Jean-Jacques Rousseau got it backwards when he said ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ On the contrary, men and women are born in a state of radical un-freedom. We come into the world attached by the umbilical cord to mother, family, and tribe — and only after a great struggle can we dream of any kind of relative freedom. Freedom could only exist in a web of responsibility, contingency, and interdependence.
When John Lennon wrote the song Imagine he was similarly off the mark. Imagine is the ultimate hymn to romanticism: that is its anthemic power but also its tragic insufficiency. Do we really want to imagine the world that Lennon sings about, with ‘no hell below us and above us only sky’? Is that not a world without depth, and ironically, without imagination?
Perhaps there is a more existential realism — and imagination, for that matter — in his song ‘I am the Walrus’! This is a song that celebrates transformation, surrealism, pathos — it harkens back to our shamanistic roots. The Walrus is a powerful totem — the song has a feel of ritual transformation. Its wild poetry is far more radical (and fun) than the more idealistic and therefore manipulative sentiment of the song Imagine.
Romantic and revolutionary movements have their place: they rip out the dead roots of traditions when such traditions have become empty and formal — they regenerate the culture. And yet today revolutions become the uroboros: a snake eating its own tale. Today it seems obvious that the romantic counter-culture (which is now the mainstream culture) is this serpent eating itself — it has become its own oppressor.
Recently, a cringeworthy version of Imagine was performed by a bunch of movie stars in an online zoom conference from their luxury Hollywood mansions. How could they have possibly sung the words: ‘imagine no possessions’ without irony or manic laughter? When the revolutionary anthem becomes the sentimental activism of Hollywood stars, then we can safely say that the revolution is dead.