The Wisdom That Is Woe... ...the Woe That Is Madness


"THOSE WHO forget the past are condemned to repeat it." Of all possible thinkers, of all possible quotations, these words of George Santayana appeared on a sign above Jim Jones's throne in the Guyanese jungle. After three days of trying to make sense of the People's Temple with traditional assumptions about American life, I found this the most astonishing irony, the most provocative and mysterious detail.

For how could one imagine a connection between Santayana and Jones's cult? Santayana--the philosopher of the American consciousness, the dissector of our spiritual heritage; the rationalist Harvard professor, the ascetic hermit; the half-Spanish, half-Boston Brahmin writer who knew the spirit of this country so well yet found it troubling and oppressive--what did Jim Jones see in his words? Surely there is some subterranean meaning in this strange confluence of philosophies.

The quotation seems like the moral at the end of the Jonestown fable, the epitaph of the whole affair.

Obviously, Santayana's words were a warning to us, the observers of this bizarre act: beware, it might happen again. Yet the quotation had meant something to the cultists as well. What "past" did they have in mind? Had Jones just picked up the quotation somewhere, and used it superficially? Or had he read Santayana in depth? And if he had, what perverse twistings of the intellect had brought him to his own conclusions?

The answers to these questions are less important than the acceptance of the sheer incongruity of Santayana's words sitting there amid the stench of corpses and the extinction of Jones's vision. The real question is, what sort of culture could, over a space of 50 years, harbor philosophiesas utterly different as Santayana's and Jones's? And how could the two men meet, there in the jungle, beyond all understanding?

Charismatic figures are universal, but Jones's intensely American origins and the genesis of his philosophy are unique. His very name seems to speak of the American normalcy of his background: Jones, your neighbor, the guy at the plant. He was born in Indiana, the heart of the heartland. Far from the seaboards, with their cosmopolitan outlooks and their receptiveness to foreign ideas, the midwest would seem the most inhospitable place for some "strange cult" to take root.

YET ONE OF the great themes of American literature is the subversion of normalcy, by presenting the gothic element in American life (Poe), the hungering force of a dusky past (Hawthorne), or the explosive curse of vice (Faulkner). Similarly, when we look closely at Jones's life, neither it nor the midwest seems so blithely "normal." For Jones was half-Indian, and in the midwest in the '50s you were not allowed to forget that very long--you were an outsider. At age 18, Jones became a Maoist and made the intellectual synthesis on which he would build his church: that religion is indeed the opium of the people, yet the people cannot live without opium--so what is needed, he concludes, is a religion that is Marxist, with Christ as the revolutionary hero.

At first Jones's adoption of Marxism seems exceptional in the midwest of the '50s, the stomping grounds of Joe McCarthy. Yet the midwest, settled in the mid-19th century, at the height of Victorian optimism, has a history of utopian settlements. It was the scene of American capitalism's first unimpeded development, and seems particularly capable of inspiring a revulsion towards America: the land is flat, the culture traditional, functional, bland. T.S. Eliot felt this alienation, and the tone of "The Waste Land" owes much to his native midwest. Jones, too, must have felt it, for his church is above all a church of the alienated.

The shotgun marriage of Marxist philosophy and Christian commitment could only be seriously entertained in America, and it reflects an instinctive, shrewd understanding of the American mind on Jones's part. The religious impulse in America is strong, much stronger, as De Toqueville points out, than in Europe, where religion is allied with politics and the social convention. Here, it suppresses godless ideologies. Yet another side of American nature is pragmatic and utilitarian, desiring rational justification for any act. Jones's philosophy embodied this conflict and, in a sense, mastered it. He could invest himself with religious charisma by using the traditions of American fundamentalist theology: faith healing, apocalyptic exhortations, visions of the promised land. But he could also provide his followers with a forceful rationalization: his church was an instrument of social revolution. The follower was to prove his convictions the old way--tithe and then some.

And there was another, more demanding way to prove one's conviction: the willingness to die. Who could be a true believer who would not die for his beliefs? Indeed, Jones seems to have sensed a great secret of the national consciousness: Americans tend to be ashamed of their faith, to feel it is weak, for they see that their vision of a "city on a hill," a utopia, a Great Society, has failed. Americans are by history failed absolutists: but if they are given a second chance at some absolute spiritual system, they grasp it with fervor.

THUS THE LOYALTY test assumes for Jones an almost ritual importance. It is a way of keeping absolutist beliefs absolute. It is not the first the time Americans have heard of loyalty tests: McCarthy once advocated them. In both men it is the old Puritan penchant for the absolute truth surviving deformed through history, breeding paranoia and, in Jonestown, total tragedy.

