Welcome to Part 5 (Death Literal and Spiritual) 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.
Manson's message then to the hippies he picked up along the road was one they were ready to hear, that the rational world they had dropped out of was false and that new possibilities existed once they broke free of that mindset. "People only love each other in books," he said, "you can't love each other in reality because you're all trapped in books, locked up in wars. You are all locked up in the second world war…. I'm trying to unlock that war." As the war raged in Vietnam, with the generals and politicians all projecting Hitler's invasion of Poland onto Ho Chi Minh, this made sense. With segregation still rampant in the south, racism a curse throughout the nation, the cities burning in yearly riots, leaders assassinated, nuclear Armageddon threatened, the need to break away from the old games and enter a new dispensation seemed clear.
Manson's songs are perhaps the best example of this message. "Look at your game girl," the song that Axl Rose made infamous, is Manson trying to convince a young girl that it is all "a mad delusion,/ living in that confusion./Frustration and doubt./Can you ever live without your game?" So everything she is is a game, and she needs to realize that "You can tell those lies baby, but you're only fooling you." Every adolescent, every human being, has doubts which reach far into the soul. In the Sixties, a whole generation going through an intense identity crisis, faced doubts about the game we had all been taught. Manson's message was not unique, but communicated one on one to young, uneducated drop outs it came across as cosmically original.
One other song, "Ego is a too much thing," also brings down to a basic level a complex idea which was very much part of the mindset of the era. They have placed rationality, your reason, Blake's Urizen, in control, and shoved all the love into the back, "And they call it your subconscious." The computer up front demands to be in control; it demands to be accepted as you. It "makes you want to jump on a band and fight,/And you can't stand not to be right." It makes you "afraid you are gonna act like a clown/And you get mad when somebody puts you down." The answer to the problem of ego being a "too much thing", is to lose your ego: "Your certainty turns to doubt/And then you start flipping out,/And then you ease on out of your mind."
To lose one's ego is to lose one's common sense view of the world, to leave rationality behind. Included in all that is whatever social construct one was brought up to believe, be it Mormon Republicanism or Jewish liberalism or Roman Catholicism or scientific atheism. It does not matter. Each and every world view, conservative or radical, is just another world view, just another game. This anti-rationality therefore lends itself very easily to relativism, to the idea that all belief systems are equally valid, or invalid, but equally whatever value systems are. They are all "just games." Or as Manson once succinctly summed up the spirit of relativism, "Shit's like sugar to flies."
And the games all take place in an illusion of which even the concept of time plays a role. It is part of Manson's whole conception that the normal cause and effect relationships in which we all believe, including time, are themselves part of the illusion, part of the fallen world, not the Godhead from which it springs. There is only, he keeps saying, an eternal NOW. In this, he is saying nothing that mystics haven't said since the beginning of time. But in his mouth, the idea has important legal implications. If there is no time, there is no cause and effect; if there is no cause and effect, what ever he might have said was in a separate sphere from whatever his followers might have done. The circumstantial cause and effect connections that Bugliosi carefully put together have no meaning. "The idea," said Leslie Van Houghton in a recent cell block interview, "was to let time disappear. There was no time." Asked by Diane Sawyer what he expected would happen after he told the girls "you know what to do," Manson answered, "I don't live in anticipation, woman. I live in now."
As a capstone, there is the theory of language. "The Fall is into language," said Norman O. Brown, and Manson echoed that idea too. He blamed his conviction on the way the prosecutors "had to use catchy little words to make it into a reality, like hippie cult leader." In such ways, the illusions with which we live in the world are created and sustained by language. Language is the instrument of the illusion, of the fall. Said Manson,
That's what Jesus Christ taught us, words kill. They've filled every living thing with death. His disciples betrayed him by writing it down. Once it was written, it was as dead as a tombstone... They killed him with every word in the new Testament. Every word is another nail in the cross, another betrayal disguised as love. Every word is soaked with his blood. He said, "go, do thou likewise." He didn't say write it down. The whole fucking system is built on those words - the church, the government, war, the whole death trip. The original sin was to write it down.If the fall is into language, as Brown had proclaimed, then words are the evil of the world. Words are the tools of deception and control, the way in which the illusion is maintained. They must be used carefully, if at all. Or they must be discredited to liberate people from the illusion that words actually "mean" anything. What, after all, does it even mean to "mean?" It's all just words trying to fool us into believing we know not what. There is no presence in the text.
