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THE CYNICAL IDEALIST: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon



Book Review:
: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon, by Gary Tillery (Quest Books, 2009, 6” x 9”, 169 pp. plus chronology, notes, bibliography and index.)

The cover photograph of a wintry Lennon, with the Statue of Liberty ghostly in the background, is appropriate and eloquent for this excellent book. Its subject, John Lennon (1940-1980), was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, and, beyond any sensible argument, one of the most profound songwriters ever known to us. Its author, Gary Tillery, is intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic, and writes very well indeed. I could have greedily finished it in one day, had I had the leisure.

The contents are methodically laid out in four parts: the first three mix biography and philosophy in a readable blend, while the fourth part weaves all the philosophical strands together. This way, we’re introduced to the concepts in a narrative setting before they’re briefly reprised in a more abstract manner. So, although the last section is more recondite, the ideas are familiar. The effect of Part 4, then, is not of density but of convergence.

Reading it, I entered into Lennon’s world. I couldn’t help but engage with the issues Lennon engaged with: life in society, life as a child and as a parent, wanting and giving love, our responsibility to use our influence and power constructively (we all have these, to various degrees extents), religion, politics and art. It’s a book to make and to help you think, thanks in no small part to the quotations from Lennon.

Tillery’s thesis is plausible: Lennon correctly saw himself as a philosopher (as well as a rock’n’roller, a writer and an “artist”). His philosophy was more a developed outlook, based on his experience, than it was an academic philosophy drawn from reading and University discipline. It was not expressed in treatises, but in music, a few short books, some sketches, and perhaps most importantly, his life. Yet, as Tillery notes, Lennon did some serious reading, especially in English nonsense, literature and poetry (and, we should note, history). So far as I know, he didn’t read philosophers like Plato, Aristotle or those in the Western tradition subsequent to Descartes.

Lennon never sat down to work out a consistent system, the way a modern academic like, say, D.M. Armstrong does. Nor did he develop his philosophy by reference to classic problems such as materialism, or the problem of universals. The issues he dealt with were delivered to him as he rose from the lower middle class to the privileged caste of super-wealthy celebrities and tried to make sense of his multiple worlds. Having said that, Tillery finds five principles in Lennon’s philosophy:

(1) it was fundamentally humanistic and secular (p.50),
(2) with a faith in individuals to find their own best natures,
(3) through their love to combine,
(4) through their power to change the world, and
(5) through their altruistic aim to give life meaning (p.101).

That is Lennon’s philosophy in a nutshell, and along the way we have a fascinating account of his life and intellectual development. I could have started with the three principles on pp. 7-8, but they come to the same thing. The account is necessarily brief, but Tillery has a spaniel’s scent for the essential, and the very conciseness of the biography brings out some critical features in sharp relief. Lennon realised he was responsible for his actions, in fact responsible for his influence, and struggled to becomingly discharge that responsibility. Tillery is not the first to grasp this, but his understanding of it is extremely clear and well put (“we owe it to ourselves …”, p. 7; and “Lennon came to see it … as their responsibility to make a positive contribution”, p. 56, see also pp.100-101).

I am most impressed by Tillery’s ardent desire and ability to sum up large issues in pithy statements, e.g. in speaking of how Lennon came to rock’n’roll, Tillery says “he was groping to define himself” (p.23). At p.80, in respect of the Maharishi and Janov, he summarises Lennon’s conclusions by saying: “Leaders were substitute fathers” (p.80). At p.130, he observes that Lennon learnt, from his “lost weekend”, that “… freedom without a foundation is an abyss”. These lapidary phrases don’t come about by accident: a writer has to work to coin them. It is so much easier to just throw words at your subject. Tillery can be justly proud of his achievement, especially in this respect. It is one of the engagingly Lennonesque features of his style. It’s almost a book to hold a conversation with, and the comments below can be taken as my side of the discussion.

