Welcome to Part 4 (The Power of an Empty Head) of our 6 part series with Dr. Dave Williams, author of Searching For God in the Sixties. Each part is being presented on Mondays. Dr. Dave is making himself available to answer questions in the comments section.
Setting aside as much as possible the horror of the Tate/LaBianca murders, it is instructive to look into Manson's belief system for evidence of why he was believed. According to Bugliosi, part of Manson's charismatic appeal was "his ability to utter basic truisms to the right person at the right time." What were these truisms? Why did they work?
What we find when we do take Manson's own words seriously is that he had managed to absorb much of the developing philosophy of the Sixties. In some way, he was the final extension of the mind's "true liberation," of the ideas of the Civil Rights movement, of the white radicals of SDS, of Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Das, of Norman O. Brown. What he said seemed to make sense to so many innocents because these same ideas were running all around them. Manson is no intellectual in the conventional sense. He is at best self-educated but not at all bookish, having spent his entire life, from childhood up, behind bars. He has a sharp mind and has paid attention to the world around him. But he never had much opportunity to compare notes or to talk with others about ideas. He was like someone who learned French entirely out of books but never heard the language spoken. When he emerged from prison in 1967, in the summer of love, his language and his approach were just bizarre enough to seem to be a part of the multi-faceted counter-culture. And his beliefs seemed like the culmination of a decade of antinomianism, the logical extension of what had been going down, not just in the Sixties, but also throughout American history.
We can see here why so many people in the counter-culture at first embraced Manson as one of their own, why the underground press treated him as a martyr to the cause. By taking on so much of the many strains of the Sixties, "Manson" became a symbol of the hippyfreak fighting back against the machine. And the immediate assumption was, as it was when a black man was accused of rape, that this was an obvious frame, that Manson was being made a scapegoat by a crumbling establishment terrified that it was losing control over its children. There were even a few, who had already gone over the edge, who assumed that he was indeed the perpetrator of the crime and congratulated him for striking a blow in a revolutionary war. Bernadine Dohrn of SDS, when she heard the news, said, "Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room. Far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson." Jerry Rubin, who had rejected his parents' liberal rationalism for the spontaneous emotions of the crowd, said, "I fell in love with Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on TV."
In the romantic revolt of the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had proclaimed the superiority of individual intuition over the corpse-cold tea of rationality and logic, and he had urged himself and others to be totally self-reliant, to trust the inner self. What if this spirit you trust is from the Devil, not from God, asked his orthodox aunt, Mary Moody Emerson? "I do not believe it is," he replied, "but if so I will live then from the devil." What is in the self is paramount. It and not the combine must be allowed to direct traffic. He proclaimed that reality exists as consciousness and not as matter, and thus truth is to be sought not in science but in the subjective intuition of each mind. Each of us, he said, if we dig down through the layers of culture and belief that has been accumulating over the millennia will find a universal consciousness we all share and from which we all come. Therefore, he called on every free person to "speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense."
Walt Whitman read Emerson and was inspired to believe that his heart's truth was indeed this universal truth, that when he said "I" he was both "Walt Whitman, a kosmos," and "of Manhattan the son." He was a specific individual in the material world, but his voice was also a voice that came from the infinite. As such, he was beyond the moral law, beyond even the Victorian era's horror at anything sexual, much less his flaunted homosexuality. He was part and parcel of the universal mind and thus beyond good and evil. A baby in the cradle, two teenagers in the bushes, a suicide lying dead on the floor were equally innocent in his eyes.
The 1960s have been called neo-transcendental because in many ways the ideology of the era was an echo of the transcendentalism of Emerson and Whitman's day. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, opened the door a crack when he stood up in the name of righteousness against the laws that defended segregation. He was willing to proclaim in the name of God that these laws were immoral. How did he know? He felt it in his heart, in his conscience. But he denied that he was an antinomian. He was after all, a Baptist, in the historic tradition of his namesake, Martin Luther. He spoke from within a historic tradition tied to the morality of the Bible and his Protestant faith. He may have been outside the circle of American law, but he was still well within the circle of Western cultural beliefs. Calvin had once before opened that door a crack and the result was the Puritan peopling of America. Now through that same door streamed a generation of baby boomers who did not identify with the Baptist tradition, who in fact identified with no tradition, who had no grounding, and thus were truly antinomian and entirely on their own. Norman O. Brown's call to suspend rational common sense and follow the consciousness of the body spoke to these rebels. Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Dass and the psychedelic experience heightened the sense of being outside the normal realms of consciousness and in touch with higher truths. The radicals of SDS attacked American capitalism and militarism and racism and imagined themselves capable of superior insight into the political problems of humankind. Even the grunts in Vietnam stepped outside the combine and gave themselves over almost completely to the wilderness outside the civilized laws they had been brought up to respect.
Into all this, Charles Manson emerged in 1967 and soaked up the ideas then prevalent and ar repeated them with a voice that commanded attention. One of his followers tried to explain that he wasn't brainwashed by Manson but impressed by him: "The words that would come from Manson's mouth would not come from inside him, [they] would come from what I call the Infinite."
