Saturday, April 24, 2010


 When was the last time you saw a white band-aid? White -- as in the color of adhesive tape. Actually, when was the last time you saw adhesive tape?

It was a good, simple idea Earle Dickson had back in 1920 --  to attach a dressing to a cloth that didn’t have to be wrapped and tied -- usually one-handed, or with the help of teeth. Add sterility to the cotton, and you have a perfect little gizmo -- protecting a small wound from dirt and germs, reducing the likelihood of its reopening, and maintaing a moist environment for the migration of new skin cells.

The evolution of the band-aid gives us a metaphorical glimpse into the dynamics of the American cultural/political system.

At the beginning of the ebullient fifties, along with chrome, fins, and anti-Communism, came the first decorative band-aids. Stars and Strips® on plastic. Conspicuous consumption. Be proud you were wounded. Then the corporations -- all with their ®s attached -- moved in with Super-, Spider-, and Bat-man, then Barbie and Ken, and now Rug-Rats, Smiley Faces, and Sponge Bob.  Band-aids were no longer wound care, but fashion accessories for toddlers.

Enter the current deadly combination of irony and infantilization, and the grown-ups followed hard upon with unicorn, Jesus, and bacon strip band-aids at four to five times the generic price.

That was one very American direction -- as Max Bialystock says in The Producers, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”

Parallel evolution: for the more decorous among us, or young urban professionals not wanting proletarian-looking hands, the sixties saw the spreading use of disguise: transparent band-aids, to which was added the patina of political correctness, since “flesh colored” might be any color flesh (if you ignore the white, colorblind rectangle under it).

Now we have special shapes for knuckle and fingertip, though only God, and perhaps Johnson&Johnson knows which is to be used where. We have giant band-aids for knee scrapes, and the stirring of high-tech medicalization with the introduction of  home-use gel-impregnated burn dressings.

Let’s apply these categories to the recent difficult birth and passage of the health reform bill, an Obama accomplishment commonly seen as a band-aid.

So we have this wound in America called disastrous health care -- at least for the vast majority. The simple, practical, white-adhesive tape band-aid would have been to adopt any variation on the national health care systems used worldwide by advanced industrial countries not afflicted with exceptionalism. That would still be a band-aid because it would largely address disease post-facto, and not the physical and mental pollution and economic causes behind it. Nevertheless, it would have been straight-forward, still practical.

Conspicuous consumption, corporate profit. What would we do without them? The president and his party are trying hard to pass a health reform bill. The president and his party are battling. The stars and stripes are unfurled on both sides. The president and his party has passed a health reform bill! Yea! Boo! And corporate Scooby-doo. If you’ve passed it, flaunt it.

At the same time --  disguise, and the opacity of CNN transparency. (The opacity is the white rectangle covering the wound.) Let the many colors of wounded flesh show through. Discarded children and cancer victims, the poor, the old, most of the currently uninsured. Under the white rectangle, big pharma and the insurance companies.

In Germany, Band-Aids® are called “plasters” -- and they are white. Germans also have universal, national health care.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


 Endgame -- that's us. At every level, checkmate threatens-- political, environmental, cultural. Samuel Beckett's 104th birthday last week brought to mind a chapter I had written in The Education of Arnold Hitler. Arnold, new at Harvard, lands the part of Hamm in a university production of Beckett's masterpiece, and along with it takes a Beckett class with Stanley Cavell. If you don't know the play, here's a good introduction -- or a reminder if you do.
    Arnold’s spring ‘70 semester consisted primarily of Endgame.  His other courses -- French, Biology, the History of American Fascism -- faded into the background in the intensity of its dark light.  Odd as Hamm was, it was easy to “get into” him, so many were the nodes of correspondence.  That there was to be “no more pain-killer” was frightening, yet somehow bracing.  It meshed with Nell’s observation that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”  And unhappiness seemed to be the name of the human game, as it was of Arnold’s.  Hamm asks Clov if his father is dead. 

