DANTE & THE YELLOW SUBMARINE

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense…So bitter is it that death is hardly more.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto I)

“Liverpool can be a lonely place on a Saturday night…and this is only Thursday morning.” (Ringo, Yellow Submarine)

650 years after Dante Alighieri completed his Divine Comedy, a rock and roll band from Liverpool, England, none other than the world famous Beatles, retraced his steps. In 1968, they released a modern, ostensibly secular version of Dante’s great epic, a movie called Yellow Submarine. Not that the Beatles necessarily knew that they were following in Dante’s footsteps – it probably never even crossed their minds. But inspired by intellectual and spiritual forces in their own lives, they ended up exploring many of the same themes that Dante had explored centuries earlier.

After spending a night isolated in the dark wood, unable to escape, Dante meets Virgil: “Thou must take another road if thou wouldst escape from this savage place…and I shall be thy guide and lead thee hence.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto I) The road Virgil has in mind is not through the spatiotemporal world of Tuscany but through a perpendicular world normally travelled only by the dead.

“Abandon all hope, ye that enter here,” reads the sign posted over the gate of Hell. Once inside, Dante encounters “wretches who never were alive” and just beyond, Acheron, the river of death. The souls gathered on the bank, awaiting Charon’s transport, “blasphemed God and their parents, the human kind, the place, the time, and the seed of their begetting and of their birth;” and yet “they are eager to cross the river for divine justice so spurs them that fear turns to desire.”  (Dante, Inferno, Canto III)

The souls in Hell no longer have the capacity for change. They cannot repent and they cannot influence events in the outside world. They are defined now by their sins and they are compelled to live out those sins forever. These sins invariably involve self-destruction or the destruction of others. Were Hell an ‘ordinary’ place in the spatiotemporal world, the souls there would destroy themselves, each other and Hell itself. But Hell is no ordinary place. The sign atop the gate also reads, “Divine power made me…and I endure eternally.”

In Hell, all roads, all rungs, lead to Satan. As Dante and Virgil descend, Hell becomes colder and colder. At the very bottom, they find Satan encased in ice; here is the nadir of all being. But this is not the end of Dante’s journey. He and Virgil walk on and discover that the direction of their motion has changed. They are no longer descending, they are starting the ascent of Mount Purgatory: “…without caring to have any rest, we climbed up…so far that I saw through a round opening some of the fair things that Heaven bears; and thence we came forth to see again the stars.”  (Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV)

Dante’s Purgatory is very different from his Hell. Unlike Hell and Paradise, in many ways Purgatory is reminiscent of life on Earth, except that the souls there are immaterial: “O empty shades, except in semblance! Three times I clasped my hands behind him and as often brought them back to my own breast.”  (Dante, Purgatorio, Canto II)

Dante ascends Purgatory’s mountain and at last crosses into Paradise. Here space and time vanish! Dante has entered the eternal realm. Dante’s Paradise is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, but it is also clear that Paradise encompasses the entire universe. The first and last lines of the Paradiso sum it up:”The glory of him who moves all things penetrates the universe…the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Let’s return now to Liverpool and rejoin our Beatles as they prepare to embark on their own mystical journey.  Trapped in the loneliness of Liverpool, Ringo meets the Beatles’ version of Virgil, “young Fred”, the newly appointed Lord Admiral who has just escaped from Pepperland in a yellow submarine.

Pepperland has succumbed to an attack by a race of giants known as “Blue Meanies”. The idyllic tranquility of this land has been shattered, its population “bonked” into a state of suspended animation and the land itself laid waste. The once rainbow colored countryside is now monochrome grey, all music silent, dancers frozen in place. Just as Eden was lost but later regained as the Kingdom of Heaven, so Pepperland has been lost and now must be regained.

Ringo and Fred proceed through a gate of their own with a sign atop reading “The Pier”, fitting because this will be the launch site for the Beatles’ journey to Pepperland. Just as the gate of Hell ushered Dante and Virgil into a land beyond imagination, so too the front door of the Pier. We enter a long, narrow corridor with doors every few feet on either side. Behind each door some event is unfolding, some apparently from ‘real life’, others obviously fantastical.  Plus, whenever our travelers’ attention is distracted, the corridor itself comes alive with all sorts of fantastic creatures, some of whom we will meet later in the “Sea of Monsters”.

