“Dear Prudence” as an Interaction between East and West

Robert Tindol

Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


One of the noteworthy songs to come out of the Beatles’ celebrated 1968 trip to India was “Dear Prudence”, authored by John Lennon. “Dear Prudence” is unique in its conjoining of Eastern sounds with a childlike Western theme, and as such it is particularly evident of the way in which Lennon in particular understood the possibilities of artistic hybrids involving the East and West. Moreover, the song can be analyzed by employing Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture as well as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia two-volume series. With such an interpretation in mind, the call for Prudence to “come out and play” involves the sharing of attention of newfound interest in the East with a continued grounding in the familiar West. This is a new “plateau” that does no violence to the past nor to any actor in the present, but instead leads to a peaceful new beginning.

Keywords: Beatles, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

The facts of the case are not only simple and straightforward, but comprise one of the most widely known intercultural encounters in Western pop history. In early 1968 the Beatles and their spouses, a number of personal and professional friends, fellow musicians, and various others journeyed to India for the ostensible purpose of studying Transcendental Meditation at the feet of the renowned guru Maraheshi Mahesh Yogi. Within a few weeks, all four of the Beatles had departed — albeit with a batch of memorable songs tucked away in their kits for future recordings (“The Beatles in India,” 2015, para. 3). Anyone wishing to pursue the topic of the Beatles’ India visit more thoroughly may do so with freely available resources vastly beyond the Wikipedia article that I have just cited, as well as with trade books and other materials. As an example of the latter, the on-line firm lists 9,665 entries in their books section for the search term “Beatles.” While many of these hits are probably repetitive, one can rest assured that Beatles reading is plentiful in the world of popular trade books alone. Scholarly literature is also well represented on the topic of the Beatles as well as their sojourn in India, with ProQuest returning well over 300 scholarly articles.

What is perhaps more lacking in the scholarly literature, however, is an in-depth look at one of the fruits of the Beatles’ India venture — to wit, John Lennon’s beautiful song “Dear Prudence” that was recorded for the White Album and released later the same year. For those a bit derelict in their Beatlemania, “Dear Prudence” is the song that features a guitar opening that is somewhat reminiscent of a sitar sound, accompanied by a thoroughly Western lyrical call for a girl to cease her toils for a time in order to enjoy childlike play in the sunshine. The manner in which “Dear Prudence” forges an association between the cultures of India and the Anglo-America of the Beatles provides a unique perspective on the way in which cultural amalgamations can take place within the context of popular culture. Especially useful for this discussion is a postmodernist reading of the song (both in terms of lyrics and musical structure) via the postcolonial work of Homi Bhabha, as well as the two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia series (1977, 1987) by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I argue that “Dear Prudence” is constructed in such a way that the East-West interaction is exemplary of a “productive mechanism” that becomes a memorable “plateau” according to Deleuze and Guattari’s theory. In other words, the song in both its lyrics and musical structure proposes an amalgamation of contrasting cultures that thereafter becomes a new cultural artifact in itself.

The natural place to begin a discussion of the cultural amalgamation of East and West in a popular song is with Homi Bhabha, whose 1994 book The Location of Culture provides a substrate to account for precisely how the Deleuzian “nomad” hybridizations can occur across cultural lines. According to Bhabha, the very nature of global cosmopolitanism provides a venue in which individuals and cultures — even those “located at the periphery” — can generate new cultural artifacts “so long as they produce healthy profit margins within metropolitan societies” (p. xiv). Writing some three decades after the White Album became an instantaneous top-selling album, Bhabha is referring more in this passage to clean rooms producing microchips in cheap labor markets for American and European consumption and what-have-you, but it is apparent that a best-selling rock album is every bit as much a commodity as a cell phone, insofar as intercultural production is concerned.

However, before my argument begins sounding as if I am merely attributing crass global consumerism to John Lennon, I should counter that Bhabha’s argument seemingly implies that these capitalistic amalgamations are inevitable, given that capitalism primarily favors the arithmetic bottom-line and has little if any concern for ethnic difference. An American dollar, a British pound and an Indian rupee all have the same potential for investment in making new commodities if they are each freely available for the purpose. Therefore, global capitalism means that a John Lennon song may have a Maharishi-induced Eastern flavor to blend in with its traditional Western sensibilities, but the end purpose is still the employment of uncommitted financial resources to generate new financial resources.

Given that the song “Dear Prudence” came at a time when Western musical sensibilities were still seated firmly in material dealing with Friday-night dates after the prom and such, the very idea of a call for a girl to come out and play to the tune of a guitar emulating a sitar may today seem a bit unorthodox. Actually, the tenor of the times was such that an unconventional song merging East and West was by no means unusual, nor would it even raised many eyebrows. In fact, the news media blithely followed the Beatles along on their Indian junket and reported their every move at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, as exemplified by the several New York Times articles published at the time that are footnoted in the Wikipedia article “The Beatles in India” (2015). Nor would the Beatles have broken new ground for themselves even if they had used an actual sitar for the recording on the 1968 White Album, for as the Beatles Bible Website notes (2015), George Harrison had played a sitar on the 1965 song “Norwegian Wood,” and later employed the Indian stringed instrument on the 1966 Revolver album for the song “Love You To,” and on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for “Within You Without You” (“Beatles and India,” para. 4-7).

But even if sitar pieces (or guitar pieces that arguably sound a bit like sitars are being played) had been uncomfortably odd for 1960s audiences — which they certainly were not — the work of Deleuze and Guattari in the Capitalism and Schizophrenia series would nonetheless deftly explain away the problem. To demonstrate the argument, it is sufficient merely to explain why the two-volume series by the two French philosophers is so named. A gross oversimplification is the adage “a little craziness is a good thing,” but what Deleuze and Guattari have in mind primarily is an attempt to herd themselves away from “state-sanctioned” philosophizing. Because certain people on the border of insanity (or clearly over the edge) manage this independence — albeit at a personal cost — the very functioning of schizophrenic thought processes perhaps hold certain keys to liberation of thought and action.

However, it is necessary at the outset to state that Deleuze and Guattari are not saying that schizophrenia is a good state for an individual to find himself or herself in, but rather that certain symptomatic associations involving the schizophrenic process, if not the process itself, enigmatically show the way to innovative and often useful social mutations. Or, as Deleuze and Guattari’s English translator and commentator Brian Massumi (1991) explains, “schizophrenia is the enlargement of life’s limits through the pragmatic proliferation of concepts” (p. 1). The work had its origin in the chaotic French protests of 1968, which coincidentally occurred in the same year as the Beatles’ Indian sojourn, and which in certain ironic ways led to much greater social confusion within the establishment than four middle-class British musicians could manage even if they tried. At any rate, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus have been viewed by many as a particularly efficacious explanation of why workers and students took to the street in 1968 in what one would normally assume to be a protest against the conservative establishment, and much more enigmatically, why the Left had nothing to offer the protesters (Buchanan, 2008, p. 2). In short, the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project rejects attempts by both the establishment and the liberal opposition to hammer it into conformity, in much the same way that the 1968 protests themselves resisted pigeon-holing…Full Text PDF

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