Every so often my mother sends me a cute video on Whatsapp. This morning she sent me an illustrated video of the secular humanist utopian leftist classic anthem, Imagine. In true John and Yoko fashion, my girlfriend and I spent the morning in bed discussing the philosophical assumptions and implications of Yoko’s lyrics.
I love Imagine. And I love Give Peace a Chance (especially because my teenage blissed out Whirl-y-Gig nights high on peace and love, DJ Monkey Pilot’s tunes, beautiful people, the parachute light show and a sprinkling of Ecstasy and Acid often ended with an emotional rendition of it.) Imagine is a great tune with an inspiring vision of the world as One. It is also a brilliant example of how confused hippy idealism really is.
John and Yoko ask us to imagine a paradise with no divisions of any kind, political, religious or economic. The attractiveness of this vision should be obvious. With the dividing lines removed, there would be no reason to judge or persecute one another and we would all live together in love, peace and harmony.
The song is a reminder that beyond all these man-made, socially constructed identities and institutions, we are all ultimately the same, all ultimately made “in the image of God”, a lovely mystical vision of unitive non-duality. As such, in the Imaginal, this is a beautiful spiritual hymn or kirtan. Advaita Vedantists would instantly recognise the technique of neti, neti (not this, not this) used in meditation to transcend all illusory separation and division. The Christian mystics of the apophatic tradition (the Negative Way) would also have no trouble with this.
But there is an important difference between neti, neti and anti, anti. The former is a spiritual realization of the ultimate illusoriness of all contingent distinctions and definitions, whereas the latter is the desire to literally destroy them. Consider how these lines from the song can be taken either way:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
What would no countries, no religion and no possessions literally be like? Taken out of the rosy context of John and Yoko’s utopian hippy haze, this actually sounds pretty bleak. As Thomas Hobbes put it, “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The only way it could conceivably represent a positive state of affairs would be if manna continuously fell from heaven and everyone was unfailingly helpful, kind, good-natured, cooperative, cheerful, generous and on a permanent natural high. In other words, if we were all basically gods in heaven.
But we’re not allowed to imagine gods in heaven, because this utopian vision is about ordinary people with their feet of clay firmly planted on the earth:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
In the Imaginal (in dreams, in Jung’s “Active Imagination” and on psychedelics for example) we can fly up to heaven and descend into the underworld. The Imaginal connects us to a vertical dimension of existence, what I call The Ray of Creation (Amun, Ra, Atum, Ka, Ba, Gaia, Jah). John and Yoko, faithful to the secular humanist creed, are asking us to imagine a world without this vertical dimension of the imagination. Everything is collapsed to the human (hence humanist) level, Ba.
Ba represents the social level of existence (Mind). Below it is Ka, the cellular, organic level (Life). Below that is Atum, the atomic, material level (Matter). Below that is Ra, the energetic level (Energy) and below that is Amun, the pregnant void (Emptiness). These are the levels we traverse in the Imaginal through “descent into the underworld” as we regress in our ontogenetic evolution. Unless you are a well-trained shaman, these level are experienced by the human ego as hell. Beyond Ba in the Ray of Creation are Gaia and Jah, representing the transcendent unity of the Earth and the Universe respectively. Ascent to these level is experienced as heaven, but it goes without saying that only well-trained mystics are capable of sufficiently transcending their personal egos to reach it.
The Ray of Creation can be visualized as a vertical line connecting all levels of existence. We tend to spend most of our time at the fifth level, the mental-social level, Ba. So much so that we can draw a horizontal line at Ba to represent the social world of human culture in which we are embedded. What we end up with is the classical Christian cross with a longer vertical line and a shorter horizontal line about three-quarters of the way up (actually five-sevenths). If you map this onto the human body, with each of the seven levels of the Ray of Creation associated with one of the seven chakras, you get the horizontal at the throat chakra, approximately at the level of your outstretched arms.
The secular humanist invitation is to imagine that there is no heaven above us (only sky) and no hell below us (only earth). In other words, no vertical dimension to reality. I began by pointing out that on a generous reading, the song Imagine is in the tradition of spiritual Remembering (Sati). It helps us to remember our basic unity and “brotherhood”. This is, of course, achieved through words and music, just like any other re-ligious (re-membering) song. However, unlike ordinary religious songs, and unlike religion in general, which reminds us to reconnect with the vertical dimension of existence, this song is encouraging us to disconnect from it.
Imagine there is no heaven or hell. There is no vertical. There is only the horizontal. There is only humanity. Imagine there is no religion. There are no reminders of the vertical. We would eventually forget about the vertical dimension completely. This is the secular humanist dream. What a relief! If above us there is only sky, then hey, we are the tops, we are “homo deus”, and no-one can tell us what to do. And we don’t need to feel guilty about being disconnected to stuff that doesn’t exist anyway.
John and Yoko were in love. And they were rich and famous. And they were brilliant artists. And they had an unlimited supply of psychedelic drugs. And they had a beautiful apartment in downtown Manhattan. They had a powerful connection to the Source of light, love and energy. Take away all that (neti, neti), and take away the connection, and what’s left? A depressed ego in a depressing world. The come down is a horizontal Flat Land where the powers that be, the institutions of Church and State and Capitalism (imagine no religion, countries or possessions) dominate and oppress a wilting population of wannabe Rousseauian noble savages who just want to be free.
When you get rid of the vertical, when you dissociate from the True Source of divine life and energy, you begin to hate everything related to the vertical, even seeing it as the ultimate source of social oppression (hence the prevalence of “misotheism”), but you also begin to hate the horizontal. You begin to see it as a fallen, corrupt world, as “Babylon”. I call this Ba-Babylon, since Ba dissociated from the rest of the Ray of Creation is a dystopian nightmare of disembodied, disenchanted, intertextual postmodern memes whose only real purpose is to clothe and disguise the naked machinations of will-to-power, class war and identity politics.
So what is John and Yoko’s solution? Get rid of the horizontal as well! Get rid of human culture altogether! Burn it all down! Let’s all go back to the simple paradise of a mythical prelapsarian Eden. And so neti, neti morphs into anti, anti. If Yoko Ono had the political clout of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, might she have spearheaded a similar Cultural Revolution in the West? As it is, her hymn to the hippy revolution is anti-religious, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, in other words, Trotskyist.
The irony is that once you have done away with both the vertical and the horizontal, all you are left with is a single point, the zero dimensional point of atomised individualism. We become isolated and dissociated monads in a meaningless universe, redeemed only by a vague dream of a future International Socialist Brotherhood of Man. In the meantime, of course, we consume our way out of despair, falling over and over again into the welcoming arms of the Capitalists.
Then again, maybe John and Yoko will have the last laugh. Maybe a New World Order with no heaven or hell, no imagination, no religion, no countries, no possessions, no culture, no arts, no letters, is in the offing. Maybe we are in fact building a Brave New World, beginning with a Great Reset, where you will “own nothing and be happy”. Imagine!