“…The Music of the Universe…”
An Album by Sean Dillon
“The whole point of magick of course, is to bring about change. But it's got to be the change that's right for you and right for everyone and everything else in the rest of the universe. How do we know what that is? We don't, really. We can't. Well, we sort of can. If we listen, we can hear the music of the universe, and if we *really* listen, we can hear it talking to us. What is it saying? What is it trying to tell us? That's the journey, you see. That's why we travel through space and time.”
i. Because by The Beatles
Both Wallace Stevens and the Beatles are interested in changing the world with poetry. The latter expresses this desire through the implementation of transcendental themes, such as ascending from the universe, within their songs, whereas the former does this through the concept of Supreme Fiction, wherein one embraces the artifice of ideas like God or poetry and believes in them regardless. In particular, Stevens uses the poems “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, “Angel Surrounded by Paysans”, and “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand” as a magical attempt at altering the world into one where love and artifice reign forevermore. Given this, “Across the Universe” would have been Wallace Stevens’ favorite Beatles song.
ii. Do You Believe in Magic by The Loving Spoonful
When Aleister Crowley was coining the term “Magick”, he wanted to differentiate the term from magic (i.e. stuff like pulling rabbits and cutting people in half) from the serious magic. Specifically, Magick “…may be defined as any event in nature which is brought to pass by Will” (Crowley, 127) meaning that anything we do that affects the nature of the universe is, in of itself, a magical act. There is no specific way in which one becomes a magician; however, one can use magick if one understands oneself fully.
One such method of obtaining this understanding is known as Transcendental Meditation. This practice requires a person to meditate twice a day for fifteen to twenty minutes with one eye closed while repeating a mantra. The aim is to provide the practitioner with a feeling of nirvana, as if ascending from the universe while remaining still. Its connection to “Across the Universe” comes both from the imagery of lines like “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup/They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe” which evokes the feeling described of Transcendental Meditation, the repeated mantra of “Nothing’s gonna change my world” which can be used as a calming mantra to show that the person is still in control of what is going on around him, and the fact that The Beatles were known to be practitioners of Transcendental Meditation. This can be seen in the song with the other mantra repeated throughout “Jai Guru Davi”. The line roughly translates to “All glory to Guru Dev”, a phrase typically spoken by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who taught The Beatles about transcendentalism, in relation to his teacher Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a major leader of the Hindus who earned the nickname of Guru Dev: “divine teacher” (Wood).
iii. Giorgio by Moroder by Daft Punk feat. Giorgio Moroder
Late one evening in 1967, a thought came into the mind of Beatles member John Lennon as his then wife Cynthia Lennon was going on and on about something or other. As he thought more and more about this idea that had invaded his mind, the words “…turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than an irritated song, rather than a "Why are you always mouthing off at me?"... [The words] were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don't own it you know; it came through like that” (Sheff, 265; 267). The line in question was “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” which continues throughout the song with the unspoken indication that all the pools of sorrows, waves of joy, and shades of life are based out of these words; that these words are the source of all things.
One might recognize this summation of “Across the Universe” in Steven’s concept of Supreme Fiction, a more postmodern reaction to the failings of religion. These failings are heavily explored in Steven’s poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” which invokes the concept of Supreme Fiction via its first line: “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame”. The poem itself is a satirization and rejection of organized religion through the usage of Christian iconography. One example of this is the term “nave” used in the second and third lines wherein Stevens suggests to the Christian Woman “Take the moral law and make a nave of it/And from the nave build haunted heaven”. The word “nave” refers to the part of a church where the congregation sits to listen to the religious leaders perform their sermon. However the term can be punned into being “knave”, meaning a dishonest person. This indicates that the “moral law” created by those who wish to abuse them for their own ends. Next, there’s the line that follows “The conscience is converted into palms”. By using the term palm (which, in Christianity, is meant to symbolize peace, victory, and eternal life) in this stanza, Stevens is indicating that those who follow the dogma of this belief system are giving up their awareness of what is around them in exchange for the promise of a paradise that Stevens is wary of from naves. After several more invocations of Christian iconography, Stevens then proceeds to contextualize it with a universal system similar to that described in “Across the Universe” through the use of the phrase “Squiggling like saxophones”. Given the previous line’s expansion of the critique to a cosmic scale, the word “squiggling” refers to a squirming motion, implying a fluctuation within the universe via the music as connected via the usage of the word “saxophone”.
The key word from the poem’s last line “This will make widows wince. But fictive things/Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince” is “fictive”, which refers to things originating from the imagination. Thus the poem ends as it began, with the conceit of Supreme Fiction: unlike the atheistic movements that popularized the modernist era that rejected the concept of gods because they did not exist, Supreme Fiction embraces the artifice of fictional ideas and believes in the idea regardless. This is further highlighted in the poem in the “jovial hullabaloo” the widow’s unable to see. The word “jovial” comes from the word “Jove”, another term for the roman god Jupiter indicating that Stevens’ critique, despite the title, goes further back into history than mere Christianity. Whereas the fictional truth is able to “Wink most when widows wince” indicating its superiority.
iv. Atom Heart Mother Suite by Pink Floyd
In order to get into a transcendental state, wherein one enters the realm beyond the real, one must repeat an idea. For Stevens, this idea can be found in one of his later works fittingly titled “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”. Given that the “paramour”, a lover in a forbidden relationship, is described as “interior”, the poem could be referring not to a specific person in forbidden love, but the idea of forbidden love within us. This soliloquy can be seen as a form of recognition of this; the acceptance of this love as seen through the eyes of the one who feels it. But who does the poet love, why can’t they be together, and what is the next step?
The answer is, as with all stories, within the tale being spun. And this tale opens with “Light the first light of evening, as in a room/In which we rest and, for a small reason, think/The world imagined is the ultimate good”. There are two keys within this stanza in understanding the answers to the questions posed. The first comes from within the first line. Or, to be more precise, within the first word “Light”. The light is an image that is seen throughout the poem as “…a warmth, /A light, a power, the miraculous influence”. That last part ties in with the other key to the poem “The world imagined is the ultimate good” as we return to the idea of Supreme Fiction. The idea of Supreme Fiction is continued beyond those two lines with quotes like “It is in that thought that we collect ourselves, /Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:” (the thing being implicitly stated to be the light), “We say God and the imagination are one…/How the highest candles lights the dark” (wherein Stevens explicitly connects the ideas of Supreme Fiction and the light), and the implied moment of transcending the world around them in “Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves./We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,/A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous./ Within its vital boundary, in the mind”. But what words did Stevens say to transcend? What is the light?
The specific answer does not come directly from “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, but rather from an idea within the margins of the soliloquy. The Beatles on the other hand made it, arguably, one of their most famous lyrics.
In the song “Across the Universe”, there is mention of light such as in “Images of broken light, which dance before me like a million eyes” which invokes eyes in relation to a dance, typically preformed on a stage upon which a soliloquy is delivered. There is also talk of the importance of ideas such as in “Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box”. The usage of letter is a pun on “leather”, which implies the importance of letters, words, and poetry. But Supreme Fiction isn’t directly involved within the form of the words, but the belief in the words being spoken. But it does help us find those words within the soliloquy. Throughout the Interior Paramour’s final words on the matter, paramour refers to himself with the pronoun “we”. “It is in that thought that WE collect ourselves… a single shawl/Wrapped tightly round US, since WE are poor… WE forget each other and ourselves. /WE feel the obscurity of order… WE say God and the imagination are one…” etc. As such, there really is only one thing he could be saying to transcend.
But first, there is one last “we” in the poem that we must address in order to understand what Stevens’ mantra is. It comes from the final stanza: “Out of this same light, out of the central mind, /We make a dwelling in the evening air, /In which being there together is enough”. All three of the ideas toiled within the poem come together in this stanza. The source of the light comes from a specific part of that imagination: the part that feels love, the part that doesn’t need more than just being with the other person. The undying love that, while unobtainable, is still there. There is even a line from “Across the Universe” that describes this feeling that Stevens is expressing: “Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns”. And thus, there is only one thing Stevens could be saying to transcend. One simple five-word phrase:
“All You Need Is Love”
v. God by John Lennon
To add to Stevens’ idea of Supreme Fiction as being a belief in God while accepting the artifice of it, there is his poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans”, a piece of dialogue between a countryman and the angel of Reality. Many elements in this poem confirm my previous arguments, including the Supreme Fictional nature of the angel who talks as if in the transcendental state described in “Across the Universe” saying things like “Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings/Like watery words awash…” whose “L” and “W” sounds evoke the lilting and swooning tempo of the Beatles song. But why else is this poem a key to my argument?
The answer comes from near the end of the poem and reads “…like meanings said/By repetitions of half meanings. Am I not, /Myself, only half of a figure of a sort, /A figure half seen, or seen for a moment”. Obviously, Wallace Stevens is dead. He died before he could hear any of the Beatles work or most of the magical ideas I’m claiming he’s using. All things considered, given Stevens’ Supreme Fiction, the quote is referring to the margins of a work. The things not quite seen within their time, we only notice the connections in hindsight.
vi. The March of the Sinister Ducks by The Sinister Ducks
Much like “Across the Universe”, “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand” is about a moment of transcendence. Much like “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, the mantra is not included. But unlike the Soliloquy, the Anecdote is not about getting to that moment, but rather the moment itself. So what does it feel like to transcend reality?
Much like a drug trip, the feeling depends on whom you ask. If, for example, you ask The Beatles, then you would get something like “Across the Universe”. The song itself has a soft melody, like a frozen moment in time that will never end. It is a peaceful moment with details believed seen only from outside what we know as reality: the dance of stars, the flow of words, the shades of life, the eternal shine of love, and many others. This feeling is further highlighted by the decision to use mostly string instruments in its production and the tone of John Lennon’s voice as he sings the song, which is akin to that of a lullaby. The lyrics themselves are full of “Ll” and “Ww” sounds like “Words are flowing out like endless…” and “They slither wildly as they slip away…” which gives off the felling of a serine wind caressing a person’s face. The song doesn’t really end so much as fade out of existence, like the end of a dream.
While Stevens does not have the luxury of musical accompaniment to extenuate the feeling he gets when he reaches nirvana, the prose is nonetheless helpful. Much like “Across the Universe”, “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand” also uses “Ll” and “Ww” sounds, indicating a similar tone in both pieces. However another sound used in the Stevens poem not used as frequently in the Beatles song is the “Ss” sound. This can be seen within the lines “There are men of the East, he said/Who are the East” and “The dress of a woman of Lhassa,/ In its place,/ Is an invisible element of that place/Made visible” which both highlight the serine feeling one gets outside of their body. However, given the additional “Ss” sound, Stevens is implying a dreaming to his nirvana experience given that “Ss” is akin to a snore.
vii. The End by The Beatles
In their song “Across the Universe”, The Beatles claimed that “Nothing’s gonna change my world”. Conversely, Wallace Stevens seems to view the concept of a single vision of the world to be patently absurd and has embraced the notion that love can save us all. Given these too conflicting ideologies, we must decide which one is true and which one is false. For we can’t believe in things we know are false, that would be absurd. As such, when looking at the world as it is today, The Beatles are right. We are mere drops in the ocean of the universe. We can change ourselves and parts of what surround us certainly, but we can’t change the universe. There's nothing you can do that can't be done, no one you can save that can't be saved. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
(…2, 3, 4)
Bravo, Lizzie, Gayleen Pease, and John Lennon. By John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Perf. George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Across the Universe. The Beatles. George Martin, 1969. CD.
Crowley, Aleister, Mary Desti, Leila Waddell, and Hymenaeus Beta. Magick: Liber ABA, Book Four, Parts I-IV. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Lennon, John, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. By John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Perf. Ringo Starr. All You Need Is Love. The Beatles. George Martin, 1967. CD.
Sandifer, Philip, Jerry Snook, Chris O'Leary, Jack Graham, Anna Wiggins, Josh Marsfelder, Jed A. Blue, Andrew Hickey, Allison J. Campbell, Abigail Brady, Unnoun, Caitlin Smith, Richard Jones, Jill Buratto, and James Taylor. "A Mild Curiosity in a Junkyard (Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead)." Philip Sandifer: Writer. Blogger, 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Sheff, David, Yōko Ono, John Lennon, and G. Barry. Golson. All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2000. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954. 51-52; 59; 496-497; 524. Print.
Wood, Elaine. "Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; Founded Transcendental Meditation Movement." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles