Archive for February 2009
Joseph Azize Page
Elton John: In Search of the Sublime
1 The Sublime
Music can communicate a feeling of the sublime. I call the “sublime” that precious, subtle feeling of myself as if on the cusp of touching the mystery of eternity. It is the life of what Gurdjieff called the “higher emotional centre”, and its music is, as it were, music delivered through the flesh, but heard by the ears of the soul. For me, the clearest examples of it are in traditional sacred chant, such as Gregorian and Syriac. But not only there. Traces, sometimes very substantial traces, are found elsewhere, and not only in classical composers like Bach and Mozart. For example, when I listen, with quiet attention, to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or “Funeral for a Friend”, I feel that there is something majestic swelling in and above the music, which calls me on and upwards. And I think many others have had something of a similar response, even if they have never tried to name it.
I am speaking of moments where we feel the reality of the sublime, even while we are capable of acknowledging the claims of the mundane world. In the Medieval tradition, the “higher reason” is what contemplates eternity, while the lower reason deals with all our necessary business in ephemeral time. Yet, as it has always been known, the two levels are related. They are lived together, for it is by knowledge of this world that we come to know the eternal, while our sense of the eternal informs our perception of the mundane, and is, ideally, our criterion for judging and valuing temporal objects. The sublime, then, is the feeling side of higher reason.
We are not strong enough to experience the sublime in its unalloyed state, except perhaps in certain states where we are, to an extent, apart from the world (in meditation or contemplation, for example). It comes and only can come to us filtered through culture. No one, not even Bach, could express the sublime in all its purity for any sustained period, but one can experience moments of it with intensity. Even Gregorian chant, probably the purest accessible form of this music, is of a very varying quality: I, at least, find that side by side with the masterpiece, such as “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, some Gregorian chant is little more than pleasant.
One cannot demand half an hour of sublime music: one will cease to respond to it with the same intensity. The sublime is a candle which burns the wick and the wax of a moment before it eludes us again. One may glimpse it at any moment, or in-between moments; and can receive it through any medium, or through none. This is partly why architecture, painting and music are so valuable: at their best they crystallize an illumination, and can provide a patient hand to hold our faces upwards. Spiritual art is a trellis for the distractible attention.
But art can approach the spiritual without being spiritual art. It can be occupied with something else, something not overtly spiritual, and yet contain a spark of the sublime. The reason I am writing this piece now is because I believe that this very thing happens with Elton John’s music, and I have not yet heard anyone else say this. Yet, that is how I hear some of his work. Take a song like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. It starts out with a measured piano line. The verses are slow, and the choruses are more emotional, but still measured and grave. Only at the end, with the last chorus and the orchestral line, does it rise to a torpor. It may take several hearings before it starts to come together: certainly, I had to listen to it many times before the grandeur of the song became evident to me even in those first sounds. But now, having a feeling for the whole of the song, it invites me, as it were, to enter into it, to meditate with it, from the start. From the very first notes, I can sense the crescendo to come. The slow start is the necessary prelude which prepares us for the climax. What happens when that build-up is lost is shown by the butchering of Bowie’s “Heroes” to produce a short radio-friendly single. To make the three minute version they hacked off the first verses of the piece as it appears on the album, cut to the climax without allowing it time to gather momentum, and added gimmicky sounds to compensate. It was, for me, a travesty.
Elton John did not need to do this in 1974 with “Don’t Let the Sun”. Despite its length, it was accepted on release as a classic, and in 1991 was a hit as a duet with George Michael. Now I no longer put it on as background music: that would seem to me to savour of a betrayal, and yet, if I hear part of it by chance, say in a shop, I am pleased to be reminded that these heights exist. I think, too, that the effect is so clear on that song because the lyrics are enigmatic, but in a reflective direction. Beneath the love-song angle (“but these cuts I have, oh they need love to help them heal”), it cuts deep:
I’m growing tired, and time stands still before me,
Frozen here, on the ladder of my life.
Although most of the lyrics are not at that level, the music most certainly is. Maybe this was even fortunate: if someone tries to make a point with too heavy a hand, too philosophically, it often fails: I think that was the problem with acts like Yes and the Moody Blues. Words can speak to the feelings, but they must speak to the intellect. Music and pictures can be interpreted by the intellect, but they must be received by the emotions. If the words are too easily captured by the intellect, and there is nothing left over for feeling, the effect soon pales. I think that is why some of Dylan’s work, initially striking, later fades: for example, the first time I heard “With God On Our Side” it sounded like a prophetic revelation. Now, however, I can’t listen to it: it sounds like someone who wants to sound like a prophetic revelation.