Tillery coins a Lennonesque phrase, “cynical idealist”, to describe Lennon (see the explanation at pp.71-4). Personally, I would have said “street-wise” or perhaps “hard-nosed”, and described Lennon as a “songwriter-philosopher”. There is something harsh or dismissive implied in the word “cynical”, and, for me, importing that nuance is rather a high price to pay for the pleasure of the paradox.

Overall, I would be inclined to see Lennon as “sceptical” rather than “cynical”. Yet neither word is really correct, because, whether sceptical or cynical, he was also, by turns, trusting, extraordinarily optimistic, and even gullible (as with some of his advisers). Steven Stark quotes an unnamed critic as saying that of all the celebrities interviewed in a series of t.v. shows in 1969, only Lennon had “a gospel, a hope and a belief” (Meet the Beatles, p.272).

He was all of those things on a cinemascope scale, and as Maharishi experienced, the turn from suggestibility to hostility could come very quickly. In that instance, Lennon had surely been seeking a father figure whom he could trust (p.80), and when Maharishi disappointed him, he lashed out. Is this cynicism, scepticism or something else? Henriette Lannes once said that no one can be adequately described by reference to one characteristic. Such as we are, we’re too divided, too psychologically diverse for that. Shortly before he was murdered, Lennon said that he knew that he wasn’t always positive, but that when he was, he tried to project it (p.155). Lennon’s insight and frankness is touching, and because he saw his fluctuations, it meant that he had the possibility of becoming more consistent.

So although the title is witty, I would quibble with it. Even the sub-title: “A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon”, raises an issue: while Tillery does deal very well indeed with Lennon’s attitude to religion, his use of meditation, and his approach to the book Mind Games, the emphasis in this book is on philosophy rather than spirituality. That is, the primary thrust of the book is with Lennon’s ethical and political philosophy. Spirituality is really the secondary stream here, as the five points of Lennon’s philosophy show.

While Tillery’s approach to Lennon is not at all like mine, neither is it inconsistent. I think that, by comparison, I probably pay more attention to what I hear in the music. The difference in methods is, I often found, stimulating. Tillery looks at what Lennon said in his songs and elsewhere, and deduces a philosophy from that. I am oversimplifying a little bit, because Tillery is quite aware of the need to consider Lennon’s life as an expression of his philosophy: he even quotes Lennon as saying: “Our life is our art” (p.100), referring to Yoko and himself, but also, perhaps, to every human being. To me, this is critical. As Gurdjieff showed, one cannot really divorce a person’s philosophy from their life. They are two related aspects of the one larger reality: their being. I shall return to this below.

Tillery nicely brings out how Lennon was concerned to be able to reach people, all people, and not just a large audience. Lennon did not see himself as over and above the working people he had come from. He never lost his sympathy. I recall an anecdote from the Beatles years, where he was being driven in London, and they’d stopped at traffic lights. Some girls who noticed him perversely scratched the paintwork of the car (I think it was the Rolls). The driver got angry, but Lennon calmly said: “It’s alright, they paid for it”. That is impartiality. Lennon was also his own most perceptive critic. I hope to get to this in the forthcoming blog on “Memory” and “Living on Borrowed Time”.

Lennon was an extraordinary mix, and this book is so interesting partly because Tillery communicates his own broad interest in Lennon’s life and work. This sympathetic interest provides many incidental reading pleasures. For example, I appreciate the story of how Lennon told the students of a university, who were protesting the University’s refusal to turn a vacant lot into a “People’s Park”, that there was no park “worth getting shot for”. Although they had sought his opinion, they rejected it, and in the event, one hundred were injured, one fatally and one blinded. Lennon’s response was equally incisive: the students had been used by an administration which had provoked them into protesting so that it could come down hard on them (p.103)

Not only was Lennon an “extraordinary mix”, he also had something of the English eccentric about him, a type Tillery may not have mixed with, but which is far more benign than the American version which becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and the Federal Government. This English eccentricity showed partly in Lennon’s faddishness, his love of the exotic (I think this partly explains his fascination with Maharishi), and in his puzzling willingness to entertain weirdos and weird ideas.

One of these was fads, and a weird one, too, was the book Mind Games. I did read it a few years ago, but I can’t say I found anything deep or even interesting in it. Despite Lennon’s quondam enthusiasm for it, I am unpersuaded that it had any lasting effect on him. I thought it might shed light on the powerful song, but it didn’t. The imagery of “Mind Games” the song is not at all drawn from the book, from what I could see. I suspect that Lennon projected into the pretentious volume things which weren’t there, and then lauded what he saw in his fertile brain. So, although Lennon once said that it ranked with Yoko’s Grapefruit and another book, perhaps Janov’s, he seems to have moved beyond it by the time he wrote the song of the same name ( see pp.144-8). The excellent Lennonism which I quote below from p.148 did not need Mind Games, it is a well-known idea which he could have deduced for himself, and would have heard from Maharishi and, especially, from Yoko Ono. As pellucidly expressed by Mr Lennon, it reads:

If you speak, what you say doesn’t end here. … vibrations go on and on infinitely, and therefore every action goes on and on infinitely and has its effect. If you think carefully about the effect you’re going to create, there’s more chance for all of us. It’s hard to think of your every move. But your attitudes to life will have an effect on everyone – and thereby, the universe.

This, of course, dovetails with Lennon’s philosophy as expressed in “Instant Karma”, “You Are Here”, and “Imagine”, to name but some.

At this point, I should mention a matter which can be corrected in future editions: Tillery often cites Lennon interviews, but rarely dates them. For example, the above quotation is referenced, and so I can check the date if I can find the book he drew it from. But the deeper point is that Tillery does not seem to think that the interview dates are important. As a historian of some feeble description, I think that they are: when did key themes emerge, and how did Lennon’s philosophy develop? What twists and turns did it take? It isn’t so easy to conceive things in a sound historical perspective and to soberly evaluate one’s sources. But Tillery is not an amateur writer, he has all the intellectual tools, and wrote the first three chapters in chronological order. As stated, I hope that this book sees a second edition where Tillery can revise the book upwards, so to speak.

Another example of Tillery’s sometimes ahistorical approach to Lennon, is his reference to fasting, prayer and meditation, without noticing (or so it seems to me), that Lennon’s fondness for them was sporadic (p.70). I am unaware of any evidence that Lennon fasted in his Dakota years, although he did to some degree follow a macrobiotic diet (and yet, he also smoked and drank coffee). The question of meditation and prayer is trickier. Lennon referred to meditation in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, but I know of no evidence that he did more than endorse meditation at that time (pp.69-70), or that he ever meditated consistently, except when he was in India. And if he did meditate in the 1970s, how did he do so? Did he use a method, no method, or a mixture? Did he continue to use TM?

As for prayer, Lennon redefined it in pantheist, almost occult terms (as David Katz uses that word in The Occult Tradition). Also, as I mentioned in the “Beautiful Boy” blog, prayer is an important concept in that song, and impromptu prayers turn up, for example, in “Grow Old With Me”. But Tillery refers to prayer in the context of Jesus, Buddha and Milarepa and “time-tested methods of inspiration”. I do not think that that sort of prayer was significant to the mature Lennon, much as I might like to think it was. Indeed, as Tillery notes at pp.4 and 11, Lennon had tried prayer as Jesus recommended, and nothing productive came of it. (As Gurdjieff said, Jesus was speaking to his apostles, people who had been prepared. The effectiveness of prayer depends upon who is praying and how, and the attitudes of certain people upstairs.)

I don’t wish to make too much of this, it’s maybe a good fault to have, but a conscientious reviewer should mention it: Tillery seems to me sometimes to be too positive about Lennon, almost excusing his faults. Thus he downplays the self-indulgence of Lennon’s impertinent letter to the Queen returning his MBE because among matters “Cold Turkey” was slipping down the charts (p.106). I cannot credit, when the short letter is read as a whole, that Lennon was really trying to “lighten” its tone. The tone of that letter was all of a piece. Further, however Lennon may have rationalised the full frontal on Two Virgins, it carried eccentricity to a point which was bizarre, despite Tillery’s best defence advocacy (p.94). Lennon’s modesty before Mintz establishes nothing: he may have changed, he may have been shy in person, or had some personal reason for being apologetic before his friend – anything. Again, it is ahistorical to take incidents separated by the years and say that that was Lennon, as if he were a monolith. And one cannot seriously say of Lennon, by any criterion, that “perhaps he was a Buddha we can all relate to …” (p.137). Yet to be fair, Tillery does mention Lennon’s notorious violence to women (p.115).

As I said above, I don’t wish to make too much of this, because it is only a minor aspect of the book. But precisely because of the extraordinarily high opinion I have of Lennon, I feel that we must be careful not to lost perspective and slide into idolatry and identification.

The true point of my study of Lennon is that sometimes, perhaps very often, it is easier to see reality in the lives of other people than it is to see it in our own. Because of the depth of his insight, and his candid expression of what he learned at each step, Lennon’s life is the richest field I have come across of any figure in the second half of the 20th century. One of the things we see clearly in Lennon’s life is that simply wanting to love is not enough: we cannot love on demand. Something else must come first before the commandment to love can be reliably fulfilled. Just before his death, Lennon himself said:

The hardest thing is facing yourself. It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one. (p. 124, and that interview is dated!)

Earlier in the book, Tillery sums up this attitude, saying how Lennon came to realise that we have to act both “individually and in concert”, but that the “first key … is self-transformation. When considering how to improve the world, people almost always focus their attention outside themselves, which too often leads to resistance, confrontation, frustration and defeat. Actually, the only thing over which we have control is our own attitudes and behaviour” (p. 7).

This is true, at least as I see it. I mean both that Lennon’s insight is true, and that Tillery has correctly formulated Lennon’s view. So Lennon saw that we must begin with self-transformation, and he made some sterling efforts in this direction. It is an art which is expressed in and over a lifetime. But how can this insight be made practical? Tillery suggests meditation, prayer and fasting. Apart from the question of whether Lennon did use these methodically and consistently, it would be even fuller and more practical to say as Gurdjieff did, that if this is our aim, then our being must change before we can achieve that aim (what Gurdjieff calls “doing”).

To change our being, we need to transform negative emotion (a major part of the second conscious shock). That transformation begins not with a direct attack upon hatred, or a direct incitement to love, but with self-consciousness, with the first conscious shock, which comprises: “Efforts to remember oneself, observation of oneself at the moment of receiving an impression, observation of one’s impression at the moment of receiving them, registering, so to speak, the reception of impressions and the simultaneous defining of the impressions received …” (In Search of the Miraculous, p.188). And Lennon had one of those rare glimpses of the reality of self-remembering: I referred to this in the first Lennon blog.

That Lennon did not come up with a practical system like Gurdjieff’s is not a criticism. That he had so many elements of reality in his philosophy is stupendous. Lennon’s insights were astounding. But we cannot without violence separate a person’s philosophy and their behaviour: both express their being. Some of these issues are difficult, and I don’t raise this to condemn Lennon, but I feel that his apparent cruelty to Cynthia and Julian should not be swept under the carpet. It seems to me that Lennon’s cool and aloof paining of Cynthia is typical of someone who knows that he has acted unconscionably, and, incapable of making amends, transfers the blame to the other. No one behaves so maliciously as someone with a guilty conscience.

What Lennon knew and even what he felt, he could not always put into practice. This is one of the morals of Lennon’s life, rather like the lessons of Aesop’s fables.

Along the same lines, Lennon was almost fanatically competitive, especially with Paul McCartney first, and Bob Dylan second. Tillery’s comments at pp.32, 57 and 155 seem to me to be much understated. I think that it’s in MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, where Lennon’s sabotage of McCartney’s music on what became the Let It Be album is documented. If I remember correctly, MacDonald called it an “act of bastardry”. The first time I read it, I didn’t want to believe it. After all, the motive was clear enough. I think few would dispute that Paul’s songs on that record (especially the title track, “Long and Winding Road” and “Two Of Us”) far outshone John’s. No, I think that if one is going to give an overview of Lennon’s life by way of background to his spirituality, his treatment of his first family, his insecurity and egotism, should probably be acknowledged.

Another possible example of being overkind to Lennon is the way that Tillery mentions philosophers like Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein. Is that praise by association? I am not quite sure. Tillery doesn’t mention Nietzsche, so far as I recall or as the index discloses. But if any philosopher should be mentioned in the company of Lennon, I think that it’s Nietzsche. Of course, he was not so respectable a philosopher as Kant, but then neither was Lennon. Even if it is right to mention Hegel and so on, yet I feel that Tillery pays disproportionate attention to those academic philosophers, as compared with others of an artistic variety like G.B. Shaw, Tennessee Williams (whose work Lennon idolised, see my “Tennessee” blog) and, of course, Bob Dylan.

A few books are missing from the bibliography. Goldman’s book is dirty, but it should be read, even if only to critique it, which, incidentally, I would like to do, but I lack the time. If you are a John Lennon fan, and know Yoko One, persuade her to pay me a stupendous amount of money to write a critique of it: she will be so satisfied she’ll wish she’d paid me more (and I won’t knock it back). Similarly, Dakota Days by John Green should be considered (from fallible memory, Green was one of Goldman’s sources, but he is not responsible for that). Green may have exaggerated certain matters, but I am by no means convinced everything he wrote was inaccurate. His diagnosis that Lennon had a sort of writer’s block during most of the Dakota period may be at least partly correct (see p.130). Once more, I don’t think he should be ignored.

Cynthia Lennon’s book John, is much fuller than A Twist of Lennon, which Tillery does use, and was, I would have thought, available in time for Tillery’s research. It presents a decidedly less flattering picture of Lennon, but my sense is that she has been scrupulously honest. Julian Lennon made some important points in the foreword to his mother’s book. I did not notice them here.

When books present negative images of Lennon one can try and maintain a dignified silence, lest they be given undue credibility by paying attention to them. Or one can answer them, squarely and analytically. I think that given Lennon’s fame, and the nature of the world, the first option is, finally, counter-productive. People will be coming back to Goldman (and even that weird book by someone who’d interviewed him once, and whose name I thankfully forget). If their views of Lennon are not answered, later critics will take this as a sign of their unassailable veracity. Sometimes silence can encourage, or at least facilitate, shouting.

But then, May Pang is positive about Lennon and the “lost weekend”, and I don’t recall that she’s even mentioned in this book. I find that odd, because she was an important figure in Lennon’s life. As I recall, she says that the LA period “wasn’t so lost”, and I found her memoirs intelligent and sensitive. Of course there was a personality clash (if that word is not too weak) with Yoko.

Another book which was missing, is Steven Stark’s Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender and the World, published in 2006. It could have added another dimension to Tillery’s treatment, because it shows, to an extent I had never appreciated, how the Beatles’ popularity was related to their fresh approach to youth and gender, an approach which Lennon developed as he grew older. Which reminds me that the role of the female in Lennon’s spirituality, as opposed to his politics, seems to me to be missing from Cynical Idealist. Stark could also have helped Tillery to an increased appreciation of the importance of the Lennon/McCartney rivalry.

By the way, Quest Books please take note: I performed a spot check of the index, and found an error one of the 30 tests: where the index has p. 172 for the film Hard Day’s Night, it should be 170. That error was the only one I found, but the index should be revised if you go to a second, revised edition.

And I hope you do, because this book, deep and thought-provoking as it is, was a damned good read (to use a phrase Americans gave to the world).

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.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

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