One of the subtler Freudian themes in Tommy is that of repetition compulsion. We repeat, Freud wrote in 1914 in “Remembering, repeating, and working through”. Specifically, we repeat instead of remembering, or realizing. We act out that which is repressed, feeling ashamed only when consciousness is brought to bear upon our actions. Prior to modern notions of addiction, which includes behaviors that are repetitive despite negative consequences, we’ve held in mind this underlying template for why human beings behave paradoxically, pledging to never forget…then forgetting anyway.
Tommy Walker witnessed a murder at the age of seven, roughly. Prior to this, his life experience is unknown but is subject to speculation: his father had been away at war, was reported missing. Tommy’s mother, apparently lonesome, had taken another lover, was poised to replace Tommy’s father until the father returns, discovering…oops! It’s unknown what Tommy thought of his world, how he experienced his world, prior to witnessing a crime, but upon that event he is told to not say anything—indeed, he is told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything; that he will pretend that nothing of importance had even happened.
This is the opening drama of Tommy: well known, or known enough by Classic Rock fans, or by most over the age of forty who made passing glances at pop culture, I think. I aim to make its meaning further known in my 2016 Tommy paper, as well as in my forthcoming non-fiction. In response to the crime and, by implication, his parents’ censoring message (BTW: it’s the father who’s returned and killed the lover), Tommy dissociates in the extreme. The libretto and myself now, even, play along with the secrecy by not quite naming the event, so a style of response pervades characters and listeners, and it all makes sense, somehow. Somehow it makes sense that Tommy’s over-the-top reaction—his psychosomatic deaf, dumb, and blind reaction—is the perfect over-reaction. It splits reality between a shameful, dangerous disclosure of truth versus a deadening, self-denying silence. It is a schizoid withdrawal, a monk’s solution: at once a pathology and an eloquent, logical act. Tommy’s symptoms are extreme yet prescriptive, and who hasn’t thought at one time or another, that the best thing to say or do in response to injustice, is nothing.
We imagine as Tommy proceeds with his life that he retains memory, as in biographical memory, of the events that compel his silent protest. We assume, even, that his condition is a protest and not merely a detachment, for that would sever hope, lead to an unhappy ending, which breaks the rules of popular art, never mind rock and roll. Through twists and turns, Tommy’s life improves because he has talents which defy his withdrawal, which draws admirers, even followers, which in turn further messes with the isolationist plan. Tommy re-engages, but does so in a didactic, overbearing manner, forgetting himself, forgetting why he isolated in the first place. Out of habit, he forgets how to relate. The followers revolt and unwittingly emulate Tommy’s past adversaries: they find they want to abuse him, reject him. They stop listening.
Circularity. Tommy’s end is not so much happy as sober. He, The Who, myself, many others: people try to learn from their past, try to help others, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Maybe that seems easy when observing an outcome, that behavior or act that we could never imagine ourselves doing. The thing is that we don’t know the many repetitions that culminate in those acted out, unforgivable atrocities. We judge, or other ourselves, as social justice warriors term it. Our psyche holds onto our mistakes but obscures memory, helping us avoid pain. So we don’t notice the repetitions, and we don’t how we get somewhere until we’re there.