So the tangential or oblique approach of “Don’t Let the Sun” is the secret of its lasting power. A suggestive picture is more alluring than a sermon. This is but one example, and, in the next blog, I shall consider others.
Of course my response to music is subjective and culturally conditioned. Not everyone hears “Don’t Let the Sun” as a summons to another world. But this doesn’t mean that the sublimity is all in my head: it just means that the chemistry cannot take place unless there is something corresponding in me. Culture, here represented by Elton John’s music, is only part of the platform upon which this miracle takes place. What is evoked, however, is beyond it. Like the eternal, the sublime can only be known through the mundane; but the mundane finds its highest purpose as the means of this revelation.
As for subjectivity, it is a problem only when we need objectivity. Otherwise, it is a manifestation of our individuality, the psychic element wherein we are different from every other person. The subjective cannot be escaped: what is real is known not in its naked self, but in the only way we can know it, in culture and as a personal impression. Subjectivity is not necessarily fantasy.
That is, there seems to me to be something objective in these songs, even if the receipt of it is subjectively conditioned, depending on my state when listening, and my personal history. For example, I was about 15 years old when I first heard Elton’s “High Flying Bird”, and I didn’t like it too much: I received it chiefly as a rather mournful song. But already, only a year or two later, I could hear in it something poignant, a sort of elegy for Everyman, transcending the love song which it also undoubtedly is. Now, many years later, I hear in it even more, a sort of meditation on the preciousness of life under the sun, and how the precious moments can be acknowledged only as they fly by. Now, many years on, I can apply it to various past relationships and configurations in my life. Indeed, it practically applies itself to them.
A really good song will find feeling associations my head had missed.
The fact is that many people, perhaps even the great majority, do perceive a special quality in certain melodies, arrangements of sounds, chords and rhythms. But why does not everyone hear the same transcendent values in music? Can we not prove what we perceive? For example, a review I once read in a magazine referred to “The One”, from the album of the same name, but the critic only heard what they referred to as “overproduction”. Personally, I may have preferred a lighter touch, but, for me, there is something so exalted in that song, that to criticise the production strikes me as carping.
Does the music really speak as I hear it? Yes, I say that it does, because I feel it. My feeling is of myself in whatever state I happen to be in. My feeling is how my individuality is known to me. It is therefore impossible to prove to another that the sublime exists where I feel its existence. At a different period of my life, when I am in a different place, I may not be able to hear anything there.
To repeat what I have said earlier: that does not mean that the sublime has disappeared from the music. It’s always available, it’s just that it can only be brought down to earth by an alchemical process which takes place between the music and myself.
I know that some people are accustomed to associate Elton John’s music with outsize, neon-illuminated glasses and platform shoes. They can hardly believe that I could find sublimity in his music. Rightly or wrongly, and I think it’s a bit of both, a lot of people see him as a showman, a sort of Liberace with a gift for melody, but above all, perhaps, a dinosaur who had his moment in the 1970s, and now seeks to distinguish himself by wearing expensive suits. To many people, Elton John is not much more than tantrums and tiaras made famous by a keyboard.
However, I think that to dismiss EJ like that is to be even more superficial than his image supposedly is. I don’t see much point in trying to prove his qualifications to be a artist of the sublime by retailing stories of his intelligence, or of his work for charity. One cannot weigh the sensible side against the silliness in some balance. I think the real point lies elsewhere.
Elton John is a talented pianist and a tremendously gifted songwriter. There have been many such, but few have had his impact, and I predict that his reputation will rise, practically to Lennon or McCartney status, when memories of his image have dimmed, or he has been forgiven for his very public excesses.
But I do not think that the real point lies even there.
To put it in a nutshell, I think the truth of Elton John’s music is that often, very often, and without knowing himself how he does it, he receives inspiration, he brings down to earth the music of the higher emotional centre, he touches eternity.
Elton is an interesting study partly because he does not, I think, aim to capture a transcendental quality is his work. And yet, I doubt, despite his antagonism to religion, that he aims not to do this. The fact that he brings a very high quality down into his music gives him an anthropological significance: if one human can do so without the explicit intention, why not others? Perhaps, in fact, we do. I would not be the first person who has thought that in very many small ways, small emotions of wonder, peace and compassion, ordinary persons in everyday situations manifest the sublime. I would think, in fact, that every person does so at innumerable moments in their life, although those moments may grow fewer after childhood, and have less and less influence in their presences.
