On Viruses and Angels

On Viruses and Angels

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headshot of poety Richard HoffmanRichard Hoffman has published four volumes of poetry, Without Paradise; Gold Star Road; Emblem; and Noon until Night. His other books include the memoirs Half the House and Love & Fury, and the story collection Interference and Other Stories. Same War, a new book of poems, will be published in 2023.


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From WTP Vol. X #7

Every angel is terrifying.

I was freezing, my teeth were chattering and I could not stop shivering. My wife put her hand on my forehead as she brought me another blanket, “You’re burning up,” she said, and went to get the thermometer: 101.8. “Burning up,” yes, but knowing that didn’t stop me from experiencing what felt like freezing to death.

I had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but I’d read that a small percentage of people contracted the virus even so, and I feared I was one of them. It wasn’t my first scare. One year earlier, back in the early days of the pandemic, while we were still spraying the mail with disinfectant, leaving our groceries on the porch until we deemed them safe enough for the fridge and pantry, while we watched in horror as people went into the hospital and died without ever seeing their loved ones again, I spiked a fever. It was April Fool’s Day, 2020. I remember that it was raining hard, and I felt sure that on the skylight above my bed I was watching a moonlit private documentary in B&W about my death, a theme running through it that I should have prepared better for this moment.

I was paralyzed with terror. I insisted my wife keep her distance. I was also determined to resist all distractions, any consolations that would require activity: the books on the nightstand, the headphones, the TV, the cupboard, the fridge, as if looking away, even for a moment, would encourage the virus to deliver the coup de grace. Once, I would have poured bourbon into a mug in a time like this, but that was 30 years earlier, 33 if it matters.

I kept quiet, unmoving, hoping to hear “the still, small voice” that would counsel me or at least console me. All I heard was borborigmi and a frightened pounding in my ears.

I already knew from experience that a moment would come when I would shake my head and laugh at myself. And that then the laugh would turn bitter. And that, before long, I’d be bawling.

I recognized this heartscape from the time I slept upstairs in my old bedroom above my mother dying on the first floor. And from my stoical calm on a Delta Airlines flight en route to my younger brother’s bedside as he lay dying in the hospital where the two of us were born, that odd laugh escaping just as the plane’s tires grabbed the tarmac, the tears arriving as we taxied to the gate.

But that night I still believed there was something especially meant for me in the drumming on the skylight, so I continued listening. Soon, incessant as the rain, question after question came, water on the dark window gleaming as it branched, a miniature river system of fearful uncertainties. Will Kathi be alright? Did I give it to her, too? Will my youngest grandchildren remember me, or are they too young? What use have I been? Is there anything I should do to improve my chances of surviving? How can a creature so small as to be invisible take me down?

The fever broke that night. I didn’t have Covid.

But this time, a year later, my doctor’s office closed for the weekend, I was directed to Emergency where I received a Covid test. I expected them to treat me and send me home; I was admitted.

My sodium levels had plummeted, my potassium was low, my body continued to burn with fever. What was happening to me? “We don’t know,” said the Chief Resident, “that’s why we’re admitting you. Your Covid test was negative.”

I was put on a sodium drip, my blood and urine tested frequently. Nurses woke both me and my roommate on the other side of the curtain several times a night to administer a test to one or the other of us. Daytime started with my companion turning on “The 700 Club” at 6 am. I mentioned it to a nurse drawing blood and she said, “Honey, nobody gets any rest in a hospital.”

After three days, the Chief Resident came by for a “discharge interview.” He pulled up a chair next to my bed and told me my sodium levels had returned to the normal range, my fever had not returned, I seemed alert, and he was sending me home. I had two questions for him. The first—“What happened to me?”—he answered with a shrug, alarming because I hoped to prevent whatever happened from happening again. “Probably a virus, some kind of bug,” he sighed. Shrugs and sighs, I’ve discovered, are a large part of the discourse about viruses.

