4.30. Paul Goodman, parable ‘The Messiah-Blower’ (1948)

The American Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was a many-sided author, who wrote not only novels, plays, poetry, but also essays on a wide variety of subjects, such as psychotherapy, education, urban design, and politics. He wrote The Messiah-Blower in 1948; it was published only in 1976, after his death. *In New Letters, A Magazine of Writing and Art, Vol. 42, No. 2/3 14. As it is very short, the full text can be reproduced here.

I have been given a horn and appointed to wait and blow it when the Messiah comes to our town. If I have been appointed? or have I appointed myself to this position? In any case I have a horn in my hand.

Naturally, from time to time, I cannot resist giving it an experimental toot. This makes a few (usually the same ones) prick up their ears and come running. But most people pay no attention to such a peep; they think, no doubt, that when the Messiah really comes, the sound will have a stirring unmistakeable appeal.

Really, with my tooting, I am trying to get a rise out of a person on the second floor there.

I am lying about those occasional toots. Actually I blow and blow my brains out. They are going to pass a decree to keep me off the streets.

Am I betraying my office by tooting at that second floor? But why shouldn’t the Messiah come out of that window? If I don’t rouse him, who will?

Questions. Questions. I whose vocation is for heart-easing hallelujahs, sound nothing but discordant blasts. Almost I could believe that the Messiah doesn’t come just because I make such damned racket! . . . Yet the Messiah will come anyway (I cannot prevent it either), and then shall I sound the heart-easing hallelujah. *Full text. Dots original. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Paul Goodman.

Although the informal term “horn” denotes any brass instrument, the only possible instrument in this messianic context is a shofar. The narrator is appointed to blow it at the coming of the Messiah, while the text remains vague about the identity of the authority who has appointed him. Considered superficially, Goodman’s Messiah-blower can be compared to Mr. Karni in Yiẓḥak Oren’s short story The Monument of the Resurrection, *Chapter 4.37 who is appointed to erect this monument when a shofar blast “at oh four hundred” the next morning will announce the arrival of the Messiah. However, in contrast to Mr. Karni, who is a subordinate in a mission organized with military precision, Goodman’s Messiah-blower is a non-conformist individual, blowing the shofar at his own risk. His experimental “toots” and “peeps” make some people curious but leave most of them indifferent; he tries to provoke the indifferent with a blast, which is not received favorably by the authorities, who want to pass a decree to keep him off the streets—though this might be meant ironically, given the general lack of interest in his shofar blasts.

In the fourth paragraph, the Messiah-blower confesses that he sounds more than occasional blasts and “blows his brain out.” According to Taylor Stoehr, the editor of Goodman’s collected stories, this passion has an autobiographical background: “Messianic hope was for him [Goodman] the touchstone of Judaism, more important than any other aspect of the Covenant, whether the idea of the Chosen People or of the Law.” *Stoehr, “Paul Goodman and the New York Jews” 61. The Messiah-blower’s belief that the Messiah could appear at any place and at any time is also Goodman’s personal belief. In an article *Ibid. 61 from the same period as The Messiah-Blower, Goodman assumes that the coming of the Messiah will be a miracle, because the efforts of “men of good will, sociologists—yes! even socio-psychologists—” have always failed to bring his coming nearer. In the meantime, individual efforts are not useless; with the rhetorical question in The Messiah-Blower: “If I don’t rouse him, who will?” Goodman paraphrases the well-known saying of Hillel, the rabbinic authority from the 1st century BCE: “If I’m not for myself, who is for me?” He quoted this saying again in A Memorial Synagogue, *Hillel in Pirkei Avot 1:14. Quoted in Goodman, “A Memorial Synagogue.” Jewish American Literature 526. Chapter 4.31 the last chapter of his novel The Break-Up of Our Camp, in which Jewish artists set out to build a synagogue in order to commemorate the victims of the Shoah and to deal with their personal grief. The autobiographical background of The Messiah-Blower is confirmed by Goodman himself in his letter of March 1, 1948 to the American poet Édouard Roditi, which he concludes with a variant of The Messiah-Blower and the added comment “I’m a Messiah-blower . . .” *In “Paul Goodman and the New York Jews” 53.

In The Messiah-Blower, the Past of the traditional shofar blasts in the synagogue is altered by the Present of the situation in “our town,” where most people ignore the blasts, as a result of which the narrator’s shofar blowing grows more and more provocative: “I whose vocation is for heart-easing hallelujahs, sound nothing but discordant blasts.” Because a monophonic blast cannot be discordant in the absence of other voices, discordance is meant as being not in accordance with the expectations of the public.

Even with regard to the form of the text, the Past is altered by the Present. “I suppose my stories and novels are, finally, myths,” Goodman stated. “In principle there are two opposite ways of making mythical stories: to start with the American scene and find the mythical emerging from it; or to start with an ancient foreign myth and discover that it is familiar to oneself.” *Goodman, Our Visit to Niagara 9. Quoted in Stoehr, “Adam and Everyman: Paul Goodman and His Stories” 147-8. The Messiah-Blower is a product of the first way, because Goodman starts with the “American scene” and adapts the traditional genre of the parable, which is often used in the Bible and rabbinical literature. A parable is a succinct, instructive story, illustrating a universal truth, a moral dilemma, or both; in contrast to a fable, it features humans instead of animals or plants. According to a recent work by the biblical scholar Jeremy Schipper, parables do not function primarily to change their addressees’ ways; “Instead, the parables help create, intensify, and justify judgments and hostile actions against their addressees. Speakers do this by comparing a curse, a petition, a taunt, and so on, with the addressees’ current situation.” *Schipper, Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible 4.

In Goodman’s parable The Messiah-blower, the shofar blower does not change his addressees’ ways, because most people are not impressed by his blasts. Moreover, they are going to pass a decree to keep him off the streets—or, in Bakhtinian terms: the Messiah-blower cannot turn the internally persuasive discourse of his blasts into an authoritative discourse. The “current situation” from Schipper’s qualification, in Goodman’s parable, is the people’s belief that when the Messiah really comes, the shofar blasts will have “a stirring unmistakeable appeal.” This is the reason for the “hostile actions” of the shofar blower, in which all elements from Schipper’s inventory are present: the curse appears as “such a damned racket;” the petition as the sentence “Really, with my tooting, I am trying to get a rise out of a person on the second floor there;” and finally, the taunt as “peeps,” “toots,” and “discordant blasts.”

Few writers, composers, and artists ignore completely the traditional manifestation of the shofar blasts in order to express their ideas in experimental peeps, toots, and discordant blasts. These kinds of peeps and toots can be heard in Alvin Curran’s electro-acoustic composition Shofar der Zeit (1990), *Chapter 4.50 where the shofar sounds are electronically manipulated and amplified. The extremely unusual sounds, the secular use of the shofar as a concert instrument and the composer’s “discordant” comment led to furious reactions from Israeli composers who attended the first performance at the festival in Germany. *Ibid. The main difference with Andy Haas’ album Humanitarian War (2006) *Chapter 4.67 is that Haas’ discordant blasts are a reaction to the even more discordant sounds of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast to these two abstract compositions without a trace of a narrative, Felix Nussbaum’s painting Entombment (1933) *Chapter 4.18 shows the “hostile action” of a group of young artists in the guise of biblical priests, who address the older generation of influential German artists by means of discordant shofar blasts. In contrast to these works by Curran, Haas, and Nussbaum, Goodman’s parable is directed at the future and—notwithstanding the questions and the disillusionment—filled with longing for the Messiah.

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