What was it in America's spiritual heritage that could have inspired an endeavor like Jonestown--where radical politics, fundamentalist theology, Utopian optimism, black consciousness, psychological manipulation, inherent sexuality, violence, communistic tyranny and ultimate mass suicide were reconciled and united under that quotation from Santayana? The "past"--the irony is that those 900 people did not escape it.

Jonestown was more than an isolated aberrant phenomenon, a cult which had little to do with mainstream culture; it was, in a deep and touching way, an American tragedy. The incident at Jonestown could have happened only to Americans: the People's Temple arose out of social conditions absolutely indigenous to this country. Though the final mass suicide was bizarre and unprecedented, the force lying behind it are forces peculiar to America. The proof lies in the public's outrage--some deep nerve of the national consciousness has been touched. After all, 300 Vietnamese died in a boat a week after the mass suicide and no one noticed--the news was buried by the cult stories still appearing.

Yet the press gave Jonestown attention without recognizing its American significance. Why? Because the American people have little sense of their history--it is short and we are a people oriented to the future. We raze architectural treasures for tomorrow's parking lot. Unlike the European, who has an instinctive feel for tradition and the forces of his history, we have little sense of how the past can relate to things of the present.

FIFTY YEARS HENCE, some ingenious historian will come along and demonstrate how Gary Gilmore's institutional suicide was a symptom of the same sort of alienation that led the 900 cultists to their deaths--and he may, or may not, be right. But we should not wait 50 years to search for the deeper causes of the affair; else we are left with such media inanities as "madness," "bizarre rite," "programmed minds," "spoiled dreams" as explanations, and they explain nothing.

Jones was obviously a man of extraordinary charisma. He did not "program" people; he dominated and captivated them, which is something very different from brainwashing. There is no question that he used spying and blackmail to tyrannize his followers with guilt. But these methods would have been ineffective without the force and appeal of this own personality: charisma is always more powerful than coercion.

But the letters of Jones's followers show their awe and affection for him, even when they were uncomfortable with his actions. He looms over them not as an autocrat, but as a beneficent master. We may call him sick and ruthless, yet we must admit he held some uncanny attractiveness--and he hardly seems mad, at least not until his last days in Jonestown.

There is one partial explanation, and experience which the members of the People's Temple apparently shared: they had all suffered. Poor blacks, veterans, drug addicts, convicts-Jones built his church on that rock.

It seems hypocritical and condescending, then, to speak of them as zombie-like believers, with no feeling or thought of their own; it is their suffering which led them to Jones. And them majority of Jones' followers never seem to have repented of the decision--he seemed to be the only thing between them and despair. They did not want to return to the tough life--there was at least hope and a vision at Jonestown.

THE UNIQUELY American aspect of the People's Temple is so obvious that it goes unnoticed. It is the very impulse to form churches like the People's Temple which combine the religious function with social idealism or action. In no other country are churches formed so easily as in America. Religious movements, and not political ideologies, are the great vehicles for utopian experimentation in America.

These are the legacy of the Puritan's Covenant psychology, and they are a great source of the old American demon, absolutism. The movements epitomize one half of the national psyche, the Puritan conscience, and contend with the other half, democratic license. They take up, once again, the Puritan's vision of an ideal community and a steadying of morals and manners. Their history is mostly a history of failures--the continent is littered with testimonies to American visions. And the People's Temple was really no different: it sought the ideal community, too. Like all its American predecessors, it longed to leave aside the past, and the fever of democratic license; but its own absolutism proved self-consuming. The impulse which inspired Jonestown is really no different from that which inspired the Mormons 100 years ago. What has changed is American society: a violent age produces violent events.

And so it is the dementia of absolute belief which should be felt as the deepest horror in the Jonestown affair. For out of absolute belief comes the desire to test that belief absolutely; and only when faced with death can the believer know he truly believes. And so, in a twisted way Jones resurrected this task from past movements; and forgetting the past, he and his followers repeated it.

This topsy-turvy theme of belief triumphing over death runs through all American literature, from Bradford to Hemingway. It is the American's consolation that if he fails with his vision, he can persist in his belief. Perhaps these tendencies sound old and no longer applicable. Well, in a sense the Jonestown tale was sketched out a century ago. Consider Moby Dick: Is not there some deep similarity between Jones and Ahab? Ahab, leading his crew in a suicidal pursuit, testing himself against all the supernatural forces; Jones, carrying his group with him in his strange quest. How did both control their followers? What drove them to such fanatical lengths?

Jonestown's members are even more significant than Jones himself, who was distributed and demonic, yet only one of a thousand. Their normal humanity, not their madness or mindlessness, stands out, their journey with undimmed belief from America and into the jungle. It all leads inexorably and even naturally to final dissolution in some unmapped region--just as the hard-bitten crew of the Pequod rowed fearfully yet willingly under the raging Ahab, to the great white whale, to the end of the absolutist quest. How can we so easily write them off?