that flower, that mint, that columbine

Paul Klee, Pierrot Lunaire, 1924
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The Mandrake

The Mandrake is drawn from the seclusion of earth by the leaves of her hair, by the hands of people with a death wish, or by dogs tied to her with strings.

Those who pull the Mandrake from her unlit, sodden isolation are people who want to use her to improve their lives, people who presume in her a magic they respond to with yearning. Before even laying eyes on her, they hallucinate her into an enticing shape, likely to provide happiness and glory.

They have seen her depicted in illuminations, in fragmented impressions on the pages of books. Based on her appearance, they take her to be something she is not, a creature of inestimable abilities. They fall in love in ways that cannot be sustained by reality.

When they bite her, they lose their minds, slipping into dream states so deep an incision could be made into their very skulls and they wouldn’t notice. They hold her in their enormous hands and say, “You will fix my sadness, my past mistakes, my shaking bouts of fever. I don’t care if my next life is spent in the absence of light, surrounded by ash.”

She has unsettled many people with these promises they make to themselves, yet when the time comes for her to live in their care, these same people are already overrun by madness, unable to see the truth of her root body, her leafy hair, her need to be kept watered and safe.

It is easy for her to believe in the magic others ascribe to her. Sometimes, while still packed safely in soil, she thinks of herself the way others have, and finds a tingling joy in the idea of being special. But this joy comes at a price, and she will always end up damaged, ground up completely and mixed into a drink, retrieved from the corners of the earth by a lovesick elephant, or else made into an immovable amulet, a trophy to cure someone’s stagnating libido.

Ultimately, once drawn from the earth and seen in the reductive light of day, she can’t help but disappoint. The only defence left to her when she feels the familiar tug on her quills is to go deep into the visceral part of herself, and there to conjure up a scream that will burst eardrums and arteries the moment it reaches the air, scream and scream until the grip of the desiring hand has loosened, and the tugging person, with all her unfulfillable anticipations, falls lifeless to the ground and disappears.

Woodcut of Mandragora in Leiden, 6th Century

The Angel

The Angel has a body smooth as a pebble washed over by relentless tides, rubbed free of features by the suspended palpitation of drops he calls home. There is no hair anywhere on him, his skin is without veins, milky as jade. Nothing about him can be held on to, no part of him likely to get caught. 

His self is tectonic, contained entirely in his visible, superficial parts. Everything about him is external, even his skeleton, which is interwoven with what serves as his skin. This skeletal mesh is made from a lightweight mineral, as good as hollow. No bodily fluids course their way through him, only the ceaseless traversal of air. His body is an empty cavity, bearing no organs, no heart, no brain. Despite all this emptiness, his body is virtually unbreakable.

When he manifests in his physical form to those who are not angelic, he does so in visions or dreams, and always for the purpose of delivering a message. He has never approached someone else for the sake of communion, or the solace of intimacy, but only so as to reveal something to them. The meeting is always one-sided, and after appearing in a bodily form, adorned with human features, or animal ones, or even as a celestial cluster, he disappears again, leaving those he visited to ponder what they were just told.

His favourite way to appear is on hot summer nights, as a wavering shadow on a bedroom wall.

But it doesn’t matter which structure he uses to appear to others, because in many ways he is always unsubstantial. The world he inhabits could not contain him otherwise, and he would fall right through the limpid boundaries of his home. 

Once, the Angel appeared to a man who lived alone in a small room in a town overrun with students. The man tried to trap the Angel in one of the communal shower cubicles, and succeeded in keeping him there behind glass for nearly three days. During those three days, the man visited the Angel frequently, and sat silently watching him without asking a thing. The Angel, in his confusion, forgot to deliver the message he’d been assigned. This had never happened to the Angel before, nor has it happened since. Nothing in the physical realm has the power to trap him, and yet this man’s glass cubicle seemed to interrupt the state of things for a while. 

The Angel thinks back to this time, the terror of encountering physical resistance in a way that is otherwise totally foreign to him. 

