Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Day In The Life of the Four Zen Emotions

I was driving in my car in a thunderstorm and was lucky enough to catch "A Day In The Life" on the radio. Something caught me this time listening to it; the unstuck-in-time quality of the song's structure. John Lennon sleepwalks through the news, with a kind of sadness whose clarity is only really grasped once someone close to you has died. In those weeks afterward when the line between life and not life is for a time, tangible.

This thought itself has me searching around the room for Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film", in a near panic that I might have sold it. Here it is! And with it a passage that I think of nearly everyday:

Where the mood of the moment is solitary and quiet it is called sabi. When the artist is feeling depressed or sad, and this particular feeling of emptiness catches a glimpse of something rather ordinary and unpretentious in its incredible "suchness," the mood is called wabi. When the moment evokes a much more intense, nostalgic sadness connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world, it is called aware. And when the vision is hinting at an unknown never to be discovered, the mood is called yugen.
From Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 176.

Do you recognize these Zen emotions? This feels like a short summation of all the most profound moments of my life; minus the absurdist emotions that one finds exploring the Paranoid-Critical Method. Notice how strangely the definition of yugen matches that untranslatable German word sehnsucht. Sehnsucht being a word I tend to associate with C. S. Lewis, and the feeling one gets while reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and the children first hear the phrase, "Aslan is on the move." I remember that profound moment when the curtain was pulled back and, decades between us, feeling that unfathomable palpitation of the heart that comes with witnessing the miraculous world. Of course, C. S. Lewis and I have very different explanations for such experiences. This does not lessen the novelty of C. S. Lewis, Bruce Cockburn, and I wondering where the lion's are.

Let's step back one quantum leap from yugen and contemplate the aware of "A Day In The Life."

Let's imagine Lennon as the sleepwalker slowly treading his way through The Daily Mail, catching a glimpse of the transience of the world as it approaches the autumn of the late 60's, and above it all thinking, "I'd love to turn you on so you could see what I'm seeing." The feeling swells, becoming an apocalyptic cacophony.

Then suddenly, the alarm rings. And here we are waking to another day in the morass of conventional daily consciousness; the true sleepwalkers, imagining that our rat race has some prize of substance for us in the end. Leading to such a simple, beautiful line, "And somebody spoke and I went into a dream."

This does two things. It introduces to kids everywhere, in a tiny pop song, that "real life" is the fantasy. Every once and a while in this short life you will suddenly waken to the world; a deep wakefulness that will cast into doubt all previous notions of what consciousness really is. If you are lucky. It is a tragic realization, but one that has the potential of correcting you over and over again, and giving you the power to share that glimpse with others.

Secondly, it really nails why the cut-up, medley structure idiosyncratic of mature Beatles work is so powerful. It shows that the pop song, and all its conventions, can be a delivery system for sophisticated irony and a working language for the cinema of the mind. Of course, none of this is really surprising. Eisenstein's editing existed in Beethoven before the motion picture camera was ever invented. However, the Beatles seemed to use the cinematic power of music very self-consciously. Geoff Emerick's synesthetic engineering, the schizophrenic toggling between Lennon and McCartney's writing, George Martin's musique concrete contributions that he began while working with the Goon Show. "And somebody spoke and I went into a dream" is Bergman or Bunuel. So many of the psychedelic Beatles classics have this oneiric power. What is Revolution 9, if not an experimental film we can only see in our minds?

"A Day In The Life" has that Zen sense of aware that makes a person feel unstuck in time. That we are aware, in the English language sense, only sporadically. It is a wrinkle in time that connects us tenuously to the moments we are truly alive, when so often in time we are tossed about as if at sea. Lost in the woods. Sleepwalking.

Which is to say: The Beatles are fucking great.

No comments: