Thursday, December 30, 2010


We seem to be bombarded lately by “random acts of culture” both in the real world (if such a place exists) and on YouTube. Handel's Hallelujah Chorus seems to be popping up all over -- almost expected at shopping malls and food courts.

I love Messiah. I've made it a point to sing, play, or conduct it almost every year since I've been 20. The Hallelujah Chorus is an astoundingly effective work of its time–and ours–and one can well imagine King George rising in ecstasy when hearing it. I've written about Messiah in several of my books, and it is a major altar in my church of worship.

But does it belong in a shopping mall? In the midst of ongoing orgies of consumerism, here we have enthusiastic artists, most often volunteers, singing “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

In the context of the shopping mall, who is the Lord God omnipotent that reigneth? Surely more Mammon than Jehovah. The Lord God of Capitalism here reigns, “and he shall reign for ever and ever!”

While this may in fact be true, at least for the moment, is it worth putting so much energy into celebrating it? The Hallelujah Chorus is not Muzak, especially in live performance. People hear it, understand it, and receive it positively. What is it they are joyfully hearing in the context of the mall? The delight of Christmas shopping. The triumphant assertion of their own culture. The craving for that culture to reign forever and ever.

But is this the function of art? Should great music be an accomplice to great crimes? Should it enable and abet destructive capitalist madness?

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse speaks of the Great Refusal–the protest against that which is. That is great art's function in society -- to refute, break and recreate "the modes in which man and things are made to appear.”

I have been invited several times to participate in a Hallelujah flash mob. I know the bass part well, and could easily do it. But the idea of singing such praise in a shopping mall–to a shopping mall–to the activities of a shopping mall–makes my gorge rise.

When I got my most recent invite, I suggested, as an alternative, a flash mob which would sing a neighboring chorus from Messiah–“Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs And Carried Our Sorrows.” The music is truly harrowing, filled with dotted rhythms of the lash and dissonances of pain. The words go on to say, “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruisèd for our iniquities.” And was he not? What would Jesus buy at the mall? The text of “Surely” concludes, "The chastisement of our peace was upon him.”

Singing "Surely" at the mall? Now that would be a surprise event, an invasion of culture by Culture.

Of course whenever I hear the word Culture, I think of Goering and his remarkable assertion, “Whenever I hear the word Culture I reach for my gun.” I understand what he was talking about. Because real Culture is always and immensely subversive of great schemes human and inhuman.

Brecht nailed the oppositional function of art in the closing speech of his teaching play, The Exception and the Rule. Concerning the actions of the characters in the one-act, the narrator instructs the audience:

Observe the conduct of these people closely:    
Find it estranging even if not very strange    
Hard to explain even if it is the custom    
Hard to understand even if it is the rule    
Observe the smallest action, seeming simple    
With mistrust
Inquire if a thing be necessary    
Especially if it is common
We particularly ask you -
When a thing continually occurs -
Not on that account to find it natural
Let nothing be called natural
In an age of bloody confusion
Ordered disorder, planned caprice
And dehumanized humanity
Lest all things
Be held unalterable!

That, I think, is what random acts of Culture should be doing.

My next week's essay will discuss the healing potential of infiltrative art.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Donna Bister: Bread & Puppet Sheep
Toward the end of Bread & Puppet's marvelous Christmas Story, after the news spreads of Jesus's birth, King Herod picks up the phone:

"Hello, Third Army?  Go straight to Bethlehem and kill all the children."

In the next scene a large soldier marches in, in full battle array, and knocks on the door of a tiny puppet house.

"Good evening, Ma’am.  Do you happen to have any children in the house?"
"Oh, yes, of course," the little hand-puppet says. "Hansie and Mariechen.”
“Can you bring them out, please?”
“Oh certainly, Sergeant. But...why?
"We want to kill them."

The mother then tells the sergeant an amazing story that he'll "never believe, but..." about how the children were just taking a bath and then -- by accident -- they were washed down the drain.  The sergeant, stupefied, weeps.

"Oh, lady, that's really terrible.  Allow me to extend the condolences of the entire Third Army."

He marches off to the next house where he finds that the six children happened to have just marched off six weeks ago and haven't come back yet.

"Men, King Herod isn't going to be too pleased about this."

The next house turns out to be the Bethlehem Nursery, "And we have 55 sweet, little darlings fast asleep in their sweet little beddy-byes," says the Nurse out her window, "AND YOU GORILLAS ARE WAKING THEM UP WITH YOUR SCREAMING.  You better go play soldier somewhere else, or I'll call the authorities."

"Lady," says the sergeant, "we are the authorities."

The Slaughter of the Innocents is not an aspect of the Christmas story dwelt on during our consumerist, Hallmarky season. In fact, it's not dwelt on at any other time -- whether the Innocents be the Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani, or Palestinian dead, the humanitarians aboard the Mavi Marmara or the recipients of its aid, Rachel Corrie herself, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, or the newly oiled seabirds, fish and fishermen in the Gulf.

"I'll call the authorities," the public says, only to discover that "We" -- the perpetrators -- "ARE the authorities."

It was the authorities who set up the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the rest. It is the authorities who promote the mass murders of the military industrial complex with their endless wars and genocides, who pocket the cash and power, cloak themselves in secrecy, and silence whistleblowers. It is our "best and brightest" who enable the destruction for profit of the environment, and call for economy on collapsing infrastructures, concrete and human. Is current "authority" any less than a sociopathic criminal enterprise?

The moment captured at the end of the Bread & Puppet Christmas Story provides the insouciant watchword of our time: "Lady, we are the authorities."

Friday, December 17, 2010


So Julian Assange is now without his passport, braceleted under house arrest, waiting for the Wheels of Injustice to slowly grind. At this point, his story is not so much that of killing the messenger (though that is what many in the US are calling for), as that of kicking the dog.

The dog in question was Julian’s close ancestor, Diogenes, a contentious fanatic foolish enough to spend his life with a lantern, looking unsuccessfully for "an honest man." Some say he sought “a human being.” His writings did not survive, but there are legends.

Notorious for his provocative behavior, people called him a dog, a nickname he embraced. “Other dogs,” he said, “bite their enemies. I bite my friends to save them.”

He wasn’t kind to his enemies either. At a sumptuous dinner given by a wealthy man, a guest became so outraged by Diogenes' behavior that he began to throw bones to “the dog”. The philosopher got up, lifted his leg and toga, and took a leak on him.

Like Assange’s, Diogenes' life was a relentless campaign to promote reason and virtue, and to debunk the values and institutions of a corrupt society. In doing so he disregarded laws, customs, conventions, public opinion, reputation, honor and personal dishonor.

Political authority was a main target for both -- its folly, pretense, selfishness, vanity, self-deception, corruption, and artificiality of conduct. Diogenes said: “Those who have virtue always in their mouth, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp which emits a sound pleasing to others, while being itself deaf to the music.”

So together the dogs -- Diogenes and Assange -- challenge the false coin of human morality, sharing Socrates' belief that one can be a doctor to men’s souls, and morally improve humanity, while being contemptuous of its behavior.

Sitting alone in a Dickensian prison, or now with wi-fi in a mansion, Assange has not yet been assassinated, as many have called for. He may or may not end like Socrates, taken out by the State. But Diogenes lived a long while, and one hopes the same may be true for Julian Assange.

One legend of  Diogenes' death is that, at 90, he committed suicide by holding his breath. If or when Assange does die, it will likely be because he, too, is no longer allowed to breathe, speak, or leak out his documents.

Friday, December 10, 2010


A recent revelation: rehearsing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I was in the cello section mentally drooling over the carpet of harmonies we were laying down under the solo violin during the gorgeous slow movement. Not much to concentrate on other then how very beautiful this moment was.

As I breathed in the slow movement of the Mendelssohn, I realized that this music, this moment, and others like it, were SPECIFIC antidotes to the poison spewing from the mouths of politicians. I realized too, that without my frequent hits from the music inhaler I would probably be dead, or at least reduced to zombiedom. My life's balance was suspended between the poison of politics and the healing of music, which interaction created a space for my writing.

I had long been aware of “the healing power of music” inasmuch as it was the arena of "music therapy" and the tool of music therapists. But I had never been so acutely aware of its specific purgative and remedial effect.

Coming up soon are Beethoven's two birthdays, December 16 and December 17. As one of the characters in my novel, Insect Dreams, says: “Extraordinary people do extraordinary things.” (Not to be coy, there are two different documents with two different birth dates. I celebrate both.) And this week, too, Donna and I begin rehearsals for a New Year's Day performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which will hopefully become a tradition here in Burlington. In any case, Beethoven is often on my mind.

It's somewhat predictable, then, that the combination of Beethoven, music, and healing would find its way into my writing. I want to share with you this week a particularly ridiculous scene based on a particularly amazing piece of music–a movement of the A minor String Quartet which Aldous Huxley called “proof of the existence of God”. The movement was labeled by Beethoven “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Gesenenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart”–a "Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian Mode".

