John Lennon, Rowan Williams and Grace

by Daniel Hartley

Having recently been pondering Badiou’s concept of ‘event’, I was surprised to come across the following passage in Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction:

Christ is apprehended when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world [which he defines as ‘the ensemble of true propositions’] breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire.

In this light, the surprisingly theological tenor of Badiou’s atheism couldn’t be more apparent. But it is not Badiou that I want to discuss here; it is John Lennon.

I’ve just watched Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of John Lennon’s difficult early years. It portrays his painful adolescence, torn between an aunt who has always acted as his mother, a biological mother who effectively abandoned him, and a general fatherlessness (his biological father abandoned him and his uncle dies when he’s a teenager). Aside from its immediate interest as an insight into the sources of Lennon’s artistic genius, I was surprised at just how powerfully it demonstrated the potential damage that suburbia can do to people.

The problem with suburbia is not just its soullessness, its general conservativism and existential ennui; if this film is anything to go by, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, suburbia is a geography of stymied desire. The architectural economy of the suburbs, with its identical rows of individual monadic homes and its front gardens which act as shields against spontaneous fellowship, is such that humans’ desire becomes penned in and pent up. The Oedipal drama unfolds within a severely restricted space, across a numerically limited cast, and there is simply no outlet for excess libidinal charge. Some of the most touching moments of this film are when characters confront themselves in mirrors over mantelpieces, as if searching for a spiritual enlargement of their world. Lennon, of course, in an age where large-scale communal politics or the Church are no longer liveable options, will find his outlet in the ultimate cathectic substitute: rock and roll.

The second part of the problem is the dreariness of suburban architecture. There is a scene in the film which takes place during a post-funeral get-together following the death of Lennon’s mother. John is confused, enraged, and grieving and takes out his wrath by punching Paul McCartney to the ground. As soon as he does so, it is as if he awakens from a drugged stupor; he apologises, lifts up McCartney, and then the two friends, both now motherless (McCartney’s lost to cancer), hold each other in the middle of the street, weeping. At this point the camera switches to an aerial shot, and we see the pair stood stock-still in the suburban street, lined with identical squat brown semis. And when I saw this, it occurred to me: this street is not designed for this. These buildings cannot bear the emotional burden of what is being asked of them. The two lost boys, in a road in which they should not be stood, have opened up to something beyond the empirical stranglehold of their surroundings. The brown bricks have tried to imprison this unseemly drama, to generate the conditions in which such excess is not even contemplated; but the boys have ruptured suburbia. They have dared to lose and they have dared to love in a situation structured by the will-never-to-love.

And this, perhaps, is what is meant by Rowan Williams when he speaks of that moment of gratuity which occurs in a situation governed by a logic alien to any such gratuitousness.