Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

Last week, I gave a primer on metaphors, so that we’re all more or less on the same page when I talk about them. Have you read it? Great! Let’s get to the fun bit. (NOTE: I said I was going to talk about Rocky Horror and Tommy, but I haven’t watched Rocky Horror in a couple of weeks, and there is so much in Tommy that I won’t even have time to cover anything else.)

As you may know, I am part of a concert production of the musical theatre adaptation of Tommy. The original album has been in my collection for at least a decade, and I have listened to it many times. I never imagined I would be actually playing Tommy one day. Nor did I imagine how deeply the story would resonate with me. Until recently, it seemed totally bonkers, and nonsensical, and stream-of-conscious non-narrative. Then I read Joseph Campbell.

Oh boy. Oooh boy.

It’s easy for me to say, “Tommy is a Jesus story.” If you’re satisfied with that, stop reading now and tell your friends. Maybe they’ll doubt you at which point you can point them to this article, and later they’ll be like, “Well it’s not really, but it does share a lot of similar images.”

In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell outlines many essential metaphors in religion. He highlights their purposes, and parallels to be found in different stories around the world. What I will be doing is going through the Gospel of Tommy, and drawing parallels to other myths. Many of them will have to do with Jesus. Please understand that there is very little actually “original” in the story of Jesus. The vast majority of the details of his life can be found in parallel heroes, like Buddha, Quetzalcoatl, and Adonis. But I actually think that this commonality strengthens the symbols. All peoples are connected. We share similar experiences, and express them in a Human way: through stories.

“It’s A Boy, Mrs. Walker”

Tommy begins right at the start of World War II, with the marriage of Tommy’s parents, the Walkers. About four seconds after the wedding (a shotgun wedding, then?) Captain Walker gets called to service. Captain Walker is then presumed dead, and Tommy is born fatherless. This is a classical Virgin Birth.

When I say “Virgin Mother” I will bet a lot of money the first name that comes to your mind is “Mary.” Now, we all know a virgin birth is not literally possible. It’s a metaphor! Mary’s (impregnated from above!) is in the Greek style. There are other styles of virgin birth. I can’t explain this any better than Joseph Campbell so I’ll use a block quote:

“In legend, this miraculous birth becomes reduced to the father’s being dead. In the Celtic tradition many stories tell of the warrior or hero who goes off to battle but, before leaving, begets a son. The hero dies and so the son is born with no father and this is regarded as a Virgin Birth.”

The boy has no father, and may spend a lot of time looking for him. For me, the word Father is important in the Christian tradition especially, as part of the Holy Trinity. God is the Father. So, our hero is born Godless and must find God.

Note that Tommy is not a Jesus story, it’s a Tommy story. Tommy’s God is not Yahweh. Perhaps this fact is expressed in the subversion of the Virgin Birth trope.

Captain Walker returns home. But, when he returns home, Mrs. Walker has a lover. They fight, and the lover is killed (interesting to note, this is the reverse of the original version’s outcome). Keeping “Father” to mean God, and considering that Captain Walker until this point is father to Tommy only in name and not in deed, perhaps this could represent the evils of organised religion. But that’s a whole nother discussion. One way or another, this is the starting point for his Journey. Which brings me to…

“Come On The Amazing Journey”

When the Lover is killed, the couple tells Tommy: “You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it – not a word of it. You won’t say nothing to no one. Never tell a soul what you know is the truth!” Great parenting. Tommy is four years old, and takes this to heart. This trauma rewires his brain so that he’s effectively blind, deaf, and dumb. He is effectively exiled from our existence. By the way, his sensory organs do still work: “His eyes can see, his ears can hear, his lips can speak.”

Exile is a common theme in many hero stories. The new King (paradigm shift) must be born, or bred, outside of the old Kingdom (status quo). Tommy is in his own world. He learns things outside our normal experiences. “Come on the amazing journey, and learn all you should know.” He is gaining wisdom beyond that of the material world – wisdom that must be spread and put to use in order to overthrow the status quo.

“I’m a Sensation!”

Carl Jung describes personality in terms of how we deal with the world. What information we allow ourselves, and what action we take based on it. This can be expressed with two pairs of opposite ideas:

  • Sensation vs. Intuition; and
  • Thinking vs. Feeling.