(Clov raises the lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, looks into it.  Pause.)
Clov: Doesn’t look like it.
(He closes the lid, straightens up.)
Hamm: What’s he doing?
(Clov raises the lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, looks into it.  Pause.)
Clov: He’s crying.
(He closes the lid, straightens up.)
Hamm: Then he’s living.

    Then he’s living.  If he’s crying, he’s living.  What a definition, Arnold thought.  For all its weirdness, this may be the most realistic play ever written.  “The end is in the beginning.” Surely that must be true.  But what would that mean for him?  A successful career as some kind of a star?  Or the end as in the very beginning, when George né Hitler, accursed progenitor, fornicated between the one and a half legs of Anna Giardini, and created another neighing of the H-name.  “Scoundrel!”  Hamm cries, “Why did you engender me?”

Nagg:  I didn’t know.
Hamm: What? What didn’t you know?
Nagg: That it’d be you.

    But he did.  George did know.  He just didn’t think.   And what is he thinking now, my once-father?  Two short letters since I’ve been here.  Four unanswered.  Has he forgotten me?

“We let you cry.  Then we moved out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace...

    Arnold shuddered in recognition.


    For all the joy and labor of nightly work, the highlight of the six weeks was a visit, late in the rehearsal schedule, by Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Professor of Philosophy, literary and film critic, and Ruby’s faculty advisor on the Endgame project -- her senior thesis.  Ruby, along with Ed Gould, her stage manager, took the night “off” to sit around at Cavell’s house with the cast -- Arnold S. Held, Hugh Laffler, the physicist dwarf, and Ted Bair, Clov, a slight and wrinkled graduate student at the Divinity School, to discuss the play. 

    The initial discussion was somewhat diffuse.  Cavell, served up some mean hot chocolate on the cold, late February night, and asked the students what they thought about the play.  Ruby held back.  She and her teacher had already been over her feelings -- how Hamm’s highhanded cruelty, Clov’s inability to escape, and Nell and Nagg’s garbage cans reflect a world darkened by the shadow of Auschwitz.  Arnold began to speak of the chess aspects, how Hamm’s tour of the stage and return to center is like a king imagining the boundaries of the pathetic nine-square territory he commands. Hugh observed that it was not only the chess pieces against each other, or against God, but Beckett forcing us to play the very game we play against the world all our lives -- trying to understand -- a game we are invariably fated to lose.

    The group talked about the language of the play, the verbal surface of universal disrespect, the dialogue among people barely still human.  Were the characters human? Cavell wanted to know.  Ed, a biology major, remarked that of the genus Homo, all its species, with one exception, were extinct.  If we had the others for comparison, he thought we might see what difference sapiens makes -- whether these four qualified.  If they did make it, they only barely did so, so mutilated were they by whatever catastrophe they had been through.  Ruby felt that the characters were not recently destroyed, but were playing out, in especially visible ways, the eternal limitations of the race.

     “All right,” Cavell said, but what does it all mean?  What does it show?  Where are we?  None of this should affect your acting, but where are we?”

    “In some kind of shelter,” said Hugh.  “A bunker.”

    “Maybe after an atomic war,” added Ed.  “I’m sure Beckett still remembered those blackout nights during the bombings.”

    “And -- 1957? -- what about duck and cover?”  All the students laughed at the atomic attack drills they had done in elementary school.

    “It’s possible,” said Cavell.  Anything’s possible.  That’s the maddening, wonderful thing about the play.  No metaphor plays out; there are no neat interpretations that entirely fit.  Beckett is a tease and a torturer, negating and contradicting any line you can seize upon.  His denial of closure produces some very complex effects.”

    “If you frustrate closure, you keep everything open,” Ted insisted.  “That’s why I think it’s a fundamentally optimistic piece.  Dr. Cavell, do you have Beckett’s Nobel Prize citation from last year?  There’s something in there...”

    Cavell pulled it from the shelf, and handed it to the young theologian.

