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Thoughts on Charles Manson

Quentin Tarantino has a new movie out, which has the Tate-LaBianca killings in its backdrop, and I both do and don’t want to see it. I want to see it because I’m a fan of Tarantino’s work and have been since I first saw Pulp Fiction as a college freshman. Then as now, no one makes movies like he does. For all the talk of how he is a style thief and wallows in campy excess, he is one of the few directors today who can genuinely surprise me. When I watch something he’s made, I never know what’s coming next. He’s a rare filmmaker whose work is both a household name – who mainstream audience will pay theater-ticket prices to see on his name recognition alone – and a reliable critical success. I don’t like everything he’s done: Death Proof was a bridge too far, and Django Unchained left me cold. But in today’s world where everything is an existing IP, or a remake, or a reboot, or a comic book movie, his work is a reminder that cinema is supposed to be art, and art for grown-ups. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is almost too appropriate a title in that framework.

That doesn’t mean you have to like his movies, and it especially means you don’t have to like him. But he’s a damn rare thing these days, and I predict we’re going to miss him when he’s gone, and talk about him in the tones that people speak of Hitchcock and Kubrick.

I don’t want to see it because, and there’s no two ways about this, enough with Charles Manson. I’ve written before about how uncomfortable I am with the pop-culture awareness of famous killers. Manson wasn’t exactly a serial killer, but in many ways he was something worse. Jack the Ripper didn’t harm anyone but the prostitutes he sliced up, but cultists like Manson drag otherwise good people into savagery, too. As with Jim Jones, or Adolf Hitler, or Lenin, Stalin, Castro and the rest of the Reds, spiritual degradation is their work, as much as anything else.

So below, I post an essay I wrote about Manson for my defunct medium.com account, at the time of his death. I stand by it.

Charles Manson Was No One

And he does not deserve our attention

“First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach! Wild!”

-Bernadine Dohrn

Homo homini lupus est. (Man is wolf to man)

-Roman proverb

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Humans are apex predators. We are in fact the apex predator of apex predators. We hunt and kill apex predators. We kill lions. We kill sharks. We kill cobras. Not because we need to — at least, not all the time. Because we like to. There are humans who hunt for no other reason than hunting is in our DNA. It’s what makes us what we are.

And often, we hunt each other. Because being apex predators, we are threatened by the other apex predators, i.e., one another. So we kill each other for resources. We kill each other for mating prospects. We kill each other out of fear that the other will kill us first.

And sometimes, we kill just because.

Charles Manson is finally dead. Every few years, he would come up for parole, and every few years, he would be denied parole. It was a bureaucratic absurdity. He’d been condemned to die in prison long ago. He lived in prison. He was prison.

At the time he started his cult, Manson had spent most of his life in some correctional facility or other. He had never had a steady job. He had never completed a degree or diploma. He had never owned anything of value, and aside from getting a few women pregnant, had never contributed anything of value. He was, in short, a failure in every way that a man can fail. His existence was a hole where a human life should have been.

What does a human do when he’s consistently unable to function in human society? Very often, he reverts to default, to atavistic survivalism. He becomes a predator.

The insanity of the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the horror-movie flavor of them, the sheer lack of a discernible purpose for them, have led people over the years to attribute to the mastermind of them some manner of demonic, dark-guru status. No less than four separate television interviews have tried to pry into the Mind of Manson, only to discover a howling void of nonsensical utterances.

look at yourself. You‘ve got to wear that, whether you like it or not. You‘ve got to do things. You‘ve got to get up and go through all kinds of changes; whether you want to or not doesn‘t matter. Your whole life is put in your paycheck. You couldn‘t pay me all the money in the world to do something I don‘t want to do.

If I‘m shoveling the barn, and you want me to go (INAUDIBLE) I say, no, no, no. I‘m doing something right here. I‘m helping this blind man. I feel better in doing what I want to do.

I did not break the law. Jesus Christ told you that 2,000 years ago. You don‘t understand me! That‘s your trouble, not my fault because you don‘t understand me. I don‘t understand you either, but I don‘t spend my whole life trying to put the blame over on you because my cigarette didn‘t light or because something didn‘t work right. What do you want to call me a murderer for? I‘ve never killed anyone. I don‘t need to kill anyone. I think it. I have it here.

I don‘t need to live in this physical realm. I walk around in the physical realm, and I put on the faces, and I talk, and I play (INAUDIBLE) it‘s just a big act, man. In the spiritual world is where I live. I exist in places you‘ve never even dreamed of. You talk about, you know, just the little physical realm you live in, guilty, and is he in sin? How‘s your courts guilty? How many people do you think you‘ve hung on the ventilators in the nut wards and forced medication on them?

You see what I‘m saying? You don‘t have any idea what the hell is going on.

-Charles Manson, MSNBC interview, September 2007

It is the human habit to seek patterns, to find cause and effect, to believe that if something exists, something is behind it. We want to listen to this man who speaks in prophetic cadences and hear what he has to say. If we pour over this quote, and analyze it, and search for meaning and truth, we will find none. And we cannot accept this, so we attribute to him some word that will cover it. Like “insane”. Like “evil”. But these are words indicating the lack of a something: the lack of reason, the lack of goodness. They do not attest to anything being there.

People have spoken of Manson’s odd charisma. And let us stipulate that he had it. But where did it come from? What does “charisma” mean other than people are fascinated by a person? And is it not plain that what fascinates us is nothing but what expresses something we have deep within?

The reason that the girls like me was — hey, now, hey, now, I‘m all around you, around you, hey, now, up on your heart I can sing through you. And I play, and I sing. And they‘d say, “Hey, man, you‘ve got — you‘ve got soul in that music.” And I said, “Yes, I play a little bit, you know? I like music.” “Man, you‘re really somebody.” I said, “Oh, I am? I just got out of jail. I don‘t know what somebody is.”

They like my music. They say, “Man, we want to get you over.” I said, “Get me over for what?” They said, “We take you down here to Beverly Hills, and we want to get you in because you‘re a star.”

-Charles Manson, MSNBC Interview, September 2007

Sometimes, we are attracted by what repulses us. In the extreme of horror is a fascination. In the brutal cruelty of the Third Reich, Germany created a monument to wickedness that our popular culture will not stop examining in books and film. The glamour of the Nazis and their evil were bound up in the same thing. By their refusal to abide by human obligations, they became something we feared, something we expended great effort to destroy, and something that haunts us still, 70 years later.

That’s why Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground expressed such admiration in the killing of “those pigs”. Bernadine didn’t know those people, she was incapable of making any judgement upon them. They were “pigs” not because of some defect in their character but because that is how Bernadine chose to see them, as degraded beasts. This speaks to her moral degradation and nothing else. She was not seeing Sharon Tate. She was only seeing her own hatred of the society she grew up in. Any manner of hatred would have been acceptable to her. Manson had nothing to do with it. He had nothing to do with anything. That was his problem.

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Look at the eyes of Charles Manson on this album cover and tell me that the same howling void is not staring back at you. His eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming, as the poet put it. He looks like he’s not seeing you, or anything at all.

“…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

-Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

And at times that emptiness fascinates the Bernadine Dohrns and the associated hipsters who delight in the inversion of human relations so that they can celebrate themselves for celebrating the inversion. The call to cast aside obligation, and wallow in Id-sense, to spit upon one’s hands and hoist the black flag, calls out to many of us from time to time. But the one who does it is not a hero, nor is he a mystic. He is only hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind.

The Disassociated Protagonist

There’s doubtless a more-approved critical term for this phenomenon, but I only took one lit-crit class in college, and also I don’t care. This is my term, and I’m finding it all over Play It As It Lays, which I’ve mentioned before I’m reading.

Observe:

In the care she counted the stiff bills. They stuck together and she missed one and she counted them four more times before she was certain she had them all. Since early morning she had been trying to remember something Les Goodwin had said to her, anything Les Goodwin had said to her. When she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distinct from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep. It had seems this past month as if they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or ending, no point beyond itself. She tried to remember how it had been to drag Fremont Street in Vegas with Earl Lee Atkins when she was sixteen years old, how it had been to go out on the desert between Vegas and Boulder and drink beer from half-quart cans and feel her sunburn when he touched her and smell the chlorine from her own hair and the Lava soap from his and the sweet sharp smell of the starched cotton soaked with sweat. How High the Moon, the radio would play, Les Paul and Mary Ford. She tried to remember Ivan Costello, tried to fix in her mind the exact way the light came thought the shutters in his bedroom in New York, the exact colors of the striped sheets she had put on his bed and the way those sheets looked in the morning and the look of a motel room in which they had once spend a week in Maryland. She tried to remember Carter. She tried to remember Les Goodwin. She could remember it all but non of it seemed to come to anything. She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on.

This is from page 68-69 of my library copy, and most of the book is like this, the narrative of a woman who is almost out of her mind. She is utterly dissociated from the people in her life and acts out of inchoate impulses. And it strikes me that this reads much the way that anything by Bret Easton Ellis does. Less Than Zero is entirely in this vein, as is American Psycho. I’m not saying that Ellis is necessarily directly influenced by Didion, but I would not be surprised.

The primary difference is in what causes the dissociation. Less Than Zero is an exile observing the primal bestiality of Los Angeles, and American Psycho is capitalism atomising human beings into objects and body parts. Play It As It Lays‘ Maria seems to be dissociated by sex and the Men in her life. Something something Patriarchy something something.

There’s probably a lot of stories like this. I reckon I could crank one out if I wanted to.

The Tolkien Estate Gets to Veto Amazon

There’s apparently a trailer, or a teaser, or whatever, for the new Amazon series, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

The important fact is, Amazon doesn’t get to hose this the way everyone expects they will.

Amazon has a relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since, as I said, very few details are known about this time span. The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain “tolkienian”.

The Time Span referred to is The Second Age, the period when Aragorn’s ancestors lived on an island in the middle of the ocean called Numenor. It’s also the time when the Rings of Power were forged. So it’s a giant LOTR prequel, really.

But if there’s an army of canon-experts making sure that canon isn’t violated, then I’m suddenly much more comfortable with this.

If only someone at Lucasfilm cared this much.

Novels and Chapters

Is a Novel a series of Chapters, or are chapters just digestible parts of a novel?

Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one complete work. It was subdivided into three “books” by his publisher. When I am drafting a novel (or novella, as I currently am), I usually start with a chapter number in mind (The Sword started as 12 chapters, then became 15). A chapter is a kind of movement, or act, with a beginning and an ending. Now this isn’t rigid, and sometimes a chapter has to be further divided or combined with another. But I have an idea of when its done when I start writing it.

Currently I’m reading Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and she does that amusing thing, that I haven’t seen since Douglas Adams, of having chapters that are barely more than a paragraph, while others go on much longer. These are chapters that simply denote the passage of time, and some can be mere snapshots of a moment that moves the characters or underlines a point about them. A chapter can be literally whatever you want a chapter to be.

Hence my question.

Rejection is Progress

Every no gets you closer to yes.

This is part of the process of shifting through to find the best match. If your work is good, it will find a market.

These are things authors have learned to tell themselves. Not because they are true, but because they are hopeful, and hope is a necessity to keep someone going in the face of rejection. Successful authors need to survive repeated rejection. So whatever you have to tell yourself is fine.

The real possibility of real failure also exists. No doesn’t actually get you closer to yes. It’s not a map. Yes can occur on any submission, from the first to the hundredth, or not at all. And good work is not a guarantee of anything, because “good” is an ambiguous term. It means different things to different groups. It can denote true, beautiful, or useful (and no, they aren’t the same thing). Something can succeed in being one of these and fail in the other two. Or it can fail in all three.

My point is that art can fail, and that an artist that attaches himself permanently to failed art will fail in a more complete way.

You wrote a book. Good. Now write another.

Quick Review: Ingrid Goes West

ingrid-goes-west

Weird little quirk of a film that somehow manages to condemn the age we live in, and the Matrix that we detest and fear and and cannot bear to be apart from (there’s no paradox there, the second thing leads inevitably to the first).

Meet Ingrid. Ingrid is unhealthy. Ingrid obsesses with people she only knows on Instagram. Ingrid lives on her phone. She’s almost (not quite) incapable of forming normal human relationships, because her entire reality is external to herself. She doesn’t have a self. She has no dreams, no goals, no real personality to speak of. She is a void that cannot be filled.

After an incident with one of her InstaFriends lands her in the boobie hatch, she takes a pile of inheritance and crosses the country to form another emotional codependency with a brand new girl who’s InstaFamous. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

It has a comic sensibility, without really trying to be funny. Such, of course, is how the younger generation speaks the truth, in sly, awkward self-mockery. So it’s really geared for them, but the yearning to live an artful life, a not-mundane life, a beautiful life, is not something that only Generations Y and Z know. The methodology for conceptualizing that life has changed, become more democratized, and way more addictive. Ingrid seems more healthy when she’s drinking a beer on her couch, or even doing a line of coke in a parking lot, than when she’s compulsively liking every photo on her InstaFriend’s feed.

Aubrey Plaza is so perfectly cast for this that’s almost too on-the-nose. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. takes a charismatic turn in a part that could have been nothing. He makes it something, because he’s got something. Everyone else is blonde, and almost part of the landscape. They don’t quite feel real, which is sort of the point, so I can’t fault the performances.

Literary sidebar: the movie focuses on Joan Didion novels as a hipster vintage passion of letters, and it did inspire me to google her and then grab a copy of Play it As it Lays at my library. I suspect Joan Didion got or is getting an uptick as a result of this. I wonder if authors hope for such things. Probably not.

Bottom Line: Skynet doesn’t need to blow us up. It has us by the brain already.