Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.

Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):

… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.

Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.

I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.

I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.

As you read my response, understand “genius” as a synonym for “angel:”

Funny, yeah, the genius of the place does still seem somewhat irritated at our presence …

Never thought of it in those terms. But I should have, for I have long believed in such genii when it came to striking places like cathedrals, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Gettysburg, and so forth. No reason that humbler places – houses, crossroads, taverns, roadside shrines – shouldn’t have their own genii too.

One of the things about ugly architecture is that it might by its incoherence or sheer wrongness frustrate the inhabitation of such genii. That may be part of what makes such places seem so dead. Evil, even; perhaps especially bad architecture attracts evil genii.

The archetypal example is the Pirelli Building in New Haven, which has assaulted me physically every time I have visited Yale. The building reads as a corporeal attack. Google “ugly building Connecticut” and the first result will be a page that includes the Pirelli building. When you are up close to it, you feel an urge to run away. Getting inside the Ikea next door feels like a huge relief; almost like stepping from a noisy noisome street into a vast dim quiet old church redolent of hymnals and beeswax.

How bad does a building have to be for an Ikea store to feel of all things soft and humane by comparison?

The Pirelli Building has apparently been standing vacant for about 25 years. No one can stand to work there, is my guess …

I’m sure you must in your career have entered hundreds of buildings that felt just intensely wrong. And a few – like your own comfortable, elegant house – that just somehow feel right.

Upon reflection, I’m sure there is something to this notion. As another friend – a psychologist who works closely with one of our local Roman Catholic dioceses on cases of exorcism, and has attended quite a few of them – remarked to me a few weeks ago in a conversation about demonic possession versus psychopathology, it is hard to see how psychopathology could fail to attract demonic attention, and it is equally hard to see how even a tiny bit of demonic attention could fail to engender some degree of psychopathology. Defective acts, and defective minds, that as such are weaker under demonic attack, and thus fitter prey for demonic predations, would seem to attract the demons as blood in the waters attracts sharks. And demonic attention just is harmful – is, i.e., pathological.

As with messed up minds, so with messed up buildings – which, after all, are themselves artifacts of messed up minds, that wrongly saw their own insanity, and their insane projections onto corporeal reality, as good.

So, architectural oppression is effectually demonic oppression. An ugly place is an evil place, and vice versa. The Laws of Form that Christopher Alexander has noticed, that generate life and order and beauty, are angelic; their abrogations are demonic. His Pattern Language is the language of the Logos for human building. The devil confuses our discourse by his lies; in our building, he confuses and wrecks the Pattern Language with his noises.

My realtor friend replied:

Yup! Cannot tell you the number of times I have walked into a place with clients that has few if any of the features they have told me they want, and their response is that indeed it does not have anything that they thought they wanted, but that “it just feels right.”

And your new house WILL shape up.

Just took a long look at the ugly building in Connecticut. Wow. Is the architect still working?

I responded:

Marcel Breuer died in 1981. RIP. He needs it! This is his notion of a church:

Run for your lives! And, “Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here …”

The really horrible thing is that the monstrosity above was commissioned by an American monastery as an abbey church. In 1961, natch. The rot had by then set well in, and deeply. Vatican II was but a late sequela.

That belfry says, “We are your new insect overlords from the Planet Nebular, and we are here to fix you. Submit, or you shall be liquefied.” The face of the chapel is literally that of a hive.

I read through the Wikipedia article on Breuer, and it turns out he was the fair-haired boy of mid-century architecture. He was one of the four or five most important architects on the planet. It’s shocking. It’s insane. The following passage stood out from the article:

Breuer designed the Washington, D.C. headquarters building for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which was completed in 1968. While the building received some initial praise, in recent decades it has received widespread criticism. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp once described the building as “10 floors of basement.” Another former Secretary, Shaun Donovan, has noted that “the building itself is among the most reviled in all of Washington – and with good reason.”

Now *that* is a formidable architectural achievement.

Want to know what’s even more disturbing? The insanity continues in some quarters. Here’s a recent piece from the Hartford Courant that describes the Pirelli Building in glowing terms: “eye candy,” “sexy” (is there any higher encomium than that, to the modern mind?), “iconic,” and so forth. If it was written honestly, then it was written by a deeply ill mind, that thinks whatever is ugly must be cool. Or by a fool. But maybe not; the reporter – or is it his unconscious? – sneaks in a few backhanded compliments, praising with faint damns: “a corporate Borg Cube.” Either way, the article is profoundly confused and wicked, gushing as it does over that insult to the builder’s art, and to the eye. The article is enthusiastically promoting that ugliness. It’s like gushing over Charles Manson because he’s “edgy” or “transgressive.”

Here’s Breuer’s HUD headquarters building:

So here’s my question: if the 9/11 hijackers really wanted to destroy an evil target, why did they pick the relatively innocuous vaguely Art Deco Pentagon rather than this obvious work of the Evil One?

I suppose the question answers itself: they were in the service of that Evil One. Almost any building in Washington, then – the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian, the National Cathedral, even FBI Headquarters – would have been a choicer target for them than the HUD headquarters, for none of them are a hundredth as horrible and evil as it is.

These considerations shed some light both on haunting and oppression; and, likewise, on inspiration.

As demons and angels haunt and wreak, so do human acts. Acts leave permanent marks upon their causal vicinity. This to say no more than that acts have effects. A house can be haunted by a murder, or a church by worship. The form of the human act is impressed upon the corporeal form of its vicinity, whether or not we can measure the presence of that form with our human instruments of measurement.

In like manner, the human soul marks the human body and forms it, even though we have no way to measure the presence of the soul, but only of the body. Note however that we could not in the first place tell that we were examining a human body, unless it first partook of its form – of its soul – so that it was to begin with the body of a human, rather than of a puddle.

Particles partake the form of the being they constitute, whether or not that form can be distinguished physically (usually, it can’t, other than by such heuristic placeholders – nothing more than black boxes, really – as “the billiard ball,” or, “the photon”). The particle of me is *of me,* or else it has nothing to do with me. Insofar as it is of me, I mark it with my characteristic marks (whatever they might be)(and, admittedly, vice versa). This, regardless of whether those my marks can be distinguished by scientific instruments, or eyes, or minds. Either it is of me, or not. If it is, then is it so marked.

So may places marked by great evil – as, say, Auschwitz or Little Big Horn – affect us powerfully by echoes of that evil – whether to attract us evilly thereto, or (more usually) to warn us, and so chasten and rectify us. So likewise may relics of saints comfort, console, salve, heal, repair, enliven and envigor.

When I visited Saint Mark’s in Venice, I came within three score inches of the body of that saint. I could feel his sanctity coming off the altar of his entombment in palpable waves. Apprehending his bones, I then apprehended the bones of his Resurrection Body, that shall live forevermore; and so, his Resurrection Body called out to mine, and encouraged me toward our conjoint destiny.

So may we now and then come to a place that, so far as our scientific instruments that measure mass and radiation can tell us, is nothing but rocks and dirt – but that, in truth, bears in its rock and dirt the mark and form and character of beings in whose lives it has become involved. Can our instruments tell us that it was Jerry who stopped by the corner store at 10:00 AM today? No. Nevertheless the store, in every aspect of its present configuration, is marked by Jerry’s visit – i.e., by Jerry himself, his intentions, feelings, responses. The present state of the physical aspects of the store, that our instruments can indeed detect, is in part a function of Jerry and his visit.

Excursus: this is an interesting notion. The present physical state of the store Jerry visited this morning – where he left physical traces even though he did not buy anything or say anything to anyone – that any scientific instrument whatever could conceivably register, is a function of all that has therein ever (from the very beginning) happened. It is, i.e., a function in part of the politics of those who have there interacted, of their family lives, of their feelings, of their forebears, of their bank accounts and of all their prior acts that have influenced those bank balances, of their local reputations, of their preferences for this or that good on this or that day, and so on ad infinitum. No particle of the store could have attained to its present state as measurable by any conceivable scientific instrument or sensory apparatus of any sort whatever except insofar as it took exhaustive account of all its causal factors, be they physical, social, psychological, spiritual, supernatural, or anything else whatever.