My second question was a little harder to articulate. I wanted to talk with him about my experience of this illness. I wasn’t trying to spin a yarn about it or create an intimacy with him; I was trying to understand what had just happened to me; me, not my blood levels, not my vitals. I said that it felt like I was overcome by a powerful entity that I’d had to struggle against. I said I felt seized by something more powerful than I, taken up, shaken, and put back down after three days. He frowned and looked at his watch. The hospital was filling with patients, several of them probably with Covid-19, and he had no time to talk with me. I felt a little guilty for being obtuse about that. I thanked him and he left. But I am still wondering at the strange and powerful encounter I had with the unseen, which reached into dimensions of self, areas of my psyche, that seemed at once fearfully strange and strangely familiar.

The uncanny experience, which recurred several times during my illness, began as a taste. I cannot describe it, I can only say that somehow I was remembering it. I felt as if I were someplace in my emotional landscape, someplace that felt, smelled, and tasted familiar, but I could not connect it to a specific memory. Maybe it was a pre-verbal, infantile memory. As that taste flattened itself into a pervasive dread, adrenaline flushed hot through me, my heart raced, and I felt as if I were falling from a deadly height.

What was terrifying was the feeling that I was not the one doing this remembering but my body, my earthly body, my brain and nervous system, an animal that didn’t need some pathetic self hanging around asking dumb questions all the time. It was happening to me, but it had absolutely nothing to do with me. I felt something like déjà vu conjoined with panic. I thought I might be dying, that maybe my body was readying itself for death.

Or maybe it was somehow the taste of entering some next phase of my life, the taste of the gap between this biological moment and the next, something like puberty or menopause, however such transitions are measured, a change I wanted desperately to understand and which, because I could not, produced panic.

The Chief Resident’s shrug was just not good enough for me; I had to try to understand what felt like a profound psychic event. Although I often felt I was contending with something implacable, other times I perceived myself caught in the middle of an angry argument between two entities I vaguely remembered, as if I was listening to them from behind a closed door. I couldn’t identify them, not quite: both experiences were familiar to me from sometime in the past but I could not place them. Maybe they were preverbal memories, if they were memories at all.

Certainly it was the argument of my immune system with whatever agent had called it into action. I tried to talk with my doctor about this during my follow-up appointment. Like the hospital physician, he shrugged. But his shrug seemed a gesture of humility. And wonder: ‘The body is a continual miracle of self-regulation,” he said. I liked his shrug better.

I felt I had been visited by a terrifying angel. I began to describe it to friends as being seized and bound and shaken, hard, before whatever entity had taken me into custody finally let me go. One friend rolled his eyes and said, “Oh Christ, don’t go priest on us now!” Another, on the phone, quipped, “Yeah, well, I hear there’s a website now where you can order Lourdes water.” And I laughed, glad to have such friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad, so far as things unseen go, that doctors think more about viruses than angels. And I am even gladder that they admit they know little about the workings of viruses, of the language they speak and the messengers they sometimes are, couriers of tidings that we hardly understand, mysterious companions. We know almost nothing of other orders of being, whether zoonotic or seraphic. I only mean to insist that there is a reality to the felt experience of illness, that it had something to say to me, that it is not merely an inexpert understanding of what’s really going on.

I hate explanations that shut down wonder, that explain away. I don’t think it is a useful definition of the spiritual to consider it what’s left over after you have snuffed out each of the candles you can reach with an explanation.

What we experience is shaped by our imagination, where encounters with unseen forces are interpreted, in personal terms, in one mode of language or another. The imagination is a vast realm where myth and music, stories and visions, hold sway. Our lives are always interpretations. Consciousness is a profoundly metaphorical drama staged by the imagination. This is how I understand these lines by William Carlos Williams, himself a physician, who wrote in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”

Only the imagination is real!
I have declared it.
Time without end.

