The Magazine

Lapham in Wonderland

On the trail of the Beatles in search of enlightenment.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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With the Beatles

by Lewis Lapham

Melville House, 168 pp., $12.95

IN THE WINTER OF 1968, Lewis Lapham was sent by the Saturday Evening Post to an ashram at the foothills of the Himalayas to examine the confluence of cultures: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, was about to boogie with the Beatles, all four of whom, especially a zealous George Harrison, were intrigued enough to journey to Rishikesh, India, to listen to what he had to say.

This, as it turned out, was not much, and Lapham, who went on to become editor of Harper's, a post from which he has only recently descended, can be very funny when he sifts through the Maharishi's peculiarities, and those of his followers; With the Beatles, however, is a definite misnomer. On the other hand, you can sense the author's desperation: At $12.95 a pop for 168 pages, who would buy a book called With the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

Besides, the contents are packed with pleasantly arid observations: Maharishi devotees feasting on badly boiled vegetables; elderly Englishwomen who embrace homespun cloth and tired observations concerning Christ's disciples, "who were, you know, simple men"; Mia Farrow dashing in and out of the Maharishi's orbit; her sister Prudence, who stays, resolutely but mysteriously unhappy, refusing to be cheered up by John Lennon or his songs.

The author pins his wit when least expected to the tail of long, sober paragraphs, and this is an effective stunt: much as a vulture, after completing a series of lazy aerial maneuvers, might suddenly swoop earthward and pounce on a lamb.

For example, Lapham points out, the Maharishi liked to poll his followers on how many hours they devoted daily to meditation. Since, in addition to being extremely holy, the guy was also a big star . . . um . . . gazer, he pursued this issue publicly with Prudence Farrow, who gamely replied, "Twelve hours, Maharishi." (Small wonder she was ill-humored.) The leader's response to such devotion clearly delights Lapham, who reports:

The answer was barely audible but it so pleased the Maharishi that he pressed his hands together in praise of the Guru Dev, and then, turning toward a small altar decorated with ferns and palm fronds, he performed a ceremony involving the burning of sandalwood, the chanting of a Vedic scripture and the ringing of tiny bells. The ritual inspired a good many of the older students in the hall to prostrate themselves at full length upon the cow dung.

The second-best response to the Maharishi's spiritual demands comes from Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who acknowledges that sexual images sometimes intrude on his meditations, and that "the only thing that keeps me going is the thought of a Max's sandwich at the Stage."

Of course, what the Maharishi really wants out of all this is a lot less mysterious than the restorative powers of the winding Ganges, or the infinite forms of transportation preferred by Hindu deities. "The Maharishi had great hopes for the Beatles; they would become his apostles to a discordant and deluded world," a follower confides. Even more to the point, if the fine karma held out, "they might be persuaded to endow the Spiritual Regeneration Movement with an annual percentage of the income from their record sales."

And what of the Beatles, you ask? Are they as complaisant about their purse strings, or as zealous in their spiritual pursuits, as seems to be expected? As it happens, I asked myself the very same thing, and was bummed out to discover that I had to complete 98 percent of the book--deities, dirt, sacred monkeys, elephants, aphorisms, more vegetables--before encountering them, wearing lots of orange flowers and saying practically nothing.

I realize that Lapham had to do much the same: Weeks passed before the Fab Four threw him a ragged old quote, and then, basically, only Ringo piped up. But to what avail? "I didn't press him for the kind of information that could be changed into news, and I didn't take notes," writes the author. Come again? He is clearly congratulating himself for what in ordinary journalistic circumstances would be a firing offense.

And not only that: I suspect I am not all that different from most people when I acknowledge I'm not all that interested, these many decades later, in the Maharishi or his (evidently active) sex life. The man was a charlatan, silly and dull, an easy target, and Lapham is not the only one to discover he was fond of the ladies. On the other hand, I am sort of intrigued by the Beatles and the news that Ringo "wore bell-bottomed trousers gaudily flecked [sic] with black and red stripes" doesn't exactly fall into the aperçu category.