humans adapted for flying, perhaps with skin membranes between arms and legs that would make gliding possible, but for the scapulae (shoulder blades) to give rise to bone, muscles and feathers would likely call for a hefty measure of the supernatural intervention.
Not to mention the aerodynamic implausibility.
That said, various polls show that between 55 and 70 percent of Americans believe in angels. This is a fact so utterly astounding that my own yen for Pygarean appendages seems positively benign.