Sensation deals with hard evidence. If I see it it’s there. Intuition extrapolates from sensory data, drawing conclusions with ideas (and who knows where they come from, right? Some say they come from God!). Thinking and Feeling are pretty self-explanatory. The Cross is a symbol of balance. Christ achieves total balance. He “transcends all pairs of opposites”: heaven and hell, life and death, male and female, God and Man.

Tommy has now been deprived of his senses. He therefore, has only Intuition. He’s totally unbalanced! What can Intuition accomplish without actually processing any sensory data? Pinball.

“He’s a Pinball Wizard”

Tommy can do nothing but pick his nose, and play Pinball like a freaking genius. This is a driving plot element, as he becomes famous for playing Pinball.

Miracles are a staple of any Hero story. Jesus walked on water and healed the sick. These two are different kinds of miracles: the former is a metaphoric of the power of spirituality; the other is demonstrative of spiritual power. Miracles do happen in real life! as long as we consider “miracle” to mean a vast and sudden change from an undesirable to a desirable state brought on by an intense spiritual experience. Campbell makes this same assertion and felt no need to back it up so neither will I. But look it up, if you feel sceptical. Google exists. These miracles are psychological in nature. The power of the mind and spirit is amazing.

The miracle of Pinball is a psychological one as well. Tommy receives the sensory data of the pinball machine: where the ball is, how fast it’s moving. We have two agents, the flippers. Since his conscious mind is shut off, his subconscious mind, his intuition (“He plays by intuition”) can really shine. It provides his fingers with the perfect moment to hit the flippers, skipping all the complicated physics calculations. It’s okay, God will do the math.

This is called the Flow state by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The Flow state has been sought after by all of man kind forever. It is what life is all about. It is another definition for a spiritual experience. We can find it doing anything we love that challenges us and gives us a sense of control. We lose sense of time and of self. And it can be achieved through prayer, or meditation. It’s a direct line to God.

Intuition is the ability to see consequences. What is Pinball, if not a set of consequences? The paddle hits the ball, it flies off in a direction. Then it’s at the mercy of the bumpers, until it approaches the paddles again. What else is just a series of consequences? Why, Causality! the only thing that is really real in the whole of existence! Tommy is demonstrating that with spiritual enlightenment comes mastery over causality: the ability to manifest one’s own reality.

“Do I Smash the Mirror?”

Death & Rebirth are essential metaphors in Christianity as well as like everywhere else. What does it mean?

“Death” of a saviour figure symbolises the death of the old self before a spiritual ascension. Such an experience changes you so much, you are then “Reborn” as, effectively, a new person.

We can say Tommy dies when he loses touch with the world initially, in which case he is reborn when the mirror is smashed. We can say he dies when the mirror is smashed, and is reborn when he turns away his followers and forgives his family. Up to you! Either way, this is another Miracle, though not one executed by the “Messiah” himself. We could get into the Mother as Goddess, but… nah.

“Tommy’s Holiday Camp”

One of the big steps in Messiah figures like Buddha and Christ is overcoming temptations. Tommy spends two years, from 1958 to 1960, as the star attraction of Tommy’s Holiday Camp. The camp is a project spearheaded by his “Wicked Uncle Ernie” to sell merchandise and, well, Tommy. He gains hundreds – thousands – of supporters, fanatics, who come to watch him play Pinball.

He overcomes the temptation of fame, glory, and wealth. Turns out, his followers were not there for the amazing journey, but for the “I went on the Amazing Journey and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts. He gets mad at them all and bans them from his place. This is also like Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (“This place is sacred as a temple!”). Using organised religion for profit is bad! #moralofthestory

“The point is not for you to be more like me….”

An interesting meta-metaphor happens at this point. A little dialogue:

Sally: How can we be more like you?
Tommy: Why would you want to be more like me? For fifteen years I’ve been waiting for what you’ve already got.
Sally: What’s that?
Tommy: All this! In my dreams I was seeing it, hearing it, feeling it… those are the true miracles, and you’ve got them already!
Sally: I don’t understand.

Tommy’s continued failure to communicate his appreciation for the miracle of existence turns his followers away. This shows the futility of using literal language to define a spiritual experience. It is followed by people’s misinterpretation of their Messiah’s words. Look at the history of Christianity. The Capital-C-Church has warped the teachings of Jesus to scam believers from the word go. They promise entry to Heaven, for a fee.

Jesus says “I and the Father are one.” The Church says God, the Father, is so holy and so apart from us that Jesus must have been God as well. Then they say that everything in the Bible is Historical Fact, and Not to Be Refuted. Now Jesus, instead of being an example we can follow, is an idol with some nice words to live by. People are left believing things to be historical that are impossible. This leads to a global misunderstanding of metaphor. Well played, Church.

“Tommy can you see me?”

Come see Tommy. Come with an empty mind. Forget this whole post. Forget everything you know about Jesus or Buddha or Quetzalcoatl (if you knew anything about the feathered serpent to begin with, #respect). Just have your own experience. See what your heart says. Then follow it. That’s what Tommy would do.

I love you. Thank you for reading.

-T

Religious Metaphor: A Primer

Next week I will be discussing religious metaphor in Tommy and Rocky Horror; but right now I think it’s important we are on the same page about ‘metaphor’ in general.

Do you know who Joseph Campbell is? If so, give yourself a high-five. If not, get mentally prepared to have your consciousness expanded, and take one of his books out the library. Or if you have five minutes, watch this video.
Before I read Joseph Campbell, I have to admit I had little understanding of what a myth’s purpose was; what parts of religions were meant metaphorically; or how a metaphor even operates in normal life. I have had conflicting ideas about religion: that they are ‘historical facts’ bastardised into organised religion to control the masses; and that their aim was to communicate the mysteries of life. Okay! So I had one part of it right. Myths (and religions by extension) are there to explain otherwise uncommunicable ideas about our world, society, and selves.

All that I’ve learned from our regular school content and people around me failed to make me understand that, oh, Jesus was a dude who went through his own, totally unique, religious journey, and told us about it using metaphor: “I and the Father are one.” “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Some of us thought his journey was so important, they wrote some shit down that he said, so that other people may benefit from his wisdom. Fast forward 2,000 years. Now, we have two major camps: those who know that stuff in the Bible is not true, and those who believe it is. Atheists and followers. But the matter presented is neither factual nor false. It is a linguistic shadow play of great ideas existing on higher levels than our thoughts are capable of reaching. So who has it right?

Let’s take a step away from religion for a sec and just look at metaphors on their own. Why use them? We have simile, surely that should be enough. Here’s an example. Let’s say your business is dying and I want to tell you. I could say “Your business is dying.” Okay, so technically it’s a metaphor, but one that’s so common it’s barely one, since it has such practical connotations. It’s too easy for your pride to say “Pff, what do you know?” and disregard it. If I say, “Your business is like the last leaf on a tree in winter,” I have presented you with my opinion. I posit that this statement is true. You and your precious ego will refute it and say, “No I’m not!” and cling to the hope that you’ll remain on the tree all winter, and somehow be revitalised in the spring.

If I say, “You are the last leaf on the tree, and winter is coming,” it’s different. I’m not pretending it’s literally true. Your conscious mind can very easily say, “Well that’s rubbish, I’m not a leaf.” You stop thinking about it. But your subconscious is still considering that image. Wheels are turning. Maybe that night you have a dream about being a leaf, and feeling tremendous relief as you fall off the branch onto the ground, with your fallen brethren, and decompose, and in the spring, become grass, or absorbed once more by the tree, that you may blossom in time. You understand what I meant now. Your stubborn denial has melted. You close down or sell the business and start something new with the money you had left.

This is what religious metaphor attempts. Statements that are obviously nonrepresentational confound the conscious brain, allowing the subconscious mind to use images to focus your psychic energy on the mysterious connection present in all beings. Then, we may consider those images and obtain deep understanding of aspects of ourselves, our society, the interconnectedness of it all. In turn, we may eliminate some of the crushing doubts we have about life and lead a happier, saner life.

Next week I’ll talk about a couple of specific metaphors in Rocky Horror and Tommy, why we need them, and why they are so comparable to the gospels of Jesus.

Thanks for reading. Hope you’ll come back next week!
-T

Passion: the Eternal Strivance for our True Self

Failure has a bad rap. I have written about the power of words: how our perception of a word’s definition can actually change our behaviours and attitudes. See, people don’t want to fail. We want to win. So when we “Try” and don’t “Succeed”, we’ve “Failed.” We now have proof that we’re “bad” at something. If I got a low mark on a math test, it means I’m bad at math. Seems logical… except what if I just had a headache that day? What if I fell asleep while the teacher was explaining this unit? Maybe I’m actually great at math, just need a little more help on this unit, and I’ll be back on track. Remember, you are what you think you are. So if I take this “Failure” as proof I’m bad at math, guess what? Now I’m bad at math. Why am I even trying?

Good question. Why ARE you trying? What brought you here in the first place? I have tried on many occasions to skate. I have never been very good at it, and sure that attitude is part of the reason, and if I really put my mind to it I would get way better. But I don’t want to. I am perfectly happy being a mediocre skater. Someone wants to go skating, fine sure, I’ll come, but I’ll complain, and hold the glass, and try to get your attention when I’m doing something as simple as skating around the ice without falling on my ass.

We already know it takes many failures and corrections to do something right. What we spend our time failing at over and over and over makes us who we are. We are our Passions.

There is a cultural obsession with Passion. “You’re so passionate!” “Find your passion!” “I’m not really passionate about it….” For some, passion is something that happens to other people. “I’m just not a passionate person.” Then that person gets started on about Battlestar Galactica or something, and they won’t shut up about it. They watched every episode, twice, even the bad ones. They watched all the movies, read extended universe books, bought toys, went to cons, have selfies with half the cast…. It took time, dedication, and perseverance, to get to this point. It took Passion. Their passion for that franchise is part of their soul.

Passion is persistence. Passion is trying, “failing”, registering it, understanding why, and trying again, forever. Because there is no “success.” Or at least, its definition in this context is toxic.

James Altucher, who I discovered at the start of this week and is already one of my favourite people, says you can only really have success on a day-to-day basis. “Is today successful?” And you can measure that success however you want. I think it’s more like a feeling than anything. Do I feel good? Am I healthy? Did I get something done today, even a little something (relaxing is doing something productive for me, and I do it so rarely…)? Success is not “I have a bajillion dollars now,” or “I have a girlfriend,” or “I have a job.” It’s, “Today was a good day.” But enough about success. Let’s talk about coffee!

I love coffee. As I wrote this (the first time) I was at a restaurant which drew me in because it was called “Chillax”, drinking my 4th coffee. My stomach was not happy about it. The only reason I drank it was that they had a “Coffee Lab” using Hario’s Coffee Syphon. It looks like this:


It’s an incredible machine, and makes some of the best coffee imaginable, but it is incredibly complex and has a lot of margin for error. There are just so many variables! How hot is the water before it goes into the bottom chamber? What kind of burner am I using? How hot is the flame? When do I put the top chamber in? When do I plug the top chamber? How much coffee do I use? What kind, grind, roast? When did I grind it? When do I put it in? Once the water climbs up the tube into the top chamber with the coffee: how often and how do I stir and with what? How long do I leave it in?

I think I got most of them. So you can see it’s not a coffee machine for the mere dabbler. I have tried many times and produced a wide breadth of results. I almost always get coffee, but it’s not always good. But it’s getting better. And more consistent. And now I’ve watched a pro do it. For me it was worth it to have opportunity to watch that lady do her chemistry, even if it ended up costing me $11 in coffee and food that I didn’t need or even want. Because now (in about 10 minutes) when I make my coffee, it will be closer to “perfect”.

Maxwell Maltz, infinite font of wisdom, has this to say about the Self:

“No one ever succeeds during a lifetime in fully expressing or bringing into actuality all the potentialities of the Real Self. In our Actual, expressed Self, we never exhaust all the possibilities and powers of the Real Self. We can always learn more, perform better, behave better. The Actual Self is necessarily imperfect. Throughout life it is always moving toward an ideal goal, but never arriving. The Actual Self is not a static but a dynamic thing. It is never completed and final, but always in a state of growth.”

Sing it, sister. When we get down on ourselves for “Failing” or not “Being Perfect”, we just have to remember that no one in the history of all mankind has ever achieved that. Every Mozart, Kubrick, and Tesla also “Failed” to achieve their Real Selves. We reach to be the perfect Self we can, just as every piece of music is an attempt to achieve perfection in music. That struggle, that drive to be perfect, is what makes life so hard; the striving itself is what makes life beautiful.

I am going to keep making coffee with this machine because it is intensely satisfying. And when I make it now it will be way better than the coffee I had at Chillax because the beans I’m using kick ass. It won’t be the best coffee in the world. And that’s a good thing. Because if it were, the world would get boring real fast….