It may even be that the sublime is more apparent in Elton John’s music, and more powerful when it is apparent, precisely because he does not set out to capture it. Perhaps he does not interfere with it, or try and augment it. The one example of where I am quite sure he knew he had touched something eternal, and had sought to do so, is an instance where it was marred. This was “Song for Guy”, dedicated to a young chap who worked for him or the recording studio, and died tragically young. If I am not wrong, Elton said that he had musically depicted the soul looking down on the body. And he knew he had succeeded, but unfortunately, knowing this, he turned it into a six minute epic, where the melody is endlessly repeated with little variation. My own humble view, for what it’s worth, is that had it lasted just three minutes, introduced by the eldritch, evocative “Reverie” which precedes it on the album A Single Man, it would probably have been a masterpiece, ranking with some of his other unforgettable meditations on death and eternity, such as “One More Arrow”, “Emily” and “Empty Garden”.
I am not saying that Elton John is anything but a highly sensitive songwriter, or tunesmith, of the first order. I am not suggesting, for example, that he is crass. All that I am saying in this regard is that somehow, when he writes his music, there are occasions when a higher faculty (I would say a spiritual faculty) operates in him, and infuses his song writing with something magical. The word I have used is sublime, because that is how I hear it.
I am suggesting that with Elton John, the process of music making provides opportunities for that channel between the ordinary person and the higher spiritual realities which we are everlastingly linked to and made to seek, to be opened, and to nourish our lives.
This phenomenon can be explained in Gurdjieff’s terms quite easily. The conduit between the lower centres and the higher emotional centre is rarely open. If one tries to open it, one may fail altogether, or alternatively may force it too far open by violence, to one’s own damage. But perhaps because Elton John does not understand what he is doing, and so he does it naturally, he has done himself no harm. On the contrary, the process has been to the immeasurable benefit of his music and to ourselves.
How to carry this insight, if it is an insight, further? Listening to the music is the obvious answer. With the exception of only a few albums, I think the sublime is to be heard leavening his music through his entire career. I think that the first stirrings of something special can be heard on the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums, but the first unmistakable blossoming was, to my ear, “Indian Sunset” from Madman Across the Water, and the latest full-blown triumph has been “My Elusive Drug”, on Peachtree Road, although his very latest album, The Captain and the Kid is also a masterpiece.
This story is to be continued.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
John Robert Colombo reviews the recently published biography of metaphysical writer and teacher Manly P. Hall
Is anyone really comfortable with the words “Western Wisdom Tradition” or “Western Esotericism”? I know that I am unhappy with these words, but try as I might I am unable to find better ones.
I have always liked the words “Perennialism” or “Perennial Tradition,” but they have pretty well been appropriated by Messrs. Guénon, Schuon, and Nasr to describe their early 20th century tradition of introspection influenced by Sufism. Of all the terms in common use, my favourite is “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, but most people identify it with the title of Aldous Huxley’s ground-breaking and influential compilation of mystical texts which first appeared in 1945.
I also like the two words employed by the late James Webb, the historian who documented occultism’s rises and falls in excruciating detail in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He referred to the subject of such studies as “rejected knowledge.” He had in mind knowledge (not merely information, not chiefly wisdom) that was dismissed by one generation of mainstream thinkers only to be embraced by the next generation of such thinkers, yet all the while was highly prized by disciples of occult doctrines and studies: the hidden thought through all the ages. So let me call it, simply, “occult thought.”
Huxley and Webb to one side, there is one person who has done more than anyone else to popularize the notion of occult thought – that there is a current of energy and a set of symbols common to all the religions of the world, to all the philosophies of man, and to all the sciences that have emerged. That person is Manly P. Hall. His name may not be on everyone’s lips, but I have long known it and so have countless millions of North Americans who may be forgiven for regarding it as synonymous with a popular version of occult traditions of thought and practice.
There is a very sketchy biography of Manly Palmer Hall (MPH) on Wikipedia that gives a few of the essentials and more than a few of the inessentials. He was born in Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901. (Hence my interest in him and in his works.) He died in Los Angeles in 1990, an influential teacher, a millionaire, who had established in that city his own non-profit research institute. A Freemason must have written the Wiki entry because it exaggerates the influence of Masonry on his life and thought, which I regard as negligible. It ignores some interesting personal facts: he came from a broken home and was a high school dropout; in 1918, he accompanied his mother (who was something of a healer) to Los Angeles, where he met a series of self-styled preachers who led their own small congregations of spiritually dissatisfied men and women (many of the latter elderly and wealthy) and instructed them in the principles that are “behind” or that “transcend” New Thought, not to mention Theosophy, “I Am,” AMORC, etc.