Beethoven was known to have serious stomach problems which bothered him increasingly as he aged. I put this all together and came up with the following note in my recent novel, The Annotated Nose.

The hero, Alexei Pigov, has become the Glenn Gould of the accordion. He is befriended by a fellow lab tech, William Hundwasser, who exploits and markets his strangeness, creating from him the public figure of a medieval plague doctor come to heal The Contemporary Plague. Here he is in Hundwasser's lab, experimenting with Beethoven on Hundwasser, and Herman, the tarantula:

44. Studying tarantellas and subtly applying them was my first experience of being a healer. Hundwasser kept several in a terrarium in his lab as a conversation starter for the “pretty young things in their white lab coats” he enjoyed cultivating. I began with one named Herman.

    Herman was a dancin’ fool. He (?) would jump out of hiding — or hibernating, or estivating, or whatever tarantulas do for sleep —  at the first peep of the accordion, and would then stand thoughtfully, taking the music into his ganglia. Then he would begin to sway, and after a minute to dance, and to dance appropriately to whatever I was playing, almost in rhythm, but definitely fast for allegros and slowly for adagios. When I stopped, he stopped — and waited. He could outwait me. When I left, I would just leave him there, waiting.

    I figured if an insect person could react this way, with so few nerve cells, human persons must be able process such signals with far more complex consequences than simply dancing.

    As you probably know, Beethoven suffered from chronic abdominal problems and severe intestinal inflammation. Fortunately Hundwasser suffered similar symptoms. An experiment was staring me right in the face. The famous
Heilige Dankgesang in the A minor quartet, the “Holy Song Of Thanks From A Convalescent To The Godhead“, was written after recovering from a serious bout with abdominal pain.  Surely the tones, the great ideas of that movement, beyond being “proof of the existence of God” (Huxley), the successive integrations of disparate elements, must have something to do with disease, and with (Beethoven’s) stomach disease in particular. It was worth a try.

    I made an accordion arrangement of the three adagio sections, and played them daily to Hundwasser during lunch break. We used the animal room for privacy. He just sat and listened.  I suppose the rats listened too, but I had no parameters to measure the effects on them.

    Hundwasser, however, had lots of parameters.  Or, like the hedgehog, one big parameter: the number of Rolaids he popped each day.  It took a week or so before R began to drop. From an average of 20 to an average of 12. On weekends, no music, R rose again. Come weekdays, it began to fall by Tuesday.  In a sustained three week experiment, no days off, R fell to 3, then climbed to 12 again with a week off. We were on to something.

    Neither of us had the time for a full and lasting cure, but after we stopped the experiment, he bought a record of the Budapest playing it, and has used that routinely to calm his symptoms.  Saves him money on Rolaids, and he can listen while washing the dishes during the rare moments that he washes the dishes.

    Flush with success, I looked more closely into the tarantella situation, the Antidotum Tarantulae. I would need to study the phenomenon first hand. But there aren’t a lot of tarantula bites in Manhattan. There aren’t many tarantas
[women bitten by tarantulas] to whom I could offer treatment — especially if it were just an experiment by a newbie. What to do?

    Herman to the rescue! I could get him to bite me, and then, in the heroic tradition of the great doctors and medical researchers, I could try to cure myself. I admit such research is small potatoes compared to the guy who shoved a catheter into an arm vein and guided it up into his heart, or the guys from Walter Reed’s team who invited malaria mosquitoes to bite them, so they could test drugs, or even the guy who gave himself ulcers so he could prove it was bacteria that caused them.  Small potatoes unless I died.  But I know that though tarantula bites were toxic, they were not often fatal.

    And of course, we have to remember Dr. Curt Conners, aka, the Lizard in Spiderman Comics, who lost his arm in a war, and experimented with reptilian DNA to try and grow it back, a great example of be careful what you wish for: the therapy caused him to mutate into a creature half-human and half-reptile. He became a villain, too, and even uglier than I am. I wondered if I might turn into a tarantula person — from the saliva — but it wasn’t very likely.

    I knew this self-experimentation would be looked down upon at the Berg Institute for Experimental Physiology, Surgery and Pathology, even though experimental physiology, surgery and pathology was exactly what I was doing. So it was 1 A.M. when I let myself into Hundwasser’s lab, took Honey
[his accordion] out of her case, and aroused Herman with the traditional slow, lamenting introduction to Borodin’s Polovetsian Dance #2, “The Wild Dance of the Men”. Out he came on cue, staring at me through the Adagio, and when the fast part started, gave a shiver, and went into nothing short of a frenzy, leaping high off the terrarium floor, doing 90º, 180º, 270º, and 360º spins in the air, landing on his feet, rolling over on his back, and dragging himself miraculously by hyper–extended forelegs reaching up, over and behind his head, engaging the sand. It was so amazing, I almost forgot what I had come for. He must have been a Polovetsian spider, or at least have Polovetsian blood, perhaps from the Russian steppes.

    When the both of us stopped to get our breaths, I thrust my left arm into the terrarium, and, though normally a pacifist, he leaped at it, and sunk his fangs in midway between wrist and elbow. Good Herman! I had to pull him off. Within a minute and a half, I was, as they say, possessed by the spider.

    Though being somewhat atypical myself, I was that night afflicted with all the typical tarantula bite symptoms: feelings of prostration, anguish, psychomotor agitation, clouding of my sensory apparatus, difficulty standing, stomach cramps, nausea, paresthesia, muscular pains, extraordinary itching, and best and worst of all, vastly heightened sexual desire. I took a cab home; the cabbie thought I was way-drunk.

    Lying in my bed, I felt wounded and weary, and aware of the deep tediousness of all things.  Still, after a short sleep, I was able to drag Honey out of her case, and begin a medly of tarantellas I had learned.

    Somewhere toward the end of the 1490s, the great Neopolitan scholar Alessandro d’Alessandro described the treatment of stricken tarantas by the local folk musicians: “they play different dances according to the nature of the poison, in such a way that with the vicitms entranced by the harmony and fascinated by what they hear, the poison either dissolves inside the body and dissipates, or else is slowly eliminated through the veins.” And with (wouldn’t you know it?) one of the Neopolitan tarantellas, I could feel just that effect, a veritable exorcism, a return to life, possibly to love. By the next day I was weak, but feeling basically normal via my iatromusical practice.

    Plague doctoring is not so much different, though I suffer less, and my patients suffer more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


“In each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the molding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.”
Capt. Ahab

So they -- Pynchon's "They", the Blue and Red Meanies, visible and undisclosed -- won't renew unemplyoment benefits, want to kill 'em all, anywhere, with drones  or nukes if possible, are prepared to starve out Palestinians and Caterpillar their homes, drown low-lying peasants, and assassinate or execute any whistle blowers so they can do their deeds in secret.  Who are these people?

“Greedy” and “mean-spirited” are the mildest adjectives one hears describing the attitudes and projects of heads of state, their underlings, and the CEOs that drive them. And last -- but definitely not least -- the populations that applaud them.

It might be possible to assume that Mr. (and the occasional Ms.) Big and their followers have human hearts (Cheney's contraption notwithstanding), love their children as we do, and hope to pass on to them a better world. What is it, then, that drives them to propose and cheer on such callous proposals and systems?

While differing in personal details, it's likely that each actor is driven by what the Frankfurt School called the “Authoritarian Personality,” whose fundamental trait is the urgent need for, and privileging of, order. Freud, Fromm, and Reich explained the psychodynamics of weak ego structures that underlay the Authoritarian Personality, while Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed the social repression that encourage it and leave its marks on individual souls.

When Alles in Ordnung becomes the highest value, and all else seems threatening, many things follow:

1) Powerful leaders are assumed to be needed to keep society in line, secretly if necessary, and to restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm. Trickle-down theories designed to protect the powerful are understood to be in the interest of all. Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are justified by an appeal to the general good.

2) Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governed Ability of Democracies To the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”: “The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited.… The effective operation of the democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.… Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.”

The need to control the unpredictability of excess democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout its history. The pattern of marginalizing the general population and supporting rich or dictatorial strongmen is driven as much by a rage for order and fear of chaos as by a simple selfish need to maximize profits–profits.

3 Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be minimized or stamped out. Difference means unpredictability, and thus "bad". Fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable Other spawns all the “–isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an enemy Other to be conquered and subdued.

4) Rigid moralism of stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy. The psychosexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels. There is exaggerated concern with and (often hypocritical) denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings on.” God hates fags, don'tcha know. Don't ask, don't tell, don't be. At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.

5) Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and deeds without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing becomes a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of deeds. Knee-jerk patriotism in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism. Yellow ribbons blindfold eyes against our corpses. The story of the Enola Gay or 9/11 must not be told. Control of information makes compassion difficult.

