Fable of a Pinball Wizard

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May 19, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Chasing enlightenment is a fools’ errand.  It is a static state that people try to attain in an inherently chaotic and fluid world.  Every day we encounter scenarios, problems, and people that make it impossible to achieve a state of perfect harmony and self-disclosure.  Enlightenment is fictitious because it’s impossible.  Enlightenment is static and immovable when life, in both a micro and macro sense, is not.  There’s no guarantee that you’ll maintain that enlightened state from day to day, because there’s no guarantee that something won’t disrupt it.

There is a burning, unanswerable question that rages inside of us that will never be doused.  This question, whatever it may be, is the reason we will never, individually, be enlightened.  Like Tantalus in Hades, the solution to this question hangs over us, seductively out of reach.  The best we can hope for, is to understand a) what this specific question is, and b) what this question reveal about us.  We will never be able to answer it, but at least we can understand the question and isolate its value to glisten some modicum of revelation from.  We can never be enlightened because we will never have nothing left to learn.

Pete Townshend understands that searching for enlightenment is far greater folly than searching for the fountain of youth now more than he did back in 1969, when the Who recorded Tommy.  In the rock opera, the titular blind, deaf, and dumb, protagonist achieves a state of perfect enlightenment and soon thereafter becomes a messianic figure seeking to spread his teachings to all who will listen.  Strikingly similar to the climax of Ziggy Stardust, Tommy ends with Tommy being ripped asunder by his own legion of followers.  But, unlike in Bowie’s rock opera, Tommy is not consumed by his own excess, but instead by his own followers after they reject his teachings and rebel against him.  Not being able to handle being blindfolded, having their ears plugged and isolated save for a pinball machine, Tommy’s legion of followers soon reject this faux messiah because they disagree with his means of enlightenment.  After isolating myself musically from any other albums and songs save for Tommy for one week, I’ve finally deduced why Tommy’s followers rejected his teachings and proceeded to rend him limb from limb a la Lord of the Flies.

There are two ways of interpreting the climax and resolution of Tommy, as described in the final track on the album “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.  However you interpret it is completely reflective on whether or not you believe it’s possible to become enlightened.  There is the stoic construction, which is how Pete Townshend originally envisioned the ending to his rock opera, and then there is the cynical point of view, which is how Pete Townshend most likely sees it now.  The stoic understanding of Tommy adheres to the belief that Tommy did in fact attain true enlightenment and truly and sincerely tried to deliver his message to the masses.  The reason why he failed in this undertaking however, was for no other reason save for the stubborn hedonism of his disciples.  They were so seduced by sensual delights and vices such as sex, drugs and alcohol that they were truly blinded and deafened to the true path of epiphytic knowledge.  When offered a contrary lifestyle, they could not fathom it and in their stubbornly blinded fury they rip apart the bearer of such knowledge.  What worked for Tommy, sensual isolation and pinball, didn’t work for everyone else because the masses didn’t want it to.  The stoic understanding states that the truth is in fact out there, but most of us will never find it, even if it calls right to us.

The stoic construction is the way in which Pete Townshend understood the world to be at the time.  Truth and knowledge were out there, intuitively understood by a few (Meher Baba-personal guru to Townshend), but when presented to the masses as a whole it would inevitably be rejected and despised, because even if it were an objective truth, it was not the subjective truth, and would therefore be rebuffed on an individual basis.[1]  Even if it doesn’t work, there is, in theory at least, a universal truth that everyone can ascribe to.

Largely due to the failure of Lifehouse, the failed Who rock opera, Townshend had to discover first hand, and traumatically enough, that there is no such thing as a subjectively universal truth to which everyone can take part in.  What works for one person may not work for others.  It is this conclusion which is the focal point of the cynical understanding of Tommy.  According to the cynical construction, Tommy fails as a messiah because he has no idea what the fuck he’s talking about.  He’s just some kid who came out of catatonia, a catatonia induced from seeing his parents fuck, all because his mother smashed a mirror in front of him.  Overcoming a psychosomatic disability is hardly enough to warrant somebody as a guru or messiah.  Tommy fails as a messiah because he isn’t one, in fact he is a false prophet, somebody who tries to spread a false sense of salvation, all the while misleading his flock.  What worked for him didn’t work for anyone else because it wasn’t the universal truth; the disciples realized that and then rejected Tommy for purporting to be a messiah when he never was.  Akin to a great Greek tragedy, Tommy had to pay the ultimate price for his hubris.