The way, finally, to escape from the illusion was to surrender the letter and to accept some larger vision. This could be achieved by breaking the hold of language, the letter, which keeps us chained to the illusion of the rational. Once one realizes that words are just sounds and then passes beyond the illusion of inherent meaning or presence in the text, escape becomes possible. In the "Bug Letter," written from his cell, Manson provided an example of this process:
To write I must slow my mind down. I'm not human in my ways of thought and I don't want to be programmed by schools of thought what man is or what man is not, woman, etc." nature" has a balance. I want it like a hunger. I learn a universe in a look, in a flash. I could slow down and spell the word over and over until it hangs in my thought pattern and holds little bits and pieces of power. I try to clear all patterns out of my mind to where I can become a tree or woods, a mountain, a world, a universe. Sparks in my mind become the only pattern I crave.The pattern here is one that had been part of Manson's Protestant background for centuries, a death and rebirth sequence; it was to be born again. He himself often told the story of his own death and rebirth experience in the desert. He even used the scriptural language to define it. About the kids on his ranch, he said, "I turned ‘em loose. They became free in their minds. We started a rebirth movement, a rebirth in Jesus Christ. It's a Holy War really." But so ignorant was he of the larger historical framework and its wider influence over so much of American culture that he once charged Jimmy Carter and the religious right with stealing his idea, as if he had thought it up first.
This explains his fixation with death and the need to die. This is the meaning of the song "Cease to Exist" which he wrote for Dennis Wilson and the Beach Boys and which they put out as a mere seduction song, "Cease to Resist." But as so often throughout the history of Christian hermeneutics, the question of literal and metaphorical readings is constantly a problem. To have stated clearly a distinction between the two would have been to embrace another duality. As Emerson said in "Brahma," "shadow and sunlight are the same." So Manson talked death to his followers, some of whom never did understand that there was even a question of whether he meant literal or spiritual death.
Yet, literal death is important as a way of talking about spiritual death. They really cannot be divided. The death of Jesus of Nazareth the incarnate human on the cross is a necessary symbol of the spiritual death of the soul that is conversion. We humans love ourselves, our bodies, our existence. We don't want to die. So this fear of death becomes an image or shadow of the greater fear of spiritual death, of eternal death - "To die and know it! This is it. This is the black widow, death." Fear and paranoia thus become a part of the package. When the old Adam starts to die, he panics trying to hold onto the old consciousness as it disintegrates in his mind leaving him exposed and naked.
When the old certainties disintegrate, anything suddenly becomes possible, absolutely anything. Images of the devil, of hell, of aliens farming humans for consumption on their home world, you name it. Manson's and the Beatles' message then to "let go and surrender to the void. It is not dying" was a push into a terrifying experience.
To realize that one is only playing a game, and then to watch oneself playing that game, and then to watch oneself watching oneself playing that game, is a terrifying fade back into the infinite upon infinite layers of consciousness until one's mind is as Jonathan Edwards said "swallowed up in God." Thus all the emphasis on exposing game-playing that one reads throughout the Sixties finally culminated here. We have all been programmed by the combine. We need to realize that we are programmed, that we don't know why we believe what we believe or do what we do, and we need to escape from those illusions. This is true liberation from all of the games that have been laid down for thousands of years of civilized history.
Growing up in prison, Manson had experienced a different reality, a different world entirely from that on the outside. In prison, little tolerance is shown for the pretensions that so often mark personalities in the outside world. There each individual is forced back on his or her own final line of defenses, reduced, like the soldiers in Vietnam, to an elemental struggle for survival that has no patience for the petty games that people play. "In the pen you learn this, " Manson told one interviewer, "don't lie. I stand on my own. Not many people in your world can do that. I didn't realize this at that particular time. I didn't realize how weak and mindless you people really are." When he got out, Manson simply did not comprehend that people on the outside really believe their own movies. He had no idea that people actually took their own games seriously. This may explain part of why he allowed the game to get out of hand. At a rare moment in his 1986 parole hearing, when asked if he felt any responsibility for the murders, Manson responded,
Sure, I influenced a lot of people unbeknownst to my own understanding of it. I didn't understand the fears of people outside. I didn't understand the insecurities of people outside. I didn't understand people outside. And a lot of things I said and did affected a lot of people in a lot of different directions. It wasn't intentional. It wasn't with malice aforethought.But a few seconds later when asked if he also felt "remorse," which presumes guilt, Manson sat for a long time in silence before saying, in resignation, "we reach an impasse here, man."