An Excerpt From “Hallelujah”
An economic companion to the Messiah
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An economic companion to the Messiah
The first of several Christmas concerts I attended last year was a performance of the Messiah at Trinity Wall Street church. A few days later, Occupy Wall Street protesters attempted to move into a space owned by the church. An Episcopal bishop, George Packard, was the first to climb over the fence and occupy the lot. Protesters were almost immediately removed by the police. The church pointed out that it had provided a space for Occupy Wall Street protesters where they could hold meetings, use Wi-Fi, and take breaks from the cold, that it was able to offer its support in those ways.
A couple weeks later, I went to three Christmas services in Dublin—one at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, another at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, and the third at Christ Church Cathedral, near Dame Street, the site of Occupy Dame Street. Each of the services included selections from the Messiah.
I was alone in Dublin. When you’re alone, people talk to you. At the Christmas Eve afternoon concert at St. Patrick’s, I sat next to a woman named Colette. Colette said that later she would be singing in a midnight mass—she would be performing some Handel—out at Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook. Her church is the last church left in Dublin that does midnight mass at midnight, she explained. Most churches find that at midnight there are too many drunks wandering in and out, so they do midnight mass earlier. You have probably heard of Donnybrook, she said to me, because you have probably heard of the Donnybrook Fair. “Donnybrook” means—she turned to her husband and asked, What would you say “Donnybrook” means? He said the term now means something like “riotous behavior.” The fair used to have a lot of drinking and gambling, a lot of three-card monte, Colette said. But then in 1859 they built a church there, my church; they put it there to try to take the place of the troublesome fair. But what was the fair originally for? I asked Colette. Colette’s husband said that what they did there was get men drunk and then sign them up for the army.
At Christmastime, beggars in Dublin lie prostrate on the ground, hiding their faces and holding out their hats. If you’ve been thinking about Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, you really do think of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum’s opening song: “Sell out your brother, you wretch! Barter away your wife!” There are a lot of beggars in Dublin. (Jonathan Swift proposed that beggars should wear badges; he also noted that England sent over beggars “gratis, and duty free.”) I was told by one person that most of the beggars in Dublin are Turks. Others said to me, No, they are tinkers, or maybe Romanians, but not Turks, because Turks never beg. On Christmas Day, when I go for a long walk, hoping to find something to eat, the only places open besides a handful of hotels are kebab shops. One’s part of a chain called Abrakebabra.
When you’re alone, people take you in. A Canadian family staying at my bed-and-breakfast invited me to eat Christmas dinner with them at the Clarence Hotel, which is owned by a member of one of Ireland’s oldest and most esteemed families—that is to say, the Clarence is owned by Bono. Christmas dinner was set at thirty-five euros there, which was considerably less than other places in town were charging. The waitstaff working Christmas Day were Poles and Chileans. The son of the welcoming Canadian family was in his mid-twenties and had recently moved back home, he said. Because he is trying to make it in comedy, his mother said. He admires Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. His best stand-up bit so far, he and his father agreed, was about the Tamil immigrants who work as kitchen staff in Canada. He has worked in restaurants a lot—his mother is a caterer—and that is how he has come to know so many Tamils. The bit is about a Tamil former national karate champion who works in the kitchen of the comedy club; it’s very hard to retell jokes, but I remember it being funny and referring to Sri Lanka’s deadliest fighter and, maybe, nachos. We had a good time at dinner, and at the end we all paid our portion of the check.
Over the Christmas holiday, I had a dream that my long-dead dad was calling me from an Italian police station where he had been taken because he entered the wrong expiration date for an American Express card purchase—could I help him?
In the Circe chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom hallucinates a mass with 600 voices singing the Hallelujah chorus, as Bloom himself becomes “mute, shrunken, carbonised.”
For the first performance of the Messiah, ladies were asked to kindly not wear their hoopskirts, so that there would be room for as many attendees as possible, it being a charity concert, and it being desirable that as many people as possible be able to attend. This anecdote was told to me first by a taxi driver, then by an innkeeper, and later by the wife of a very, very wealthy man. It would seem that the Irish are today still very educated about the details of Handel’s Messiah first being put on in Dublin.
About half the magnificent Georgian buildings on historic Fitzwilliam Square had a to let sign in front of them.
From 1803 to 1972, the Bank of Ireland had its headquarters in the building that was built for and previously housed the Parliament of Ireland. In March 2011, the Bank of Ireland was found to be in need of a €5.2 billion bailout. Much of its debt was a result of bad loans. The former parliament building, down the way along Dame Street from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals, is still a Bank of Ireland, although now it is just a branch office and no longer the headquarters. I received a long and informative lecture about the Bank of Ireland from the same taxi driver who told me about the Hoopskirt Request of Handel’s time, and who also told me that his house was worth 500K in 2007 but now is probably worth only 240K, not that he was ever thinking of selling it, but that it was true, and sad, that the young people were leaving Ireland because they couldn’t find work, that the young people were going to Australia.
I went to the 9:30 p.m. midnight mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Outside there were protesters with signs about the Satanic World Federation of Pedophilia. The sermon was about how Jesus was a real historical figure—a real man in a real time. The time of Caesar Augustus, who issued a census so that he could tax the land. The speaker said that he wanted to welcome everyone, of course, but that he especially wanted to welcome those who have had a relationship with the Church that has been a painful and hurtful one. The speaker also made a special announcement about Please do not dip the wafer into the wine because the same cup is used by those who suffer from celiac disease. After the service, the priest exited the church slowly, greeting the congregation as a bride might.
Some of us seem to have a sense of fear and isolation that precedes any reason for such a feeling. Christmas is a time for the exacerbation of such predispositions. My cheerful and loved nine-year-old niece writes for her biographical description at school: I am a girl who is afraid of bee stings and of short lives. When I grow up I want to be a writer and to learn how to say no to people.
More from Rivka Galchen:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”