Welcome to Part 2 (The Man in the Mirror) 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.
The light at the end of the tunnel may have been the metaphor for Vietnam, for the hawks victory, for the doves a train coming at us. But both were wrong. The war was but one more symbolic rendering of the escape of consciousness from structure to the wilderness. The light at the end of the long tunnel of consciousness turned out to be, not victory, not a train, not the Garden of Eden, but the gleam in Charlie Manson's eyes.
Terror manifests itself in many forms, most of them coming not from outside ourselves but from within. The external objects and events that scare us awaken fears slumbering in what Emily Dickinson called the cellars of the mind. The beasts under the bed, the monsters in the night shadows moving behind the trees are the projections of our own internal fears onto the landscape of the world. Enough real evil does exist to sustain our projections, but in the end even the projections are rationalizations, lies we tell ourselves to prevent our having to face the real fear within ourselves. We need external demons to keep the demons in our souls at bay. This, according to Baldwin and Ellison, is the role that blacks had played in white consciousness before the Civil Rights movement freed them.
By the end of the Sixties, the beliefs of the old military/industrial combine had unraveled. The protective shell had been shattered and thrown away. With our protective social constructs crumbling, all that was left was the state of nature waiting to reveal itself as either friend or fiend. The idyllic suburbia of "Leave it to Beaver" had become a bad joke. John Wayne was no longer there to protect us from the Indians or lead the way to the next watering hole.... and, as at Altamont, the hot sun was climbing over the rim of the desert. Out of that desert emerged the very apparition that had always been there coiled up in the heart of the culture. Indians, wolves, monsters under the bed. Commies coming to get us, the Viet Cong, "Victor Charley", and finally that other Charley, Charlie Manson.
Joan Didion remembers that in Los Angeles in August, 1969, "everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin' -this sense that it was possible to go too far, and that many people were doing it - was very much with us." She remembered when the first reports came in, garbled, confused, contradictory, and, she wrote, "I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised."
"I am the man in the mirror," says Charles Manson. And in that at least he may be right. "Anything you see in me is in you…. I am you…. And when you can admit that you will be free. I am just a mirror." Nor is that the least that he is right about. And because he was and has since become even more of a symbol, not just of the end of the Sixties, but of the terror that lies at the heart of the darkest cave in consciousness, he compels a more careful study.
Why then is Charlie Manson, as Geraldo Rivera said, "the stuff of a nation's nightmares?" Not for what he did, nor even for what he said. Many others have killed more people more brutally. The answer is because, as Didion foretold, we found in him an icon upon which to project our own latent fears. We took the load off the black man and put it instead on him. No one was surprised because everyone knew the potential was there, in each and all of us. So Manson became a living metaphor of our own latent demons. He became Abaddon, the God of the bottomless pit. We looked into Manson's eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far. He was the monster in the wilderness, the shadow in the night forest, the beast said to lurk in the Terra Incognita beyond the edges of the map. By projecting our monsters onto Manson, and then locking him up for life, we imagined we had put the beast back in its cage.
If the world is the web we weave to protect us from the void, then Manson's eyes were black holes into that void. This was the downside of freedom; this even more than Altamont was what conservatives had been warning against. Out of their fear of what human beings might come to, they had defended social structures like segregation and argued for the need to preserve order in Vietnam. Because of that, conservative apologists for structure lost their credibility. Their fear of sin had overwhelmed and frozen them in place. They clung to their Egyptian slavery and denied that there could ever actually be a promised land. To have no faith in the future dooms us to stagnation, but of the many thousands of the Children of Israel who followed Moses out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb made it to the Promised Land. Of the rest, "their carcasses rotted in the wilderness."
Charlie Manson was exactly what the establishment foresaw and feared in 1517 when Martin Luther had first dared to suggest that truth lay not in the rationalizations of the scholastics but in the subjectivities of the spirit. Such philosophical abstractions are fine for the educated who converse with each other in Latin and, in the final analysis, know what social codes sustain them. But to preach such things to peasants invites anarchy of the wildest sort and leads to such events as the Anabaptist rebellion at Muenster. Even Luther recoiled in horror at the extremes to which those radical Protestants took his ideas. He never imagined that Faith would be achieved here, on earth, in the literal realm of time and space.
The antinomian strain which runs through American culture began in Martin Luther's Reformation with its declaration of Sola Fides, Faith Alone, superior to logic, and with the Priesthood of all believers, the belief that anyone might experience the subjective authority of God in the soul. Luther rejected the radicals' application of this to the political worldly realm and blessed the soldiers who slaughtered the enthusiasts of Muenster. But John Calvin, who had married an Anabaptist, constructed a system in Geneva, which imagined a new order based upon those few people who could be identified as members of the elect. He dared to believe that a few people could escape the solipsistic maze of human stupidity and break on through to Zion. Upon these rocks would be built a new church and a new society that would be Israel reborn. This is the ideology that founded the American colonies, the faith that the invisible would be made visible in us. This was the legacy of the Radical Reformation of Europe carried to America by English, Scots, and Dutch Calvinists, German Anabaptists, Bohemian Husserites, and French Huguenots. No wonder American culture has always produced rebels and outlaws, madmen and saints, who claim to know and speak for God, who claim that they and not the institutional church members are the true elect, truly awakened and truly free.
