Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Feathered scapulae

As I wrote Monday's post on the avian poetry anthology Bright Wings, I had just finished reading a cover review in the NYT Book Review of Danielle Trussoni's novel Angelology. I had two kinds of winged creatures in mind: natural and supernatural.

The review observed that books about angels are wildly popular, something I made note of in a Boston Globe column twenty years ago. I suggested then that the 90s promised to be the decade of angels, and polls confirmed that a healthy majority of Americans believed in the literal existence of heavenly spirits. Well, if anything, angels have grown in popularity, Apparently you can now better your life with angelic alliances. The self-help literature includes How to Hear Your Angels, Working With Angels, In the Arms of Angels, and so on.

Now, I'm as fond of fairy tales as the next person. Humanoid celestial creatures have been a part of our culture since Genesis. By Milton's time, the lore of the angelic armies had reached epic proportions. Lord knows I learned enough of it in parochial school. Angels have even danced through these posts on occasion. But literal? Anyone who in 2010 takes angels literally suffers a severe detachment from empirical reality.

Meanwhile, the real wonders get lost in the din of fluttering wings.

If a medieval philosopher were confronted, on the one hand, with the lore of angels, and, on the other, with the idea of the air resonant with a hundred species of unheard music (Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to say nothing of the Grateful Dead and Norah Jones) made actually audible by a small box called a radio, he would surely call the latter more wondrous. And what of that continuous wind of invisible neutrinos that pours through our bodies from the animating furnace of the Sun? Closer to home, the idea of humanness revealed by molecular biology and neurobiology is a far more stunning conception than the medieval philosopher's "little world made cunningly of elements and an angelic sprite."

There's no point decrying our culture's preoccupation with the mystical and paranormal, at least not until scientists and naturalists are better able to show that a scientific world-view can satisfy the human need for meaning. Scientists and naturalists may feel plugged into something larger and more wonderful than themselves, but so far they have failed to convince the public that science is anything more than a practical tool for wringing material benefits from nature. Until they do, aerodynamically impossible spirits will continue to haunt the bookstores. And Danielle Trussoni's biologically implausible angel-human hybrids have surely already been optioned for the movies.

Meanwhile, I have my own little angels at the hummingbird feeder, stoking their racing metabolism with my wife's own mix of celestial ambrosia.