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The Angel’s Cut – death and desire, sexuality and imagination, etc

December 23, 2014

I was just listening to the BBC In Our Time (with Melvyn Bragg) ‘Death’ podcast ( It seemed to me that the discussion this podcast offers is somehow very relevant to a critical reading of The Angel’s Cut, by Elizabeth Knox.

Some quotes from this podcast that interest me (less sensible taken out of context as they are here) include:

Thomas Lynch: “The whole narrative of the fall is central to the way we think of things.” – and “The connection between desire and mortality is central to that story.”

Thomas Lynch: “Western culture has used it as the punctuation for life. Whether we end with exclamation points or full stops or question marks, as most of us do, death is the punctuation for the life we lead. No one takes a breath without knowing that there is a finite number of breaths. So, to the extent that we believe that death entered the world through this fall of man, that narrative is important to us.”

Speaking of Bishop Henry King’s The Exequy (and his anticipation of re-joining his young late wife in death), Marilyn Butler states:  “It’s the plot of the rest of his life.” How interesting – that a lover’s death and the anticipation of finding them in the afterlife could become ‘the plot of the rest of one’s life’. Is that what happens to Xas in some way? Is that why he gets a sequel and why it works so well?

Thomas Lynch discusses briefly “…the idea that the soul, this incorruptable thing, will outlive what is so manifestly corruptible.” He notes that “something we’ve gotten away from in modern times” is “the notion that a body rots and the soul doesn’t.” “The notion of the soul as metaphor for permanence; that we want and create as humans some measure of immortality; this is one of the reasons why people write; so that one sentence might survive them…. The idea that we get this free pass if we just behave ourselves is one that’s appealed to cultures, I think cross-culturally; it’s not just a Christian thing.”

Quoting poems… “Death is felt where life should be.” “Desire is death.” (How might we relate Xas’s character to such notions?)

Jonathan Dollimore: “Let me put it like this…: A child dies. Now, of course, we never forget and, if we loved the child – if we bore the child, we perhaps never recover. …The human being is permanently at odds with the reality in which they live. …For an organism to die in infancy is the norm of nature, not the exception. And yet for the human being, there’s something profoundly alienating about that fact. … At some level, to be human is to be alienated from the world in which we live. And death is both the reality and the metaphor for that alienation.”

Jonathan Dollimore, discussing Keats: “I think that in that poem, you have this sense …of the ecstasy of death; to be free from … “the weariness, the fever and the fret” – that is mortality; that is to be under the sway of time. And there is a sense that oblivion would be the peace that passes all understanding.”

So, when reading this (wonderful) book critically…

What of fate? of an external force on the individual? What of free will?

What role ‘desire’?

What role the Christian connection between sex and sin? What of Xas’s sexuality (without any accompanying mortality!)?

What of the soul? and its relationship with bodily desire? and with mortality?

What if (as an angel), you know exactly what “the Afterlife” is (there is no doubt around where death leads)? How does such knowledge shape the character’s story/life?

What of time – how is the passing of time punctuated by desire, love, death, etc. How does that create a story into which an angel like Xas fits so well? What do his experiences draw our attention to?

If Heaven is conceived of as a release from pain (discussed in this podcast), how do we make sense of Xas (his feelings, his troubles, his experiences – his story)?

Do we still feel the need to keep track of death; monitor it and make note of it? What is modern society’s relationship with death and How does the story of a character like Xas fit into such a culture?

What of human “unimagineability” and the role of fiction? (Does Xas’s desire to understand human thinking map on to our own desire to empathise with those around us? Does fiction not play an important role in this?)

And does it all connect somehow with the act of writing that Knox does so well? …and are there themes here from one of her books to the next that I hadn’t really thought of?

Just some random thoughts….

From → Knox Elizabeth

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