Just like Walt Whitman, Manson believes that his "I" was more than the limited ego of one particular small time hoodlum. When he says "I" he means the same thing that Whitman meant when he began his "Song of Myself," with "I celebrate myself, and sing myself." The initial reaction of most people first reading this is, "what a conceited, egocentric ass!" But further reading reveals that his celebration is not of Walt Whitman of Manhattan the son, but Walt Whitman, spokesman for the "kosmos." When Walt Whitman the particular human opened his throat, the voice that came out came from the infinite. His was the "latent conviction" which Emerson proclaimed would be "the universal sense," a voice inside each and every one of us, a voice that exists not in rational consciousness but in the subconscious, below the petty games we play. Whitman is no dualist, a finite sinful human out of touch with truth. He is a pure romantic, a monist, convinced that what he feels in his heart is one with the falling rain, the blowing clover, the rising sun.
You hear this same conceit in much of Manson's rhetoric and behavior. Where does your music come from, he is asked? His response is to stand up, say "It comes from this," and then go into a dance of flinging arms and swinging legs, a whirling dervish of energy. His spirit, he is saying, is the basic spirit from which all life emanates. He taps into that spirit. "I respect the will of God, son," he says to Geraldo Rivera.
"What will is that?"
"The will of God." And then he goes into his dance again humming and chanting along with it. "Whatever you want to call it, Call it Jesus. Call it Mohammed. Call it Nuclear Mind. Call it Blow the World up. Call it your heart. Call it whatever you want to call it. It's still music to me. It's there. It's the will of life."
That this will is also his will is implicit in what follows: "They crowd me in," he tells Rivera, "and I've got this little space. I live in the desert. I live in the mountains, man. I'm big. My mind is big, but everyone's trying to crowd me down and push me down and make me something they need me to be. But that's not me."
Manson calls himself Jesus Christ, but, like Emerson, he also says that every man is Jesus Christ. Every man has the original energy within him. "I am everything, man," he says, and he means it. But he does not bother to explain when the "I" of his discourse is the person, Charles Manson, or the Universal eye that is the will of God. Thus he tells Rivera, "If I could kill about fifty million of you I might save my trees and my air and my water and my wildlife."
Taking him literally, and hoping for a good soundbite, Rivera responds, "You're going to kill fifty million people?"
Manson's answer is instructive. It shows both what he is trying to say and his inability to communicate it. "I didn't say I would kill anything," he protests. "I'm reaping the head in thought. I'm Jesus Christ whether you want to accept it or not… I'm reaping it in thought. It's a thought, a thought," Obviously frustrated, he jabs his fingers on his head to emphasize his point. "Do you see what I'm saying? In other words, the whole world is a thought, and I am in the thought of Peace-on-Earth."
The point is not simply that Manson is speaking metaphorically. He is doing that, but he is also saying that everything is a metaphor, that our very lives, our bodies, our surroundings, are metaphor; that we live in an illusion if we think this material reality is real. Like Emerson and Edwards, he is a philosophical idealist. He believes that what is ultimately real is not matter but consciousness. This whole thing we call reality, or the universe, is an illusion, a dream. What we call God is the dreamer. And our bodies are no more real than are the strange beings that flit through our dreams at night. The whole world is a thought, and each person's perceptions are but a series of thought within the framework of the larger thought. As Manson once put it, "everyone's playing a different game with the thought." All of the many perceptions of this existence are but dreams within a larger dream. This is where Manson is coming from when he says to the court and the straight world, "I don't live in your dream." This is why he says "You've got my body in a cell… but I'm walking in forever, man." He is freer, he claims, to wander among the mountain in his jail cell than if he were struggling to survive in the day-to-day realities of the outside world. To believe that this physical world is the ultimate reality is to be trapped in the illusion. To be aware of the cosmic mind is to be liberated from the illusion.
That is where all the emphasis on life as game-playing becomes important. It is not a question of being brainwashed by the Capitalists' game, as the Marxists imagine, but of being brainwashed by any game, Capitalist, Marxist, Buddhist, scientific, you name it. All of rational human consciousness is a walking dream from which people need to be awakened. We are each, as Kesey kept saying, trapped in a movie. And the first thing we need is to realize it so we might try to break out of the movie or, perhaps, enjoy it more fully, more consciously, more completely and honestly.
The key to this notion is the same as the key to most poetry; it is the idea of symbolic consciousness. To realize, as Emerson said, that "we are symbols and we inhabit symbols," is to take the first step out of the common sense perception of reality into a transcendent consciousness. Here, Manson sounds eerily like Norman O. Brown, whom he may have never read. But Brown's words were abroad in the Sixties; he could have picked them up anywhere. Rolling Stone's article on Manson, written in 1969 and reprinted in Mindfuckers, puts quotes by Brown and Manson back to back. "Words are symbols," Manson told Rolling Stone, "All I'm doing is jumbling the symbols in your brain. Everything is symbolic. Symbols are just connections in your brain. Even your body is a symbol." In Love's Body, Brown writes, "The body is not to be understood literally. Everything is symbolic, everything including the human body." And elsewhere in the book he writes, "To make in ourselves a new consciousness, an erotic sense of reality, is to become conscious of symbolism. Symbolism is mind making connections (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations)."