MPH, at the time in his early twenties, was drawn to these men, and them to him. He was an imposing figure of a man, well over six feet in height, though in later years he was given to corpulency (so that his first wife teased him when he reached 300 pounds and described him as her “Canadian bacon”). Photographs reveal a face with chiselled features and with piercing eyes that lend him a somewhat demonic expression. Recordings preserve his soothing voice and his authoritative manner of exposition. He could speak seemingly without effort for an hour and a half on any number of arcane subjects, and at first he did so in the small parishes and study groups throughout the Los Angeles basin. Then he graduated to larger venues including sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1932, despite the Depression, he was able to fund the founding of the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and house it in a purpose-built, neo-Mayan structure of some beauty on Los Feliz Boulevard close to the famed Griffith Observatory and not far from “Karlofornia,” the science-fiction-strewn residence of the late Forrest J. Ackerman. The PRS structure is now a protected landmark.
The PRS served as MPH’s headquarters and as a magnet for mystically minded Californians who attended the lecture series delivered by MPH and his colleagues. Here he established a gallery of symbolic art of considerable interest and value and a collection of 50,000 books which includes some rare alchemical texts borrowed by C.G. Jung for his studies in this field. From here MPH published and distributed his own books. (There are said to be close to 200 of these, though many of them are little more than booklets or texts of lectures, rather than full-fledged works of continuing interest.) They were sold in bookstores but mainly through mail order. Many PRS publications got as far as Kitchener, Ontario, where as a teenager in the early 1950s, I devoured them, easily digesting their contents.
As I did so I noticed that the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts. MPH read these texts and digested them, at least on their moralistic levels, finding in each and every one of them elements of an idealistic philosophy that would remain his mainstay through his life.
The aim of these texts, in his eyes, was to help mankind with a some sort of “divine plan” accessible through “transcendental idealism” – perhaps a faith in the powers of the imagination – that would be character-bracing, spirit-respecting, and morale-building. It seems “the Ancients” (whether Ascended Masters or Prophets or Gurus or Saviours or Sages) had not only messages for their own times, but messages for posterity, for us today.
In his writing there is plenty of theoria but a poverty of praxis. For us “Moderns,” the message has something to do with Right Thinking and being Respectful of the Ancients and what in other circles might be called Positive Thinking. MPH of the PRS was there before Alfred Adler and Esalen and the self-esteem movement that morphed into what passes for New Age thought, EST, and the bromides of Tony Robbins (who is married to a Canadian) or Eckhart Tolle (who is a Canadian).
In point of fact, he predated such movements. He was able to capitalize on the genius of H.P. Blavatsky and the principles of Theosophy. He seemed to have been unaware of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy or G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. But what he had and what he added to his reading and thinking was his own genius – and I hold it to be that. In 1928, at the age of 27, this uneducated young man published his magnum opus, a remarkable work titled “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is indeed an amazing book and it is still in print. It is one of the biggest and most influential of all the best-sellers in what is now a crowded field.
Open before me is a mammoth copy of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is the Diamond Jubilee Edition of Hall’s chef d’oeuvre, and even in its reduced format it is gigantic: It measures 13 inches high, 9 inches wide, with 245 pages – affectingly numbered in Roman numerals (so there are ccxlv double-columned pages). The original edition, which I have examined, is even larger in format. Both the original edition of 1928 and the various reprint editions have forty-eight, full-page plates (brilliantly coloured in the original edition, black-and-white in the reprint editions) with about 190 text illustrations. Although the page is large, the type is tiny. My quick estimate is that the text consists of more than half a million words, completely indexed.
The full title of this amazing work is as follows: “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages … Diamond Jubilee Edition … Reduced Facsimile.”
It would take too long to reproduce the entire Table of Contents, but there are forty-five chapters with such chronologically arranged chapter headings as “The Ancient Mysteries and Secret Societies Which have Influenced Modern Masonic Symbolism” (the first) and “The Mysteries and Their Emissaries” (the last). In between, the reader will find the whole panoply of subjects – Pyramids, Isis, Zodiac, Pythagoras, Human Body, Animals, Stones, Magic, Sorcery, Elements, Qabbala, Tarot, Rose Cross, Alchemy, Baconism, Freemasonry, Mystic Christianity, Islam, American Indian Symbolism, etc.
The treasure-trove treatment does full justice to the labours of a young enthusiast, something of an evangelist who has no single secret interpretation of the Book of Revelation but is excited by Holy Scripture in toto, a young man with no foreign languages, no academic contacts, and no publisher’s advance, who researched, wrote, and published this opus on a subscription basis, single-handedly. That in itself is one of the “wonders” of the age.
