Friday, September 23, 2005

Get Back, or, What I Didn't Learn from the Beatles

This'yere's an old mewzin' (21 April 2002), a speck'a mah "juvenalia" as them college boys mahght call it, Ah figgered Ah may's well'a brought t'yer attantion (with a few mahnor ree'visions here'n'ther). Ah cayn't rahght r'member zackly what Ah wrote it foor, but it sands lahk an ill-fated an' overwrought college essay a'some sort. Yer thoughts'll olways fahnd a place bah this blog's log fahre.

The Beatles, all sitars and cryptic drug allusions aside, are known for love.[1] "Soldier of Love," "To Know Her is to Love Her," "Can't Buy Me Love," "All My Loving," "Love Me Do" - from the start the Beatles were bards of love, ready to arm the lovesick rocker with catchy tunes and sweet lyrics to serenade what"s her name again. Years later, the world was mesmerized, shocked and grieved all at once by the tragic end to John and Yoko's fabled love affair. Who hasn’t had "All You Need Is Love" ringing in the ears after hearing it? The Beatles were perhaps the most adored band to emerge from the decade of free love, and probably because they were that era’s clearest spokesmen. And that’s precisely where I fault them.

Actually, it was only recently that I began to see flaws in the Beatles' amorous euphony. The end, you might say, came at the end. The last track (excepting twenty seconds of "Her Majesty") of the Beatles last album, _Abbey Road_, is titled "The End." True to form, the Beatles said farewell to their fans with these famous lilting lines: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." For years I had sung along compliantly with this melodic apothegm. Arguably, no finer ethic could (or should) survive the twentieth century.

But one day, a dark thought filled my mind and dampened my voice. What if, in the end, all the love I can ever expect really *is* equal to the love I give? O, dismal thought! If their last words have the last word, the Beatles returned from India with as strong a faith in karma as they did in sitar accompaniment, for according to this last lyric, karma wins. You get *only* what you give. *Only* what goes around comes around. Love is a closed system with no slack on either end; a stagnant pool; a perfectly tabulated account. No matter how prosaic or melodic, this idea of "karmic love," strikes me as lethally cold. If I had to whittle the Beatles' karmic love to its essence it would be this: Love = Love, hence, Effort = Reward. At bottom, beneath the saccharine frosting of groovy feelings, I heard the Beatles saying in no uncertain terms that love, in the end, is a hard-won treasure in an arid, flinty world. And that is precisely where I diverge from the Beatles.

Of course the Beatles were not rogue bards. Their hermetically sealed view of love is and was typical of their era. For example, what are we to make of the idea of "free love"? Superficially it conveys a giddy abundance of love. Love, it cheers, cannot be bought or sold if it is everywhere. This is a sort of erotic socialism: all is owned and all is shared. There can be no private, legal sex, since there is only public, free love. What's mine is yours, including our share of love. The problem with erotic socialism is that it cheapens the hard work of true good lovin'. True love must always outlast and outdo the parsimonious equal sign of a failure in love. True love must persevere in spite of conflict, or it is merely mindless, ephemeral attraction. Generosity is a petty pacification of beggars when strewn indiscriminately from the larders of luxury. True generosity, by contrast, is a willful, perhaps even painful, sharing of limited resources. Love always binds the lover. Love always costs the lover. Free love is a lie because love is never free. As Jesus said, "This is love: to lay down one's life for your friends."

The basic cause of the Beatles' representative ethical error is the rejection of grace as an operative principle in human life. It's no secret that the 60s were a time of moral revolution and rejection, particularly against Christian values and conceptions (such as law, duty, grace, truth, etc.). Notably, of course, to the horror of conservatives, this revolution burst forth as sexual promiscuity, civil disobedience and drug abuse. But beneath this "naughtiness" lay a festering, burning rejection of grace, which not even conservatives can claim to be free from. Contrary to the narrow fears of the conservative counterstrike, the 1960s were not primarily about "breaking the rules" (i.e., of the Bible and/or of society), but breaking the back of the *spirit* of those rules, namely, grace.

Over against the crude, heretical arithmetic of the Beatles’ karmic love – is there anything more sterile than an = sign? - the Bible stamps a resplendent + sign on our world. Love does not equal love. Love-plus equals love! Grace equals love! Grace means that, in the end, we have been given more than we can ever give. We have been loved longer and more passionately than we could ever muster (or dare) to show on our side of the karmic = sign. Common grace assures us that, despite appearances, *we are always better off* than we deserve. According to the Gospel, in the beginning, in middle and in the end, the love you take infinitely outweighs the love you make. As the Beatles (nearly) crooned, "To know this is to love Him."

[1] Yet, sadly, I once heard John Lennon's son speak in an interview about how hard it was growing up while his dad sang so much about love onstage but showed so little at home.

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