    “Here”, Ted said.  “The Committee gave him the prize for his quote ‘combination of paradox and mystery, containing a love of mankind that grows in understanding as it plumbs farther into the depths of abhorrence, a courage of despair, a compassion that has to reach the utmost of suffering to discover that there are no bounds of charity.’”

    “I think that’s the only way his sponsors could push it through,” said the dwarf.  “You think they would offer a Nobel Prize in despair?”

    Arnold listened wide-eyed and vulnerable.

    “Wait,” said Cavell.  “Let’s go back to the question of where the play takes place.”

    “Professor Gilman thinks the shelter is the interior of Hamm’s -- or someone’s skull -- the two little windows, the greyishness, the id being served by the ego, the repression of memory.”  Ruby had taken French lit from Gilman.

    “What do you think?” asked Cavell.

    “I don’t want to come down in any one place.  Trish designed the set exactly as Beckett demanded -- no more, no less.  A bare interior, two small windows, etc.  Non-committal.”

    “Well, non-committal is appropriate, given Beckett’s infinite intentions. But I do want to share with you where I think it is and what I think is going on.”

    Arnold took out a pad for notes -- things that might help his characterization.

    “Put that pad away.  Nothing I say should affect the acting dynamic you’ve all already discovered.  That’s why we had this session so late in the game.” 

    Cavell paused to refresh the hot chocolates.

    “Beckett may want to be inscrutable, but the fact is that his explosion reverberates within the medium of Western culture.  So whatever his intention, his work makes all sorts of things jiggle in the soup -- and the thing that jiggles most for me is the tale of Noah in Genesis.  What do tiny windows, telescopes, ladders and gaffs have in common?”

    “They’re all ship-type objects.”

    “Exactly.  What ship is this?  All right.  I’ve already said.  The Ark.  What disaster has just happened?”

    “The flood.”

    “Where are we now in the world?”

    “In the Ark.”

    “No.  Where is the Ark?”

    “One window looks out on land, and the other on water.”


    “So we’re at some shore.  Beached.”

    “Who is beached?  Who is Ham?  One M.”

    “One of Noah’s sons.”

    “The one who saw him drunk and naked,” added the Divinity Schooler.

    “Why did God make the flood?”

    “To punish sinful humanity.”

    “But what about Noah and his family?”

    “They were the remnant -- and the animals, too -- from which all life was to spring again.”

    “Where is Noah?  Where is his wife?”

    “In the cans?”

    “Maybe.  What was Noah’s curse on Ham after he saw his father naked?”

    “He would have to be a servant to men.”

    “No,” said Ted.  “That’s what everybody thinks.  But if you check, you’ll see that his curse was that Canaan -- Ham’s son -- would serve.”

    “And who is Hamm’s son?  Two Ms.”

    “Maybe Clov.”

    “And what does Clov do?”


    “OK then.  A little loose, but a plausible set of reverberations.  We’re in the Ark, beached, after the flood -- with the destruction of the the entire world outside.  Will you grant me this much, so far?”

    “Sure,” said Arnold.  The rest muttered in agreement.

    “Now we get to the interesting part.  In Genesis the Lord commanded Noah, father of Ham, to build an ark for pairs of all species to insure the continuance of creation.  But here Hamm makes every effort to guarantee that his refuge will support no further life, not even fleas or rats.  The play is about an effort to undo, to end something, and in particular to end a curse, the most ordinary curse of man -- not so much that he was born and must die, but that he has to justify what comes between -- that he is not a beast and not a god: in a word, that he is a man, and alone.

    “‘Something is taking its course,’ Clov says.”  Arnold didn’t quite know why he offered that.  Cavell nodded.

    “Something is taking its course.  Hamm’s contribution -- imitating God -- is to see the end of all flesh.  But God, unlike Hamm wanted to leave a remnant.  Why?”

    “Because he couldn’t bear not to be God!” asserted Ruby, the Jewish feminist.

    “The answer is unclear,” said Cavell.   “To Hamm, as well as to us.  What does our Hamm think?”

    “He can’t understand why he was chosen,” Arnold responded.  “I can’t understand why I was chosen.”

