Monday, April 04, 2005

Terri, Can You Hear Me?

If the Who's Tommy were written today, I imagine it would be much shorter. The poor lad would be judged to be completely unreceptive, the tests the doctor gave would show no sense at all, they'd tearfully administer an overdose of morphine in the middle of "Sparks," and Tommy Walker would go gentle into that good night.

Been thinking about Tommy a bit (yes, I'm a 70's adolescent stuck in the body of a middle-aged man). Pete Townshend's songs rely on the tension between presence and absence for someone who is disabled, the recognition both of that inwardness and our shared tendency to abuse those inward beings, those others, whether they have speech impediments, are mentally retarded, or just socially awkward or shy. Quiet, insular instrumentals ("Sparks," "Underture") suggest secret inner spaces. Kant wrote about the "ding an sich," or "the thing-in-itself," as opposed to "the-thing-for-us," the thing as it appears ("phenomenon"). Tommy is the person-in-himself, all interior with no surface. Oddly enough, the album is strongest when it stays with Tommy during his imprisonment in his self. Now, the Schiavo affair and the speculation on the passing of the pope indicates that interior experience has no value. Only the phenomenonal is worthy, persons who are persons-for-us. Tommy makes the transition from inward being to phenomenon -- he becomes a "Sensation." Yet blindness remains.

Dealing as it does with disability, Tommy shows disability as a metaphor for the human condition. Tommy is blind, deaf and dumb, but so are his parents, his tormentors, his followers, and his audience. The real blindness is caused by a kind of narcissism that blinds us to the truth about ourselves and makes true invalids, true slaves of us. A quest for freedom runs through everything on that record, and, like George Orwell and Pope John Paul II, the songs assume a deep connection between truth and freedom. Orwell wrote that all freedom begins with the freedom to say that 2+2=4. Roger Daltrey sang that "freedom tastes of reality."

It's impossible to see how Tommy could be a hit 30 years later, since he insists on making us see things about ourselves to which we'd rather remain blind.
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