Thomas Bruce and Justin Desmangles: In Conversation on the Solstice
New Day Jazz - December 19, 2010
JD: Today we’re speaking with Tom Bruce, Professor of Thanatology, Psychology, and one of the few teachers in my own life who has shown the kind of rigor of thoughtful, engaged analysis that makes it possible for an open dialogue--telling it like it is, telling it as it may be, and as it should be by revealing the inner light as well as the darkness. A man of love and logic. We’re going to begin speaking this afternoon with Tom Bruce about the solstice, which of course is an occasion that transcends human culture in as much as it is ancient in its human significance, it does not belong to any one designated epoch or religion or time or place. It is of and as being human. And as we come into this moment in the year, Tom Bruce, what are some of your own reflections on this period?
TB: First of all, thanks very much for the introduction. In my field an introduction like that sounds amazingly like an obituary, and I become a little concerned about my health and well-being, but I think that’s a little effort at solstice lightness here as the darkness increases. I think the solstice presents an interesting study in the integration of mythology and psychology in trying to study transcendent human behavior and emotions, the two come together. We have all kinds of study in psychology about the impact of light deprivation and what it does to the human psyche. What did it do to our human ancestors who didn’t understand what was going on as the days grew shorter and the nights grew longer? There apparently in the early mythologies was the fear that the sun was going to go away, that the days just kept getting shorter. There was no reason to think that was going to stop, that the sun would just be here shorter and shorter durations of time, and then there would reach a point of absolute zero where all would be darkness, and if all would be darkness, the end of the growing seasons and ultimately the end of life. So to preclude that from happening you have the existence of a very broad-based, non-rational fear that life is going to go away because the sun is going away. So in what would be in this hemisphere the December period, you would have a number of rituals gradually developing trying to influence this to not happen by having sacrifices, by having burnt offerings to whoever that particular culture viewed as responsible for the sun, whether that was the sun god per se, or whether it was the higher power by whatever true name they used. And then there was the awareness that after December 21st, 22nd, along in there, the shortest day, the longest night, there was a vague awareness that the days were getting longer, and we find that certain things like Stonehenge, various things that were developed with, in retrospect, a pretty high degree of sophistication where they could start to tell that “A ha, the days are getting longer. The worst has passed, the sun is not going to go away.” So the rituals the sacrifice before were then followed by rituals of celebration after, and also the sense that “see, our rituals work.” It became a self-licking ice cream cone. Because the sun did come back: “A-ha, the rituals work, we must do it again next year to make sure.” It becomes an ingrained part of each and every culture. Now this year is going to present a doubly interesting thing, because we also have a lunar eclipse occurring at about the same time. One can only imagine that at an earlier time, without the awareness of astronomy that we have today, did they view not only the sun going away, but the moon was going away as well? And what could this possibly mean? The searching for a mythology to give meaning to this as a way to cope with fear.
TB: Now that doesn’t sound like anything humans do today, does it? We would never think to create a confabulation to deal with the rampant fear around us and tell ourselves a story that sometimes we find comfort in, but sometimes we scare ourselves with our own stories. I think at the same time there’s a light deprivation factor, and seasonal adjusted disorders, all of which kind of converge this time of year. And much of what has been attributed to human depression and despair during this time of year has normally been given to the holidays, may in fact be the convergence of a whole lot of variables coming together at one time. Now, I’m sure the holidays for many people presents a performance standard that leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy, but I think we have to factor in a lot of other rather natural phenomena going on at the same time.
JD: I’d like to address a number of points which you just made that I think are all very important, but before getting to this aspect of the performative that you just addressed here, I’d like to step back a little bit and think about this in terms of our ancestral inheritance, psychologically. If we abide by the theories of Carl Jung in respect to the collective unconscious, the archetypal experience which emanates through us, in those terms, that’s partially what you’re drifting towards here, if I understand you. Would you say then that a great deal of our emotional or intuitive response to this period of time has to do with how we have accumulated these memories and archetypes and feelings over millenia?