Whatever the reason behind their dissent, and whatever school of thought you ascribe to, the common fact that bridges both understandings is the fact that Tommy introduced the masses to a different reality.  What segregates which camp you belong to is whether or not you think Tommy tried to proliferate the right reality.  Much like Plato’s allegory of the cave, Tommy was once in the cave, only to discover the real world.  Stoics will say that by forcing his disciples to live in seclusion he was bringing them out of the cave, while cynics will cling to the notion that Tommy was, unbeknownst to even himself, leading his followers back into the cave.[2]

Regardless of whether or not Tommy was introducing society to the correct path of enlightenment or not, he presented them with a new reality (or at the very least a new take on reality).  And much like the denizens of the cave, society rejected Tommy for making the masses question their own sense of reality.  Stoics will tell you that society could not comprehend the truth that Tommy brought to them, and in their obtuse frustration they shot the messenger.  Cynics, by contrast, will have you believe that Tommy failed in his quest because he either a) was not an enlightened individual in the first place or b) did not possess the knowledge for universal enlightenment-that even if he himself achieved perfect enlightenment, the path that led to his individual salvation, would not necessary provide the same results for someone else.  Either society did not want Tommy’s message, or Tommy had the wrong message to begin with.  The central question to this quandary is such: “Is Tommy murdered or is he martyred?”.

The trajectory of my feelings towards Tommy has taken three interesting turns.  When I first listened to the album, I was very skeptical and befuddled by the notion of a catatonic pinball wizard finding the path to enlightenment.  After giving the album a second chance a few years later, I was immediately enamored by it, to the point where I would have sided with the stoics.  Tommy was right all along, but everyone else couldn’t get the message because they didn’t want to.  His followers wanted something quick, easy, and gratifying.  They were to blame for not understanding, not having any patience or self-restraint, and ultimately for turning Tommy into a martyr.

After my week long musical isolation, I started to wonder what exactly made Tommy this new age guru.  What were his credentials, and why should anyone believe him?  In fact, for someone who was secluded from reality, he didn’t become “enlightened” until he re-entered the world of the seeing and hearing.  Prior to regaining his senses, he was just a local arcade savant, who overnight suddenly became a sensation and messiah for a new way of life.  It got me thinking that maybe the path to enlightenment came from embracing reality, not detaching yourself from everything and everyone.  Maybe that’s why everyone rejected him and his teachings of chastity and sobriety and pinball, because they are all metaphors for abstaining from humanity, something that can be just as detrimental as excess.  To gain enlightenment must you give up your humanity?  And if this is the case, wouldn’t that imply that human beings are innately disinclined from achieving enlightenment?  Tommy raises too many questions ranging from his beliefs, means of achieving a higher status, and a sturdy reason as to why we should believe him.  The fundamental basis for any belief system or code of morals lays in why we should believe in it.  Tommy never gives any reason as to why we should listen to him, and because of that no one does listen, and for the purported deafness of society, it is Tommy who is ultimately punished.

Pete Townshend always dreamed of creating a universal and musical form of nirvana that could touch everyone and raise everybody above.  After the failure of Lifehouse, he realized that this was impossible, but the why still lingered.  The one question that haunts Pete Townshend, and will continue to haunt him is “Why can’t I make music that will connect everyone and bring us all together into a musical enlightenment?”.  He knows he can’t but he doesn’t know why.  In 1969 he thought it was society’s fault, at this point, he’s most likely blaming the messenger (himself/Tommy) for his own inability to achieve what has easily become his life’s work since 1971.

As Trinity once said to Neo: “It’s the question that drives us” and if there are any truths on this planet, that is one of them.  It is all about the question, whatever it may be, and it is the pursuit of an answer to the question which will lead us to great heights and hopeless depths.  We will never find the answer, but every day of our lives that very question will drive us and push us, and hold us back.  I’m still trying to figure out what my question is, Pete Townshend figured out what his question is, and Tommy supposedly found the solution to his question, but the cost of that answer was his life.  Some will say the cost was worth it since he proved to be right, others will chide him for toting around the wrong answer, and claim that he deserved his fate for his misgivings.

Was Tommy right?  Whatever your answer is to Tommy’s philosophical conundrum, it’s the question that proves to be most important.  After all it always is.

 

[1] Kinda like the matrix.

[2] Plato’s allegory of the cave recounts how a member of a cave dwelling society becomes the first of his people to venture out of the cave and experience a new reality of sky, sun and seas.  However when he returns to the cave with news of this new reality he is quickly killed by the other cave dwellers for destroying their sense of reality.  No one cared whether or not the information was true, it was just that this information stood in stark contrast of their fundamental understanding of reality and life.

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