The creatures and events on The Pier are reminiscent of the souls gathering on the shores of Acheron, waiting for Charon to ferry them into Hell proper. So too, the Beatles gather at The Pier, waiting to begin their voyage to Pepperland. Guided by young Fred, the Beatles depart, but like Dante, they must journey through their own versions of Hell and Purgatory before they can reach their destination.

The journey to Pepperland runs through a series of “seas” (branes?) that  challenge every preconception our travelers have regarding the nature of being. The first three seas deconstruct the phenomenal world into basic elements: time, space and the objects/events that populate spacetime. Each of these elements in turn undergoes its own deconstruction.

First, the Sea of Time: “What time is it?…It’s time for time…Look, the hands (of a clock) are slowing down…Maybe time’s gone on strike…” Here time flows at a variable rate…and it flows backwards as well as forwards.

“I don’t want to alarm you but the years are going backwards. If we slip back through time at this rate we’ll all disappear up out of our own existence,” young Fred warns.  To ‘disappear up out of our own existence’ is very different from what people normally call ‘dying’. If time is reversible (even just theoretically), then existence can be erased…retroactively.

But if our existence can be erased (even theoretically), then in what way can we claim to have ever ‘been’ at all? If my existence is not a settled matter of fact (“I am”), if it can be annulled at any time, then at best I enjoy a ‘virtual existence’, not a real one.

John is undaunted. “Can’t we do something to the clock?…Move the hands forward, see what happens.” Outrageously, Yellow Submarine proposes that time is a function of the man-made clocks that measure it, not the other way around as we commonly suppose. Surprisingly, many 21st century cosmologists would agree.

The second sea, the Sea of Science, deconstructs space, showing that is can be represented just as well in 2 dimensions as in 3. Yellow Submarine suggests that a specific dimensionality is not an essential aspect of spatial extension. As with time, human representations of space (Cartesian grids, Platonic solids) determine what space is. The Beatles’ insight has been confirmed by Black Hole physics, String Theory, etc.

The third sea, the Sea of Monsters, deconstructs objects and events. It shows that what we accept as ‘normal’ is in fact a very limited and highly selective subset of all the combinations of structures that spacetime actually contains. Just before Yellow Submarine was released, Hugh Everett published his famous “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. According to Everett, everything that can happen does happen, but we can only be aware of one string of events out of innumerable actual strings.

In the Sea of Monsters, all possible forms flourish. There is no distinction between organic structures and mechanical ones. Shape and form are indefinitely mutable. As in the earlier seas, the stuff that appears to make up our world, here objects and events, is an artifact of imagination.

This third sea is aptly named. All of the creatures in this sea are indeed ‘monsters’, not because of how they look or how they are made but because of how they behave. Without exception, they are involved in activity destructive to themselves and to others. These monsters act exactly like the souls in Dante’s Inferno. Their natures are hard wired and they don’t have the capacity to overcome their ‘programming’.

Among the various monsters in this sea, one in particular stands out: the Vacuum Monster. As its names suggests, it is the nature of this creature to suck up everything it encounters. In this “monstrous sea”, every creature threatens other creatures but the vacuum monster threatens them all…himself included.  The vacuum monster is the Beatles’ version of Dante’s Satan.

Sure enough, the Vacuum Monster sucks up all the other monsters. Then, seeing that there are no other monsters to suck, it sucks up the fabric of spacetime. Finally it sucks itself, tail first, “into oblivion…or even further”. Like the souls in Hell, the monsters in Yellow Submarine are compelled to act out destructive patterns, even when that activity dooms them, both individually and collectively.

The first three seas on the route to Pepperland closely resemble Dante’s Hell. Yellow Submarine suggests that all possible worlds must include (in the words of Alfred North Whitehead) an “extensive continuum” (e.g. spacetime) and “actual entities” (e.g. discrete events)  and it goes on to propose that any such world would necessarily be self-annihilating.

