Blogs > Liberty and Power > ANGELS IN AMERICA: A HYMN TO LIFE

Jan 3, 2004 6:12 pm


I hope that Part IIA of my discussion about Angels in America provided enough details to give a sense of what the experience of watching the film is like -- and to give an indication of the variety and complexity of themes that run through it.

Kushner's thematic material is endlessly rich and provocative. At the beginning of the second half of Angels, the Angel who has appeared to Prior Walter transmits her primary message:"Stop moving!" What she means is this: when God became displeased with His angels, He created man. But in that creation, God inadvertently permitted endless change -- progress, invention, immigation. But all of this constant change, all of this ongoing life, disrupts heaven and results in nothing but chaos and pain. Therefore, the only solution is stasis, peace, quiet, and death. Hence, all movement must stop. This is the message that the Angel wishes Prior to accept, and to act upon. And why wouldn't he? He has AIDS, he is getting sicker and sicker, and he has nothing to look forward to but endless, worsening pain. Moreover, he has been deserted by his lover, Louis.

The balance of Angels shows us how and why Prior rejects the Angel's message -- and why he chooses life. As he says several times: despite all the horrific elements of his existence at the moment, despite the pain, the loneliness, the grief,"I want more life."

Let me flesh out some of the play's themes that I indicated in the first part of this essay. I noted that one of Kushner's primary concerns is the relationship between the spiritual and the political. But more than this, Kushner is concerned about the interrelationships of the personal -- what we are in our souls, the theoretical -- what we believe, what our ideology is, and the political -- the nature of the overall system in which we live and function. Kushner dramatizes this concern through several of his characters: Louis, with his conflict between what he believes politically and his personal desertion of Prior when Prior becomes ill; Roy Cohn, with his conflict between his homosexuality and his political power, and how he must dissemble to maintain that power; and Joe, with his conflict between his homosexuality and both his conservative political views and his Mormonism.

In interviews, Kushner often talks about his view that playwrighting is"dialectical" in nature. Many people are probably quick to ascribe this view simply to Kushner's"leftism." As I discussed in my first post about Angels, Kushner is most definitely a leftist, and I probably disagree with almost all of his explicitly political beliefs. But it is a mistake to think that dialectics belongs only to the left. The greatest champion of dialectics in the name of another political theory is undoubtedly Chris Sciabarra (see, for example, this page about Total Freedom: Toward A Dialectical Libertarianism). And as Chris has shown in his work, a dialectical approach can be found in Aristotle, and in Ayn Rand. To put the matter more simply, as Chris often does, dialectics is the art of" context-keeping." This is the same issue that I discussed in my essay about"Contextual Libertarianism" -- where I emphasized, as I often do, the importance of cultural issues, and the damage that is done when cultural factors are ignored, as they often are by"atomist libertarians."

So it is not surprising that Chris should discuss a three-level model of analysis, in terms that are almost identical to the manner in which Kushner treats his material. Here is Chris describing this methodology in a major foreign policy essay:

In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, I explored Rand's mode for analyzing every social problem on three distinct levels: (1) The Personal, in which she focused on the psycho-epistemological and ethical dimensions; (2) The Cultural, in which she focused on the linguistic, pedagogical, aesthetic, and ideological dimensions; and (3) The Structural, in which she focused on the political and economic dimensions. Every social problem-and solution-entailed mutually reinforcing personal, cultural, and structural factors. This is why Rand maintained:"Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries" ("For the New Intellectual"). It is also why she criticized Libertarians: for seeking political and economic change without the requisite personal and cultural foundations. But it is just as faulty to focus on ethics or culture to the exclusion of structural realities. By disconnecting any level from the others, we drain the radical life-blood out of Objectivism and ossify Rand's system into a form of conservatism. The active embrace of one-dimensional thinking by some Objectivists undermines fundamentally Rand's contextual, dialectical way of looking at the world. It is a perverse kind of"vulgar" one-sidedness that has led"far too many Objectivists [to] act as if they are conservatives who simply don't go to church," as economist Larry Sechrest suggests (OWL list, 29 January 2003).

Thus we see how, as I discussed in my post about contextual libertarianism, the approach and methodology utilized by certain leftists and libertarians are not at all dissimilar; in fact, in many ways they are almost identical.

There is yet another issue to be found here. It involves one aspect of Angels which I do not feel qualified to discuss myself. The play is rich, and dense, with religious symbolism, language and allusion. I simply do not have the knowledge to explore this subject in any meaningful way. However, I just recently found this wonderful essay about Kushner's play, and particularly about its treatment of Mormonism. The essay is by a gay Mormon, and published on the site of Affirmation, an organization for"Gay and Lesbian Mormons." In one passage, the author discusses the variety of religious symbolism in the play:

The cosmos in which this play is set is a hodge-podge of elements drawn from a variety of religious and quasi-religious sources. The wrestling-the-angel motif, the flaming Alephs, the ladder on which Prior ascends into Heaven, and the Kaddish for Roy Cohn are drawn from Judaism. The angelic-visitation motif, the peepstones, and the Restoration rhetoric ("A marvelous work and a wonder we undertake. . . . The Great Work begins" [Millennium 62, 119]) are drawn from Mormonism. The prominent role of sex in the workings of the cosmos, the hermaphroditic Angel, and the Angel's multiple Emanations--Fluor, Phosphor, Lumen, Candle--are elements of Gnosticism (which Kushner may have encountered through the writings of Harold Bloom, who calls himself a Jewish Gnostic). The Charlton Heston Moses drag is drawn, obviously, from The Ten Commandments; since, as I have already shown, Kushner insists that the drag is not a lapse into an elbow-in-the-ribs playing style, I presume that the drag is employed as an widely-recognized symbol of the prophetic vocation. (Personally, I think it's pathetic that Americans' concept of the prophetic vocation has been determined by Hollywood, but c'est la vie.) The play even incorporates several allusions to the film The Wizard of Oz, which, as a ubiquitous and at least vestigially archetypal story of the fantastic, is the closest thing to a mythic community text to be found within gay culture. Allusions to the film include the lines,"People come and go so quickly here" (Millennium 34),"If you [c]annot find your [h]eart's desire in your own backyard, you never lost it to begin with" (Perestroika 53), and several lines following Prior's return from Heaven (". . . but all the same I kept saying I want to go home. And they sent me home" [Perestroika 140]).

And from the same essay, here is the author on what is, in many ways, the same point about dialectics that I made above:

Which brings me to the concept of" casserole myth." Having rejected codified, totalizing theories or belief systems, Kushner turns instead to an organic, open-ended worldview. He describes the process by which this worldview comes into being in the afterword to Perestroika:"I have been blessed with remarkable friends, colleagues, comrades, collaborators: Together we organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery; and we help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace, and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. (158)"
It is this process of organizing for themselves their understanding of the world in which we see Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah engaged in the play's closing scene. Drawing from Jewish, Christian, and Mormon sacred stories, they create together a new Story, a new myth, the myth of their future cleansing and Prior's healing in the restored fountain of Bethesda.5 Note that this Story is not a theory; it is not codified, nor does it attempt to totalize human experience. Louis hastens to assure the audience that he and the other characters regard the myth as a metaphor, not a literal prophecy ("Not literally in Jerusalem, I mean we don't want this to have sort of Zionist implications" [148]). But its metaphorical nature does not lessen the myth's importance as a space in which a variety of belief systems come together in a mutual expression of hope for the future.
It is this space which I call a casserole myth. I borrow the term" casserole" from my Latin American studies: unlike North Americans, who have traditionally regarded their culture as a melting pot, Latin Americans describe their culture as a casserole (cazuela), i.e., as a combination of elements from a variety of cultures--Native American, Spanish, African, etc.--each of which has retained its identity rather than being assimilated into a mainstream culture. To borrow a phrase from Angels in America, Latin Americans regard their culture as a"melting pot where nothing melted" (Millennium 10). Similarly, what I term a casserole myth is a combination of beliefs, these beliefs not being assimilated or reconciled into some new totalizing religious system, but rather retaining their own identity in what becomes a non-codified, non-totalizing understanding of the world which expresses itself through a diversity of religious motifs and symbols.

In this respect, perhaps the most astonishing and complex accomplishment of Angels is how Kushner dramatizes the effects of these opposed worldviews in the lives of his characters. Those characters who propound totalistic ideologies -- a belief system which demands that everything be fit into its proper place, a closed system where further thought and exploration are forbidden, and where"impermissible" thoughts or actions are condemned -- end up alone, in pain, or dead. Thus, Cohn dies in agony; and Joe and Harper are alone when the drama concludes (although there might be hope for both of them).

But the characters who appear in the final scene -- Prior, Louis, Belize and, of all people, Hannah (Joe's mother) -- are willing to explore new avenues, both in thought and action. They are willing to look at all of life, and rejoice in its complexity, infuriating complications, and, to put it simply, just how messy it can often be. But they accept it (which does not mean that they do not judge it), without demanding that every development and occurrence be forced into a preexisting ideological framework, whether or not that framework can accommodate it. They accept it, and say: More life. But the others will not or cannot do that -- and as a result, they suffer loneliness or death, and life is lost to them. The ideologies and/or politics that they champion finally destroy them.