6) A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against official order must be heavily penalized. Dominance and submission become crucial. Pro-life and pro-death penalty attitudes flourish together. Sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is to punish transgressors. Tender-mindedness is for bleeding heart liberals.

Thus, the Authoritarian Personality -- individual and social. While no “angry white male” leader or follower may display every trait, they are all on collective display in the current reactionary zeitgeist. To characterize them as simple greed or mean-spiritedness is to misunderstand their psychic origins, and to limit effective response.

Can there be an effective strategy in response?

Each of the characteristics above can be substantially addressed. In dealing with any particular individual, from talkshow caller to senator, a crucial move might be to speak to his or her insecurity and need for order:

1) Powerful Leaders. We can emphasize the collective wisdom and surprising knowledge of larger groups, and the limitations of powerful, but narrow, leadership. We can point to the possibilities of decentralized planning and decision-making. If trickle-up energy can be recognized and honored, trickle-down economics will make less sense.

2) The Threat of Democracy. We can call on any reserve goodwill for the founding ideas of this country. In their research for Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah's group of sociologists discovered a pervasive “second language” of civic republicanism and biblical tradition flourishing alongside the seemingly dominant American language of manipulative instrumentalism. World Bank strangulation of the global poor, for example, can show up -- at least to the masses -- as profound injustice if this second language is brought forward and appealed to. Bellah's book is an important read for activists thoroughly discouraged.

3) Suspect Individualism and Dangerous Others. “New” and “different” are not negative terms in American culture. Current advertising appeals to it all the time. Ethnic music and restaurants thrive–so why not the folks that originate them? Today's xenophobia may not be an indelible characteristic of the American psyche, but a relatively superficial effect of economic hard times. Many positive sensibilities are there to be addressed, and one can try to locate blame where it belongs -- on the power structures, not on their victims.

4) Rigid Moralism. Puritanism and profligacy have always existed in dubious battle. Hawthorne's “Maypole of Marymount” teases the most rigid among us, creating chaos within control. Understanding the inner workings of self and others is a possible key to a more peaceful order. Mitch McConnel (married to an Asian-American) may be secretly fascinated with Louisville's gay pride parade, but he has no conceptual tree on which to hang it. Can we make it okay for him and his to ponder such things, if only as examples of the human condition?

5) Patriotic Psychic Numbing. Now that the information highway has invaded the world, images of Others seep daily into consciousness. For all the "good guy/bad guy" media spin, there may be a perception of common humanity lurking under the thickest hide, kept in place only by fear. Should that hide begin to melt, psychic numbing will disappear with it and blinding patriotism might be open to fascination and even generosity. “They're just dumb, greedy sonsabitches” sells short even a right-winger's capacity for wonder.

6) The Culture of Punishment. As nuclear power, once projected as “too cheap to meter,” has priced itself out of existence, so must three-strikes prison building make its idiocy felt. When the quick fix fails–as even a casual observer can see it must–Americans will have to confront the contradictions of dominance. And here our egalitarian “second language” can come into play, creaking open through cognitive dissonance. If even Dick Cheney supports his daughter in her lesbianism, can angry, punishing America be all that far behind?

All right. But as Cheney so famously said, "So?"

These approaches to the Authoritarian Personality do seem overly optimistic in the era of our once and future Congresses. And surely social and political structures of domination are firmly in place, prejudicing events and guiding their outcomes. But Melville directs our attention to the glimmer of hope, the “unknown but still reasoning thing” behind the unreasoning mask. Far better, perhaps, to organize toward that glimmer and engage that reason then to lapse into despair, and the powerless calling of names.

But can the vestigial better angels of our nature swell the chorus of a new, more humane union? Or have badder angel systems so suffocated us, for so long, that the better angels have turned their backs, taken their leave, and fled?

Lincoln's angels must by now confront Walter Benjamin's Angel: angel who seems about to take leave of something, something at which he is staring.  His eyes are wide, his mouth open and his wings outspread.  This is what the Angel of History must look like.  His face is turned toward the past.  What look to us like a chain of occurrences appears to him as one great catastrophe incessantly piling wreck upon wreck and hurling it at his feet.  He would very much like to stay, to waken the dead and make whole what has been shattered.  But a storm is blowing so strongly from Paradise that his wings are pinned back: he can no longer close them.  This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile before him grows.  What we call progress -- that is the storm.

As the winds increase, I'm not betting on the outcome.