The book ends with an excited invitation that gives a taste of Hall’s style and moralistic message, surprisingly relevant today: “The great institution of materiality has failed. The false civilization built by man has turned, and like the monster of Frankenstein, is destroying its creator. Religion wanders aimlessly in the maze of theological speculation. Science batters itself impotently against the barriers of the unknown. Only transcendental philosophy knows the path. Only the illumined reason can carry the understanding part of man upward to the light. Only philosophy can teach man to be born well, to live well, to die well, and in perfect measure be born again. Into this band of the elect, – those who have chosen the life of knowledge, of virtue, and of utility – the philosophers of the ages invite YOU.”
Who can resist such an invitation? Hall’s approach reminds me, a bit, of that taken by the scholar Joscelyn Godwin in his most recent book, “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” When I reviewed that book for this blog last year, I wondered, “What do all the ‘wonders’ in Godwin’s book have in common? Is there indeed a ‘golden threat’?” Now I know the answer to that question: The wonders are also found in Hall’s “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” This is Occult Thought in Illuminated Capital Letters!
Also open before me is a copy of the recently published biography of the man himself. It is written by Louis Sahagun, a staff writer with “The Los Angeles Times,” and it is titled “Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall.” It was published in paperback in 2008 by Process Media, Fort Townsend, Washington, U.S.A. (There is a website for the book.)
As a newspaperman, Sahagun covered MPH’s life and work and death – indeed, the way he died is as mysterious as the way he lived is unusual. It might be that in his eighty-ninth year he was murdered. Sahagun investigates all of this and the court cases that followed and the assumption of the PRS into the welkin of an institution that grants a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. As a biographer with an eye on both the man and the spirit of the times, he effectively compares and contrasts the ambience of Los Angeles, MPH’s favourite city, in the 1920s and in the 1960s. Sahagun knows little about occult thought, but he is effective when he describes what he does know, which is MPH’s milieu.
Overall, MPH emerges as a preacher, a man (like say Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham) with a message. That message has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestant Evangelism, but it has a lot to do with a recognition of arcane symbolism, of the “transcendental” nature of religious paths, of the brotherhood of man, of the powers latent in both nature and human nature, and of the “wisdom tradition” … oops … Occult Thought.
John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana and for such collections as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” In the interests of disclosure: JRC is mentioned by name in the pages of Sahagun’s book. The passage is innocent enough: “Hall was so hungry to be in the public eye that he welcomed the 1988 publication of a book ‘Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places’ by John Robert Colombo, which lumped Hall’s birth in Peterborough with sightings of UFOs and abominable snowmen in Canada, haunted houses and curses.”
Joseph Azize Page
John Lennon: Essence and Reality
Part 7: “Girl” and “There’s A Place”
Ambivalence. Being simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What does it mean to you, not just as a word but as something in your internal life? Are we in fact aware of our ambivalences, intellectual or emotional? I can be aware out of the corner of my eye, or I can see something with full sight and weigh its impact in my life. One of the uses of art, in the wider sense, is that it can be a medium for registering those impressions just barely received and bringing them into centre field.
I don’t know of any rock and roller who had Lennon’s insight into ambivalence and the major part it plays in our emotional make-up. Two of his Beatles era songs, “Girl” and “There’s A Place” express this powerfully if subtly. In fact, in “Girl” there is an even an element of menace. These two songs also have in common that, while they are ostensibly love songs, the chief interest is not Lennon’s lady love, but his mind, and his relationship with Christianity, respectively.
It is a commonplace that Dylan gave the Beatles depth. But is the truth so simple? Before he had ever heard of Dylan, Lennon, with some help from Paul McCartney, penned these words:
There, there’s a place where I can go,
When I feel low, when I feel blue,
And it’s my mind,
And there’s no time – when I’m alone.
I think of you, the things you do,
Go round my head, the things you said,
Like: “I love only you.”
In my mind there’s no sorrow.
Don’t you know that it’s so?
There’ll be no sad tomorrow.
Don’t you know that it’s so?
The singer candidly acknowledges that he feels often sad, and is bothered by problems of the heart. This doesn’t and never did break out into uncharted horizons of self-disclosure: such sentiments had long been standard in songs. But Lennon does not say that his cure for the blues is more love, better love, or his girlfriend. On the contrary, the lady would seem to be the trouble, or at least a large part of the problem pie. Lennon’s solution is inside him, and he preaches the answer: “Don’t you know that it’s so?”