TB: Well, we have invented very few things in our lifetime. We are incredibly derivative of something or the other. That these patterns....for example: Hormonal changes correlate with the seasons. Now, why? Was there in a human a season for reproduction, just as there were in other animals? A time in which reproduction was going to be more viable and feasible than other times? Did these things develop because they were good for the species, because it made sense, and pass from generation to generation? Were they somehow given into the human psyche at a subconscious level and gradually work their way up, emanating finally manifested in behavior? The Jungians perhaps would go that way. Joseph Campbell would speak of a mono-myth, that in the beginning was one myth, and that everything else was a derivative with cultural adaptations based upon the geography and climatic differences around the world. Yes. I have a feeling in terms of what we’re doing right now, that probably there’s nothing at all original in what we’re saying.
JD: Right, right.
TB: ...That in the beginning there was one original statement and everything since has been derivative, so we’re all plagiarists without footnotes. And that’s how we live our life.
JD: But it is possible, there is a window there by which we may, through our own intentions, consciously attune to that rhythm, that some may choose to be closer to that emanation of the cycle, and others may set themselves in contrast to it.
TB: Oh, absolutely. And some people are much closer to the primitive given of the collective unconscious than other people.
TB: And that’s going to obviously influence the choices we make, because I don’t want to factor out human choice. We always have that. I don’t always choose things that are good for me, and/or would be good for my part of the species, even though perhaps I was born programmed or hard-wired, whatever current phrase we want to use, to have a pattern of behavior that would have been better. But we don’t always make the best choices, and I’m Existential enough to think that we’ve got to factor in human choice here.
JD: Well that’s part of why I began--and I do want to hit on the point that you made regarding the performative--but that’s partly why I began by addressing the solstice as being something that transcends any given culture at any given time, because it seems to me that the given time here, or the given culture, that’s where choice really starts to play a role. And you spoke about fear--when we’re in a state of fear, our choices become...fewer?
TB: We perceive them as fewer. Because the more fear-driven we are--and again I find incredible relevance with this year in this country--the more fear-driven we are, the more compulsive we feel that everything is a fight or flight decision, rather than seeing the broad spectrum of choices available at every turn. But the more threatened my psyche feels, the more narrowly defined my reality is, and I see myself only being able to choose to flee, or to fight. The classic flight or fight that is almost cliché anymore. Whereas when I am not fear-driven, when I am reasonably confident and comfortable in my environment, and operating with my full integrity, I will see an infinite number of choices on that line between the need to destroy, or the need to run. But the more frightened I become, the narrower I feel my choices are. Obviously the choices are still there, but if we get into brain functioning we can diagram this out with the amygdala and etcetera, etcetera, but I don’t think that really matters. I think the point is that fear-driven behavior becomes incredibly narrowly based.
JD: Now here in the United States of America at this time of year, we have a very complicated and often evasive set of rituals that coincide with Solstice. I’d like to bring it around to this idea that you brought up of the kind of malaise that sort of sets in, and how some people interpret that as a response to the holidays as such, but you’re telling us that that this really may not be the case, actually we’re talking about a much broader, more inclusive, perhaps universal phenomena that’s taking place. But when this fight or flight kicks in, this sense of fear, this provokes in some of us, a kind of role playing where we perform what we assume to be appropriate to the ritual of the holidays, and that adds another problem to it. Could you talk about it? There’s some folks real confused right now thinking about gift they’re going to buy for someone they don’t really care about. And yet it’s a performance to alleviate the sense of …
TB: Right....and trying to buy that gift with money that isn’t there, which adds another level. And we end up resentful of those we have to buy gifts for, and what should be an act of care and love ends up being very very different. I think the performance requirements and the compulsive need to conform tie in with the flight or fight. I will not feel nearly the need to have to conform to someone else’s standards of what is appropriate behavior in the holidays or any other time, again, if I’m fairly comfortable with myself. But, if I feel imperiled, if I feel at risk, then I’m going to seek safety. And one safety is trying to be like everybody else. If I can conform to everybody else and stand in that long check-out line, and maximum out on my credit card, etcetera, then somehow or another I will be secure because I followed the rituals, I played by the rules, I went by the game. When in fact, it’s almost Faustian in the sense of selling what little is left for this false sense of security. This is what Erich Fromm, clear back in the 1950s, was calling the “escape from freedom.” To escape from free by getting into what amorphously we could call the lonely crowd mentality, and one of the characteristics I think of the malls, the crowded malls this time of year, is you don’t see a whole lot of happy faces there. You see a lot of faces with pain--I mean, real pain. Not physical, but emotional, what I could call psych-aches. Their psyche is aching. And I think part of it is having lost that last part of one’s self into this role that you’re trying to perform, and feeling not even very good at that role. It’s like you’ve given the store away and there’s nothing left. So I think your point is absolutely right on, that we get in this corner, and we can’t make the choices to get out of it.