Why? First, there is no inherent reason why processes in the ‘extensive continuum’, the medium of evolution, should not flow backwards as well as forwards, inwards as well as outwards (i.e. why space should not be curled up into a point like the ‘rolled up’ dimensions posited by most versions of String Theory.)

Second, since the ‘actual entities’ are cannibalistic by nature,  the incessant loom of combinations and permutations would inevitably give rise to a Vacuum Monster, a Satan, with the power to consume all beings, itself included.

So what? If a world can or must self-annihilate, retroactively as well as proactively, then that world does not exist, never did exist, cannot exist. Likewise, if being can be annihilated, it really isn’t ‘being’ at all, is it? Things can come and go, but being itself either is…or isn’t. If being is actual, well then that’s that; but if it’s not…it’s not.

According to this model, without some reference point beyond itself, it is inevitable that any possible world will annihilate itself; and if all possible worlds are doomed to self-annihilation, then no such world can possibly exist. Yellow Submarine begins ostensibly as a secular (i.e. self-contained) ontology but it ultimately proves that no consistent secular ontology is possible.

Remember, Dante’s Hell is only possible because “Divine power made me…and I endure eternally.” The ontology of the Divine Comedy is not secular. The model it proposes is not self-contained. Yellow Submarine builds on Dante’s insight and concludes that all possible secular theories of Being are necessarily inconsistent; but back to our story…

Of course, the Vacuum Monster does his worst, and predictably we are left with no time, no space, no anything. Like Dante, we have reached the nadir of being, an empty state which the Beatles call “Nowhere Land”. This would seem to be the end of our voyage…and of our adventure..and of us.  But not so! It turns out to be just the beginning.

Nowhere Land may be the depths of Hell but, as Dante discovered, your very next step takes you in a different direction, up Mount Purgatory toward Paradise. Plus, it also turns out that Nowhere Land is not entirely empty after all. It is not a void. It is more like the world, as the Book of Genesis describes it, just before creation:

“…The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” Not much of a vacation destination to be sure, but not quite empty either.

In Nowhere Land, there is a proto-being by the name of Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D. The Beatles just call him “Nowhere Man”. Dr. Boob is quite literally what’s left of a world after it’s total destruction…or, same thing, what’s present in a world prior to its creation. He is pure information; but the information is so totally disorganized that it cannot be harnessed to do any actual work. It does not have the power to make a difference so neither does Jeremy. If the criterion for existence is “a difference that makes a difference” (to steal a phrase from Gregory Bateson), then JHB does not exist in any true sense of the word. He is being’s ghost.

Stephen Hawking showed that Black Holes have the power to annihilate everything that falls through their event horizons; but he also showed that these same holes radiate the information they consume back into the cosmos. Jeremy is that information; in Hawking’s words, he is the black hole’s “hair”.

According to the oldest known Western philosopher, Anaximander, being-in-actu comes about only when two or more beings-in-potentia grant each other “reck”. Unlike the souls in Dante’s Hell and the creatures in the Sea of Monsters, Anaximander’s proto-beings avoid the allure of mutual self-destruction and decide, independently of one another, to let the other be. They do not do this out of any hope of personal gain or out of any expectation of reciprocity; they do it out of Love.

This is a decision that all of us in the living world have the opportunity to make everyday. Every time we treat another as we would be treated ourselves, we co-create the universe with God. The souls in Hell do not have this opportunity; by their unrepented sins they have forfeited it. Neither do the creatures in Sea of Monsters; they are destined to destroy themselves and everything around them.

There is no Love in Hell, or in the Seas of Time. Science and Monsters. So where does this totally selfless Love come from? What is its origin? In a universe powered by mutually assured destruction, the decision to let an adversary survive, almost certainly dooming yourself in the process, is utterly ‘unnatural’. Therefore, it has to originate outside the ‘natural’ (spatiotemporal and material) world.

For Dante and for the Beatles, it originates in the eternal realm, Paradise…or Pepperland.

Jeremy does not exist, but he does have the potential to exist. He needs someone (or something) to grant him reck and for him to grant reck to. Enter the Beatles! They choose to befriend the Nowhere Man: “Mr. Boob, you can come with us if you like.” “You mean you’d take a nowhere man?” “Come on, we’ll take you somewhere.” And as a member of the crew, the Boob finds purpose and with that purpose he begins to organize his information so he can use it to “make a difference”…which he does. Ultimately, he becomes a full fledged ‘person’ after all.