What the bare lyrics do not represent is the weight, accented by the music, given to the significant words “mind” and “time”. Several years before Lennon would be surreptitiously introduced to LSD and psychotropic drugs, he was asserting that in his mind there was a different world, a world in which time itself and the emotions he lived in time, were powerless. Even the opening word “there” is repeated. Once more, when you hear it, you notice something about how the first “there” is sung. It is strung out over five notes, as if tentatively producing something private, a tentativeness reinforced by the forceful repetition of the word in the phrase “there’s a place”. It is an intimate disclosure, but once he’s over the initial hesitation, there is no apology.
The real interest, the true subject matter of this song is his mind. Even when Lennon comes, in the second verse, to the issue of the woman, he places the emphasis on what happens in his mind. What she says goes around his head. His address to her takes the form of a question: don’t you know?
Beneath the rhetorical form, Lennon was asserting that he is immune from sadness and that he has found the key to freedom from time. This point is emphasized: there will be no sad tomorrow, he asserts, just as he’s told us that when he is alone there is no time.
It’s a very short song, just under two minutes. It is just one idea, simply presented. But what is surprising, perhaps even astounding, is that it was recorded in February 1963, when Lennon was only 22 years old, and McCartney was even younger. I am not aware of anything like it in rock and roll. On their first outing into the world of LP records, the Beatles were expressing this ambivalence between the need and desire for both relationships and solitariness, for engagement with the world and not only withdrawal but even transcendence of the world.
I remember reading one critic who wrote something like “There’s a Place’? The Beach Boys did it better on ‘In My Room’.” Interested, I listened to “In my Room”. While I am not concerned to run the Beach Boys down, there was no real comparison. The Beach Boys took a maudlin little number about retiring by oneself, and presented it quite professionally. “In my Room” is about retiring, while the Beatles number includes that, but also speaks of the desire for relationship, and beyond all these, what I have called “transcendence”. No, the intimacy and the depth of “There’s a Place” were simply beyond the Beach Boys. While it’s subjective, nonetheless, to my ear, the Beatles number is a vastly superior melody. My guess is that a lot of people today know “Place”, while few other than confirmed Beach Boys fans have even heard “Room”. That is not the ultimate test of quality, but it isn’t without some bearing.
I now wish to move ahead by about two and a half years to the Rubber Soul record, which Lennon once described as “the pot album” (Steven D. Stark, Meet the Beatles, 182). What a change in sound those two and a half years saw. “There’s A Place” is a song for a four-piece rock and roll band, augmented with some bluesy harmonica. “Girl” is a chic outing by what might be called an “art rock assemble”, with Paul McCartney’s brilliantly conceived use of the guitar to recreate the sort of sound associated with the Greek bouzouki.
In “Girl”, the singer addresses not the woman, but the audience:
Is there anybody gonna listen to my story,
All about the girl who came to stay?
She’s the kind of girl you want so bad
It makes you sorry,
Still you don’t regret a single day.
Ah, girl. Girl.
On a first listening one is struck by two things: the lilting gypsy melody, and the frequent, very direct, even bare use of the word “girl”. The anonymity of the girl is disconcerting.
When I think of all the times
I tried so hard to leave her,
She will turn to me and start to cry;
And she promises the world to me,
And I believe hER
After all this time, I don’t know why.
Ah, girl. Girl.
As the song progresses, the “girl” becomes more and more general. She is every woman, and indeed, from one perspective, every person, because the situation Lennon describes seems universal.
Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead?
Ah, girl. Girl.
There is something almost fated about Lennon’s relationship with her: he says that he doesn’t regret a single day despite all the pain. There is ambivalence, but once more, there is also transcendence: he rises above both the attraction and the repulsion by virtue of his insight into the condition. But there is more, as the oddness of the last verse may suggest.
What are these questions Lennon poses about a man breaking his back to earn his day of leisure, and the girl’s attitude after the man’s death? Lennon told interviewers (I am fairly sure it’s to be found, for example, in Lennon Remembers), that “Girl” was about Christianity. More precisely, it would have been about his relationship with Christianity. It is a little puzzling, at first, because so far as I know, Lennon was not a church-goer, but he was clearly a keen and interested observer of Christianity. When the furor erupted in the USA in 1966 over his comment that the Beatles were more popular than Christianity and that Christianity would wither and die, he revealed that he had been reading in the area. But he had not been reading mainstream works. As I recall, he had been interested in Allegro’s bizarre ideas about early Christianity being a sort of drug cult. This, apparently, lead him to a theory about the modern irrelevance of Christianity.
