Stan Brakhage

This essay, “Angels in the Apparatus,” was published in The Chicago Review (Fall 2002)

…all that we call psychological projections are the movies of the angels—the home movies of angels are qualities of light held as if in mid air—any gathering of dust motes in the light records the passage of angels.
( from, “Angels” in Brakhage Scrapbook, 142-143)

Jean Cocteau was riding in the elevator up to Pablo Picasso’s apartment when the angel Heurtebise appeared to him. Cocteau, devastated over the death of his lover and protégé, the 20 year old poet Raymond Radiguet, was high on opium and in a state of hypnogogic hallucination, which he described as “a sleep that seemed interminable but turned out to have lasted half a second (Steegmuller, 349-50).” In this moment between waking and sleeping, Cocteau heard a voice calling to him saying, “My name is on the plate!” Jolted awake, he was faced with the brass door-plate of the elevator company. What he saw there, however, was not the actual company logo that was on the plate—the familiar “Otis Pifre” inscription that, with some variation, still brands most of the elevators we all ride everyday. Rather, Cocteau perceived the words “Heurtebise Elevator.” His angel—not an aura, not a visitation, not a haloed presence—was simply a voice, and a word. In the days after Heurtebise announced himself, Cocteau fell into a deep depression and was contemplating suicide. But his angel refused to let him go. Cocteau writes that for seven days he suffered a kind of “parthenogenesis, a couple made up of a single body that gives birth (Steegmuller, 350).” That “birth” is the poem “L’Ange Heurtebise.” It presumably was written by Heurtebise, against Cocteau’s will to die.

Stan Brakhage has always been haunted and inspired by the fact that this was the only time the angel actually appeared to Cocteau. At the Boulder Cafe last summer (sitting amidst a heaping pile of 16mm film, paints and brushes; drinking his signature Irish coffee and waiting for his steak Caesar), Brakhage said that it was testament to Cocteau’s genius that he could take this singular moment and use it to inspire a lifetime of films, plays, poems, and stories. Most people would be anxious to witness another encounter with their angel—to ask it questions about the future, to find out about dead loved ones. But, as Brakhage said, “Cocteau didn’t get a lot [from that initial encounter with his angel]–he just got this one poem. A lot of people would say, I need another visitation, I need something else. But Cocteau says no. He is so brilliant because he allows this one encounter to interweave with so much of his aesthetics.” But it is not simply the presence of Heurtebise in Cocteau’s work that is so significant to Brakhage—it is “that an angel can move through something so mundane as an elevator and change your life.” If an angel can move through an elevator, then it certainly can move through other mundane apparatuses—including cameras, paintbrushes, and pens. When this happens, the artist falls into a kind of trance, and believes it is the dictating-angel who is ultimately responsible for the creative act.

When Brakhage was very young, he believed himself to be a poet. Partly thanks to Orpheus, he came to the realization that film could be an art, and that a poet could also be a filmmaker. Rather than being a representation of images that make stories, Brakhage discovered how film can play on the edge of signification. The poets Brakhage is interested in (those who fall under what might be called the Pound/Stein/Duncan tradition) maneuver language and affect meaning by catalyzing the connections between sound (melopoeia), image (phanopoiea) and words (logopoeia). Brakhage, a poet-of-film who has remained deeply engaged with the concerns of poetry, realized that film and poetry work in the same way—but use different materials. Instead of using language, Brakhage uses light, color, and visual images in varying states of repetition and pattern to create the synthesis of sound, image and words.

Light, like words, enables us to see, “THROUGH INTO things.” As Brakhage writes in a 1964 letter to Yves Kovacs, “The things, as these words are things, will now put forth threads OF illumination entangling the viewer, reader, and each other (Scrapbook, 14).” Words and light are part of what enables the poet/filmmaker to create works that do not represent the world, but rather go somewhere much more mysterious—into the mind, the soul, the eye, the underworld. They are the path that leads to the edge of what is known; are that which cannot be visualized through the naked eye, but can still be seen.

