A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW


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[...] the banal everyday makes banal demands upon our patience, our devotion, perseverance, self-sacrifice; and for us to fulfil these demands (as we must) humbly and without courting applause through heroic gestures, a heroism is needed that cannot be seen from the outside.

[Carl Jung]
The Essential Jung, p.154

[...] unless we admit that we are not, and never will be, born equal, though we are all born with equal rights; unless the Many can be educated out of their false assumption of inferiority and the Few out of their equally false assumption that biological superiority is a state of existence instead of what it really is, a state of responsibility - then we shall never arrive at a more just and happier world.

[John Fowles]
The Aristos, p.10

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Watching The U.S. Versus John Lennon I was struck by how often Lennon would "lose it". These were moments in which his act faltered, in which he was returned to 'all too human' form.

Whilst Lennon had always been a communicator through his music, his political activities required him to become a communicator of a different sort. The gravity of the messages he wanted to convey required a certain type of act. The act of "pop star" or "musician" wouldn't fit the bill. To communicate a message of love and peace, Lennon had to assume an archetypal role, to walk in the footsteps of others who have carried a similar message: names like Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi, amongst others. Part of the reason why we hold these figures in such high regard is that they managed to stand the strain of the act that was required from them; indeed, they acted so well that we may even begin to forget that they were only human.

We are all, in a sense, acting. In fact, we could say that it is our ability to act, amongst other things, that makes us human. Animals generally cannot, or do not, act. A shark will not decide to 'better itself' by becoming a vegetarian, nor will a gazelle decide to 'be a man' and stand up for itself the next time a lion comes calling. The idea that we can be something other appears to be a distinctly human one, an upshot of our ability to imagine. In imagining we are able to think of alternate ways of being, ways that may often seem to contradict the image that our 'natural impulses' would hold us to. We imagine that we can be 'better', and in being better we must act. But this act needn't seem false. It is put on, and necessarily so: through putting it on we are able to craft ourselves, remould our basic image into the shape we want it to be. It is in this way that we become 'human'.

Thus, it is often when the act slips that we describe someone as being 'an animal.' In being an animal we fail to be human (which, from an animal's perspective is probably for the best. But from ours it is a slip, a regression). If we have a dim view of humanity then we may describe someone as being 'all too human.' Both descriptions concern a failure to maintain the act; the act of 'human' or 'something more than human.'

As a collective we have various structures in place to help us maintain the act. Laws remind us of the basics, and conventions and etiquette help us to tweak and refine our performance. Some people seem to be able to act better than others, and some acts seem to be worth more than others. Our collectivity offers us models that we can follow, and some of these seem harder than others. Buddhism, for example, proposes for the Westerner a truly difficult act, asking us to relinquish the sovereignty of our ego and to see through the idea of the "self." It's act eventually becomes a non-act; "enlightenment" a seeing-through of the act (or does the Dalai Lama still need to fight his instinctual urges? Does he still need to act?).

Maintaining the act involves a constant remembering. To stay on course may necessitate constant minor adjustments, because we all forget the way from time to time.

Lennon's act was a hard one. His message of love and peace posed a challenge to a Western society in thrall to the ego and entrenched in patriarchal values: rationalism, practicality, logic. Like those who exemplified his role in the past, he came under fire, and his act was truly put to the test. We see a number of these moments in the documentary. At one point Lennon is asked an irksomely earnest and 'ignorant' question by a reporter, to which he replies with an amusingly ironic quip. Another moment finds him being patronised by a woman from the New York Times, and he reacts with visible frustration and yet more irony.

We sense that he had to face a number of these moments, and his lack of patience becomes obvious. Of course, Lennon was only human, and we cannot blame him for letting the act slip. After all, it would take a truly exceptional person to carry - to live - the message of peace and love through these trying situations. But unfortunately this exceptionality is what his act required from him. When watching these moments I find myself wondering, how would the Dalai Lama handle that reporter? How would Gandhi have reacted to being patronized?

It seemed that Lennon was not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary for him to fulfill his role, which brings us to ask: did he understand the implications of the act that was required from him in the first place? Or was he simply not up to the task?

The way Lennon handles himself in these situations displays a crucial difference between him and the likes of the Dalai Lama or Gandhi. He is too quick to become defensive, to raise his shield and protect his self. As soon as he does this he enters into a battle and his ability to communicate is curtailed - an opposition is created, a situation that makes neither party amenable to the other. This self-protectiveness seems to indicate that Lennon was too entrenched, or attached, to his position; too attached to the idea of "John Lennon." To be a truly great communicator it seems that we must be able to abandon our position when needed, and we do this as a sacrifice to the Other, and to the whole. We do whatever it takes to keep open the lines of communication. When Lennon was tempted into ironic remarks, to taking up the gauntlet of a battle, he forgot the duty that his role demanded of him. In these moments he was thinking of himself, not of the Other.

If we consider Lennon's perspective an enlightened one, then his frustration often seemed to be due to the sheer amount of ignorance that his role forced him to come into contact with. He was trying to communicate an enlightened message, but was thwarted by a lack of understanding, or, in many instances, an unwillingness to understand, or to even listen. It seems an inevitable outcome of this scenario that he should develop an "us vs them" attitude (in fact, Lennon probably already had this attitude from quite early on; he talks about trouble in school, about always seeming to be on the outside).

And yet, if we consider ourselves to be in any way "enlightened" and others to be ignorant, and if we care about the well-being of the whole, then perhaps we have a responsibility to those who we consider less fortunate than ourselves. If we are attempting to communicate a message of enlightenment, a message that we expect to bring positivity to the community, then is it not our duty, not only to the collectivity but to the message itself, to put the idea of communication first, and to serve the message in whatever it demands?

If we are 'enlightened' then is it not an abuse of our privilege to gain a laugh at the expense of the 'ignorant,' or to engage them in a battle? Likewise, we may become frustrated, but it is our duty to prevent our frustration from spilling over into anger and acrimony, and from polluting our good intentions.

Comedian Bill Hicks frequently alludes to an "us vs them" divide in his routines; he is enlightened - he knows good music, and sees through the hypocrisy of much of modern life - and if we are with him, if we see this too, then we are also enlightened. We are a part of "us" and we probably know who "they" are all too well. But there is a subtle form of arrogance running through this "us vs them-ism." Hicks doesn't appear to equate enlightenment with responsibility. His frustration at the ignorance of others is palpable, and we sense that he feels compelled to use his enlightenment as a weapon, perhaps as much to defend himself as to attack others. As with Lennon, he seems to feel that his position needs to be protected, and his routines become a form of pre-emptive attack. The underlying narrative is a battle, and Hicks is first and foremost interested in the sovereignty of his own position before the well-being of the whole.

Whilst we oppose those who are unenlightened, there will always be a divide across which communication fails, an us vs them situation. If we believe ourselves to be enlightened, and if we want to communicate a message - a message that we believe is of benefit to the collectivity - then we must consider the responsibility that these things demand of us. If we preach an enlightened message whilst undermining it through our words and actions, then we are doing no more than playing a game; a game that has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the us vs. them. Our games allow us to declare that the emperor has no clothes, as long as we don't then chop off his head.

Of course, we may often be interested in no more than game-playing, and this may well be the case for Hicks. His us vs. them-ism is a cornerstone of his humour, and without it his act probably would have been very different; or, indeed, may not have existed at all. With Lennon things seem to be different - he ostensively set out to communicate a message as far and wide as possible, and it would be a betrayal to this message to find that he was, if only unconsciously, playing a game. As with Lennon, our act may demand that we go beyond our games, and if we believe in the act then must listen to it, and do whatever it takes to remain true to the role.

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