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The Philosophy of the Trenchcoat


Reading: Robert E. Howard, "To All Sophisticates"


Ordinarily I ignore current events as best I can. I agree with Plato that in the world of the senses, things change too quickly for us to be able to get a fix on them. Thus nothing can truly be known of them. All news is stale a minute later, like the car that loses almost all of its book value the microsecond it rolls out of the lot. At the library I have recently been calling people, telling them that the book they reserved, Stephanopoulos's tell-all about Clinton, is in. The same thing with the Monica Lewinsky book. Why do they bother? It's over. But I do feel like lingering a moment upon the recent Colorado tragedy. It is an anomaly that raises questions of meaning. For I think it was not a random act of violence perpetrated by the Trenchcoat Mafia. Like the Jonestown suicide, like the Waco apocalypse, it was a meaningful atrocity. It is worth a few moments to ask after the meaning. 

At first glance, to the cynical among us, the curmudgeons, it is quite simple, hardly something to puzzle over. Turn on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. Look at the little creeps, the complacent spoiled brats and their meaningless lives. Who wouldn't want to enter the scene with a machine gun? The Trenchcoat Mafia did. 

Look at the location of the shooting rampage. Were the gunmen oppressed? I think they were not. Coincidentally, when this incident occurred I happened to be reading a book about the rise of Black Metal in Norway, a mutant form of Death Metal music that took seriously the Satanist, anarchist, death-worshipping pose of Death Metal. The Black Metalists burned churches, murdered each other and outsiders, committed suicide. They, too, came from a complacent, affluent society. They were not among the oppressed. Or were they? 

Let me read you a contemptuous profile of the typical Black Metal head, sketched by a Black Metal Satanist artist: [Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, p. 199] 

I wouldn't be at all surprised if this description fit the two gunmen of Littleton. Their photographs certainly give one the impression of pathetic non-entities, incapable of even looking particularly ominous, unless of course, one is holding a gun. 

And yet I give these boys more credit than that. I suspect that they are prime examples of what Colin Wilson calls the Outsider, the person with the X-Factor, the creative genius that prevents the gifted individual from adapting to mundane society. It is a defense mechanism for us nerds. If we could fit into the lemming-like mob of mundanes, we would lose what insight, what vision we have. We would fall asleep with frostbite. We may suffer the derision of the 90210 mob, and it is real suffering, Chuck and I and others in the room can attest, but that suffering at least has the function of insulating us from the herd. Our peculiarities serve as barriers against intermingling with the world we despise, like the off-putting clothes of the Amish, the counter-cultural mores of the Mennonites and the Fundamentalists.  

Colin Wilson, in his books The Outsider and The Strength to Dream, talks about the Outsider type, the one who transcends the mundane world. Such a person, always a deviant, whether lionized or crucified (or both at different times), may be a creative genius or a serial killer, and Wilson catalogues several of both types. Whether one goes to the dark or the light side of the Force depends on one's psychological make-up, the support one receives or does not receive from family, school and society, and a number of other factors, perhaps most of them untraceable. This is why I, a supporter of the death penalty, am nonetheless glad they have not executed Charles Manson. He is an exotic specimen. We need to preserve him and study him. He is a demon in a cage. He was right: he is both messiah and antichrist. And the two Trenchcoat killers may have belonged to the same species.  

The Littleton assassins left traces of their flirtation with a higher world, the world of the imagination that to them, to us, is realer and more precious than the public world in which we find ourselves strangers in a  strange land. That, by the way, is the title of Charlie Manson's favorite novel. The Colorado killers were into the Goth underground, they dressed like the Crow, they sought to live in one of Thomas Ligotti's "little zones" where reality is seen more sharply for the twilight haze. It is the world of thin but heady atmosphere, of precious nullity, the void of Vastarien. Human beings, like autumn leaves, are seen to be most beautiful in the mode of decay, curling fragile leaves with a color-brilliancy that mocks the blandness of the living. The high school life that surrounded these killers must have seemed to them a dead-end, a living morgue. As Denis DeRougement says, they thirsted for the life that is realer, better than life, which is death. The life of dreams cannot be found within the gravity of our planet. It must be sought outside in the Bliss-Void of annihilation. And to die is the only way to attain escape velocity and gain access to that world. 

I am guessing that they took the path of Sartre, and in a world of inauthenticity they sought to authenticate their own existence by one "final experience." That experience was to go out with a bang. To try to take down the false world they knew and hated, and to pass beyond momentarily in an instant of crystal clarity. The shooting spree was like that line in the Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild": "Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space." 

They were perhaps doing what the kid did in Dead Poets Society when, torn from his budding theatre career, yanked away from destiny, after his theatrical baptism, his father tells him he has to go instead to military school, intolerable for him, he shoots himself. It is an authenticating act. If he cannot live in his world as a thespian, he will die as one.  

I am suggesting that these tragic trenchcoaters did have a glimpse of the true Gnostic vision that alienated them from society. They were not well-adjusted. But it is good to refuse to be well-adjusted to a sick society. But what the two lads did last week was not good. Though it possesses a certain consistency, it was ultimately pointless. To explain it as I have tried to do, even should it somehow prove to be true to the facts, would only be to explain the method in the madness. it makes it no less mad. 

The challenge is to find some way to exist in the sub-world, the super-world of the gnostic imagination. The challenge is to cultivate the Shadow side while remaining loyal to the Persona, to be both Jeckyll and Hyde. That is my goal. That is my life. My name is Legion, for we are many. 

We must refuse to give into the mundane world that demands our conformity like a vampire demands blood from its victims to stay alive with a ghastly semblance of life. We must adopt a policy of noncooperation insofar as we can. We must create a world in which we can find meaning through the discussion of common questions, common interests. But like the shamans and prophets of the Cargo Cults, we must cultivate competence, expertise in our cherished world of transcendence and imagination and the mundane world, that world that is the Beast whose mark we must take to be able to buy and sell. I have found I am more effective as a Lovecraftian for having my other foot in the world of religious scholarship. Similarly, I have found my religious perspective much enriched by my involvement with fantasy and horror as well as secular studies.  

I too find pathetic and even unbearable the pure fan who is able to feel totally at home except in the imaginary world of Star Wars or Lovecraft or Creative Anachronism. But I would prefer to wear that terrible badge of shame than to feel at home golfing and wearing a suit in the mundane world. Or if I must do these things, let it be as a secret agent, or like Siddhartha, with an amused inner distance from the mundane. Only so can we avoid drowning in it. Let our existence be like that of Eric Frankl in the concentration camp, keeping our sanity by means of the illusion that we are researchers in a foreign clime.    

If we are Gnostics, if we mean to transcend this Samsaric wilderness, we must admit we can understand the motives of the madmen of Littleton. But our posture toward the mundanes, the sarkikoi, must be that of the Bodhisattva. If we see through the illusion that entrances them, we must try by word and example, to show a better way, to a better world within. Maybe, if we do a good enough job of it for long enough, that world, or a beachhead of it may come to exist externally, socially, in the midst of this mundane world.


Robert M. Price

April 24, 1999




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