Manson saw the world as a symbolic manifestation, not a literal reality. It is an illusion, a mask, and the things within this illusion point beyond themselves to some transcendent presence. Everything from scripture to sex is a symbolic message from the divine trying to tell us something. We are surrounded by messages we cannot read and locked into game-playing roles we do not understand, all at the mercy of some cosmic game player.
When Starbuck protests that Moby Dick is just a whale, Captain Ahab responds, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event - in the living act, the undoubted deed - there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through that wall?" Ahab, awakened to the fact of his being an actor in a greater movie not under his control, cannot enjoy the part, and so determines to make his role that of the rebel who resists his role, a rebellious role he realizes he was fated to play from the beginning of time. It is a paradox.
The Calvinists believed that we are all trapped in predetermined roles over which we have no control, but following Calvin, they imagined a way out. They imagined that if they could crucify their human selves they might get in touch with the divine. They imagined that a few, a very few, had the fate to escape the cage, and they imagined that they could identify these elect few. Unfortunately, this idea of the elect, dead to their old selves and born again to the divine self, expanded in America until it included almost anyone who wanted to belong. In this democratization of spiritual election, we came to imagine the entire nation to be God's nation and we created worldly structures based on that conceit. Yet the original conception remained alive beneath the sham.
So in America we continue to have periods of awakening in which people realize that they have been playing parts that are not divine, which are in fact stupid and gross and evil. They awake from their sleep and determine to break away from the old world with its corruptions and begin anew, to recreate the Garden of Eden in a new world. They imagine that their reborn consciousness is the mind of God, and if that is so, it empowers them beyond any imagination.
Throughout the Sixties, this same message was repeated again and again. We are all playing games. We are all stuck in a movie. We are all conditioned to believe in things that are not true. We are all socially constructed, not essential, not in control. Some would replace the old conditioning with new conditioning, a better jail with a kinder jailer. The true Children of the Sixties, however, unlike the Marxists in SDS, did not embrace some new Egypt but kept on sojourning toward the Promised Land outside of the cages, outside of any jail.
This is who Manson said he was, a Christ, the person who had broken through, who was free. Like Randle P.McMurphy, another sort of Christ, he had never been under the control of the combine. Ironically, being in jail, where they did not bother to educate or socialize him, he remained free of all the institutions by which the state brainwashes its other children. He received, as did McMurphy, another kind of conditioning, for sure. But it was different, so he came out different and knew it. He knew it was all a sham, and he believed this insight set him apart, put him on a higher plane.
Rationality, he said, is a false god. It is part of the game playing of the world. The whole rational logical structure of the world is false and the people who play its games without realizing it are fools. So he had little respect for the law, for the courts, for the lawyers, for any representative of the establishment. His attack on the law had its parallel in Love's Body:
Reik, in a moment of apocalyptic optimism, declares that 'The enormous importance attached by criminal justice to the deed as such derives from a cultural phase which is approaching its end.' A social order based on the reality principle, a social order which draws the distinction between the wish and the deed, between the criminal and the righteous, is still the kingdom of darkness.The interconnectedness of all things in the realm behind the veil means that everything is dependent upon all, that there is no individual consciousness, hence no individual freedom, and therefore no individual responsibility. To be, as romantics imagine, in the divine consciousness, to participate in the godhead, is to be as Manson said, "inside of you. I'm inside every one of you. It's beyond good and evil."
To be romantic is to imagine that one exists in a realm of perfect Oneness in the garden, not in the fallen world of alienation, duality, and separateness. The fall, original sin, dualism, and all that belong to the orthodox and neo-orthodox, the over-30s who think themselves still in Egypt or the wilderness, not at ease in Zion in the promised land. At its core, the consciousness of the counter-culture, so evident at Woodstock, was a belief that we had somehow passed over into the garden and set our souls free, that we had left the fallen world of dualism and sin and passed into a new dispensation in which dualism had been overcome. It is perhaps the highest vision of the oldest American dream, its most powerful inducement, but also its most dangerous delusion.
Emerson's remarkable poem "Brahma" brings this all together, traditional American romanticism, Eastern mysticism, and the transcendence of binaries like good and evil, life and death, killer and killed:
If the red slayer thinks he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They do not know the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
To find that one mind behind the dualities of life, to find that cosmic center, that essence that Baba Ram Dass also thought he found, is to find a place beyond good and evil. Hence, even heaven is part of a binary. To believe in it is to reveal one's attachment still to the world with its binary consciousness. Manson believed he had found that one mind, tripping away on acid, and hence he had turned his back on all of the false constructs of the language of the world, all of the artificially constructed binaries, including "heaven."