John Lennon first came to me in a dream. To call my experience a dream seems somehow tame, but to go as far as to call the dream a vision feels almost extreme. More than a dream, less than a vision, then, somewhere in that in-between twilight world where reality and unreality merge. The dream came in the spring of 1995; prior to this I had never given John Lennon much thought except as far as he was the leader of the Beatles and that he had died a long time back, but even then the Beatles were some abstract thing, set far off in the distant past, a past to which I had no access and could barely understand. The dream was impossible, to describe it would be improbable, to say that what I experienced amounted to an almost religious conversion offends my liberal atheist sensibilities, and yet such a description describes well my shift in tone and attitude towards life. Within days I owned every John Lennon album I could find, within weeks I had immersed myself in Lennon-ology to the point where I had forgotten more of Lennon than most people ever know. John Lennon very much became a spiritual father to me, albeit one that I would never, could never, meet and tell him what he had meant to me.
John Lennon was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940, grew up under the supervision of his Aunt Mimi, and formed a band named the Quarry Men in 1956. This band, after several member shake-ups, metamorphosed into the Beatles in 1960 with a line-up consisting of Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best. By 1962 Sutcliffe had left the band to pursue a career in art, while Best was ousted and replaced with an experienced drummer named Ringo Starr. This new line-up came to the attention of George Martin at Parlophone Records in London who signed the band to a recording contract in the summer of 1962 and by winter England and Europe found themselves engulfed in what is commonly called “Beatlemania.” In the spring of 1964 the Beatles made the Trans-Atlantic leap and conquered the United States, sparking the British Invasion of musical groups and redefining the world of popular music. The Beatles ceased touring in 1966 and afterwards focused upon studio recording, beginning with 1967’s magnificent Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Successive albums showed marked creativity, but also greater divisiveness within the group; almost concurrent with the release of Let It Be in 1970 the Beatles announced a split and the four Beatles began working independantly. Lennon had been active separately from the Beatles prior to their split, produced three albums of experimental music with Yoko Ono, his lover and wife, then produced several singles such as Give Peace A Chance, Cold Turkey which referenced his heroin addiction (Coleman, 552), and Instant Karma. Albums released in the post-Beatles period included Plastic Ono Band, a response to the Primal Scream therapy he underwent with Arthur Janov (Coleman, 557), Imagine, his best known album, and Double Fantasy, the last album recorded before his death. He was murdered on December 8, 1980, shot to death by a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman. Lennon was cremated; the location of his ashes remains unknown to this day.
What can personality theory tell us of John Lennon? To analyze Lennon’s behavior, I have chosen two different personality theories, Erich Fromm’s Humanistic Psychoanalysis, and Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology. Fromm’s psychology is based upon the idea that modern human beings are disconnected from society and nature and that human life is part of a struggle to reconnect with others and the natural world and return to ancient patterns. Jung’s psychology also goes toward ancient patterns, but his view is that humanity has a collective unconscious, essentially a racial memory of archetypes through which we experience the world.
Erich Fromm’s theory recognized three types of human neuroses: necrophilia, a general interest in death; malignant narcissism, an inflated opinion of one’s one body and a denigrating opinion of others’; and incestuous symbiosis, the need for a dominating mother figure in one’s life. John Lennon exhibited all three of these neurotic qualities to some degree, a combination that Fromm called the syndrome of decay. While Fromm applied this analysis to Adolf Hitler, I do not state that Lennon was the mental neurotic equivalent of Hitler. While Lennon did once make the comment “We’re all Jesus and we’re all Hitler,” I have always interpreted this quote as meaning that everyone carried the potential for both good and evil within, and that a struggle existed between the two.
John Lennon exhibited an interest in death for his entire life. This may stem from the way that death touched his life from almost the beginning of his life; his uncle George Smith died when Lennon was fifteen, his mother Julia was killed by an off-duty police officer who hit her with his car, his best friend Stu died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 after leaving the Beatles to pursue an art career in Hamburg, Germany. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, committed suicide in 1967, and Lennon may have been responsible for the “Paul Is Dead Hoax,” a series of bizarre clues that surfaced in the Beatles’ songs that suggested that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by an imposter. Excepting the “Paul Is Dead” theory, these important figures in John’s life were all taken from him by death, and this fueled a fascination with and fear of death. One of Lennon’s greatest fears was of cremation, he feared cremation so much that he considered writing a protest song against the procedure (Goldman, 690). Lennon, though he did display an interest in death, wasn’t totally consumed by such an interest, and Fromm would likely not consider Lennon’s interest to be neurotic.