    The students took this as a simple donning of character, but Cavell seemed to sense otherwise.  “God has reneged on his responsibility,” Arnold continued.  “That’s what Hamm thinks.”

    “Is that what you think?” asked Ted.  The group waited.  Arnold was silent. 

    “My feeling,” said the professor, “is that for Beckett what must end is the mutual dependence of God and the world: this world, animated by its God, must be brought to a conclusion.  Hamm’s strategy is to paint the rainbow gray, to undo all covenants and to secure -- once and for all -- fruitlessness.”

    “To perform man’s last disobedience,” Hugh the dwarf injected, taking off on Milton.  “What a radical move!”

    “To uncreate the world,” Arnold thought, “we’d have to become as gods.  If we just stay human, we’ll go on hoping, go on waiting for redemption.  What was pictured in Godot.  This is really a step beyond.”

    “Are you ready for such disobedience?” asked Cavell.

    “Why not?” the production’s Clov asked.  “It’s what my character says: ‘I can’t be punished any more.’”

    Arnold wondered whether he had reached his own limit of punishment.  As if in response, Ted, the theologian said,

    “The main audience member is God.  Beckett’s object is to show God not that he must intervene, or even bear witness to our pain, but that he owes it to us, to our suffering and our perfect faithfulness, to leave forever, to witness nothing more.  Not to fulfill, but to dismantle all promises for which we await fulfillment.   “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” now means Help me not to believe.”  Even Cavell was impressed with Ted’s courageous leap of thought.

    “Solitude, emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness, silence,”  Ted continued, “-- these are not the givens of Beckett’s characters but their goal, Hamm’s heroic undertaking.”

    “Hamm’s problem -- my problem -- is that where there’s life, there’s hope.  I have to be able to kill hope.  It’s only middle game.” Arnold seemed determined.

    “You get the prize for suffering in this play,” said Ruby, oblivious to Arnold’s track.  “What a curse to be singled out like that.”

    Arnold: “The end of the world is threatened, redemption is promised -- neither is carried through -- and we’re left holding the bag.  The real earth is blotted out, sealed away by this universal flood of meaning and hope -- Splash, splash, splash, always in the same spot in my head.  But only a life without hope, a life without meaning, without justification, without waiting...”  Here he paused.

    “Is free from the curse of God,” Hugh added softly.

    Cavell got up and came back with more chocolate as the students stewed in this toxic brew.  “How about a life without hot chocolate?”  he asked, and quickly realized the inappropriateness of his levity.  In self-castigation he sat down.

    “Pascal said that all the evil in the world comes from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” 

    The remark floated in the silence like a pearl onion in hot chocolate -- it didn’t quite fit, but it was the last thing everyone sucked on.

Monday, April 12, 2010


No? Unemployment insurance running out? Mortgage under water? Yes and yes? Well, fear not. Since the war on terror is chugging along nicely, and the government/military is planning for survival in the face of climate catastrophe, infrastructure decay, financial crisis, disastrous health care, and deepening debt, you -- as a free American -- are at liberty to look to your survival in your own personal way.

You may need help. Advice. We have therefore undertaken to investigate survival techniques potentially useful to the literary and Facebook-reading classes.  Over the past year, your author has been surveying homeless populations in four major cities; this is the first report of information gleaned from their years of human experience in exceedingly trying circumstances. It is hoped that as homeland political, social and economic circumstances deteriorate, you may be able to take advantage of some of these techniques.

Optimal Integration of Food, Clothing and Shelter

Multiple use of existing materials makes for economy in scarcity situations. Food, for instance, can serve for clothing, insulation, and even privacy.  Consider for example the following not uncommon situation:

After a sleepless night in a public shelter or lavatory, exhausted by guarding your possessions, you will surely need a good daytime place to nap.  In inclement weather, public libraries are ideal, especially for the well-educated.  However, library policy has recently turned draconian, and anyone sleeping rather than reading is usually asked to leave. 

Two slices of baloney can solve the problem.  Choose a brand as close to your skin tone as possible.  In the center of each slice, cut an eye-shaped hole.  Choose a good book or journal, open it, sit well-propped in a chair, and place a slice of baloney over each eye.  A cap or kerchief low on the forehead will improve the illusion.  Then, off to the arms of Morpheus.  It will take a sharp-eyed, highly motivated guard to catch you napping, and, what with budget cuts, these are in ever-rarer supply.  After your nap, put the baloney away for further use. 

Soft white bread, such as Wonder Bread or Tiptop is not only inexpensive, but is also an excellent insulator. Due to trapped air, its R rating is high, comparable to fiberglass or foam: a must investment, even with diminished funds.  Slices can be stuffed in clothing, and in key body areas such as the small of the back or lower abdomen to maintain core temperature in hypothermic environments.  Don’t forget the head! -- 70% of body heat escapes from the scalp.  Wonder Bread fits nicely under any hat or cap, or can be trimmed for a custom fit.

Fast food restaurants invariably have packets of yellow mustard available for the taking.  You’d be surprised at how well Grandma’s recipe for cold still works!   Simply smear yellow mustard over your chest and abdomen, and along your sides (get up under those arms!) for long-lasting, bio-chemical warmth.  It's free -- and it’s good for you, too.

Forget Kleenex from now on, and don’t keep a cold in your pocket with cloth hankies.  Even the worst exposure-induced upper respiratory condition can be contained by blowing the nose into lettuce leaves, available free in great quantity in supermarket dumpsters.  A day’s supply can easily be carried in pocket or purse.

Now here's a trick: At the end of a long day, when the baloney is a bit soiled and the bread somewhat tamped, scrape a small amount of mustard from the small of your back, whip out a few lettuce leaves, lay meat eye-hiders to bread insulation, and voila -- a classical baloney sandwich -- utilizing three of the four major food groups -- for your evening meal.  Well fed, you can re-pack for a nighttime of maximum insulation.

Other Food Possibilities

It is an open secret among the poor that pet foods are perfectly fit for human consumption.  Don’t be embarrassed to survey the huge selection in your supermarket -- no one will suspect you are shopping for yourself and not for Fido or Kitty.  There are so many choices that it may take a while to discover your favorite brands and flavors.  No need to restrict yourselves to “gourmet” varieties.  The “gourmet” label is simply a marketing device targeted at upscale pet owners.  The contents are virtually the same as that of cheaper brands.  Dry dog or cat food travels well, and can be wetted down at public drinking fountains.  It is also ecological, since there is no can to dispose of.  For the more affluent, canned cat food is probably your best bet.  9-Lives remains the trend setter, though it is virtually indistinguishable from other canned varieties.  For an occasional treat, this writer recommends Sheba Moist Tender Chunks: Salmon Entree.

There do seem to be gender difference in the choice of food types, with men preferring dog food, and women, food for cats.  For you he-men out there, we can recommend Mighty Dog -- Beef.

A Modest Proposal

The Obama presidency boasts a radical neo-conservatism combined with a fearless approach to the future, a commitment to institutions of the past, and strong motivation to deal with the problems which lie ahead.  In the interests of political clarity, I would urge the president, and his advisors, Messrs. Summers, Geitner, Bernanke, Emmanuel and Netanyahu to have the courage of their convictions, and take things all the way.

With bipartisanship guiding all three branches of  government, there should be only minor difficulty in bringing back an idea whose time has surely come again.  Slavery has gotten a bad name with the liberal press, yet an unprejudiced mind can easily see its many benefits.  Who can deny that living in the homes of wealthy families -- even without pay -- is preferable to a life of hardship, disease and crime on cruel streets?  Family values would be maintained and promoted as mammys took care of the children, aiding harried executive moms.  Cultural diversity would prevail as songs of the old South were heard again, and mixed races and cultures would be seen once again in the more exclusive neighborhoods.  This is compassionate conservatism at its best.

