MOURNING HAS BROKEN: “Mother” & Wedded to Distortion

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live….Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative… ( Oscar Wilde )

The more justification there is for a grievance, the more dangerous it can be. Perhaps the human attachment to suffering is the biggest dependency of all. The path of least resistance is identifying with pain and producing intentional suffering in accordance with expectations. The song  sounds a bit  funereal. Like a prologue to the day of judgement.  lyrically, the tone is that of an indictment. Enough abstraction and hint of legalese to summon Kafka; Except for the emotion in John Lennon’s verse, one could imagine a clerk of the court reading them, methodically plodding on. And who does it indict? Lennon’s parents, of course, but equally, also himself.  His singing of the opening word of each verse – Mother! Father! Children! – sounds more like deep mythology where the spirits spoke  across great distances

Philip Norman:So Lennon’s view of the past had become garbled, and he seemed to be wedded to the distortion. When we are subject to this distortion, we can remember mostly those incidents which fit the twisted world-picture.

You had me,
But I never had you.
I wanted you.
You didn’t want me.
So I,
I just got to tell you:

…A day after his mother’s death in 1977, Roland Barthes began writing this “mourning diary” and kept it up for two years. The following year, soon after completing Camera Lucida, he died himself (suddenly, in a traffic accident). Barthes was one of the most widely read and influential of the 20th century’s French maitre a penser, as much an intellectual celebrity as his contemporaries Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Like them, he influenced structuralism, semiotics and post-structuralism, as well as literary and cultural theory….

Barthes:June 9, 1978. This morning, walking through Saint-Sulpice, whose simple architectural vault delights me; to be in architecture – I sit down for a moment; a sort of instinctive prayer: that I finish the Photo-Maman book. And then I notice that I am always asking for something, wanting something, always pulled ahead by childish Desire. One day, to sit in the same place, to close my eyes and ask for nothing … Nietzsche: not to pray, to bless. Is it not to this that mourning should lead?

It is an axiom that if we are aiming for conscious growth, then we must work at  becoming more loving, and this will mean,to reconcile the contradictions and find a tolerable way to  love our parents at a profound and meaningful level. Complementary to this is the idea that until we can find love in that relationship. However,  passion and obsession mixed with appreciation and esteem in varying degrees  seems to be our lot, and a sorry lot it often is, being that passion is assumed to be an acceptable and artificial substitute for what could pass as love.

"In Nowhere Boy the concept of parenthood is discussed in a sober way, offering no easy answers to the question of who was the rightful parent or guardian of John Lennon. Was it his estranged father, whom John himself picked once when he was five and cruelly made to choose between his parents? Was it his mother who had every bit as much spunk and love of music as her son, but who was mentally unstable? Was it his proper and stable, but cold and narrow-minded aunt Mimi? Or maybe John lost his only chance at having a good parent at 14 when his loving uncle George, Mimi’s husband, passed away?"

You left me.
I never left you.
I needed you so bad.
You didn’t need me.
So I,
I just got to tell you:

In “Mother” all artifice, all glossy surfaces, are sanded back, and the heart, the raw matter of life is presented through the vehicle of an art so perfectly mastered as to appear artless. On this album, Lennon means and does business. Yet, it is also the moment of  confronting contradictions and some hypocrisy or at least borad inconsistencies; A form of signal failure  for Lennon to live up to his own standards.

…These assembled notes, originally written on index card-sized slips of paper, reveal his deep distress through his careful consideration of his feelings, much in the same way he contemplated the external world of popular culture and French literature. Yet the brevity of the entries — some are only a few words long, only two are longer th

single page — and their intimacy set them apart from his more public work….

Mother. what does that word mean to you? “Mother” is perhaps the most harrowing song Lennon ever recorded, and one of the most harrowing pieces of popular music as well.  There is  something confronting about its stark title: it isn’t “Mother, You Had Me”, or “Goodbye, Mother” or “My Mother”. It’s just plain “Mother”; a mute, open ended challenge of primal reality opposed to subjectivity.

With nothing but a single words, Lennon evokes divinity, a parent, a terrifying state of existence, a poignant faculty of the
psyche, and the most powerful feeling-impulse we know. This is a  song, and a  record of essential experiences.

"...the movie manages to make some interesting statements about parenthood, telling the story of the emotional traumas that arguably inspired the distinct dark notes of Lennon oeuvre in songs. Before seeing the movie, I had read somewhere that Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird had been credited as a co-writer, and this worried me a little, as Baird has tended in recent years to depict Lennon’s aunt and guardian Mimi as an evil woman who selfishly took away John from his suffering mother."

Don’t do what I have done.
I couldn’t walk,
And I tried to run.
So I,
I just got to tell you:

…This is a portrait of an unusually close relationship between a mother and son. Barthes lived with his mother until her death, and his relentless mourning slides perceptibly into a full depression in these pages. The depth of his feeling matches what we usually expect in the case of the early passing of a lover, not a parent. The creepiness of it is latent right from the diary’s first entry: “First wedding night. But first mourning night?” and then the second: “You have never known a woman’s body! / I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.” … ( Basilieres)

Mother. Our relationships with our parents are always in flux, even after they have died. Nothing seems to remain static for very long: not how we feel towards them, not what we think of them, not our dominant memories, and not our overall assessments of them. And it must be so,or at least it has always been because our relationship with our parents is essential and unavoidable, and as long we change, so will that relationship.  When we speak about Lennon’s , his mother Julia and his father Fred, the issue of the distortion which seems to inevitably affect our memories of our parents becomes central. But as Lennon realized, one cannot love while we are subject to these distortions, irrespective of whether they are “favorable” or “unfavorable” distortions.

Aziz:When I read Janov’s The Primal Scream, I was impressed by certain key insights, but that was it. It struck me like having a black-tie supper to celebrate painting the house. I’m not qualified to speak about Janov’s therapy on Lennon, although I am suspicious. Lennon was quite enthusiastic about it for a while. He had Janov come to England to treat him, and when Janov had to return to the USA, he followed him there. Although he soon left Janov rather abruptly, he retained a sense of the importance of Janov’s ideas, at least for a while.

Mamma don’t go!
Daddy come home!
Mamma don’t go! Daddy come home!

Another feature of the song is its extreme economy with words. Even when Lennon sings: “I just got to tell you, goodbye”, he’s being
minimalist. He means that he has to say it, and that’s all there is to say. He’s driven to impose finality, a closure which seemingly is not attainable. No finality. No resolution. After the prose of the verses bidding farewell to mother, father and children, Lennon yells: “Don’t go! Come back!” It’s both a goodbye and a come back. Can we be in both places at once.  His mind and his heart sing that he has to take his leave, and move on. But his feelings scream that he wants more of them, not less. The song’s minimalist structure is made by this tension between the two poles of departure and return, burying and retrieving the past. The tension cannot be maintained in life, but only in the song.

NYT:“Mourning Diary” feels like a first draft: it has repetitions, ambiguous passages and even (as Barthes admits) emotional banalities. But this book’s unvarnished quality is the source of its wrecking cumulative power. Barthes’s ironic intellect, apparent everywhere in his many books, is wrapped here around his sore and nakedly beating heart.

…Only a few days after her passing, he notes, “The desires I had before her death … can no longer be fulfilled, for that would mean it is her death that allows me to fulfill them ….” And five months later, he’s still marking time by reference to her: “First illness since maman’s death,” and still sick at her loss: “This morning, thought continually of maman. Nauseous sadness.” All this conflation of the carnal with the maternal doesn’t, of course, suggest any manifest impropriety, but it does signal unusual experience….( Basilieres)

"Janov’s idea that childbirth was causative of later disorders may then seem persuasive beyond what any evidence would warrant, simply any later conditions or factors can be explained as derived from, or being potent because of, the earlier problem – and it is difficult to prove the hypothesis wrong."

In the third verse he accepts that he is a failure as a parent, and can do nothing more constructive than to warn his “children” not to
follow his example; who are exonerated from the grief and guilt. This verse is related to the rest of the song. There is a hope that the children may succeed where Lennon and his parents have not. Lennon tells the children to learn from the pitiful examples before them, and to this end, he’s prepared to let us see that he had never recovered from his painful childhood. Was Lennon running away from his parents because he was running after them?  Both the gift and the curse of being born and the disappointment of meeting the demands of their parents emotional needs. So, Lennon warned the children, and showed them where the dangers are. Of course, we are the children, and so too,  was Lennon. After all, he did try again with Julian and later with Sean.

Objectively, the hypocrisy is that at the time Lennon wrote “Mother” he had a child, and had run out on him. Lennon could have done more for and with his son, but it appears that, for reasons known only to himself, ostensibly selfish motives, he could dump the responsibility on Cynthia with a clear conscience and nourish his own self-centeredness.Perhaps its related to the expression “The act of creating life where once there was none, is the most selfish of all acts; for it arises from a desire in oneself, and forces life upon another being without request.” Or,  instead the view  that by not creating we were being selfish? There can be no more selfish an act than propagating one’s genes, as genes are the most fundamental essence of the physical self. At the same time it may be selfish not to propagate. There is no definitive answer.

Aziz:Lennon tried to move on. But primal therapy did not seem to help him tremendously in the middle term, if Lennon’s experiences in Los Angeles are any guide. Shouldering the responsibility of raising a child, however, did: it brought him to the clear-eyed sanity of “Beautiful Boy”, “Clean Up Time”, “Living On Borrowed Time” and “Grow Old With Me”.

…Although Barthes continued to work and write while making these notes, there’s little mention of his day-to-day life here. The Mourning Diary was a separate project, devoted solely to the enduring sense of his loss. There’s no indication that his pain recedes over time, although he does note the calming of his emotions. One wonders, then, if this depression followed him to the end of his life not long after….

Selfishness seems to be the danger Lennon was referring to.  Lennon was pointing to a state  where there are almost no bounds to our
selfishness, and yet, once we have risen above it, selfishness seems to lose its magnetic force. A case of “once overcome, forever vanquished?”.Or  is this  the real me, the essential I, making a sacrifice,and allowing personalityto enter stage left  and claim credit. Almost inevitably,personality claims its “due reward, ” It speaks a language of entitlement; a demand for gratitude and recognition.
A requirement of reciprocation   is  a commercial bazaar, a flea market  in the expression of affection; The mark of the Beast that  devours up everything real with selfishness. Lennon was touching this theme that love can become mixed in our psyches by an emotional entanglement. The mother’s love is forever being offered, and then withdrawn if her prior unstated conditions are not met.

Its most plausible that “Mother” is entirely founded on Lennon’s belief that his parents should not have left him. Where the rubber hit the road, the matter was not so much that Fred Lennon ran out on Lennon, it’s more that Fred could not summon the necessary strength to meet the challenge. “just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen”, as Bernie Taupin said of Elton John in “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”? ( Philip Norman )

George Konig photo. MORE: Please tell us about your experience remastering John’s solo work for the reissues. How did you feel listening to all that music again, with fresh ears? YOKO ONO: Again I realized that he was an incredible talent. Well, that is no surprise. But what I noticed this time very strongly was his remarkable diction. We call the ’60s rock "classic rock," as opposed to today’s world music and electronic music. His music was definitely the best of classic rock. And the way he expressed himself matched it. I felt strongly that he was the Shakespeare of our time.

I never realized the passing hours
Of evening showers,
A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams.
I’m strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen.
It’s four-o-clock in the morning
Damn it!
Listen to me good.
I’m sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank God my music is still alive. ( Someone Saved My Life Tonight)

Here the queen was probably Lennon’s Aunt Mimi more than his mother Julia. But like any story there are many sides….

…Mourning Diary is fascinating as a precursor to his last work, though, by itself, it stands as a monument to Barthes’ sensitivity to experience and any meaning to be drawn from it. Anyone who has suffered depression will experience the shock of recognition in these pages. Indeed, some entries seem more like poetry than reminders. It has the narrative drive of the best literature; it is thoughtful, beautiful and fluid, delivering what Barthes himself famously called, “the pleasure of the text.”… ( Basilieres )


Dwight Garner: “Mourning Diary,” like nearly all of Barthes’s books, is a collection of beginnings, of fugitive and conjectural observations that lap over one another and push forward like successive waves onto a beach. The first page reads, in its entirety: “First wedding night. But first mourning night?”

The second page is a bit more dramatic. “You have never known a Woman’s body!” an internal voice shouts. (Barthes was gay.) The response: “I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.”

“Mourning Diary” eases into a rhythm, as Barthes settles into the routines of his grieving. Among his central observations is that he enjoys the loneliness of his suffering. (Few books have better borne out Faulkner’s observation that “given a choice between grief and nothing I will take grief.”) “It’s when we’re busy, distracted, sought out, exteriorized, that we suffer most,” Barthes notes. “Inwardness, calm, solitude make us less miserable.”

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