Did this ever happen to you? Sitting in a small room, narrow street outside, constant moving about inside, attending and attending to every intense detail, resting, a haphazard glance, combining sensation and perception as things start to quicken and to fall apart, colors, congealing patterns, the clearing a space, the Revelation of an angel and the promise of liberation, illusion & fabrication, painting, folk art, making do with the faint light of a technical artifice. This is as good as it gets. From a 1914 entry in Kafka’s Diaries:
25 June. I paced up and down my room from early morning unto twilight. The window was open, it was a warm day. The noise of the narrow street beat in uninterruptedly. By now I knew every trifle in the room from having looked at in the course of my pacing up and down. My eyes had travelled over ever wall. I had pursued the pattern of the rug to its last convolution, noted every mark of age it bore. My fingers had spanned the table across the middle many times. I had already bared my teeth repeatedly at the picture of the landlady’s dead husband.
Towards evening I walked over to the window and sat down on the low sill. Then, for the first time not moving restlessly about, I happened calmly to glance into the interior of the room and at the ceiling, And finally, finally unless I were mistaken, this room which I had so violently upset began to stir. The tremor began at the edges of the thinly plastered white ceiling. Little pieces of plaster broke off with a distinct thud fell here and there, as if at random, to the floor. I held out my hand and some plaster fell into it too; in my excitement I threw it over my head and into the street without troubling to turn around. The cracks in the ceiling made no pattern yet, but it was already possible somehow to imagine one. But I put these games aside when a bluish violet began to mix with the white; it spread straight out from the centre of the ceiling, which itself remained white, even radiantly white, where the shabby electric lamp was stuck., Wave after wave of the colour —or was it light?—spread out towards the now darkening edges. One no longer paid any attention to the plaster that was falling away as if under the pressure of skillfully applied tool. Yellow and golden-yellow colours now penetrated the violet from the side. But the ceiling did not really take on these different hues; the colours merely made it somewhat transparent; things striving to break through seemed to be hovering above it, already one could almost see the outlines of a movement there, an arm was thrust out, a silver sword swung to and fro. It was meant for me, there was no doubt of that; a vision intended from my liberation was being prepared.
I sprang upon the table to make everything ready, tore out the electric light together with its brass fixture and hurled it to the floor, then jumped down and pushed the table from the middle of the room to the wall. That which was striving to appear could drop down unhindered on the carpet and announce to me whatever it had to announce. I had barely finished when the ceiling did in fact break open. In the dim light, still at a great height, I had judged it badly, an angel in bluish-violet robes girt with gold cords sank slowly down on great white silken-shining wings, the sword in its raised arm thrust out horizontally. ‘An angel then!’ I thought; ‘it has been flying towards me all the day and in my disbelief I did not know it. Now it will speak to me.’ I lowered my eyes. When I raised them again the angel was still there, it is true, hanging rather far off under the ceiling (which had closed again), but it was no living angel, only a painted wooden figurehead off the prow of some ship, one of the kind that hangs from the ceiling in sailors’ taverns, nothing more.
The hilt of the sword was made in such a way as to hold candles and catch the dripping tallow. I had pulled the electric light down; I didn’t want to remain in the dark, there was still one candle left, so I got up on a chair, stuck the candle into the hilt of the sword, lit it, and sat late into the night under the angel’s faint flame. (Diaries, pp.390-2)
I remember reading about this bit of angelic visitation in Robert Alter’s Necessary Angels, a splendid meditation on modernism and religion relating to Benjamin, Kafka, and Scholem. I came across Alter’s book more than ten years ago when I was trying to get a grasp on “modernism,” a key term with which I wanted to make sense of Buber and Rosenzweig. On my recent foray into Kafka, I stumbled upon it again. This time I was expecting to find it. I knew it was there.
What I like about this little text is the mixing of immediacy and mediation, brightly radiant revelation and cheap shabby technologies, the refusal to sit in the dark in the decision to make do with faint light. Buber and Rosenzweig also understood the importance of mediation, namely prophetic-poetic language. What you won’t find in Buber and Rosenzweig that you do find in Kafka is the more arch performance in addition to the sly shabbiness.
(I’m willing to bet that Tony Kushner grabbed this bit of Kafka for the visitation scene in Angels in America. As for the angels in Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition V , they appear in the upper right and left quadrants. Buber, Kafka, Kandinsky, Rosenzweig were all expressionists, each in their own media, each in their own way. A creature of the 1980s, Kushner, like the great Anselm Kiefer, is a neo-expressionist.)