However divided liberal opinion here may be, given the advancing pauperization of the middle class, it is not hard to imagine a time in the near future when it, too, could benefit by such a system as greatly as people of color.  Congressional debates will be heated, of course, but with a bi-partisan Senate, there should be no problem with having the majority prevail.  Another hard-won triumph for democracy.

Friday, April 2, 2010


This morning, the cheery NPR voice announced that today was Good Friday -- but not for the Catholic Church, which was reeling from you know what. Good Friday --good.

I suppose it can be seen as good if you like nailing people onto crosses and the institutional power secreted from those wounds, but for most followers of Jesus Who Is Called The Christ, it's a pretty sad end of the week.

Here in Happy-face Land, we love Easter, pink, white, and blooming. And now even Good Friday has been gobbled by Goodness. But George Fredrick Händel was not so easily scammed.

Most American performances of
Messiah offer only the Christmas portion with tacked-on Hallelujah and Amen celebrating a babe not yet messiahed. But Messiah was written as an Easter piece, full of pain, suffering and transcendence. The familiar Christmas portion was a prologue only -- to contrast with the anxious and metaphysical burden of the work. But Hallmark will have its way.

I am the president and only member of the National Bring Back Messiah As An Easter Piece Society.  I have little influence on American cultural practice. But I do get to write novels with their interior rants.

When the Gods Come Home to Roost for possible publication, I came across this short chapter I thought you of classical music persuasion might enjoy:

George's Messiah

George loved Messiah. It was nothing a Jewish boy in Levittown had been expected to love, but it happened.  Until he was fifteen, he had steered clear of this goyish mania.  But one day, a lovely young girl with long, dark hair handed him a leaflet for an afternoon performance a busride away in Queens. Maybe she sang in the chorus.  It must be all right for a Jew to go into a church, he thought, if it’s for a concert, and not to eat the body and blood.  He wouldn't tell his parents.  They’d never know. 

The young man was ravished by the experience.  He used the word in every possible meaning: he was seized and violently done to; he was overcome by horror, joy and delight; he was pre-sexually bewitched, for the long-haired one was in fact singing soprano in the front row, and never had such an angelic voice issued from such sensuous purity.  This concert was of the Easter portion of the work, and from “Behold the Lamb of God” to the last “Amen”; he was transfixed with wonder.  From the three bar mitzvahs he'd attended he knew Jews didn’t make this kind of sound.  Synagogues were filled with the discordant rumble of davvenning, each worshipper finding his individual prayer voice and rhythm, chanting, whispering, singing, crying, repeating phrases over and over, lost in the brumming of the crowd.  Sometimes a cantor sang.  But this -- this! It is music, music that hath ravished me!  He got home at an unsuspicious five o'clock, and never mentioned his encounter.

He had tried to hear Messiah every year since then, but with all the changes that had occurred along the way, he had managed to bat only about .300.  So what a boon -- right here, in his own community, that he could conduct an annual Messiah!  The sad part was that he could never share this joy with his family, old anti-clerical mom and pop ever more rigid in their disdain for religion.  The idea of their very own son promoting Christ the Jew-killer might, he thought, send them each into heart failure.  So this was his one activity he never called home about.

Choosing to do the Easter portion of Messiah for Christmas was George's little revenge on America.  Though written as an Easter piece, and traditionally performed in Europe during Easter time, in coming to America Messiah had shifted seasons, and along with them, content.  Though the Puritans had banned the  celebration of Christmas, post-Puritan America has embraced it with a vengeance, currently exhorting all to worship at the mall of one’s choice.  Perhaps in the land of the Easter Bunny and the lethal injection, crucifixion is seen as barbaric. Christmas, not Easter, is where most American celebration is concentrated, and with it, most concertizing. Messiah has become a Christmas piece, and most American performances restrict themselves to its first section concerning Advent and the birth of Christ.  The meat of the oratorio is left out, and the introductory portion is capped with the Hallelujah chorus -- a masterwork written to praise Christ’s ascent to his heavenly throne, unreported in these Hallmark card performances.  “A premature ejaculation at best,” George thought when feeling generous. But if Americans were determined to hear part of Messiah at Christmas, he was going to be damn sure it was the Easter portion that attacked them.

At 6:30 on the evening of the concert, Betty cell-phoned in to say that she had had a flat on I-680, that the AAA said they'd be there within fifteen minutes, and that being the case, she'd be at the church by ten after, and could they hold the performance?  As if there were a choice.

So George came out at 7:05, and announced that the concert would begin at 7:20 because, as the contemporary world amply demonstrates, the Messiah always comes late.  Then he did a remarkable thing, unexpected, certainly, because of his refusal of the first part of Messiah, but unexpected, ever, in any form, under the eye of God.  He sat down at the Steinway, and played the slow opening of the opening "Symphony" of the work.  Twenty-four stately, double-dotted measures marked grave -- this the limit of his keyboard technique.  When the moment came for the Allegro moderato to begin, George stood up, walked to the curve of the piano as if for a vocal recital, placed his right hand on the rim of the case , and performed that three-part fugue all by himself.  He whistled the soprano voice out of the right side of his mouth, the alto out of the left, and vocalized the bass part with accurate, wordless humming.  You don’t believe this.  It is true.  Upwards of a hundred people heard it with their own ears.  He must have been practicing this in the shower for the last twenty years in preparation for that night.

Now Messiah is one of the grandest works of western culture.  It is simply not appropriate for a serious conductor to whistle the overture in public performance.  But the effect, rather than being ridiculous, was to create a churchfull of gaping at the wonder that is man.  No problem was too great for one who set his mind to it, no achievement too difficult.  The room was riddled with people who had dedicated themselves to Bay Area excellence: none could gainsay George Helmstetter's accomplishment.

Betty arrived, pumped and wired.  The chorus filed on to the risers. In spite of George Bernard Shaw’s opinion alleging “the impossibility of obtaining justice for that work in a Christian country,” mid-Messiah instantly summoned the audience to pain and passion including even them, the guilt-free of the world.  "Behold the Lamb of God", the sacrifice upon whom all sins would be heaped and slaughtered into renewal, the Lamb whose blood would be smeared on door jambs to frighten Death away, the Lamb that would conquer the wolves, the conquering Lamb.

What about this Lamb?  Handel took great pains to describe its scorn-filled whipping.  “He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that pluckèd off the hair.”  Blood and hair clotting together on the prison floor.  Here is perhaps the only major artwork which celebrates saliva as such: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting,” spit in the face, a cadence, ach-ptoo!  The listeners were assured, in no uncertain terms, that the Lamb was burdened with their very own doings: Surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows.  The fierce F-minor cries, the painful, discordant suspensions: He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities, a catharsis of pity and terror.
Even the Jewish mothers of many in the audience would not have been able to evoke such a sense of guilt.  The thoughtful were carried emotionally along, while at the same time wondering about the phenomenon of the Messiah.  Is this suffering lamb the Saviour of the world?  How odd.  The Messiah’s function is to be victorious.  Christians thought of Christ.  Jews thought through their own lens of the “true” reference,  the continued oppression and persecution of Israel throughout the Christian and pre-Christian centuries --  the Nazi destruction, the pogroms of the nineteenth century which had brought their parents to the New World, the persecutions of the eighteenth century, the seventeenth, and on back to the Exile, where the image of the Lamb converges with that of scattered Israel.

“And with His stripes we are healed.” What is that about?  Why should one’s agony be inversely proportional to another’s?  Conservation of Wound?  Conservation of Tears? Conservation of Pain?  Beckett has told us: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.  For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.  The same is true of the laugh.”

    Handel lingers over the word “healed” as if to lay soothing balm upon Christ’s -- and our -- wounds.  Yet even this very moment, was beyond a definitive scan. The perverse listener -- and who is not perverse? -- could easily hear the melismatic syllables of “healed” as “hee-hee-hee-hee-heeled”, in effect a subtle but demonic, underlying cackling, as if to say that no matter what the unction, the wound is too great to be cured -- you’ll see.   Hee-hee-hee.  George was haunted by this dopplegängbanging effect, but was unable to phrase his way around it.  The Lamb of God, and the sheep who have gone astray.

 “All they that see him, laugh him to scorn.  They shoot out their lips and shake their heads, saying”:  Enter the scornful, the brutal choral metamorphosis from a confessing people of God to an unruly crowd in obscene play at a public execution.  So does Jekyll turn unexpectedly to Hyde.

He trusted in God that He would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if he delight in him.  Such assertive contemptuousness!  The trivializing, de-legitimizing of God, putting his capitalized pronoun on a syncopated weak beat, now ironically, self-flatteringly strong.  What pristine nastiness, abundantly clear. Thy rebuke hath broken His heart.  He is full of heaviness.  He lookèd for some to have pity on him.  But there was no man, neither found he any, to comfort him.

Not only was this George’s favorite moment of Messiah, with the single most touching note in music slipping into place in the piano’s middle voice, a pensive entwinement of suffering and beauty.  In the pause after pity on him, a luminous E rises half step to a questioning, consoling F, as if at least one human heart might go out to Jesus from the frigid emptiness answering his gaze.  But it was also the theological key to the work:  Here was the heart of it.  As every culture has known and proclaimed, something is wrong with the human race.  Things are not as they should be.  There have been many intellectual explanations -- mythological, religious, philosophical.  But here is the psalmist’s prophetic assessment: the primal fault is that we disdain God.  We have turnèd everyone in his own way.  The biblical word for this is “sin.”

Since by man came death...The listeners had to interpolate the moment of death.  But George found this not egregious.  The whole textual strategy of Messiah is one of brilliant, evocative avoidance.  Charles Jennens, an otherwise unremarkable British gentleman, had provided his friend George Fredrick with a libretto of theological genius, portraying every shade of devotion from piety, resignation and repentance to hope, faith and exultation.  And all this without resorting to narrative, as in the Passions of Bach:  Christ did this, and then he did that, the misery composed directly into the music.   Messiah commands attention because of what it does not show, for the most part indicating, rather than depicting events.  And therefore the death of Jesus, that epoch-making moment, really could exist as a lacuna between his unrewarded search for comfort and the triumphant Lift up your heads which followed.  Praise be to Handel for demonstrating this.

Lift up your heads; The Lord gave the word; Their sound is gone out.  And so, for the Jews, the Ark takes its place in the Temple, for the Christians, the Son takes his place in Heaven, and the preachers tell the world -- but some do not hear.  Why do the nations so furiously rage together?  Tim Eckleburg stepped out to sing, less than accurately but with conviction, to sing of the kings of the earth, of the rulers that counsel together against the Lord.  Again, the demonic chorus: Let us break any bonds with the Anointed, and cast away their yokes from us.  And what will happen?  This time Willy Higinbotham, a “real” tenor from the Cal music department, stepped forward to describe the smashing and breaking that will ensue, an image which always reminded George of the piled up debris confronting Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

And then, the great moment, the moment incoherently misplaced in American versions, the phenomenal Hallelujah Chorus.  The piling up of debris?  Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth -- which at first blush is not a very encouraging vision of the future.  But what if it were to become the case -- that the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and that over such a peaceable kingdom He shall reign forever and ever ?  It did give one pause, in the midst of the war on drugs and the war on terror.

Almost three hundred years earlier, King George had stood in his excitement, dragging the court to its surprised feet around him, and now the audience at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist Church took this traditional ninth inning stretch incapable, however, of diverting the impregnable momentum of the music.  

For all the radiance of the performance, there was one moment that stood out above all others.  Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, with his strong baritone, came in too soon after George's breathtaking pause before the final cadence, shattering the loudest silence in creation.  After the concert, BB commented to another alto: “I’ve sung Messiah many times in my life,” she said, “and I’ve always waited for someone to come in too soon.  It was very satisfying to me.”