So: no particle whatever can be just what it is except insofar as it is itself an exhaustive account – whether or not that account is adequate (almost none are, or can be) – of all that is.

And, obviously, no particle can be measured except insofar as in the first place it actually is. So, when we measure even only the mere velocity or position of a particle, we cannot but in so doing measure the effect upon it of all its factors along all the dimensions that really deform its path. These factors include all the feelings and all the evaluations and preferences of all its causal predecessors.

All human acts are works upon many causal factors, both angelic and demonic. A human act is an integration of prior creaturely acts, all of which are themselves integrations of yet prior acts; and in all such acts, the angels and demons both exert their influences. When and where a great evil is committed, the angel of that evil is there, and that mundane evil partakes and instantiates him; so he informs the whole vicinity, and wrecks it. When and where a great good is committed, the angel of that good is there, and the good partakes and instantiates him; so he informs the whole vicinity, and works it.

The ghosts that haunt a haunted house are terrifying to us because ghosts are somehow or other themselves demonically oppressed to the point of being entrapped by the demonically imposed defects of their native natural agency – this being what prevents their departure from this sphere for Purgatory. So are they themselves local salients of demonic influence, in just the way that a man marked and deformed by demons may infect and ruin those whose lives he touches. The evil ghosts that haunt a haunted house can suck us into their evil, willy nilly.

But then, the ghosts that haunt a shrine or a cathedral on the other hand are reassuring because they are local salients of angelic influence. They make us feel good because they are good, and because they do good; not least, because in our encounter with them, they form us and do us good.

As with our buildings, so with our bodies, and our minds; aye, with our families, our cultures, and our societies. Insofar as any sorts of creaturely things are deformed, ugly, or defective, they are then ipso facto the haunts of demons, and local fonts of demonic influence. And vice versa.

This is why all the saints abjure us to avoid the occasions of sin: the loci where demonic influence is strong. It is why they adjure us to faithfully iterated worship, both at Mass and in prayer. So doing, they adjure us to seek the loci where the angels exert peculiar, particularly effectual influence upon us.

This is why our mothers and fathers abjured us to avoid the wrong side of the tracks, and the ill sort of companions.

Wherever there is evil influence, there is demonic influence. There is the temptation to the easy downward path. There is death, and ignominy.

[Pater,] ne nos inducas in tentationem: sed libera nos a malo.

7 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

  1. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels | Reaction Times

  3. The early Twentieth Century horror-story writers understood the principle that you elucidate in your post. Architecture figures prominently in H. P. Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft made a public show of being a materialist and an atheist, but his sensitivity to the relationship between ugliness and evil is only explicable on the theory that, whatever he professed, in his heart he remained a man of moral, and particularly of Christian, conviction. The first thing that came to mind when I saw the photograph of Breuer’s abbey-church was sunken R’lyeh in Lovecraft’s description of it in his gripping 1926 tale, “The Call of Cthulhu.” As an allegory, “The Call of Cthulhu” addresses the degeneracy of modernity. Modernity is the time, as Lovecraft sees it, of the resurgence of human sacrifice. The titular “call” is the call to participate in sacrificial rituals and to immolate victims.

  4. Yet another example of weird synchronicity — an email that I sent yesterday to Kristor about an”Anthropological Architecture” article on Leonard Krier(https://home.isi.org/anthropological-architecture/) — closed with my snark, “If a contemporary Methodist worship center had consciousness, would it self-identify as a church?” Moreover, when I first wrote the line, I had something like, “If a Methodist worship center could talk (or rather if we could understand it), . . .” I then changed that because I figured Kristor would find that too “out there.” And roughly about the same time, he was finishing up this post. Mr. Auster must be smiling in his soul.

    I suppose that souls smile quite often on the other side.

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