There is a scene in Orpheus in which the angel Cegeste, working with the beautiful Princess Death to lure Orpheus to the underworld, transmits lines of poetry through the radio of her Rolls Royce. Orpheus, feeling old and uninspired, spends hours sitting in “the talking car,” transcribing Cegeste’s mysterious lines of poetry and ultimately publishing them as his own. Moving through mundane apparatuses, angels inspire poets to write lines that even they can hardly understand. To Cocteau, this trance-like state is symbolic of the artist whose true genius is revealed when he abandons his own role in the creative process, becoming nothing more than the medium—the poetry he writes is not his own, but is dictated from some outer realm, some otherworldly source. (The poet Jack Spicer, who like Brakhage also developed theories around how poetry was transmitted from some outer source, loved this particular scene.) This process, however, is not without consequences. Relieving the poet of having to generate his own texts, the process of undergoing dictation gives him an escape from mundanity that is perceived as self-indulgent by those living in reality. Orpheus was so transfixed by the radio, and so seduced by his own fame, that he cruelly ignores his wife Euridice and all of the concerns of the real world. As in the Greek myth, the Bacchantes (personified in the film as a group of feminist intellectuals and poets) stone Orpheus to death. What this means, of course, is that he is literally handed over to Death—finally reunited with her lover, this is exactly what she has been hoping for all along.

Cegeste is not simply the poet’s muse—he is working with the love-smitten Death to lure her obsession, Orpheus, to the underworld.  So the trance-like state of the artist is really the same as the artist actually hovering at the edge of consciousness—coming close, in other words, to dying. “The artist must be in love with death, and loved by death,” says Brakhage. “Death gives the artist back into life…it’s crucial that the artist goes into trances which are as terrifying as going to sleep as a kid, fearful of never waking up. The artist survives the trance and out of that comes the work that can live in the world.” This journey between worlds, the “mind driven beyond words” which then comes back to relay some trace of another dimension, is what is seen when light flickers through a film, or color takes on a realm of moving depth rarely seen in the land of the living.

In the film, Heurtebise is Cegeste’s counterpart—he is older and more experienced; yet he is lonely and in search for true love. He falls in love with the sad and confused Euridice, whose agitated and desperate husband spends more time in the car listening to the radio than he does talking with her. Although Heurtebise could have courted her, he remains a gentleman and never abandons his job as messenger and guide. After Orpheus is stoned to death, Heurtebise leads him through the underworld; when Death sacrifices her own power to send him back home, Heurtebise once again acts as his guide. He gives advice when it is most needed, and calmly listens to Orpheus’ insane ramblings without judgment. As his annunciation in the elevator would suggest, his role in Orpheus’ (Cocteau’s) life is to give a lift, to transport between floors, to make the vertical journey as smooth as possible. He is, in other words, the rower of the boat that goes back and forth across the river Lethe—being as comfortable on one side as he is on the other, he knows both worlds well. It is for this reason that he is so useful to the artist—it is Heurtebise who will snap him out of the trance when he has gone too far; Heurtebise who will sacrifice his own desire for love and happiness in order to bring the artist back home.

I originally translated this poem at the request of Peter Gizzi who stumbled across it in a bookstore in Paris while doing research for his book on Jack Spicer. (Spicer, as mentioned earlier, evokes Heurtebise in several of his poems, particularly in Heads of the Town.) In translating this poem, I had to abandon any notions of evoking the essential “meaning” of the words. The poem depends heavily on word-play, and its prosody almost defies translation. I opted to work with the references as closely as possible, but in the end, prioritized sound, rhythm, and play over exact “sense.” This poem, in other words, is more an adaptation into English than a literal translation.

This poem originally appeared in the first issue (Fall 1994) of apex of the M , a magazine I co-edited with Alan Gilbert, Pam Rehm and Lew Daly. Brakhage called immediately after he read it to say how much he liked it, and much to my delight has been teaching it in conjunction with Orpheus ever since. “Your Heurtebise is the only translation that captures the true clarity of Jean Cocteau,” he kindly said. In response to his generous praise, the least I could do would be to try and articulate Brakhage’s angels—but ultimately what can be said? After all, he manages to transport them through almost every film he makes.


Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau: A Biography. Boston, MA: Nonpareil Books, 1986.

Brakhage, Stan. Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings edited by Robert Haller. New Paltz, NY: Documentext, 1982.

Stan Brakhage, interview with Kristin Prevallet (accompanied by Patrick Scanlon and Lisa Jarnot). Boulder, July 2001.

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