Forty-five years ago, this week, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in bed, calling for peace. The bed-in arose from their belief that there could be justice in the world; the following year, he wrote “Instant Karma,” an idea that people would bear the consequences of their own actions, not in some distant future, but in the here and now.
The notion of karma, that what goes around comes around, that people will receive their just desserts rests on a belief in fairness in the cosmos; a belief that making the right choices will bring the right consequences; a belief in the power of freewill. But do people really believe such things are possible? How do we explain those who seem to have had no choice?
Reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial, there is an assertion that a choice had been possible; an oblique choice, but if K. had acted differently, then things might have turned out differently,
I was just caught unawares, that’s what happened. If I had got up as soon as I was awake without letting myself get confused because Anna wasn’t there, if I’d got up and paid no regard to anyone who might have been in my way and come straight to you, if I’d done something like having my breakfast in the kitchen as an exception, asked you to bring my clothes from my room, in short, if I had behaved sensibly then nothing more would have happened, everything that was waiting to happen would have been stifled. People are so often unprepared”.
Perhaps that is the problem; perhaps, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, if poor Vladimir and Estragon and been better prepared, they would not have been trapped in an interminable inertia
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?
(Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?
Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern escape the inertia of their literary forebears, but they still end up dead. There is no karma, they are just part of a play where the lines have been written in advance; where the moment when the script could have been rejected passed before they were aware of it.
Our names shouted in a certain dawn … a message … a summons… there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said-no. But somehow we missed it.
But doesn’t anyone sane reject the fatalism of such fictional lines? We choose our own lives, write our own lines, live our own dramas; don’t we? We do not believe ourselves trapped, do we?
Watch news of the forgotten conflict in the Central African Republic, where two million live in dire need and where the United Nations warns of “the seeds of genocide,” and it’s hard to believe in karma, instant or otherwise.
Forty-five years on from the bed-in, and the world is still not a place of peace and justice.