In Catholic school, in first grade, we were often reminded by our teacher, Sister Anne Catherine, that we should skootch over and leave half the sculpted wooden seat for our guardian angel. We all obeyed. Not one of us smirked. And I am not smirking now. I happen to think it is a beautiful idea; it was a real comfort to me, a wise, reassuring, and generous gift given to a nervous child. Each of us had our own Guardian Angel, she told us, who knew us long before we were born. I tried to turn my head quick to maybe surprise my angel, to see him. Once I had myself convinced I’d caught a glimpse, just a movement and a light, out of the corner of my eye. And so, when I explore the experience of being ill, I find there’s an angel there, an elusive being born in my imagination as a Catholic child.

But it isn’t necessary to embrace the cartoon angels offered to six-year-olds, any more than it is required to believe a virus is “some kind of bug.” It is possible (I am doing it now) to reach into the unseen with questions and a wondering imagination, and to follow our intuition, knowing that we are in relation to much that is unseen and unknown but nevertheless important.

I was discharged the day before my 72nd birthday. The next day I woke early, and whether by simple contrast to my illness or because I’d returned home to sleep in my own bed, I felt better than I had in years. 

Fifteen years earlier I had been diagnosed with a condition called Essential Thrombocythemia, a disorder of the bone marrow that produces too many platelets, the blood’s clotting material. It is a blood cancer, often a precursor to leukemia, but it is not itself a mortal danger. It puts those afflicted at higher risk for vascular blockages and stroke, and in my case it slows me down. “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow,” as Theodore Roethke wrote. It has always taken me half the day to come fully to consciousness, and some days I’m not sure I ever get there. I have thought—secretly of course but I’ll confess it, sheepishly, here, that it is because I am a genius; I have so much to gather up, from so many different provinces of self, so many dimensions of the mind, that of course it takes me a long time each day to reintegrate the many parts of me and bring them to bear on the day’s obligations! But the more likely explanation is that the thrombocythemic thickening of my blood means my poor heart is pumping syrup, so it takes a long time to get up to speed. The experience of that torpor is sometimes a delicious languor, other times a maddening frustration. Treatment for Thrombocythemia includes carefully monitoring platelet levels in the blood; mine were consistently an alarming 500 or so points above the normal range.

In addition, microscopy showed that in addition to an overabundance of platelets, I had somehow incurred a mutation called Janus 2. As the doctor explained to me that a normal platelet is designed to adhere to others by means of spicules radiating from one side of it, and that mine had suffered a mutation that resulted in spicules jutting from two sides of the platelet, I understood immediately, or was at least able to envision that platelet as Janus, the two-faced god of doorways. I remember that I quipped, “No wonder I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.” The doctor looked at me blankly; he didn’t know who Janus was.

Two days after my hospitalization I received the discharge report, which included a full battery of blood tests: my platelet count was inexplicably back in the normal range. Excited, I called my doctor who could only say that sometimes cancers do go into spontaneous remission. “Each of us have our own immune system,” he said. Again he marveled at the body’s wisdom, the ability of an individual’s immune system to restore one to health. “Let’s hope it lasts,” he said, “Let’s continue the three month labs and we’ll keep an eye on things.” I felt great: lighter, more energetic, mentally clearer, and grateful to whatever had taken hold of me, “burning me up” and sending me to the ER, grateful to the doctors in the hospital, grateful to whatever entity — my immune system, my guardian angel, had somehow left me healthier than I’d been in years.

Of course I am aware that this is just what an old man needs, especially in the very month he is retiring: the illusion of renewal, of a fresh start, whether granted by metaphysical or microbial beings. And it was spring! Even so, does that invalidate the experience of renewal? If you remove subjectivity from the calculus, if you exorcise the imagination and enshrine the remainder as truth, you’re left with the kind of data-driven discourse that starts with what happened last time, and tries, via statistics and probability, to determine what we might reasonably expect next time—the statistician as haruspex, the result sufficient unto itself. But when we want to talk about what we have experienced, we are back to the question of language, of metaphor, of how we think and feel about events; in a phrase, “what we make of them.” Metaphor is the language of spirit.