The Angel’s body, being hollow, has a lot of room for the dance of emotions. They swirl almost ceaselessly in the cavity of his rump, like immortal butterflies with their absurdly oversized wings. While he experiences feelings on a nearly continuous basis, the Angel lacks the capacity to express them. This is fine. As a celestial being, there is no need to communicate his emotions to anyone else.

None of his emotions can be expressed in gestures or words, but they all float and knock against each other inside him, sometimes with enough force to form temporary composites. This results in confusingly mismatched emotions, which the Angel observes with a chuckle: fear coupled with erotic attraction, sadness blended with disgust, joy combined with intense regret. The Angel watches these emotions flutter and burn in a varicoloured display. 

Sometimes people ask him where he keeps his wings at night, and if they fold. How does he sleep, they wonder. 

He doesn’t respond to this, in part because his purpose is to deliver a message, not answer such proxies for existential concerns. He hesitates to break the spell; illusions are important to people, they keep their lives interesting and worthwhile. Spells promote a sense of hope in the inherent meaningfulness of the world, which is what allows people to remain vertical.

Without this meaning-making glue, people would collapse into a spreadable mass, and the Angel knows it would be cruel to tell them the truth, that he doesn’t have wings, that the feathery offshoots they see unfurling behind him are no more than the waste products his body sloughs off in its efforts to make itself lighter and lighter, that it is these very waste products that keep him light and that they are no more palpable or noteworthy than the clouds that wash him clean.

The Angel knows how easy it is for humans to get confused about their own narratives, a confusion born from the visceral heaviness of their ability to wish. This is perhaps the only emotion the Angel cannot feel: the closes he gets to wishing is feeling erotic attachment towards something, which can occur towards anything at all, material or not; but even so, because no emotion is ever expressed, there is no room anywhere in the Angel’s psyche for regret, an emotion he knows is human, and tied to the ability to wish.

He has seen the power of wishing in humans, when their whole bodies are arched towards the sound of the thing they desire. He watches these domed, flexible bodies, and worries that one day they may snap in half from their unresolved urges. 

The Angel takes his job very seriously, though the work he does is more of a vocation, truly something of a calling. The most consistent part of his appearance is the voice through which he conveys the message he is given. His voice is the most important part of his performance, because he knows that humans, whether they admit it or not, are drawn to or repelled by the content of language based on the sounds that contain it.

Each time he appears, he rounds off the edges of his voice, muffling it into a pleasing blur. Because he is empty of organs, he speaks the way a trumpet does, using an external breath, which passes in compression through his ringing body. The breath entering him exists all around him, and never stays inside him long enough to become part of his person.

Aside from his purpose, which lies in delivering a message, doing the bidding of an unreachable, disembodied force, the Angel has a lot of free time, not that he is bound to such concepts. Still, he divides his own infinity, so as to make it more bearable. He opens his eyes at the same time each day, then closes them again after a determined chunk of time has elapsed so as to create an artificial night. The Angel likes to segment what is otherwise as unstructured as a clear sky. Infinity is made more bearable by the interruptions and seemingly serendipitous patterns of clouds.

The Angel knows that what is most beautiful about him is not his appearance, but the movement of air as it passes through his crystalline body, rushing through his inner void on its own fluttering path. The only good the Angel ever does is temporarily shape the air he inhabits. 

Salvador Dalí, Angel, 1958

The mercurial and the caring

In reality the bat is shy and gentle, fastidiously groomed and a tidy housekeeper (Ackerman, 4ff). Particularly in Asia, the bat represents the maternal aspect of the great goddess. The attunement of a mother bat and her baby is such that they can instantly recognize each other’s high-pitched squeak in a nursery cave of millions and be reunited. […]

Alchemy sometimes depicted the mercurial spirit of the unconscious with bat wings. It is a way of conveying not only psyche’s darkness, mystery and ambivalence, but also its provision and unforeseen agency, the way it can lead consciousness into spheres requiring a different kind of orientation and in which can be found the fructifying unconventionality of nature.

“The Bat”, in: The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ed. A. Ronnberg, K. Martin

https://aras.org/