One other aspect of Angels should be noted. As I discussed in my first post about the play, Kushner demonstrates great compassion, and even love, for all of his characters, even those (like Cohn) whose politics Kushner himself clearly despises. Thus, for example, we have the brief affair between Louis and Joe, and Louis' acknowledgment that Joe is a"decent and caring man," despite his Republicanism and Mormonism (both of which Louis hates). Joe is one of the most sympathetic characters in Angels in many ways. He is presented by Kushner himself as"decent and caring," and he struggles terribly with the conflict between his political/religious convictions and his homosexuality. But he, too, is willing to allow for change, for life to go on in unpredictable ways -- and after he leaves his wife and begins his affair with Louis, he"blossoms" and seems to be happy. At the play's conclusion, his ultimate fate is unclear, and we are not sure which path he will finally take.

But with regard to Kushner's compassion for and acceptance of life, and even of those characters whose political beliefs might be loathsome, note that Belize, who acknowledges that he hates Cohn, helps Cohn in the course of his illness. And after Cohn has died, it is Belize who makes certain that the Kaddish is recited over Cohn's body. In another remarkable scene that is part reality, part fantasy, Louis says Kaddish --with an assist from Ethel Rosenberg's ghost. The inclusion of Rosenberg in this passage is, as Louis says,"miraculous" -- although there is, of course, that special ending to the Kaddish (which I will not spoil for anyone who hasn't yet seen it). And with regard to Cohn's death, Belize talks about how hard it is to forgive, about how forgiveness wouldn't be as meaningful if it weren't so difficult, but that"maybe a queen can forgive a vanquished foe" -- and that forgiveness is perhaps where"love and justice meet."

Louis and Ethel Rosenberg saying Kaddish over Cohn's body captures one part of the division that Kushner addresses: the crucial need for a spiritual path, as well as a political and ideological one -- how all three parts of that tripartite model are needed to accept life in all its richness. Kushner also emphasizes that we must accept our bodies, and rejoice in our sexuality. As the Angel says to Hannah:"The body is the garden of the soul." And it is the Angel's demonstration to Hannah of what that means that helps Hannah to free herself from the ways in which her ideological system, her Mormonism, has strangled her soul. Thus does Kushner show us that body and soul must be united before we can fully accept what life has to offer.

There are a few additional passages from Angels that I want to mention, in large part because they show another element that I haven't mentioned sufficiently: the richness and beauty of much of its language. In one of the final scenes between Belize and Cohn, Cohn asks Belize about the afterlife. Belize describes a city like San Francisco, and offers a wealth of detail about it. Toward the end of his description, Belize says that"all the deities are Creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers." And he concludes by saying:"Race, taste, and history...finally overcome. And you ain't there." Cohn asks:"And heaven?" And Belize says:"That was heaven, Roy."

In Harper's final scene, she describes how she believes the ozone layer will be repaired (the ozone layer has been one of Harper's many obsessions): how souls arising from the dead on earth all join hands, and form atoms which plug up the holes which had been there. And she says:"Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there's a kind of painful progress, longing for what we've left behind...and dreaming ahead."

And in one of my favorite moments, Hannah is consoling Prior, who has been hospitalized again. Despite all their apparent differences, Hannah and Prior connect in a very meaningful way -- precisely because, whatever their explicit ideologies may be, they are alive, and they see what is before them. Prior had told Hannah a few things about the Angel that appeared to him, and he admits how frightened he is of the experience. And Hannah tells him:"An angel is a belief...with wings and arms to carry you. It's not to be afraid of. And if it can't hold you up, seek for something new."

And, believe it or not, there is still much, much more than I haven't even mentioned. But I think this gives you an idea of the richness, the complexity, the humor, the pain, the anger, the love, and the countless other elements that make up Angels in America. In Prior's insistence on"more life" -- despite his sickness, despite his pain, despite everything that the Angels believe should make him welcome death -- we witness a great testament to the healing power of our spirits, our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, all the complexities and contradictions that make us human, and to the healing power of life itself. In this sense, life is its own answer, and we need no other. As Prior says at the very end of this miraculous journey:"You are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you. More life. The great work begins."

Against all this, we have Andrew Sullivan's entries about the play. Reviewing his archives for several weeks beginning at the end of November, we find the following items about Tony Kushner and Angels in America. There is this one:

POSEUR ALERT II:"His conversation is quick, emphatic, torrential — it comes in complete paragraphs, which themselves come complete with footnotes, jokes and marginalia. The word"dialectic" puts in frequent appearances, and questions about God are liable to be answered with references to 18th-century astronomers." - from the latest New York Times puff-piece on Tony Kushner. There's also a lovely Freudian slip in the text, as a friend pointed out to me in an email:"The writer quotes Kushner: 'Brecht was like a light bulb going off.' Leaving the fledgling dramatist in complete darkness, it seems."

Then there is this one:

'ANGELS' FLOPS: You know that the emperor is sparsely clad when even some of the contributors to the New York Times forums concede they fell asleep in the middle of"Angels in America." The NYT has devoted week after week and page after page to the most glowing hype about this production I can remember. So did almost every other major outlet. I read nothing but raves. (No, I haven't watched it yet. I just got cable two days ago. But I will try and slog through it this Sunday, as I did with the original, interminable stage production.) But the ratings were execrable, despite the massive hype. Hmmm. Could it be that Frank Rich is wrong, and that this pretentious left-wing screed is, er, just a pretentious left-wing screed?

And this one:

ANOTHER 'ANGELS' REVIEW:"I turned it off after the first hour. As a socially progressive Republican from a Catholic background, I was looking forward to what promised to be a nice mix of spirituality and commentary on one of our most pressing cultural issues. It wasn't the leftist propaganda that turned me off - although that certainly didn’t help - but the biggest problem I had with the film was that it was just a bad movie. The scenes of the movie that supposedly brought spirituality into the mix were a convoluted mess that reminded me of a cheesy play. The characters weren't written poorly, but the screenplay wasn't written well as a whole. Pacino, of course, carried the movie as much as he could. And the one thing that could have redeemed the film, its attempt at humor, failed miserably - even the supposedly humorous scenes seemed to turn their nose up at the audience. More than anything, it was just a long, drawn out, poorly written film that exuded a holier-than-thou leftist elitism. I just wish critics would have the guts to say so."

And this one:

CRITIQUES OF 'ANGELS': Here are two actual reviews of"Angels in America," the leftist play hailed by every living critic as a masterpiece for the ages. Dale Peck sees its datedness, as well as its merits. Timothy Hulsey is much tougher. Money quote:"The scenes and speeches in Angels never add up, perhaps because Kushner's characters don't change or progress much over time. Roy Cohn, the one major character who never fails to impress audiences (and who gives actors a chance to tear off whole chunks of scenery with their teeth), starts the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch, and ends the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch. Prior Walter, the protagonist, begins the play as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund, and ends as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund. You'd think that angels and AIDS would have had more of an impact on these guys, but no." I also didn't realize that Kushner had written an earlier play equating tolerance of Ronald Reagan with aquiescence in Nazism. Ahead of his time, for a change.

And this one:

ANGELS DROOPS: The most brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary work of art since, er, Frank Rich started writing for the New York Times slipped again in the ratings last week. Its first audience of 4.2 million slipped to 2.9 million for the finale, according to Hollywood Reporter. A reader's defense of 'Angels' can be read here.

The"reader's defense" is worth reading in its entirety. I give Sullivan a few points for publishing it, and it concludes this way:

I used to enjoy reading your blog, though I didn't always agree with your politics. However, after reading this continual diatribe against"Angels," I've lost my taste for your writing. You're more concerned with scoring points against Kushner than giving the play a decent critique. Indeed, I notice you haven't cited any positive reviews of"Angels" in your blog. But I guess when you're pushing an agenda, that's not too important.

And...that's it, to date. In view of the detail I have offered about Kushner's work, I do not think it necessary to characterize Sullivan's treatment of this extraordinary achievement. However, I will note that I find it close to incomprehensible that Sullivan, a gay man, cannot even acknowledge the treatment of a character like Joe, and Kushner's searing portrayal of the terrible costs exacted by an ideology that condemns the actions of gay men, even as it continues to insist that it"loves the sinner."

But I believe that Sullivan himself -- together with innumerable other people of both Right and Left, many of whom place the demands of ideology above all else -- perfectly encapsulates the tragedy that Kushner dramatizes with a character like Roy Cohn. When ideological strictures trump everything, you finally deny yourself the complexities, the reality, and the rewards of life itself. In this sense, a sense much deeper than Sullivan's focus on an issue such as Kushner's treatment of Reagan's attitude toward gays and AIDS, Sullivan is Cohn -- and Sullivan, together with all the other conservatives which he so perfectly embodies, is indeed the"soul of modern conservatism."

So there is your choice: on one hand, you have an unbending ideology, which will force everything into its required place -- or dispense with it altogether, and ultimately destroy it. You have damnations such as"pretentious left-wing screed,""interminable,""poorly written,""holier-than-thou leftist elitism,"" cheesy play" -- all offered without a shred of supporting evidence -- and you have the dismissal of a writer of extraordinary talent as a"fledgling dramatist [left] in complete darkness."

And on the other hand, you have the full embrace of life -- the embrace of our bodies, our sexuality, our religions with all their diversity, our political beliefs in all their complexity, our minds and our emotions, and all the myriad ways in which we can connect with each other, if only we will allow ourselves to do so. You have an angel that can" carry you," you have a world of continuity, of ongoing struggle and joy, where"nothing's lost forever" -- and most of all, you have more life.

Each of us, of course, is free to make his or her own choice. I've made mine. What's yours?

Cross-posted at Light of Reason

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