Yet, despite his less than flattering remarks about institutional Christianity, and I think that is how the statements have to be read, later that year Lennon fell on his knees and implored “God, Jesus, or whoever the fuck you are”, to just once tell him what he was supposed to be doing (Meet the Beatles p. 193).
Here, in “Girl”, there are four chief criticisms: the girl is smug and self-satisfied, she makes promises she can’t keep, and she accepts or even is pleased by the suffering which men endure, a suffering she does not understand. It is easy to see how these could be applied to individual Christians and even to the institutional Churches. But how would Lennon have known? My impression is that he would have been aware only of the public profile of Christianity in England and America, but this was enough to arouse an antipathy in him.
It is difficult to argue against Lennon’s dislike of what he saw. Had we seen it, we may have disliked it too. But that is not really the point. Lennon expresses, with artistic flair, his reactions to Christianity. And those reactions are not superficial: there is some insight there. Further, it is not preachy. The piece is ostensibly a “love song”, and I am sure most people take it on that level, even if they sense that there is something more intent, even, perhaps, darker, beneath the surface.
Nor is the escape into his own mind of “There’s A Place” a deep and meaningful answer to any of life’s problems. In fact, to an extent, that song is a piece of bravado. The query “Don’t you know that it’s so?” could be taken as a plea for agreement.
As I said at the start, Lennon had a talent for capturing ambivalence. In these two songs, I feel, there is another level to the stated the ambivalence. He has no final answer to the sphinx-woman, and the retreat to his mind is only a palliative, not a solution. But he has the questions, and he has posed them. And that is an honest start.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice. The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
THE 14TH INTERNATIONAL HUMANITIES CONFERENCE – ALL & EVERYTHING 2009
Wednesday, 22 April to Sunday, 26 April
DAYS HOTEL & CONFERENCE CENTRE
1677 WILSON AVE
TORONTO, ONTARIO, M3L 1A5
Tel: +01 416 249-8171 (1-800-267-0997)
Fax: +01 416 243-7342
If you would like to attend and do not have an invitation you should email
email@example.com and ask for an invitation.
CONFERENCE REGISTRATION FEES
Five day registration fee: $ CAD 80 (approx £ 45, E 50, US$ 65) per person.
Per day registration fee: $ CAD 27 (approx £ 15, E 17, US$ 22) per person.
NOTE: Please pay the registration fee in advance to the A&E Conference. You may register and pay online by credit card or PayPal, or send cheque by post. The conference registration fees are due by March 1, 2009.
HOTEL RESERVATION INFORMATION
Bookings can be made by phone or via their website.
Delegates are asked to book their reservations early and directly with the hotel.
The A&E Conference does NOT make reservations for delegates.
Hotel reservations are separate from Conference registration and must be made directly with the hotel.
Airport shuttle service available for overnight hotel guests.
HOTEL RESIDENTIAL ROOM RATES PER DAY
$99 CAD (approx $81 USD, £55, €63 ) per room (single / double occupancy)
plus $38 CAD (approx. $31 USD, £21, €24) Conference Package per person.
Includes: Breakfast, mid-morning coffee, Lunch, afternoon tea.
Not Included: Daily Dinner, and Banquet Dinner on Saturday evening.
HOTEL NON-RESIDENTIAL CONFERENCE RATES
In addition to the per day Conference registration fee, the following Hotel conference package fee will apply to day delegates:
Per day hotel conference package fee is: $38 CAD (approx £ 21, E 24, US$ 31)
Includes: mid-morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea.
The hotel requires that day delegates sign-in at the front desk and pay the conference package fee.
More information is available at the All and Everything Conference website: http://www.aandeconference.org
SCHEDULE OF SEMINARS AND DISCUSSIONS
Each day: 8:00 voluntary sitting / meditation
WED, April 22
20:30 Informal Session: Getting to Know You
THU, April 23 9:15 Opening Remarks
9:30 Stephen Aronson-Preparation for the Third Line of Work
10:45 Coffee Break
11:15 Paper: Dimitri Peretzi: Man is Third Force Blind
14:30 Seminar 1: Ch. 25 of Beelzebub’s Tales – Ashiata Shiemash, Sent from Above
15:45 Coffee Break
16:15 Seminar 2: Ch. 26 of Beelzebub’s Tales – The Terror-of-the-Situation
20:30 TBC: Piano recital of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music
FRI, April 24
9:30 John Amaral – Gurdjieff Exercises and Three Brains
10:45 Coffee Break
11:15 Keith Buzzell – Do-Re-Mi of Food, Air and Impressions
14:30 Seminar 3: Ch. 27 of Beelzebub’s Tales – Organization for Man’s Existence
15:45 Coffee Break
16:15 Seminar 4: Ch. 28 of Beelzebub’s Tales – Destruction of the Labors of Ashiata Shiemash
20:30 TBC: Talk & Piano recital of Gurdjieff/Hartmann music: Elan Sicroff
SAT, APRIL 25
9:30 George Bennett – Being-Partkdolg-duty, Conscious Labor and Intentional Suffering
10:45 Coffee Break
11:15 James George – What Does Great Nature Now Require of Us?
