[Alexander Louis Leloir’s painting of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)]
In a scene from the 2003 HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Joe comes home to his wife (named “Harper” and nicknamed “buddy”), with whom he’d just had a fight the previous night, and tells her about Jacob wrestling with the Angel (see clip; part 1, chapter 2). He had this book of bible stories as a kid and there was this image that, he says, he looked at “twenty times every day”; he doesn’t “even remember the story, or why they’re wrestling—just the picture.” Struck by it, Joe now offers the image as the answer to the question his wife had asked the previous night. This was the question that, because it had gone unanswered, or had only been further closeted with answers, had led to the fight, the question that Joe, teary-eyed, indirectly answers by describing the image:
Jacob is young, and very strong. And the Angel is a … beautiful man with … golden hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it, many nights, and … it’s me, in that struggle … fierce and unfair. The Angel’s not human and it holds nothing back … so how can anyone human win? What kind of a fight is that? It’s not just! Soul thrown down to dust, your heart torn out from God’s, but … you can’t not lose …
What is Joe wrestling, as it were, to say here? Who is the angel that Jacob is wrestling with? What does the angel signify in this story, in Joe’s memory? And what is it about Jacob with which Joe identifies? The scene that Joe recreates from memory is a fight, in some ways a repetition of what took place between him and his wife, indeed a physical manifestation of what almost, but did not, verbally come out in last night’s fight. On the surface, the angel is the adversary with whom Joe, in the person of Jacob, finds himself fighting, the danger from which he aims to liberate himself in a contest in which he wants to “not lose” but fears he “can’t not” … In other words, the scene, as Joe presents it, is a struggle, a relation of conflict, of hostility, an intricate contest with the enemy. And yet Jacob, as Joe also says, is “young and very strong,” the angel “beautiful,” “golden,” “a beautiful man with golden hair and wings,” the two engaged in a fight Joe “still dream[s] about […] many nights.” The scene that Joe recreates as a belated answer, truer than the direct answers he had given the previous night, is thus not just a fight, but the layering of multiple fights on top of each other, fights, as it were, multiply doubled, or a fight doubling itself into multiple forms: the answer that Joe couldn’t give in the fight (with his wife) is itself a fight (between man and angel) that he aims not to but knows he will lose, something he at the same time unconsciously wants to lose, i.e. a given both resisted and desired, fighting inside of him (“it’s me, in that struggle”), the two sides, the(ir) doubleness, the cause of both the fight/s and of the dream of its passing/return, what Joe is both, and “still,” fighting for/against. Thus the contestatory, undecidable space between two sides, the suspension of doubleness characterized by struggle, what Joe refers to as a “fight,” is, through the recreation of a memory / the painting of fantasy, the answer that, after all, if indirectly, Joe gives to his wife to suspend its (re)surfacing, the process of going around in circles ultimately providing, through doubling, the answer in like kind.
In this (multiply doubled) fight, Joe identifies the angel as the enemy. “The Angel’s not human,” he says, “and it holds nothing back,” which makes the fight “fierce and unfair.” Celestial, the angel is not only more powerful; he is unburdened by the rules of men, which, it can be inferred, is what gives him power: “hold[ing] nothing back,” the angel does what he wants, unlike Joe who cannot answer the question, who cannot bear the answer. This makes the angel beautiful, seductive, like his robe and wings, white but thick, ruffled, shaded, impure, amoral, out of this world—his power, seduction, and otherness, the way that he’s “not human,” both constituting a threat and inciting desire (which may be the more fatal threat), hence his designation as the enemy to be defeated, disavowed … The angel is the opponent, Joe says, he “holds nothing back,” yet once he’d caught Joe, once Jacob had been enclosed, the angel struggles to be let go, he holds back. That is, the struggle is not only threatening and seductive, but seductive and frustrating, frustrating thereby seductive, “fierce and unfair.” Jacob’s youthful strength emanates from his body, the shapes sculpted by his muscles the dark match of the ones on the angel. The power expressed on Jacob’s body mark not so much the effort to defeat or escape from an enemy, but the exertion, seemingly much stronger than the angel’s, to hold the angel down, keep him there, embrace him. Joe says that the angel “holds nothing back,” yet it is man who is naked, whose strength is more pronounced, who has the clear and determined expression on his face, who’s disrobed from the darkness of red to uncover his darker flesh. This is in contrast to the angel, whose body is covered by cloth, whose face is subdued, frugal, who seems to want to stop what is happening. The scene is supposed to be a struggle, but it is less adversarial than erotic, indeed erotic at its root, the vigorous expression of Jacob’s desire to pull the angel to the ground, down to his world, to make him stay—in which, however, the angel holds back, shows restraint by hiding his face, by attempting to fly off. The holding back makes Jacob want to hold on tighter, makes Joe still dream about the angel. In other words, the withholding of the higher being is the hook that seduces desire that at the same time frustrates it indefinitely, impossibly, thus seducing man, in fact inflaming his desire—and all over again … “What kind of a fight is that?” Joe asks. “It’s not just.” Your heart is torn out from God’s, but and by that very fact you constantly seek God, but instead you find his messenger, the angel, you think he’ll lift you up from dust, but, in fact, you’re just pulling him down—but, as it turns out, you can’t do that either. “You can’t not lose.”
The angel is indeed a celestial being, but the lowest kind—an unworthy substitute, a debased supplement, not much higher than man. “Are you a homo?” Joe’s wife asks him the previous night. This is the question to which Joe offers multiple answers: “No.” “What if I am …?” “Does it make any difference that I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I fought with everything I have to kill it?” And then: the duplicitous image of man wrestling with the angel. The angel that man is wrestling with, as it turns out, is not that different from himself, not much higher, is in fact intimately related to him: simultaneously the ideal desired and the fellow fallen. The angel, in other words, is the double of man, and in multiple senses: the other image of himself, the object of desire and the subject of prohibition, the figure by which man works through his all-too-human desires. The figure of the angel, not that different from man, indeed based on man, intimates how man is his own narcissistic object of desire and author of the law that prohibits this abject desire for oneself, man’s abjection in the first place the reason why the angel is desired and why the angel, the higher being, withholds. In other words, because he is a desiring being, man is in a fight with himself, the other with whom he’s fighting figured in the form of an angel, the double that allows man to get at his duplicitous, abject/narcissistic desire through triangulation. Thinking that he’s fighting the angel, who’s unjustly and impossibly imposing on him, Joe has in fact taken up its role, forbidding his desires thinking that this gives him power (to control his desires), unconsciously identifying with the angel against and in order to repair the pre-given identification with Jacob, the man who holds on to the angel, i.e. man and his wretched desire. In the process, Joe denies as well what draws him to the angel in the first place, what makes him not want to let it go, namely, human desire and its paradox, this suspending it in its doubleness and perpetuating it in a crisis state, causing it to resurface every now and then in increasingly tensed fights with Harper. Is this the only choice? Can man really recognize and let the angel come out of the closet, in its doubleness? But the angel is itself debased, but a pawn in the condition of doubleness that keeps man, in his desire, in a vicious circle. Is it only through this abject/narcissistic form of power that is the angel, the queer triangulation of divine prohibition and abject desire, that man, in his fallen condition, has any fighting chance at fulfillment at all?