JD: Now, would you agree with the suggestion that one way of removing oneself from that situation would be to contemplate the eternal cycles which are truly a part of this period of time? Not necessarily to reject or leave behind the rituals that we’ve imposed on it, but lend the mind towards a trajectory of really trying to get to the root of those things, looking for that mono-myth. Is that a way, one way out of the maze?
TB: I think one way out is through self-reflection, of realizing why I feel like I feel. Why does this feel so unpleasant for me? Because it’s not me. It’s not me. Then I’m going to have to make a choice. Then I will have to make a choice: can I go ahead with this performance, and still retain what is left of me? Or is this going to cost, ultimately, what little of me there is left?
JD: This is interesting because I can see how, this example--obviously we’re confining it here to the solstice--but the response, and the reception, and the dissonance created around that could really be extrapolated to the national situation, in many regards, I think, culturally speaking.
JD: The sense of alienation but also the performative and you were talking about spending money that you don’t really have. This has actually led the United States into a kind of global crisis, hasn’t it?
TB: Sure, Sure.
JD: Can it be said that these are for the same reasons, if we were to imagine us as a single person?
TB: Well, absolutely. If you take the concept of the collective unconscious, it’s transcendent. It doesn’t have any natural boundaries to it. It’s going to vary more in an individual level than it will on a cultural level. There will be individuals in various states of their own growth and healing who may or may not get caught up in the conformity. But I think entire collectivities develop ethos that allow the whole collectivity to function the same way, in the, if we wanted to say, in the family of cultures. Just like different members of a distinctive human family assume different roles, I think different nations assume different roles, and their performance. I think, for example, that the DPRK, North Korea, has been assigned a role in the big group, and I think they’re performing it quite well right now. Almost meritoriously, to the anguish of everybody else, being exactly what the world has defined them as being.
TB: And it never seems to follow... now, a few people that come around and say, well, we really need to sit down and start talking about these roles. The interface of roles. And I think Governor (Bill) Richardson is there right now, and I suspect that when they send him, he’s one of the few people that can try to elevate it to that kind of a level.
JD: The former Governor of New Mexico. Right.
TB: Right. A few people like that. And I’m using that only as an example. I’m getting far afield in terms of --
JD: No, that really, I think, speaks to exactly what I am moving towards. Thinking about changes in the culture here in the United States and how we choose these performances or play out these roles, there’s been such radical reaction over the last fifteen, twenty years set in contradistinction to the cultural revolution to the 1960s and 1970s. I’m thinking in particular of a point you made a few moments ago about when one is in a state of fear, a kind of contraction, the choices appear to be very very few, versus a sense of infinite choice and possibility of being, which, without any irony, is your true state whether one embraces it or not. And when we think about the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, we quickly realize that that was part of what was so radical, was the opening towards a sense of infinite possibility, of an alternative set of rituals really taking place. Not necessarily overthrowing the old ones, but just a sense of openness. Would you characterize that as being true?
TB: Oh, I think, absolutely.
JD: So we’re in a reactive phase now, to that?