The Beatles and the Boob grant each other reck and, as Anaximander predicted, ontogenesis results! But to be born out of mutual reck, out of Love, is not to exist merely in the spatiotemporal, material realm; it is also to exist in an eternal realm. To be is necessarily to transcend the limitations of spacetime and mere materiality.

From Nowhere Land, the Beatles’ journey is now upwards toward Pepperland, just as Dante’s journey was now upwards toward Paradise. Next stop: the “Foothills of the Headlands”. This is the land of disembodied thought. Its inhabitants desire to help the Beatles on their journey but they cannot. Like Dante’s souls in Purgatory, these creatures are immaterial and powerless to effect their own ends.

After the Headlands comes the Sea of Holes. Here we pass into the realm of ‘negative space’. The usual relations of figure and ground are reversed. The sea itself is the ground and the holes in that ground constitute the figure. Nothingness has become concrete, so concrete that Ringo is actually able to put a ‘hole’ into his pocket.

The topology of this sea is radically non-orientable. There is no consistent sense of directionality, no spatial ordering. It’s like an Escher drawing on steroids. But if the Sea of Holes is evidently non-orientable, then the entire universe in which it is embedded, including Liverpool and Pepperland, must also be non-orientable, albeit less obviously so. We may say that the universe is locally orientable but globally non-orientable because it has the Sea of Holes embedded in it. In the words of the Paradiso, “The glory of him who moves all things penetrates the universe and shines in one part more and in another less.”

Here Yellow Submarine diverges slightly from the Divine Comedy. Dante has the experience of non-orientability when he is on the threshold of Purgatory. “I raised my eyes and thought to see Lucifer as I had left him; and I saw his legs held upward.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV) Just as Dante and Virgil turn to leave Hell, Dante looks back and is surprised to see Satan upside down, a reversal of directionality that is the trademark of non-orientable surfaces. Passing through the Sea of Holes, the Beatles experience that same signature reversal of orientation but the Beatles’ experience comes on the threshold of Paradise.

The Sea of Holes leads directly to Pepperland…but not so fast! You may only enter through an infinitely thin membrane called the “Sea of Green”.,. and only one of the holes connects to the Sea of Green. There are innumerable holes to choose from. Conceivably, one could spend a lifetime searching for the one hole that connects through the Sea of Green…and never find it. After all the Beatles have been through, it is still only through grace that they are able to reach their destination.

Fortunately, our Argonauts do find the Sea of Green, and when they do, they immediately find themselves in Pepperland. Green is the color of spring, new life, and by extension, resurrection. It is as fitting for the Beatles’ passage from Nowhere Land to Pepperland as it is for Christ’s passage from Death to Resurrection and as it is for Dante’s passage from Hell to Paradise.

Remarkably, when the Beatles finally arrive, they find Pepperland looking a lot like Liverpool, drab and lonely.  But they quickly “unbonk” the Lord Mayor with “a snatch of a tune” and “ready the land to rebellion”. It is now that they discover that they bear an “uncanny” resemblance to four of Pepperland’s permanent residents, the members of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In fact, the Beatles are Sergeant Pepper’s band!  They are Beatles under the aspect of extensionality (spacetime) but they are Sergeant Pepper under the aspect of eternity. Pepperland is Liverpool!

Likewise, the souls Dante meets along the way enjoy an historical existence as well as an eternal existence. Both Dante and the Beatles echo the insight of pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Parmenides. He believed that all actual events had to belong to an eternal realm (Aletheia, truth) as well as an historical realm (Doxa, appearance).

Together, the historical Beatles and the eternal Pepper Band use music to restore Pepperland to its former glory. Their battle hymn? All you need is Love! The Blue Meanies are routed. But in the spirit of Love, the Beatles offer reconciliation: “Hello there, blue people. Won’t you join us?” And of course, they do: “Yes, let’s mix, Max!”

It is said that the fundamental question of philosophy is this: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The myriad answers proposed seem to fall into three categories:

(1) Chance. There might just as well not be Being but it so happens that there is.

(2) Necessity. It is in the nature of Being that it has to be. (Ontological Argument)

(3) Choice. Here one is reminded of the great words from Deuteronomy: “I set before you Life and Death…therefore choose Life.” (Deut. 30: 19) Dante and the souls in Paradise choose Life; the Beatles and the Boob chose life. Choice is not the same thing as chance. Choice must be motivated by value and all value ultimately boils down to Love.

For Anaximander, Love is unconditioned, freely granted, mutual reck; for the Beatles, that Love is embodied in music. For Dante, Love is Paradise itself, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In his master work (Process and Reality), British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (see above) combines both views. All values derive from the “Primordial Nature of God”, God’s eternal valuations outside of space and time; but those values in turn are fully realized in the “Consequent Nature of God”, God in his function as the Kingdom of Heaven (Paradise), the reconciliation of all things (I Cor. 15: 24 – 28).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YELLOW SUB HOLY GRAIL

In the intellectual tradition of the Western world, no theme is more ubiquitous, or enigmatic, than that of the Grail. Extant records of the Grail legend date only from the 12th century but the tales they tell go back at least to the time of King Arthur and Sir Gawain, his knight, and in some cases even further back to Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Jesus.

Modern scholarship goes further yet and connects the Grail theme to pre-Christian fertility rites and perhaps even to the ancient Rig-Veda itself. At the other end of the historical spectrum, the Grail appears in contemporary culture in such unlikely places as Indiana Jones and The De Vinci Code. What is this ‘Grail’ over which so much ink and so much blood (at least literary blood) have been spilt? Amazingly, no one actually knows!

In some traditions, it is the cup (chalice) used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In others, it is a vessel Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Jesus’ dripping blood when he was dying on the cross.

Still other traditions find the Grail’s roots in magic. And in some more recent tellings, the Grail is not an object but rather the actual bloodline of Jesus. Nor should we ignore the possibility that the Grail is nothing at all, just the unspecified goal of every human quest, the folklore equivalent of Melville’s Moby Dick.

To make matters worse, there is no single, core story that underlies every telling of the Grail legend. The history of the legend is not so much a literary tree as it is a piece of woven cloth. Threads weave in and out, currents cross; the search for a single point of origin is hopelessly frustrated. At best, we can distill certain elements which appear regularly, but not unfailingly, in the various Grail stories.

Nor is it clear where Grail literature ends and other genres begin. What about Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, what about Wagner’s Ring, what about the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine? In that 1968 film, there is no explicit reference to the Grail anywhere; and yet, the story contains a large number of those ‘Grail elements’ mentioned above.

Most basically, the story of the Grail is the story of a quest. The quest normally includes a physical adventure with great danger and daunting trials. But it may also include an intellectual adventure: What is the right question to ask, when should I ask it, and of whom?

The object of the quest is not always known to the Grail hero, at least not initially. There is important work to be done, it must be undertaken now and it will require great courage and insight; but the exact nature of that work is often shrouded in mystery.

As the stories unfold, many of them include an old, deceased or afflicted ruler (sometimes called the “Fisher King”) whose compromised vitality is somehow connected to the current or impending infirmity of the land, the “Waste Land”. It is the task of the Grail hero to restore the life, health or youth of this Fisher King by performing a physical, spiritual or intellectual feat. When performed successfully (or in some cases, when merely attempted), the land is restored to its former fertility.

It is this transformation of the land from waste to lush that has led some critics to connect the Grail legend to ancient fertility rites. It is the restoration of the king’s life, health or youth that has led other critics to connect the Grail legend with the resurrected Christ or with earlier “gods of life” such as Indra, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis and Osiris.

Among the generally recognized ‘Grail elements’, 9 are clearly present in Yellow Submarine:

  • The Fisher King
  • The Waste Land
  • The Grail Hero
  • The Quest
  • The Hidden Castle
  • The Island Kingdom
  • The Resurrection of the King
  • The Perilous Chapel
  • The Restoration of the Land

This is not an exhaustive list of ‘Grail elements’. Many versions of the story include certain key objects (cup, dish, lance & sword) and a ‘solemn feast’. The solemn feast is clearly missing from Yellow Submarine and the ‘key objects’ can only be found if you’re willing to identify them with Sargent Pepper’s band instruments…a bit of a stretch. But no Grail story includes all of the proposed elements so the lack of a few elements does not disqualify Yellow Submarine, or any other tale, as a Grail legend.

The movie begins in a magical place called Pepperland. The Lord Mayor has grown old and infirm and he has been neglecting his official duties. He is in denial regarding the imminent threat to Pepperland; his attention is instead focused on his performance in a string quartet. As a consequence, Pepperland is unable to repel an attack by a race of ‘giants’ called “Blue Meanies”. The Meanies “bonk” all of the citizens of Pepperland into a state of suspended animation and they turn the color of the land from rainbow to grey. Pepperland becomes the ‘Waste Land’.

Only one citizen escapes. “Young Fred”, the Lord Mayor’s devoted compatriot (knight?) travels to Liverpool, England in a yellow submarine, the same submarine that brought folks to Pepperland 20 years earlier. He travels there in search of “help” and he finds it in the person of Ringo and the other Beatles.

Listening to Fred’s tale of woe, the four Beatles agree to journey back to Pepperland with Fred in his yellow submarine. Like many Grail heroes, they have no idea what lies ahead of them or what they will do when, and if, they reach their destination. They only know that something needs to be done and they trust that they will receive guidance when they need it.

No doubt, the Beatles were expecting to face worldly dangers: “rough seas”, ill winds, armed adversaries. They can hardly have anticipated the ontological dangers lurking in their path. First, they travel through a region (or “sea”) where time flows at varying rates. Worse yet, it flows backwards as well as forwards. Our Grail heroes face twin risks: the risk of accelerated death…and the risk of never having been born!

From there, they enter a sea where the basic structure of space is called into question. Sometimes it’s 2 dimensional, sometimes 3, sometimes it’s a rectilinear grid, other times a Platonic solid. But even this does not prepare them for the “Sea of Monsters…the Monstrous Sea”. Here the Beatles are attacked by creatures who somehow combine organic features with mechanical ones. At one point, Ringo is set upon by an Indian war party and he later describes the experience as “arrowing”.

It certainly was, but not nearly as harrowing as being “sucked into oblivion…or even further” by a vacuum monster. This monster succeeds in swallowing the yellow sub…along with all the other monsters and, oh by the way, along with the fabric of space itself. In the end, the Vacuum Monster even swallows himself, tail first.

Somehow our band of heroes and their yellow sub survive, but now they find themselves alone in perfectly blank and empty universe, save for one proto-person who they refer to as “the nowhere man”. You might guess that such an empty universe would be the end of the road for our heroes…but not so. There are further trials ahead. Beyond nowhere land (beyond nothing there is something?) lies “The Foothills of the Headlands”, a land of conscious but disembodied thought…mind with no matter.

The movie likens this sea to a never ending hallucinogenic experience. Is this Paradise…or Hell masquerading as Paradise? Are the Beatles suggesting that being in this sea is worse than not being at all?

Yet their journey is still not over. Welcome to the Sea of Holes. In order to reach Pepperland, the Beatles have gone through terrible trails that brought them to an empty universe…and beyond. Now they must pass through negative space, a land of negative being. In the Sea of Holes, non-being is actually the subject, the figure, while being is the ground. It is our world turned inside out, ontologically speaking that is.

As you might imagine, the Sea of Holes is populated by…holes. But these are no ordinary holes. They are active, not passive holes. You can pick them up. If you step into one you disappear. If you put one on the side of a fish bowl, its contents will drain out. But it is this negative space that ultimately leads our heroes to Pepperland. But first, they must cross the Sea of Green, a kind of moat that surrounds Pepperland…because Pepperland is the ‘Island Kingdom’ of Grail legend.

To pass from Liverpool to Pepperland, you must first rid yourself of time and space and all the objects and events (attachments?) that fill them. Then you must travel through nothingness, no-being, to a land worse even than no-being. From there, you must pass through negative space, negative being, and only then can you arrive at your destination, Pepperland. And oh by the way, only one of the holes in the vast Sea of Holes functions as a portal to Pepperland. I think we can say without fear of contradiction that Pepperland qualifies as a ‘Hidden Castle’ of Grail legend.

