The Philosophy of the Trenchcoat
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
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.
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
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
Copyright©2007 by Robert
Carolina Web Design