Friday, August 7, 2015

The better nature of our angels: Amy Schumer meets John Milton, with help from a couple of major literary critics

I'll say up front that I've been watching more "Daily Show" excerpts than ever in the past week, leading up to Jon Stewart's finale last night. One of the YouTube clips that popped up on my feed was Amy Schumer's appearance. I was curious about that because of the lamentable "Trainwreck" shooting last month in Louisiana. That was my unusually sobering introduction to Amy Schumer.

Amy Schumer: An unforgettable image
As YouTube helpfully does when you've finished clicking on a video, a list drops down full of related items. So, a gamy buffet of Amy Schumer monologues and other stuff was set before me. Today, despite my aversion to her brand of raunchy humor, I watched this one, titled "Slutty Friend." It was enthralling, but mostly with respect to one clever image that will haunt me for a long time.

I have to do a bit of set-up, in case you don't want to go to the monologue right away. The comedian was describing a good friend who became a different person after she moved to Connecticut. But for the sake of the old friendship, she invited Amy to a wedding shower in her upscale town. All the other guests were stuck-up young women, dressing differently from her, talking differently from her — generally polishing their poshness in Amy's face.

They all spoke in a near-whisper, for instance. A young woman named Bridget talked the softest: "Bridget talked," Schumer says, "like an angel was sleeping on her tongue."

You couldn't get more ridiculously status-conscious than Bridget, as Schumer describes her in that wonderful simile. The supposition that an angel was sleeping on the snob's tongue cuts two ways: This apprentice socialite was protective of the favor she had been shown by the presence of an angel that she had been charged with not disturbing. Alternatively, the angel itself was honored to have found a place of rest in such a worthy mouth here in the wicked sublunary world.

Bridget was thus exalted, either in her own mind or by a supernatural agency. But the angel, in Schumer's formulation, is irrevocably altered, reduced to miniature human scale. In a narrative, all attributes of God and His messengers are recast in human terms. While skewering Bridget, Schumer also managed to render an angel the unconscious agent of a satirical thrust in the comedian's story. Bridget's pretentiousness implodes, but a resident of heaven has had to be brought down.

John Milton couldn't help himself.
This point is made in a book I'm reading by Denis Donoghue, "Adam's Curse: Reflections on Religion & Literature." Donoghue is arguing against the critics of John Milton's "Paradise Lost" who find the poet unorthodox, possibly even heretical, in making characters out of two members of the Godhead, leaving the Holy Spirit high and dry, as well as giving human characteristics to some high-ranking angels. As narrative figures, how are they really different from Adam and Eve?

Donoghue defends Milton by citing the unavoidable truth: As soon as an entity of any kind talks, it becomes human. There is no way pure theology can survive the transformations of narrative. Everything God says in the Bible undercuts some aspect of faith in His transcendental nature, his absolute remoteness from his creatures.

"Language is a changer of nature, it changes every nature into human nature," Donoghue says, that comma splice indicating the urgency of his insight. "God has to put up with the indignity."

Thus, the nature of an angelic being in narrative — in this case, Schumer's story — is necessarily human, a tiny tongue-sleeper. The angel is real in some sense to both Bridget (though she doesn't know it) and Amy (who intuits it, and for that reason considers Bridget "the worst human I've ever met"). But the angel's reality is wholly absorbed into Bridget's character as interpreted by Schumer the storyteller.

Harold Bloom, a critic of a much different cast than Donoghue, says something apropos in his "Omens of Millennium," a stimulating, cluttered, repetitive treatise on "The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection" (the book's subtitle). He's also considering "Paradise Lost": "For Milton, " he writes, "angels were a mirror into which all of us gaze, and behold neither ourselves nor an absolute otherness, but a middle region where self and other mingle."

Bloom could have been talking about "Slutty Friend."  It is fitting that an angel is imagined to occupy this middle region between the opposite personalities of Bridget and Amy, and that it is resting on the body part that enables us to articulate the noises we send up from our vocal cords, creating a large part of who we think we are.

Everything Bridget says in this situation is helplessly mediated by an unarticulated certainty of her superiority. But because Schumer controls the narrative, Bridget might as well have been rendered as speechless as her sleeping angel.

 They will just have to put up with the indignity.