TB: Certainly, certainly. I think, to some degree it’s a pendulum, but it’s a very herky-jerky one, and I think we go through periods of expansion and growth where we start to become aware of the potentials and the possibilities, and I think it’s almost frightening. So I think we start to pull back in and the pendulum swings the other direction, and we become frightened of our own potential. Nelson Mandela’s famous inaugural speech in South Africa when he said “what frightens us most is our own perfect nature.” * And I think it is frightening to the systems we’ve created, as well as to ourselves. And it’s very easy today to forget that fear easily translates into hate. I mean, it’s almost a one-to-one relationship. If you give me reason to fear you, I’m probably going to hate you, because to some degree you have control over me. And that hate will become feeding, it will feed upon itself, so I will hate you more and more as I fear you more and more, and vice versa. They just enhance each other enormously. I look around the United States today, and I don’t presume to have been everywhere and live forever, but I don’t think in my life I’ve seen it as hateful as it is currently.
JD: Yes, it truly is.
TB: And I think much of what we’re doing is just displacing this fear and trying to make others responsible for what has really been a failure of our own personal mythologies.
JD: A failure of our own personal mythologies.
TB: Our own personal mythologies.
JD: Could you expand on that a little bit?
TB: Well, our own personal mythologies are that...it’s like the cultural icons that we have embraced and the things we have said we believe in, and that all becomes part of our mythology. I was thinking about this the other day, hearing the national anthem, and I thought, never has “the home of the brave” been so obsessed with fear. It’s a breakdown in that mythology. And at some level we know we’re frightened, but of who? Of what? It’s very difficult to pin the tail on the donkey that’s causing my fear, so I just displace it all over the place. Immigrants--they must be causing it...on and on. We just keep creating the Other, whatever the Other is, and then we surround the Other with their mythologies. We dehumanize them and make them responsible for what is really the inability of me to keep alive and dynamic my mythologies. I think this is a problem when, the minute we label something as a mythology, whether personal or collective, we assume that it is fixed, rather than accepting that it can still be dynamic, changing, and healthy. Mythologies change all the time.
JD: I think this has been especially true in the election cycle of Barack Obama...
TB: Oh, sure.
JD: ...whose very image completely destabilizes the accepted, superficial myth of what it means to be of the United States of America, and yet, at the same time, he clearly represents the truth, the truth of what the development of this country has been over the many centuries, including preceding, obviously, the formation of the colonies and the Declaration of Independence.
TB: Sure. Well, you see how much of the hate in America today is directed at the government, and the people who apparently do not see the contradiction that we are the government. The preamble of the Constitution says “We, the People.” And it talks in there about to provide for human welfare, that this is part of our purpose in coming together, securing the blessings of liberty for all, that’s all in the preamble, our initial statement of what we are going to be about. And yet people are just filled with hate of the government, like they are somehow or another our enemy rather than they are us. We voted for the President. For many people because it was not the one they wanted, they decided therefore to be non-cooperative, if not outright antagonistic. And to pray for the failure of the one they didn’t vote for not realizing that that, of course is...
JD: All of us. Right.
TB: ...the potential of sinking the ship. Sinking the ship because you don’t like the skipper is not, to me, good psychology, but apparently for some people it makes sense.
JD: A lot of these folks seem to be experiencing a psychological rupture, a kind of trauma, from something as simple as the color, literally, of the President of the United States. The NAACP recently published a very lengthy study of ties of the Tea Party to all manner of white supremacist organizations, all manner of right-wing reactionary, racist think-tanks and cooperatives throughout the country, yet when we listen to the articulation of this phenomenon, the Tea Party, within the corporate sponsored media, rarely are the connections with tried and true, red white and blue racism made explicit. Why is that?
TB: I think we want to protect ourselves by wrapping the flag around the steeple and saying that’s where we are. So that however non-rational, and I don’t even call many of the hate groups, I don’t even call them irrational, I simply call them non-rational. They’re not even trying to make sense. They’ve just succumbed to their own kind of reptilian state, and that’s the level at which they’re functioning. And they wrap that cloak of the flag and the steeple around them, and yet they’re very selective of what they will wrap around them. For example, there was a candidate for the US Senate that was not aware of much of the First Amendment... *[Christine O’Donnell]
JD: Right, right.