14:30 Seminar 5: Ch. 5 of Meetings with Remarkable Men – Mr. X or Captain Pogossian
15:45 Coffee Break
16:15 Seminar 6: Dorothy Usiskin – Egoism
19:30 Conference Banquet: Speaker – John Robert Colombo
SUN, APRIL 26
9:30 Seminar 7 – Where Do We Go From Here?
ABSTRACTS AND PRESENTERS RESUMES
Abstracts of the Papers and Presenter Resumes are available to view on our website: http://www.aandeconference.org/abstracts_2008.html
The Proceedings of the 13th All & Everything Conference are available to purchase from Amazon.com. ISBN: 9781905578122
THE ALL & EVERYTHING HUMANITIES CONFERENCE: WHAT IT IS AND IS NOT
The All & Everything Conference was originally conceived in 1996
as a meeting of the ‘Companions of the Book’. The conference has
developed into a world forum for the presentation and discussion
of recent writings, themes and music associated with the Work.
The Conference provides an open, congenial and serious atmosphere
for the sharing of research and investigation of G. I. Gurdjieff’s legacy.
The Conference seeks to keep the study of the teachings of Gurdjieff
relevant to global, scientific, spiritual and sociological developments.
The gathering is open to all serious students of All & Everything and is not under the auspices or sponsorship of any Gurdjieff Group or umbrella organization. The Conference is not intended to be a ‘Group Work Event’ and thus does not include Work on Movements or Exercises that are related to personal or group Work.
The Conference includes the presentation of academic papers, individual view papers, seminars on chapters and themes in All & Everything, and cultural events.
G. I. Gurdjieff: Armenian Roots, Global Branches
Editor: Michael Pittman
Date Of Publication: Dec 2008
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
This volume presents a selection of writings based on papers originally presented at the G.I. Gurdjieff: Caucasian Influence in Contemporary Life and Thought conferences or, as they came to be called, the Armenia-Gurdjieff Conferences, which were held in Yerevan, Armenia in the summers from 2004-2007. Gurdjieff was born in Gyumri, Armenia, to an Armenian mother and a Cappadocian-Greek father, and was raised in eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. According to his own accounting, he spent his early years traveling in Central Asia, Asia Minor, Egypt, India, and Tibet in search of undiscovered knowledge. Eventually, after 1921, his work led him to Europe where lived, wrote, and taught until his death in 1949. Though not having received great popular attention, he remains an important figure of the twentieth century and his influence continues to grow into the twenty-first century.
A growing body of secondary literature connected to the work of Gurdjieff has been produced in fields as disparate as psychology, philosophy, literature, health, ecology, and religion. The conferences and the book aim to provide a forum of exchange about the ideas, influence, and work of Gurdjieff, while making a contribution to the reintroduction of the work of Gurdjieff to Armenia, which had been cut off from his ideas and works during the Soviet period. The articles here reflect a range of work addressing key contributions and ideas of Gurdjieff, from more academic studies of All and Everything, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, to a discussion of the application of Gurdjieff’s ideas and principles in the education of children, to a chapter on the music and of Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.
Michael Pittman is currently Assistant Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York. Michael spent a year as a Volunteer Faculty Fellow in Armenia with the Civic Education Project, which led to the organization of the Armenia-Gurdjieff conferences. He completed a dissertation on Gurdjieff entitled, G.I. Gurdjieff: Medieval Textualizations of Oral Storytelling and Modern Teachings on the Soul. Michael continues to travel to Turkey and Armenia for research and teaching.
“The Armenian Gurdjieff conferences mark the significant and almost mythical return of the teachings of the greatest modern sage to his homeland. With imaginative insight and scholarly finesse, the papers in this volume confront the greatest human problem, man’s inability to take hold of reality —what Gurdjieff called sleep—and the catastrophic conditions that rise up from that cause, war, cultural irrationalism, over-consumption, and intractable hegemonies. The topics are timely, the exposition is clear and lively, and the information is crucial and compelling.”
Jon Woodson, Department of English, Howard University
Author of To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance