For two decades now I’ve been researching and writing about materialism and consumer culture, and I think it is fair to say that over the last several years, I’ve suffered from B. B. King’s lament: The thrill is gone.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found my work to be meaningful, and I hope it has contributed in some way to the social good. Certainly many interesting opportunities have come my way as a result of my studies on the problems that occur when people and cultures heavily prioritize money, image and status. But as the years have gone by, less and less frequently have I been in the midst of running statistical analyses and stumbled into the sort of findings that earlier in my career gave me that palpable sensation of thrill. Instead, I’ve followed the typical path of having a “research program” in which I write papers reporting a “new” finding that typically is more or less what I expected to find in the first place. I see now that for some time I have been feeling like a cartographer sent to map the course of a river that I explored last year: I get the gratification of confirmation, but not the thrill of discovery.
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Perhaps my dissatisfaction with these mild satisfactions led me to persist for over a decade in writing my new book, "Lucy in the Mind of Lennon." Over the course of that time, I piddled around with the manuscript, set it completely aside two or three times, and ultimately worked intensively on it for the past three years. The book is unlike anything I have ever researched or written before, but part of why I've stuck with it is because of three distinct moments when I had that thrill of discovery, that rush of "Oh my gosh," that exhilarating sense that I had found something new that had been waiting to be found.
The first moment happened years ago at my kitchen table. Back then, I was writing a very different (and looking back, rather ponderous) book that examined how John Lennon's lyrics reflected a changing experience of love as he aged and encountered new relationships. That particular morning I was writing about the songs Lennon had composed between "Revolver" and "The White Album" and I was banging my head against the florid word play and seemingly random pastiches typical of his lyrics at that point in his career. I was lost.
Then I recalled a method called scripting that psychologists sometimes use to identify the underlying theme of a narrative without being distracted by the specific images the writer used. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" just happened to be in front of me, so I applied the scripting method to it.
When I looked at the results, I felt like I had snuck a peek inside of Lennon's mind, as I saw that the basic plot of the song is a little story about a person who desires but does not quite attain union with an awesome female figure. When I later used the scripting method on the first two songs Lennon wrote ("Hello Little Girl" and "I Call Your Name"), I found basically the same script there also. Given these findings and the long-standing debates about the meaning of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," I decided to write a different book altogether.
Having had an initial glimpse into what might have been on Lennon's mind when he wrote "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," I started to apply other psychological methods to the song. For example, I used a computerized program to examine how its linguistic style differed from both other songs Lennon had recently written and other popular songs of the era. I searched all of his previous songs to determine how he had used the words that make up the lyrics of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Then I did the same with the musical characteristics of the song.
As the data resulting from these methods began to accumulate, and as I learned more about Lennon's life, I came to suspect that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" represented an emotionally blunted and strongly veiled expression of Lennon's feelings about his mother, Julia, who had abandoned him when he was a child and was killed in an accident when he was a teenager. But I remained uncomfortable with this conclusion — after all, we psychologists are well known for our penchant of easily identifying a mother complex in people's lives.
The second thrilling moment helped convince me that I was on the right track. I was in my living room flipping through Albert Goldman's "The Lives of John Lennon," reading about the circumstances of Julia's death. A small but singular detail stood out to me: The car that killed Lennon's mother was driven by an off-duty policeman. Suddenly, I had a new understanding of a song Lennon wrote only a few months after "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." In the third verse of "I Am the Walrus," Lennon sang of "city policemen" immediately before he referred once again to "Lucy in the sky." Then, four times, he sang that he was "crying" before starting a new verse that commences with a gruesome image of death. Thus, in only a few lines that he insisted were random snatches of ideas, Lennon mentioned a possible stand-in for his mother, sadness, death and the "policemen" responsible for both her death and his sadness. This seemed too much to be mere coincidence. It sounds melodramatic to say, but a chill literally ran up and down my spine.
One more thrill came when my book was almost complete. I was in my "secret office" at work, a place I remove myself to in order to write, and I was going through the mundane task of ensuring that my references and quotes were all correct. In doing so, I found some contradictions regarding a Lewis Carroll poem that Lennon had said was one inspiration for "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." I'm rather ashamed to admit it, but at that point I had not actually read the entire poem, relying instead on secondary sources. So I hustled over to the Knox College library, checked out "Through the Looking Glass" and returned to my office. As I read the poem, I once again found multiple details that made me say, "Oh, so that's the way it is!" I had been looking only for editorial clarification about the poem's content, but what I ended up seeing turned out to be another piece of crucial information in my understanding of Lennon's song.
These three moments not only helped to shape "Lucy in the Mind of Lennon" in important ways, but they helped me to see that I need not despair that my middle-aged mind could no longer be thrilled. Rather, I had been experiencing the truth of what psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert call "the pleasure paradox": Certainty dampens the experience of pleasant emotions. I had been leaving myself less and less space for the possibility of thrill over the last decade as I pursued the scientific goal of marshaling more evidence for the particular theory that my colleagues and I have been developing about materialism and consumer culture. All of the times I have spoken at conferences about my standard research or contributed a chapter on materialism to someone's edited book, I have done the job of a scientist and spoken and written about what I know, even though reiterating what one knows is very rarely thrilling.
But when I left behind the security of my habitual theories and tossed myself deeply into trying to understand the place of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in John Lennon's life, I found that I had few models on which to rely, few expectations about what I would find and few certainties about what I was even doing. It was when I abandoned my certainties that the thrill came back.
Tim Kasser, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. He is the author of "The High Price of Materialism" and many scientific articles and chapters. Kasser's latest book is "Lucy in the Mind of Lennon."
"Lucy in the Mind of Lennon"
By Tim Kasser, Oxford, 184 pages, $22.95