TB: ...and that does not particularly surprise me. I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of the freedoms in the First Amendment, and if they were, it would probably frighten them.
JD: They’d want to revoke that status?
TB: Right, they’d want to revoke it. There was a study done in an area of California, oh, maybe fifteen, twenty years ago, where they surveyed people and they asked them about the first ten amendments to the Constitution, only they didn’t describe them as that. They said simply, do you believe that people should be able to read what they want to read, and just went right down. And over sixty percent of the people surveyed in that community would voluntarily revoke the first ten amendments, so long as you didn’t call them the first ten amendments.
The concepts are rather selectively embraced, and very fragile, very very fragile. On the other hand, we have misplaced concreteness; accepting things as solid, factual, that really are nothing more than the imagination of somebody someplace.
JD: Or even wild speculation.
TB: Right, right. So the conflicts, both external and internal, are monumental, and it’s kind of a scary thing when you look at it.
JD: Well, I did want to spend more time on this particular topic and the contemporary political scene, but if we can go back to some of what we were talking about a moment or two ago in relation to the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. I think that’s really important here, because it speaks to everything that we’re talking about, but as someone who not only witnessed first hand, but was one of the instigators and participants at the epicenter of that cultural revolution, I wanted to ask you a couple of things about how that is being looked at and talked about today. It seems to me, particularly in terms of the creation of curriculum and how that era is being taught, that we’re very much in a state of crisis. We’re already in a crisis in terms of education, but on the topic of what was actually accomplished, what actually took place, the conservative movement which began to take hold with the election of Ronald Reagan, and has been running for a touchdown ever since, has really gone through extraordinary lengths to try to not necessarily disavow or disappear, to use the Nixon-Kissinger term of the 1960s, but to revise and correct it. To make it seem as if perhaps it was just one big party, whether it was just a little too much of this, and a little too much of that, but the politics of the 1960s and the culture of the 1960s which has meant so much to advancing the United States socially, economically, and otherwise, particularly in our profile to the rest of the world, salvaging some of the most positive things that have ever come out of this country, seem to be getting left out in how this period of time is talked about today. Do you think I’m on to something there, and, again, as one who was at the epicenter of this revolution, what do you see happening in how it’s talked about now?
TB: Well, there was a British author who once described what one should do in a relationship is to one’s partner, “To their virtues be so very kind, and to their vices a little blind.” I think that’s what was happening in the 60s. There were some fundamental assumptions that were starting to grow in the 1960s that, in many ways, would have been the fulfilling of the original American Revolution.
TB: We were finally coming to grips with some of the big issues: Is property supreme, or are human rights supreme? That was finally being addressed. And it was time.
JD: And that was something that, with the moral voice of someone like Dr. King, for really the first time in the history of this country, because others had tried it in the earlier part of the century, We think about people like Emma Goldman...
JD: ...or Big Bill Haywood and the IWW, “One big union.” Whose message I should say still really holds true today...
JD: ...which was basically this: you will never get anywhere or anything until the entire working class is united in, you remember,
JD: …one big union.
TB: One big union.
JD: That you shouldn’t be involved in a war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but class war, right here.
TB: But notice how that phrase has become anathema in American media. You cannot use the phrase class warfare.
TB: And I don’t understand why not.
JD: Well, you know, what’s interesting is that it seems to have worked, because recently, over the last ten, twelve days, in Europe, which United States education and the academy seems to have accepted as the font of all wisdom and art, for some bizarre reason, yet and still, today, there have been riots in England, in France, in Italy, in Greece, over this question of education because they know that class mobility and the lines of class war, the front lines, are education. We don’t seem to understand that.
TB: But yet we can be talking about the abolition of the estate tax altogether..
TB: ...all these things, but yet you can’t say, “Well, what does that do in terms of our class structure?”, because someone’s going to say “No, no, no--that’s class warfare.” Well, yes it is class warfare!
JD: Yes it is class warfare.
TB: You know, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs, there’s a high probability it’s a duck.
JD: But to underline a very important point that you just made in regards to the 1960s about the positive things that were accomplished in this regard, to think about somebody like Dr. King, who I said others had tried this, and what I was going for there was a moral voice that transcended ethnicity, race, class, one that went beyond those barriers to which all people could say “Yes! That’s what it’s about! That’s what it’s really about!”
TB: And that’s incredible, in retrospect. That while much of the struggle was about trying to promote equality for all, at the same time there was some obliteration of the importance of all. It’s like as we got more clear on what the goals should be, what we wanted to be like, which was to fulfill those promises that the founders had put out there...
JD: Right, right. Which was a big part of King’s rhetorical style.
TB: Absolutely. It was enormous. Asking us to be who we said we were. And as we approached that -- it’s kind of like approaching enlightenment. When you finally get there you look back and think what was the big deal? What was the big deal? I had it in me all the time. And I think we started to realize that in the 60s. We had it in us all the time, if we could play through the facades and the corruptions, that we could start to move together. And things that had been terribly important became less important, as we refocused on what had been the original, as we interpret it, intent. Now what happened with that? Well, we have moved into what I call the politics of pornography, pimping, and pandering. And it’s kind of the backlash against that. And does that speak to the failure of the 60s, or does that speak to the success of the 60s?
JD: Right, and this is the question.
TB: I’m not sure. I think somewhere there are residuals of the movements of the 60s that are still there. I don’t think they went away. And I think there are people out there that know this. But we have those who are so terrified of the change, and have been told that the change is bad. And I think that is part of the manipulated headset, to be anti-Barack Obama, because part of his program, the buzzword was change. In a way that’s good marketing, in a way it’s not such good marketing, because right away for the insecure you’re going to have drop-outs. “No, I want to hunker down where I’m at. I prefer the security of my misery rather than the misery of insecurity.” And it almost set them up. “No, I’m not going to go if I have to change.”
JD: It’s imminently bizarre though, isn’t it, within the panorama and the arc of US history that a generation that came of age vividly characterizing itself as a youth culture should find as it ages being the most virulently anti-youth generation, even more reactionary in many ways than their own parents. I mean, it’s a very bitter joke to watch the boomers become the doomers.
TB: Well, taking part in peace marches before the Iraq war, in San Francisco, and watching the people marching, and where were the young people?
TB: Here the people were of my generation, the quasi-geriatric set out there, doing the marching against war.
TB: There’s been a terrible breakdown in the connection. A terrible breakdown.
JD: Yes. You know, recently one of the things that has characterized that for me, and we talked a little bit about this earlier when we were preparing for the show, was the reception, and let me confine this analysis to the reception and re-presentation in the corporate sponsored media of one of the great spirits of the age, and that is the artist and song writer John Lennon. As many of us know, very recently, the memorialization of his untimely death, his murder, some would say assassination, just occurred. But in the way that he was brought back to us through commemorative magazines, special broadcasts on cable, so forth and so on, I noticed something very strange, and that was that not only was this not the John Lennon who was deeply cynical of politics and stridently anti-war—against all wars! One of the stalwarts of the peace movement. Anti-chauvinist, anti-sexist. It wasn’t that John Lennon that they were re-presenting. It was the very John Lennon of his youth that he, later, in his maturity, after joining spirits with Yoko, actually not only renounced but denounced that particular Lennon.
TB: Right, right.
JD: “That was when I was inflicting incredible harm on myself. That was when I was a drunk, abusive, chauvinist, you know, I didn’t have it together, man!” That was the one that was being sold the other day when his memory was being re-presented, brought back to us in the corporate media. Is that partly about the performative and the fear?
TB: Sure. And it’s about marketing.
JD: And about marketing.
TB: Right. We smooth out the rough edges. The real John Lennon was very edgy and raggedy on a bad day.
JD: And a pretty ornery cuss at times.
TB: Right. We…that’s not marketable. That would be like trying to sell a Hallmark diamond with a flaw.
JD: Doesn’t that get into exactly what you were talking about earlier about replacing or substituting or operations of substitutions with Solstice with Christmas?
TB: Same thing. Amazing how many people think that Santa Claus is Christ as an older man.
TB: No. When you think about Christmas programs that normally start out with a Nativity scene and then later, pop! Here’s Santa Claus! So it’s kind of a logical connection for the children sitting there watching, wow, this must have been what he looked like when he got older.
JD: I thought it was when the Devil gets dressed up like God, shows up as Santa Claus in a Cadillac... Ho ho ho.
TB: [laughter] that’s another variation.
JD: I’d like to, on that note, I’d like to play a composition with some extraordinary lyrics and then get some of your commentary and feedback on it.
JD: Now this is a touch of some of the John Lennon that I remember, that I think a lot of us do, and then we’re gonna hear from Tom Bruce on this particular composition.
[JD plays “God” by John Lennon, from the album “Plastic Ono Band”]
God is a concept
By which we measure
I'll say it again
God is a concept
By which we measure
I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-Ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in yoga
I don't believe in kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality
The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
I was the dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over
JD: So, when you hear this, what are some of the thoughts and feelings that go through your mind? This is a very, very complicated and allusive poem, but in a way it’s extremely simple, and telling it like it is , and speaking to a lot of the issues that we’re talking about this afternoon. What are some of your feelings about it?
TB: I think what he was doing at that point was moving beyond living his life in broad generalities and trying instead to live it in minute particulars. And I think that ultimately is the task for all of us. To transcend our mythology and start living here, now. Not in a conceptualized reality. The second position in moving toward enlightenment in Zen is to reach the “only-don’t know stage.” In the “only-don’t know stage” you acknowledge that these were all empty concepts, and they did not have a reality of their own. The reality is in the here, now, minute particulars of one’s life, and that is where we need to be living. And I think that was basically where he was moving. And to do that, you have to look inward. And he’s saying that to believe in himself, and to believe in his relationship. This seems to me to be a rather natural process in the growth toward wholeness, is to develop personal integrity within oneself, then in broadly expanding circles, then with the immediate relationships, then with the broader, as you move out. Eventually with the cosmos.
JD: You know, it seems with this particular composition and the poem that accompanies it, he’s doing that very methodically, very systematically, in the ideas, the concepts, and individuals that he gradually moves away from and finally rejects. Many are from his own personal pantheon. He mentions Zimmerman, Bob Dylan, of course. A personal hero of John Lennon. But also-: “Kings,” which I assume, Martin Luther King.
TB: I wondered about that, or being English, did he mean the royal family, I don’t know.
TB: But each one of those would represent a grief.
JD: There’s a tremendous sense of grief.
TB: And there’s a despair in that song. While it’s affirming on one hand, it’s also, look what I’m giving up on the other, look what I have to let go of. That’s a lot of grief.
JD: I’m really struck by the courage of Lennon in this particular work.
TB: Sure. I think a lot of artists of all mediums hit a point where they start to hit that transcendence, and in their work during that phase, whether we want to call it the “blue phase,” or whatever, frequently you pick up on enormous despair and grief going on, even though they’re moving into something that perhaps is better. But for something to be born, something has to die. And to give up the belief in the Kennedys, and the Kings, and all of those things. That’s an enormous amount of material to be processing and trying to let go of. But he went through a period of withdrawal, for a year or two, where he pulled back.
JD: That’s right.
TB: And Bob Dylan did the same thing, from the “motorcycle wreck.” And I think frequently artists have to pull back a little bit, as they start to come in, reconstructing themselves closer to the core of what they really are.
JD: So in this, he describes it here as a rebirth.
JD: But are you saying, if I understand you correctly, that in order to recreate oneself, one necessarily has to destroy and grieve that previous mythology which was so set, so concrete?
TB: You may not have to destroy it, you may have to redefine it.
JD: But grief is necessary.
TB: And re-file it perhaps. And to some degree it’s going to be a grieving process to move it from central to the file cabinet, or whatever you choose to do with it. Sometimes we have to embrace our old mythologies and to say, well, that’s where I was. And just exactly where I was, it’s where I had to be in order to get where I am now, and to the degree I’m perfect now, it was good.
JD: Ultimately it would seem that love seems to be the only vehicle of transcendence here.
TB: It was. It was, ultimately, and for all of us, it probably is, ultimately. You know, I don’t think a lot of people hearing this, of course, are going to hear him going through some kind of vehement anti-religious thing, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. I think he was appalled at the ‘my god is greater than your god’ idiocy, and what Karen Armstrong very very eloquently calls the battle for god, and trying to move away from that. To “Imagine”, for example, in “Imagine,” he says “imagine a world with no religions.” I think that choice of words was probably very careful on his part. No religions. He’s not saying no beliefs, he’s not saying other things, he’s saying no name brands.
JD: No name brands.
TB: Right, no name brands.
JD: There it is. There it is.
TB: And it’s the name brands, as Armstrong says in The Battle for God, that are creating so much of the destruction around the world today. It’s not people with fundamental, sound, integrated belief systems.
JD: And it’s the name brands, not only metaphorically and by analogy, but literally when we think of the consumer fetishist culture that the United States has now so effectively exported that is now being subsumed by others, exporting it into our world.
TB: [laughter] It’s kind of like our children; the worst thing they do is grow up like us.
JD: Isn’t that something?
TB: All those countries out there we were exploiting now are coming back.
JD: You know, it’s interesting though, isn’t it? The cycle of history and the organic cycle of history. Because, you know, as you know, we mentioned Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman and some of the anarchists and socialists of the earlier part of the last century and how wonderful they were, but of course, from then up and until very recently, the argument in favor of capitalism was always basically something like this: it provokes and brings about, restores and solidifies democracy, and it brings about competition which leads to innovation. I guess that argument is pretty much dead in the water at this point.
TB: [laughter] Yeah.
JD: Now, I mean, because certainly China is not about to launch a democratic, social liberal capitalism, and it’s been kicking Uncle Sam in the butt now for year after year.
TB: This irony of what we’re speaking of right now, in Lamentations in the Abrahmic Old Testament it says: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations. She who was a princess among the provinces has become a forced laborer.”
JD: There it is. There it is. Well, we only have a couple minutes.
TB: Could I have one minute?
JD: Yeah, I wanted to turn this over to you.
TB: Okay. I’m preempting here, and this is not knowing my role. [Earlier in the program] Justin spoke about presenting awards, and I wanted to present an award at this point here. And this is the first ever Vox Clamantis In Deserto Award.
Vox Clamantis In Deserto, a voice crying in the wilderness, on December 19, 2010.
And it reads:
At a time when the shrill drown out cognitive functioning,
when confabulations replace logical conclusions,
when anger and fear are chic and trendy,
when, in the words of Alice Walker,
the quietly peaceful always die to make room for those who shout,
when neanderthal types with foam-flecked lips rule the airwaves,
let us acknowledge with honor and esteem
those who ask us to be better than we would otherwise be,
who engage us in rational, calm discourse,
who speak to us in melodies of love and human caring,
who speak for us until we can find our own voices,
this Vox Clematis In Deserto Award,
this heartfelt, although worthless award,
is to Justin Desmangles.
JD: [laughter] I would like to thank all the big people.
TB: [laughter] Now the audience at home can’t see the enormous size of this award, thank goodness.
JD: That’s right, in fact, it says Justin Desmangles right there at the bottom, and it’s getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
TB: And it will.
JD: And it will. Thank you, thank you so much. We’re going to end the program with another great artist, still with us today, and part of my own studies which I’m hoping you’re going to lend a hand with. He just got the send-off from John Lennon; Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. This track comes from one of his mid-period masterpieces, Blood on the Tracks: Shelter From the Storm.
TB: Ah, yeah.
JD: Tom, thank you, once again.
TB: Thank you, Justin. My honor.
Editing, transcription and photo by Amanda Grace
* The quote commonly misattributed to Nelson Mandela, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure...”, is from A Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson.