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.