In 1636, Puritan John Winthrop had seen Charlie Manson in Ann Hutchinson's eyes. Winthrop believed in the possibility of creating on earth Calvin's "Kingdom of Freedom," as his 1629 Arbella Sermon showed, but he also knew full well that not all spirits are divine. The Devil can clothe himself in the robes of righteousness and lead innocent souls astray. Ann Hutchinson's antinomian subjectivity, itself a clear echo of "the enthusiasts and anabaptists" of Munster, threatened not just patriarchal authority or political stability but human sanity itself. Political and social structures exist to back up mental structures, and in return the collective consciousness of the people helps to sustain the institutions of the state. They need each other: "no Pope, no king." The state backs up the church, and the church provides the beliefs that give us meaning. Once you start taking apart the structures that sustain us, there is no telling what else will fall. There is no telling to what extremes the human mind will go. At Ann Hutchinson's trial, Winthrop proclaimed,
These disturbances that have come among the Germans have been all grounded on revelations, and so they that have vented them have stirred up their hearers to … cut the throats one of another, and these have been the fruits of them, and whether the devil may inspire the same into their hearts I know not. For I am fully persuaded that Mrs. Hutchinson is deluded by the devil.Manson, too, following his own revelations, stirred up his hearers, and as a result throats were cut. As Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun."
In 1636 Ann Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts, but the Puritans still ended up falling to their own idolatry. Believing themselves no longer sinners in the wilderness but saints at ease in Zion, they imagined that they knew the truth and thus tried to cement their Israel into place. Eventually another generation rebelled against this idolatry in the name of the living spirit and set out once again in search of the Kingdom of love. Such awakenings inevitably lead, as they did in 1741 and 1802, to excesses of enthusiasm that threaten not just self-crucifixion but the disintegration of a whole culture.
Romantic periods breed such antinomian excess. The command to follow ones heart wherever it might go very well might lead off the deep end. Camille Paglia has argued that romanticism almost always leads to decadence, that Rousseau with his noble savages was followed by the Marquis de Sade:
The continuum of empathy and emotion leads to sex. Failure to realize that was the Christian error. The continuum of sex leads to sadomasochism. Failure to realize that was the error of the Dionysian Sixties. Dionysus expands identity but crushes individuals. There is no liberal dignity of the person in the Dionysian. The god gives latitude but no civil rights.The American romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his readers to trust their own intuitions regardless of social conventions or the moral code. "Truth," he wrote, "is handsomer than the affectation of love." Love itself must be rejected "when it pules and whines." At the execution of the religious fanatic John Brown, who had lead a raid on Harper's Ferry after God told him to stir up a slave rebellion, Emerson proclaimed his gallows "as glorious as the cross." The somewhat less romantic Nathaniel Hawthorne muttered that no man was ever more justly hanged.
But the antinomian strain is so strong in American culture that despite every return to structure, it survives to rise again. For every attempt to build a Constitution that will contain the excesses of the mob, there is the insistence that a Bill of Rights be included which insures that individualism is allowed to flourish. After all, hadn't the leading Conservative, Barry Goldwater himself, said in 1964, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice?" The Republican Party today remains torn between a moralistic wing that would pass laws controlling everyone's behavior and a libertarian wing that would abolish many of our laws. Pro-life crusaders torching abortion clinics, Oliver North refusing to obey the laws of Congress, Timothy McVeigh's bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, even Bush's dismantling of economic regulations to set the markets free are as much in the antinomian tradition as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. Paul Hill, the Presbyterian minister who murdered a doctor who performed abortions, quoted the abolitionist John Brown at his trial. The Unibomber Ted Kazynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh were two sides of the same coin. In America, even the so-called conservatives have a red streak of antinomianism in their souls.
Charles Manson, then, is in good company. And what makes him an antinomian rather than simply a lawless thug and "mass murdering dog" is that his deeds and words are buttressed by an implicit philosophy. He constructed a belief system and believed it and preached it. Another con-man could be easily ignored, but Manson has proven himself faithful to his beliefs. He is not faking them to get out; instead, his refusal to abandon them keeps him locked up tightly in jail.
Manson is fascinating, even mesmerizing, because his voice comes from somewhere else, somewhere faintly recognizable. Emerson said that if you "speak your latent conviction it shall be the universal sense." That is, if you speak the most honest truth of your heart, others will recognize their own most honest truths and listen. Like Malcolm X, and Emerson himself, Manson meant what he said. Like Malcolm X, he had no formal schooling but he is sincere, and as Malcolm X boasted: his sincerity are his credentials.