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Moment of Truth: October 29 2016

The Tears of Saint Peter

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

Le Lagrime di San Pietro, the Tears of St. Peter, is a piece of choral music by Orlando di Lasso, composed in 1594. The text is by the Petrarchian poet, Luigi Trasillo, written about thirty-five years early. Wednesday morning I sat in Disney Concert Hall watching singers from the Masters Chorale, under the direction of Peter Sellars, rehearse the piece. I was lucky enough to have a friend among the singers, and it was she who'd invited me.

The singing and staging were sublime, and singing and staging covers just about everything about the piece, so it was a sublime experience. Supertitles appeared above the stage, and the text was also sublime. So imagine yourselves there, as a low-rent bum like myself, occasionally treated to sublime things due to having occasional truck with wealthy or brilliant people – my friend, incidentally, being brilliant rather than wealthy, and thus, despite her relatively humble, in Los Angeles terms at least, condition, seeming to exist solely among the sublime, having the sublime pour out of her, and channeling the sublime to others – and there you are, enveloped in the exquisite for a while before you must rudely collapse back into your rodent's nest of a life, which in many ways you've chosen, albeit you curse your choices several times every day.

You'll remember Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. He wasn't the brightest of the apostles. Jesus told him beforehand he'd do it, you'd think he'd have been on his toes, he'd see it coming like déjà vu and at least try to thwart the prophecy, but never mind. He denied Jesus three times so he wouldn't get into trouble with the authorities. And Jesus looked into Peter's betraying eyes, and that look is the source of Peter's tears. Whenever he wakes up to the crowing of the cock, Peter recalls that look and starts to cry.

It's quite a look. It's like arrows. Jesus' eyes are like bows, and the gaze is arrows. Later the eyes are swift tongues, and Peter's eyes are ears. What is said wordlessly with that gaze is more than even the most canny ear could hear in a hundred years. Describing the recriminations communicated by this look would shatter the listener, says Trasillo, and so sing the singers in some kind of, I guess, Italian.

A couple weeks ago I spoke on this show about the way we derogate and discard moral idealism (as opposed to philosophical idealism), and I used Gandhi as an example of the practical nature of the idealistic, starry-eyed, experimental approach to problem-solving. And this is just the same, really, only told through the tears of St. Peter and the suffering of Jesus. It's a shame Western Poetry has had to focus so much of its attention on one man. It's a shame for Jesus. He's had to be mutilated by European languages countless times over the centuries. For the longest time he had to bear all pain himself, he couldn't share his pain because all pain was his pain. And what a pain. A total pain.

Jesus's eyes say to Peter, "Your disloyalty is worse than the buffeting, scourging and crucifixion I went through. You whom I loved most hurt me worst with your denial." And Peter's crying those tears of his, remembering that look, the divine stink-eye of Jesus. Peter chose the easy path of avoiding danger, but of course it turned out to be anything but easy.

We all cave in a little to the easy way, as if earning a living or avoiding legal trouble is somehow easy for us mortals. But I'm told we all make compromises, moral compromises. And why would I be told so if it weren't at least mostly true? Who wants to admit such a thing, after all? Peter doesn't, that's for sure, but every time the cock crows and reminds him, he's at it again with the waterworks.

And writ large, the way we as a species have ravaged our world is a sickening reminder of the compromises we make routinely. In fact, to call what's been causing us to destroy our environment and each other "compromises" is to apply Geisha makeup to a warthog. Either all our individual compromises somehow add up to one horribly evil inclination, or the evil inclination rules over all, allowing most of us to believe we have the free will to make relatively insignificant moral choices beneath the horrid umbrella.

All my thoughts keep circling back to the notion that with enough belief in ideal moral behavior, heedless of the consequences to our bodies and immediate peace of mind, we could shirk the burden of human folly with all its cuts and explosions and poisoning of everything. I don't mean to say I believe it, just that everything I've experienced over the past three weeks keeps pointing me in that direction. It's the state of mind I happen to be in.

It might have something to do with autumn. Even here in Los Angeles we have autumn. The sun goes down earlier. It's like a coffin lid closing.

And of course the election draws nearer and nearer, another coffin lid closing, or maybe the same lid. It's a metaphorical lid, so you really only need one. To seal the entire deal. Whatever the deal might be.

If the deal is the ice caps melting and megastorms raging across poisoned oceans and land and a great impoverishment of the masses and a sixth great extinction, even as Standing Rock Sioux are beaten and pepper-sprayed and arrested trying to protect the water, and there are indeed people working hard everywhere, if usually in vain, to reverse the angle of our evil inclination, and with every sip of water I'm drinking Saint Peter's tears, then that's a pretty raw deal, isn't it? But I'm guessing it's the descent of the season's coffin lid bringing on this feeling. I could choose instead to focus all my attention on beer and science fiction. Hard as it might be with the coffin lid cutting out the light like it is.

But sometimes a sixteenth-century poet writes a poem all about the look Jesus gave Peter, only about that single moment when that look was delivered and received, and later a composer sets the text in twenty madrigals and an envoi motet. Maybe a friend of yours has the gift of music, and she looks and moves and speaks just as you'd imagine such a person with such a gift would. And you get to sit for an hour while that mythical moment unfolds through the voices of twenty-one singers, the group of them moving dramatically in a staging of the piece like no other version that's ever been performed.

It doesn't stop the descent of the coffin lid, which in any case is a metaphor, so you ought to be able to stop it yourself, but it doesn't stop, because every metaphor is part of an allegory with its own necessity. And you wonder how much of that necessity is really necessary, but even if you could puzzle out that it's not necessary at all you doubt you could stop it.

Still, for the time elapsing during that a capella performance, and for some time afterwards, you can forget the taste of Peter's tears and the falling of the lid, and just live in the fact that people do such things as write and compose and sing in complex, incomprehensibly heavenly harmony about devastating moments. And you can hope there's something ennobling in that immersion that might permanently penetrate your scaly hide. And maybe you can communicate something of the transcendent to others, and maybe that can be a good thing, or at least add to the accounts on the good side of the ledger, if anyone's keeping track.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Moment of Truth


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