So I am still here with the question: What happened to me? Sodium crashed, potassium deficient, body burnt up with fever—was this the result of a lapse in the immune system’s protection, allowing an invader to enter? 

We still talk in militarist terms about it; the immune system is said to “fight germs,” meaning harmful bacteria. But we have come to find that other bacteria are essential to our well-being. The same is likely true of viruses. The immune system is immeasurably complex. It doesn’t just repel invaders like some 80’s video game, it attempts to repair disruption and disequilibrium. It may be that some viruses are the allies that the immune system calls upon for help.

I realize that with Covid-19 still claiming millions of lives around the world, it may not be the best time to explore the salutary potential of viruses. (“Jeez, read the room, man!”) But still. The angel of death is not the only angel.


We live on a Planet of Viruses, which is the title of science writer Carl Zimmer’s survey discussing our evolving knowledge of the virosphere. “It is estimated that there are 1031 virus particles in the oceans,” he writes, “—they vastly outnumber all other organisms on the planet.” A single cubic inch contains billions of viruses.

According to Zimmer, the word virus is Latin for both venom and semen. Of course it is the few deadly viruses that get our attention, but the vast numbers of viruses that we encounter do not affect us, or do so in ways we’re largely unaware of. But that venom/semen paradox is not even the most bedeviling one: there is ongoing disagreement about whether viruses are alive at all, whether they are living beings or tiny specks of dead matter.

It’s hard not to feel that we are entering the realm of philosophy or even theology here, having to ask, ultimately, what we mean when we say the words “living” and “dead,” and entertaining the idea that the virosphere may be the true ground of our being, the eternal potential from which life springs, differentiates, changes. If we were swimming in a water drop, the water would be made of viruses.

The position that viruses cannot be said to be alive rests in part on their absence from taxonomy: they are not Eukaryota, not Bacteria, not Archaea. If Taxonomy charts were maps, viruses would require a Here Be Dragons inscription. Evolutionary biologist Luis P. Villareal, writing in Scientific American, complains that “The categorization of viruses as nonliving during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution.” 

It is likely that life began some 4 billion years ago with these bits of genetic information, instructions for building protein molecules. It is hard to think of time as time when it is conceived on that scale, and it is hard then not to see viruses as agents of eternity, present everywhere always, coming and going in our very cells, occasionally surfacing in our human reality.

It turns out that there are some viruses that behave so much like our own bodies’ cells that they can also be infected by viruses. These smaller viruses, called virophages or simply ‘phages’ can alter the genome of the viruses they invade. This discovery has led to a revolution in medical research, and that research has, in large part, led most recently to the discovery of a vaccine for Covid-19.

Viruses, it seems, are so ubiquitous they are a kind of global haze of unused genetic information, a kind of pervasive cloud of genetic particulate like ash or dust. (That taste in my mouth, was it ashes?) This dead genetic material is operative everywhere as legacy, curse, influence. It might be said that viruses are pure potential, an entire universe of possibilities, the eternal from which time flickers and flares.

So, are viruses therefore life un-coalesced? Letters in a vast and mostly undiscovered alphabet? Ideas unarticulated? Genetic engineers? Evolutionary biologists have suggested that viruses are the link between current living things, which continue via the replication of their DNA, to a prior realm of creatures based on RNA. What does this mean? About time? About life? The future? Evolution? Our place in the welter of Ovidian metamorphoses? Are viruses our distant ancestors?

Or are they angels? I was seized and taken from my life and shaken.


While virology is a science in its infancy, the study of angels has been avidly pursued for millenia. Getting the jump on a metaphor that evolutionary biologists have applied to viruses, Augustine, in the 5th century c.e., asserted that we are in the soil of God’s garden, and the angels are the gardeners that tend us. “It is easier to know what they do than what they are,” he wrote, which might well be the complaint of a contemporary virologist.

It turns out that what virus do is enter our cells and use their reproductive apparatus to make copies of themselves, in the process switching on or off certain genes, and otherwise changing our DNA. So, even leaving God out of the equation (since that three-letter word is too fraught, too compromised, too imprecise and corrupted) they can be said to be gardening us, and over eons modifying our physiology and changing our destiny, speaking directly to our bodies, caught up in relentless metamorphoses across innumerable generations.

What our senses cannot perceive, we know with our imaginations. We are hybrid creatures. We don’t simply live in the biosphere. Life is biological, living it is imaginary. Although I can watch raindrops coursing and ramifying, hesitating, essaying, on a moonlit skylight, I cannot for the life of me imagine a way to argue with, plead with, or dissuade such an infinitesimal entity as a virus. Believe me, I tried.


While writing this essay, I received a golden angel medallion in the mail with a request for money to support the work of Catholic relief services. The image stamped on either side is identical: a robed figure, winged, with folded, praying hands, as if Janus himself was an angel. It would make a great coin for rigged betting: call “heads” and you could never lose. It brought out every hard-earned cynical response I ever had to the Catholic Church as an institution, that global real estate empire disguised as an instrument of God, that to my mind—and history I believe bears me out—is clearly a pathogen. At the same time, if a person is thus moved to send money and if (a big if) the money actually helps someone in need, then has the respondent somehow made the angel real? Is that what wings represent? Are they to fly back and forth between our twin realities?

It appears that, like viruses, angels have no way to reproduce other than by entering into a host: in this case the human imagination.

I hope it is obvious that I am not arguing for a retreat into angelology (no Lourdes water for me, thanks.) I only mean to point to a rich reservoir of metaphor and insist that our forbears were not all benighted, superstitious dolts. Our ancestors were imaginative artists who tried to understand what was happening to them. We think in metaphors, explicit or implied, interacting with those metaphors in story, parable, allegory. At the same time, all our conceptualizing, our art, our language itself, seen against the vastness of cosmological time and the constancy of the virosphere, is only something that’s been thrown together in a moment, a put-up job, a blurted reply to the questions and requirements of the world. Odds are we are much more likely on any occasion to be wrong than right and certainly unlikely to ever find our way to a comprehensive understanding of life, whether by scientific or metaphysical inquiry. Our autobiographies, no matter how detailed, are a mere epithelium. Everything, including ourselves is more complex and mysterious than we can comprehend. Electron microscopes peer into inner space and photograph viruses that are orders of magnitude smaller than even bacteria. One of those viruses has killed nearly five million people around the world and is even now killing about 10,000 people every day — clearly real, an agent of fate, no matter how tiny. According to Dionysus the Areopagite, living in 1st century Greece, the Athenians always raised, in addition to their other altars, an altar to “an unknown god,” which seems to me an admirable gesture of humility.

A few months after my illness, my platelet count began to rise again. I was disappointed of course, but it had taken decades to climb to the alarming number that signaled Thrombocythemia, more decades than I probably have left anyway. I’m not worried about it, and I am grateful for the chance to be a foolish, hopeful, curious old man overtaken by wonder and a thirst for miracles. 

Or maybe I was only moving from station to station along the interior walls of my hopelessly Catholic post-Catholic skull. Maybe I was trying to prepare for my death. The same friend who’d begged me not to “go priest on us” told me, “Old guys always get philosophical when they get sick.” It was such a gentle verbal poke in the ribs, that all at once I remembered why I love him.

We are surrounded by invisible companions, in a timeless conversation, as centuries of angelology insist. Virology describes this conversation: RNA changing DNA or modifying it, activating and deactivating certain genes. The immune system is an individualized genetic organization that extends backward into evolutionary time: bespoke, unique, transcending history but also made of it. It is there to be relied on for protection without our having to ask for it, there from time immemorial, a memory of eternity, an emanation of health, a measure to determine what ought to be. An angel by any other name would be as sweet. However we conceive of them, it is for both viruses and angels to do, to cause, to effect change and shape destiny. We who are their foes and fools and wombs must wonder. That’s how we are made; that’s what we’re for — to wonder. We want to know what is happening to us.

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