Once in Pepperland, the Beatles successfully resurrect the Lord Mayor (with “a little snatch of a tune”). But the quest is still not complete. Before Pepperland can be restored to its former idyllic state, the Beatles must recover the musical instruments (‘key objects’?) brought to Pepperland 20 years earlier by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And to do that, they must spend a terrifying night in a ‘Perilous Chapel’.

This they do, in a small, dark bandstand atop a hill, in the presence of the holy instruments themselves but surrounded on all sides by “a million billion Meanies”. Eventually, the night ends, the Beatles have survived the final trial and the quest is now complete. Armed with the Sergeant Pepper’s instruments, the Beatles make music and restore the land. In the end, even the defeated Meanies join in.

With 9 key Grail elements prominently displayed, there can be little doubt that Yellow Submarine is, among many other things, a retelling of the Grail legend. But this leaves us with the same question we had at the outset. What is the Grail itself?

One is tempted to say the ubiquitous and indestructible yellow sub; perhaps, Or is it Sergeant Pepper’s instruments. I suspect it’s something much more obvious: music itself. Music turns out to be the key to the Resurrection of the King (Lord Mayor) and the Restoration of the Land. For the Beatles at least, music is the Holy Grail…and why not? Would you expect anything other?

VACUUM MONSTER

When you were very young, were you ever afraid of your mother’s vacuum cleaner? Were you scared it might suck you up? And what would happen then? Would you just vanish?

Of course, you’re much older now and you know that something like that could never happen…or could it?

About 50 years ago, a famous Rock and Roll band known as The Beatles made a movie called Yellow Submarine. In this movie, the four Beatles sail from Liverpool, England to a magical world called Pepperland, and guess what, they travel in a yellow submarine.

But this is not a trip like any you’ve ever taken. The Beatles travel across a Sea of Time where clocks run backwards as well as forwards, through a Sea of Science full of all sorts of weird shapes, and into a Sea of Monsters.

In this Monstrous Sea, the yellow sub is attacked by a bunch of fierce creatures and machines…but nothing is more frightening than the dreaded Vacuum Monster. This creature looks a little bit human but in the place where it should have a nose and a mouth it has instead a large cone-shaped funnel. This funnel looks very much like an attachment you might put onto a real vacuum cleaner. And sure enough, the Vacuum Monster uses this funnel to suck up everything in its path.

First, it sucks up all the other monsters; then it sucks up the yellow sub itself. But it’s not done yet!

Next, it sucks up everything around it including space itself. Now there is nothing left in the whole universe except the Vacuum Monster. But it’s still not done!

Now, it sucks itself up and vanishes, along with almost everything inside it. Why does it do that? Why does it suck itself up along with everything else? Because it can’t help itself! As long as it lives, it can’t stop sucking. It’s a Vacuum. Sucking is what a vacuum does. Unlike your mother’s vacuum cleaner, it doesn’t have an off switch. So when there’s nothing else left to suck up, it sucks up itself.

We’re not like the Vacuum Monster. We have free will. We can decide what we want to do and when we want to do it. And we can stop doing it when we want to stop doing it. There’s nothing we can’t do (as long as we’re able) but there’s also nothing we have to do. There are things we should do and things we shouldn’t do but whether we actually to them or not…is up to us. We decide.

Not so with the Vacuum Monster. It does what it’s programmed to do. It has to suck itself up. What if it didn’t? That would mean that our world was really two worlds…a world of things that get sucked up and a world of things that do the sucking. But that’s not the way our world works. Our world is one world, not two. If something sucks up others, it will eventually suck itself up too. In our world, what you do to others, you do to yourself as well.

You’ve probably heard of the Golden Rule. It goes something like this: “Do to others what you would like them to do to you.” If you would like to be treated kindly, for example, then you should treat others with kindness. If you would like others to be generous towards you, then you should be generous towards them. It’s a good rule and most of the time things work out better for us when we follow it. In fact, Jesus himself taught the Golden Rule.

But there is another rule in the Bible called the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says it, St Paul says it, St. James says it and it’s in the Old Testament too. The Great Commandment is like the Golden Rule, only different. According to the Golden Rule, you do nice things for other people because its the right thing to do and because you hope they’ll do nice things for you.

The Great Commandment says something a little bit different. According to the Great Commandment, when you do nice things for others you also do something nice for yourself…automatically. And of course, when you do mean things to other people, you are being mean to yourself…also automatically. If you make another person happy, you make yourself happy too; and if you make another person sad…well, you know what’s coming next, don’t you?

Whatever you do towards your neighbor you also  do towards yourself. When you act a particular way you towards someone, you act that same way toward yourself.Your actions affect others…and yourself…all at the same time.

Yellow Submarine follows the Great Commandment, not so much the Golden Rule. The Vacuum Monster is a sucker. It sucks up its neighbors and oops, when it sucks up its neighbors,  it sucks up itself too. What it does to others it does to itself…automatically.

I said the Vacuum Monster sucks itself up and vanishes, along with almost everything inside it. Not everything inside it, almost everything inside it. What survives? Just one thing: the yellow submarine! How come? Because  the yellow sub doesn’t just live in our ordinary world; it also lives in the magical world called Pepperland. The yellow submarine is how people go back and forth from Liverpool (our world) to Pepperland. As far as we know, there is no other way! So when the Vacuum Monster sucks up everything, even the yellow submarine, the submarine remains because it lives in Pepperland too and nothing in Pepperland ever vanishes. Pepperland is forever, and so is everything in it!

Are there any such things as Vacuum Monsters? Are there any in our world today? Did I just hear you say, “No?” Sure there are! They’re called Black Holes. Black holes exist throughout space and one is even sitting at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, right now. They suck up everything around them, yes everything, including space and time, just like the Vacuum Monster. And just like the Vacuum Monster, eventually they even suck themselves into oblivion.

According to the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, when a black hole sucks, it sucks up more than just things. It sucks up information (or knowledge) too. The things that get sucked up disappear…but the knowledge stays behind. But there’s a catch! The knowledge that survives is so jumbled and confused that you can’t make any sense out of it, much less use it for anything worthwhile.

The same thing happens in Yellow Submarine. After the Vacuum Monster sucks itself into oblivion, there is no more space and time. What’s left is a real nowhere land. The Beatles find themselves alone in a totally empty world…empty, that is, except for Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD.

Dr. Boob is a real nowhere man living in this nowhere land. He knows everything that has ever been known…but really he knows nothing at all because he doesn’t understand what he knows. It’s as if you memorized a speech in a foreign language that you don’t actually know how to speak. You might be able to recite it, but you would have no idea what you were saying. That’s how it is with Dr. Boob. And that’s how it is when a black hole vanishes.

With the Beatles’ help, Dr. Boob begins to organize his information and slowly but surely he learns to make use of it. Eventually, he joins the Beatles on board the yellow submarine and he goes with them for the rest of their voyage, through the Sea of Holes into the Sea of Green to Pepperland itself…but that’s another story altogether.

Would it surprise you to hear that there are stories in the Bible that sound a lot like this story? Take creation for instance. Genesis says that the earth was once without form or shape; in other words, it was a real nowhere land. Then God said, “Let there be light and there was light…and God separated the light from the darkness.” Then God separated sky from earth, oceans from dry land, and day from night. In other words, God organized everything so we could make sense of it…and put it to use! Then on the 7th day of creation, God rested. Now it is our job is to continue to make sense of this world and to continue to organize it  so that we can accomplish useful and helpful things.

The same thing happens at the other end of time, when our world finally comes to an end…only it happens in reverse. Christ, the Son of God, finishes the job. He puts everything in “proper order” and he even destroys death itself. Then he draws all things to himself and finally he turns all things, including himself, over to God the Father, “so that God may be all in all”. Christ acts just like the Vacuum Monster, except that when he draws everything to himself, he does not draw everything into oblivion but into Heaven!

So the story of the Vacuum Monster in Yellow Submarine is a great tale. But it is more than just a good story; it’s good science and good religion too.