On sin, love, and the Grateful Dead

I read this fine article on love and the Grateful Dead this morning and it occasioned the following reflection:

Though this may seem odd to some, I think the Lennon song “Imagine” is one of the stupidest songs ever written.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the Beatles.  But they, and Lennon in particular, routinely imagine a love wholly disconnected from truth, wholly disconnected from the real human condition.  They ignore realities like sin, bonds, family, the irreducible longing for the transcendent.  Their love is sentimentalist and naive and, as a result, is actually destructive.  It is, in the end, a profoundly inhumane love; being disconnected from the actual human condition it reduces us to feelings rather than edifying us in our condition.  It is a fantasy, in the worst sense of that word.  Our contemporary understanding of love is almost entirely infected with this sentimental naiveté.    It is why we say we ignore basic metaphysical facts – like sexual difference and complementarity – and the profound need for overcoming and finding a way to love (rather than understanding love as mere desire satisfaction).  Our sentimentalist love traps us inside ourselves rather than calling us out of our selves.

The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, almost always “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).  They are not naive about sin and brokenness, and as a result genuinely understand love and hope.  It is not an accident, since this deep understanding of the human lot appears in so many of their songs.  The article linked above does an excellent job of unpacking this in a number of Grateful Dead songs (Wharf Rat, Loser, Friend of the Devil, Me and My Uncle, Mexicali Blues, Jack Straw, etc).

Here is one way to frame the difference:

When Imagine expresses regrets, it regrets that others are unable to be as enlightened as Lennon.  He hopes that someday you will “join us” – the enlightened few – so the world can be better.  Obviously Lennon was a profound hypocrite, calling for others to live a life of no possessions while he had an estate worth something close to a billion dollars at the time of his death and lived in the lap of luxury in New York.  I don’t mean to be harsh – we are all hypocrites.  But to live anything resembling an examined life is to know and admit that we are hypocrites.  So it is not his hypocrisy that is the problem, it is the lack of sin consciousness that is the problem.  Of course progressive love denies sin entirely, so it is not surprising that there is no sin consciousness in its anthem.  The impulse is to blame the mote in the eye of the other while ignoring the plank in one’s own.

Of course if we really do imagine what Lennon asks us to imagine – no families, no culture, no countries, no possessions – we should know the result – chaos, ill-mannered, if not violent, and illiterate children with no mothers and fathers to love and form them, no sense of moral obligation to others or to the future (we all would live only for today), no one really connected to any value (nothing to die for).  “A brotherhood of man” which would invariably a dictatorship of relativism, the abolition of man.

Compare this to the Dead.  Let’s take Wharf Rat, as an example (lyrics here).  After spending half of his life doing time (half-heartedly blaming others for his bad life, “some other fuckers crime”), the other half spent drunk on burgundy wine, our sinner named August West says: “But I’ll get back on my feet again someday.  The good Lord willin’, if He says I may.  I know that the life I’m livin’s no good, I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.”

That deep experience of sin and regret, viewed in contrast with a real moral law, is a condition for the possibility of redemption, hope and love.  The song itself expresses an act of love, in that the person hearing the story (a fellow sinner, we can surmise, who doesn’t even have a dime), has time to listen to his story.  Is there any greater act of love?  And Dead songs routinely speak to the family, often in its – and particularly the mother’s – disappointment.  But it is the bond to family and God that keeps the sinners in a condition of possible redemption.  It is, rather naturally, in our mothers and fathers and our faith that we have developed in us a moral sense.

Of course even redemption is somewhat problematized in the song.  August West is still trapped in a sort of rebellion, loving things in the world (Pearly) more than his Maker, who he declares to be “no friend of mine” (note his internal tension with God, however, who he calls “the good Lord” later in the song).  And yet listeners of the song know that his hope for redemption in temporal things (Pearly) is sure to be disappointed.  No one believes that Pearly has been true to him.  And the young man who hears the story commits a self-deciet in convincing himself that his girl, Bonnie Lee, has been true to him.  Of course those listening to the song know better, for we know Pearly and Bonnie Lee are sinners too.  What August West needed was someone who believed in him (the mark of his downfall is when Pearly believed what everyone was saying – that he’d come to no good).  What August West needed was some capacity to be more than he could be on his own.  While the Dead plainly do not make this move (though I think they routinely gesture toward it), a Christian  like myself would of course suggest that what he needed was the grace of Christ.  If you’ve ever heard Martin Luther King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon (truly great), what August West needs – what we need – is not to abandon our desire to be good and to be recognized as such (Lennon’s prescription, noting the irony that he prescribes this while being totally self-righteous).  What he needs is the grace to be able to be good and be recognized for love.  The answer is not to “get up and fly away”, but to convert and reform.  Sadly, like most of us sinners, he keeps looking for redemption in the wrong places, and routinely confuses redemption for escape (flying away, which he has already been doing by spending half of his life drunk).

Those Wharf Rat lyrics resonate with every human person who is the least bit honest with themselves. Sadly, we struggle to be so self-honest.  I am teaching a course on Lewis and Tolkien this term, and yesterday we discussed The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe.  I was quite surprised that most students reported that they resonated the most with Lucy, Peter, Susan, perhaps the Beaver family.  Can’t they see that we are all Edmunds?  The Dead had no illusions about this, they know we are Edmund and as a result know what real love is.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
This entry was posted in Catholic thought/religion/culture, Philosophy, Polis (politics, culture). Bookmark the permalink.

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