John Lennon grew up a sickly child, and displayed an interest in cripples and deformities. His notebooks were filled with jottings and sketches of children and adults, twisted and contorted into bizarre shapes. Ray Coleman writes that when John entered art college, “He quickly developed a bizarre obsession for cripples, spastics, any human deformities, and people on crutches. He had a particular fascination for warts. It was a subject that was to manifest itself throughout John Lennon’s years of fame” (70). While Lennon was obsessed with deformities, he himself suffered from near-sightedness and was forced to wear thick glasses. Lennon’s self-image as a rock-and-roll star, however, wouldn’t permit him to wear the glasses, and his eyesight deteriorated because of Lennon’s refusal. “[W]earing specs was a sign of weakness. Just as he did not want to see crutches or wheelchairs without laughing, John wouldn’t want to be laughed at. So, he very rarely wore his specs, even though the black horn-rimmed style was a copy of his beloved Buddy Holly” (Coleman, 178). Here Lennon is clearly behaving outside the societal mainstream, and Fromm might label Lennon’s behavior toward cripples as neurotic.
When dealing with incestuous symbiosis we have the greatest example of how Erich Fromm might have labeled John Lennon a neurotic. Lennon’s mother gave John to her sister Mimi to raise while she married a man other than Lennon’s father and gave birth to two daughters, one of whom was given up for adoption in Norway. Lennon’s father, Alfred, belonged to the Merchant Marine, but proved to be something of a failure in life and disappeared from John’s life until the late 1960s. Lennon grew up, then, under the care of his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi, while his mother Julia acted more as an older sister than as a mother towards Lennon. This caused a conflicted relationship with mother-figures, one that became more pronounced with his mother’s accidental death. Aunt Mimi, as she had always been the mother figure, raised John in a stern manner, and it was against Mimi that John rebelled during his teenage years. Ray Coleman writes in his biography of Lennon: “‘I think,’ says Yoko Ono, ‘that I was probably the successor to Aunt Mimi in John’s life.’ Her comparison of herself with the formidable but intensely caring woman who raised John Lennon through his entire childhood is both brave and astute. The qualities in his stern Aunt Mimi which John grew to admire and respect, were to be re-created in a much more bizarre fashion by Yoko Ono” (419). John’s songs reflect an interest with his mother, perhaps none more so than his song “Julia.” Writes Mark Hertsgaard; “The most beautiful and important song on side two of the White Album was ‘Julia,’ Lennon’s paean to his dead mother. Officially, he and Yoko were not yet a couple, but certainly ‘Julia’ contains hints that Yoko was already much on his mind. The reference to Yoko in ‘Julia,’ via the line ‘Ocean child calls me,’ was explicit but disguised; Yoko means ‘ocean child’ in Japanese” (258-9). John transferred his mother-fixation from the ghost of Julia onto Yoko Ono; during their married life John referred to Yoko as “Mother.” John’s need for a “mother superior” type figure (see his song “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” for another example) would be a clear sign to Fromm of a mental neurosis.
Carl Jung proposed his theories of psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, theories on the existence of a collective unconsciousness in which existed archetypal images through which reality was interpreted. Jung wrote, “I would like to emphasize that we must distinguish three psychic levels: (1) consciousness, (2) the personal unconsciousness, and (3) the collective unconsciousness. The personal unconsciousness consists firstly of all those contents that became unconscious either because they lost their intensity and were forgotten or because consciousness was withdrawn from them (repression), and secondly of contents, some of them sense-impressions, which never had sufficient intensity to reach consciousness but somehow entered the psyche. The collective unconsciousness, however, as the ancestral heritage of possibilities of representation, is not individual but common to all men, and perhaps even to all animals, and is the true basis of the individual psyche” (Jung, 67). Jung described six major archetypes which typically expressed themselves through dream imagery: persona, the world face; shadow, the dark archetype; the anima, the feminine aspect; the animus, the masculine aspect; the great mother, the need for a nurturing personality; and the wise old man, representing wisdom.
Attempting to describe Lennon through Jungian psychology may present difficulties; although Jung was an influential thinker, his ideas do not apply readily to application, and examples of the archetypes in Lennon’s life would be difficult to find. However, several observations can be made linking Jung’s thought to Lennon’s life. The great mother archetype manifested itself in Lennon’s life in a manner similar to Fromm’s incestuous symbiosis. The difference here is that Jung would see the great mother as a positive force. Jung wrote, “‘Mother’ is an archetype and refers to the place of origin, to nature, to materiality, the womb, the vegetative functions. It also means the unconsciousness, our natural and instinctive life, the physiological realm, the body in which we dwell or are contained; for the “mother” is also the matrix, the hollow form, the vessel that carries and nourishes, and it thus stands psychologically for the foundations of consciousness” (Jung 1974, 106). Jung says here that archetypes sit at the base of the psyche as primordial impulses. Because Lennon’s Aunt Mimi provided Lennon with a nurturing environment and because his mother encouraged his musicianship, Lennon was able to channel the energies of his great mother archetype into creative impulses.
Other archetypes are more difficult to identify. Lennon had no father figure other than his Uncle George while growing up and no other surrogate fathers after George Smith’s death. Wrote Ray Coleman: “George was easily won over, and especially when he was in trouble with Mimi, the kind uncle would bail him out with an encouraging word, a pat on the head” (101). John may have taken George Smith as a physical incarnation of the Wise Old Man archetype, but later incarnations would be difficult to identify. Yoko Ono said, “I think [Arthur] Janov was a daddy for John. I think he has this father complex and he’s always searching for a daddy” (Sheff, 105). Lennon himself said, “A lot of us are looking for fathers. Mine was physically not there. Most people’s are not there mentally and physically, like always at the office or busy with other things. So all these leaders, parking meters, are all substitute fathers, whether they be religious or political….” (Sheff, 105). Lennon demonstrated both the animus and the anima in his personality. Lennon sometimes expressed his emotions in a physical manner, assaulting his first wife Cynthia on several occasions. (Hertsgaard, 242) After his experiments with LSD in 1966 Lennon’s personality showed a marked change, growing softer and gentler and an abiding interest in the welfare of humanity. While this change in personality did not last past 1968 when John foreswore LSD usage, John came to reject his more physical persona for a house-husband attitude following the birth of his son Sean in 1975; John retired from the music scene to raise Sean while Yoko Ono took on the business responsibilities for the family. The shadow archetype manifested itself through John’s writings, art, and music. Songs such as “Yer Blues,” “I Want You,” and albums such as the Primal Scream album, come from the depths of despair and pain and open doors onto the darker side of Lennon’s personality. The persona archetype was the most prevalent archetype in Lennon’s psyche; Lennon’s public face was very different than his private face. A natural mimic, Lennon could adopt a personality at the drop of a hat to fit into any situation. These other archetypal examples, while not as well developed, were all prevalent in Lennon’s personality to some degree.
What is the final verdict on John Lennon? To the extent that I’ve never met him, I think I know John as well as is possible, and I recognize that he had both good and bad qualities. I think the good outweighed the bad, and that’s an assessment that I think he would be comfortable with. Erich Fromm might look at Lennon from the opposite perspective, though he might not go as far as to say that Lennon existed in a state of decay. I wouldn’t go that far, certainly, because I think that Lennon was able to overcome some of his issues by his death. Carl Jung, though, would say that Lennon had a well-integrated personality and that he tapped the collective unconscious finding expression through his life and music. As Lennon himself wrote in his song “#9 Dream”: “Dream, dream away, Magic in the air, was magic in the air? I believe, yes I believe, More I cannot say, what more can I say? On a river of sound, Thru the mirror go round, round, I thought I could feel (feel, feel, feel) Music touching my soul, something warm, sudden cold, The spirit dance was unfolding.” John Lennon knew his own mind, and found strength and creativity within. The world is all the better for it.
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Goldman, A. (1988). The lives of John Lennon. New York: William Morrow and Company.
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Sheff, D. (1981). The Playboy interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: Playboy Press.
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