Skumring

25 IV 2021

The way out of a room is not through the door. Just don’t want out. And you’re free. (Charles Manson)

Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol

In 1897, the French playwright and police employee, Oscar Metenier, bought a theater at the end of the impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district, in which to produce his controversial naturalist plays. The smallest theater in Paris, it was also the most atypical. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the theater’s neogothic wood paneling; and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals (the building had, in fact, once been a chapel)[1].

Under the influence of their main writer, Andre de Lorde, who collaborated on several plays with his therapist and experimental psychologist, insanity became the main theme of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. This was happening at a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically studied and individual cases catalogued.

While fear of ‘the other’ appeared in countless variations, what carried the Grand-Guignol to its highest level were the boundaries and thresholds it crossed: Loss of consciousness, loss of control, panic — themes with which the theater’s audience could easily identify[2]. They reacted with terrified faces, but never once choosing to leave.

Revenge as entertainment

The theatre produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins and others at the lower end of Paris social echelon. This was also the original target audience. Horror plays often alternated with comedies, a lineup referred to as hot and cold showers. The actors often broke the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience in order to make them an accomplice to an act of violence, to highlight moments of realization, and to remind them that this act is happening very close to them, thus heightening the horror of being a witness[3].

The repertoire consisted of many different unrelated stories, but the common theme of revenge appeared in almost all of them. These are some examples of Grand Guignol horror shows[4]:

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a pretty, young fellow inmate out of jealousy.

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations: When a doctor finds his wife’s lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery, rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor’s brain.

Le Baiser dans la Nuit: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, and he obtains his revenge.

Revenge was an emotion generally frowned upon by the proper bourgeoisie of the time, considered unseemly and unworthy of their status. Although it was associated with lower social strata, the initial target audience, revenge gradually became the guilty pleasure of selected members of the elite who frequented the Grand Guignol plays.

Unlike other forms of aggression that require no provocation, revenge is an action provoked by a wrong. While punishment looks to improve the transgressor’s behavior or to deter future bad behavior, revenge seeks to have the transgressor suffer.

Revenge has deep social roots. The threat of revenge could have actually helped our ancestors to build stable social bonds by promising swift retribution if rules or boundaries were transgressed. Those who are vengeful were much less likely to be victimized or attacked.

Revenge carries strong hierarchical overtones. Not everyone is entitled to exact revenge. Right to revenge is a privilege that comes with status. Elaborate medieval spectacles of punishment and execution always contained a certain portion of retribution, which was not correctional and was incommensurate with the gravity of the offense. Even if there are no individual victims, breaking the law demands retribution because it is an attack on sovereign personally, since the law represents his will. This is the zero-point penalty. The ritual made the body of the condemned man the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied, the anchoring point for manifestation of power, an opportunity of offering the dissymmetry of forces. In punishment there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince – it constitutes the most important penal liquidation of the crime[5].

When put in a proper social context, revenge can find a strong resonance with certain segments of society, especially those who believe to have been wronged or excluded in one way or another. Revenge is the other side of victimhood. It defines the early contours of dialogues with the past and conquests of traumas, and reflects a quest for stability by folks who have been victims of various injustices. Since the past is fundamentally unjust, the call for revenge alludes to some form of dispensation of justice and implies entitlement and privilege with a promise of a chance of healing. This quest for justice and its collective resonance is often perceived as an aura of enlightenment by any political movement based on revenge.

Something is rotten in the state of status quo

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up. (Charles Manson)

In the years following World War II Grand Guignol audiences gradually waned as the actual reality of the two wars and their aftermath eclipsed the theater’s fictional horrors[6]. By the time the Theater closed its doors in 1962, Charles Manson was 28, serving time in the McNeal Island US Penitentiary in Washington State. After a short release from there, he found his way back to the Terminal Island Correctional Institute in San Pedro, CA where he had already done time in the 1950s. As his release from Terminal Island was approaching in early 1967, Manson had already spent more than half of the 32 years of his life in prisons and other correctional institutions. Telling the authorities that prison had become his home, he requested permission to stay.

After being discharged in 1967, Manson began attracting a group of followers, mostly young women, from around California, later known as the Manson Family. The Family developed into a doomsday cult when he became fixated on the idea of an imminent apocalyptic race war between America’s Blacks and the larger white population. A white supremacist at heart, Manson’s acid fantasy revolved around Helter Skelter, a quasi-apocalyptic scenario whereby Black people would rise up and kill all whites, except, of course, Manson and his “Family”. And, to add to that another layer of the ridiculous, not being intelligent enough to survive on their own, the Blacks would need a white man to lead them, and would, of all people, chose Manson as their “master”.

In early August 1969, Manson encouraged his followers to trigger Helter Skelter by committing murders in Los Angeles and making it appear to be racially motivated. Their rampage ended the 60s, which marked not only their calendar ending, but also the end of an era of rebellion against conformism and the status quo. It closed a chapter in American history and wrapped up a decade of social uprising.

It is not so much what Manson did, although he did it in a way that couldn’t be ignored, but how he did it, the resonance he struck and reverberations his acts triggered. As if wondering what everyone was surprised about, Manson’s parting message, I am what you made me, was the unsettlingreminder of circular causality between the complacency of middle-class America and the inherent violence necessary for maintaining that lifestyle, its long echo refuses to go away even after five decades.

Manson was an outcast denied the comfort of American middle class complacency. He created his own surrogate reality through speech acts and pushed it to his followers. He exploited the Stepford wife model to repurpose the helpless, dissatisfied, and disillusioned young middle-class women bored with the status quo, into his willing robot killers. It was a civilizational relapse, a slap in the face to both the conformism of the 50s as well as all the liberation movements of the 60s that opposed it. Despite the backdrop of hippy rhetoric, free love, independence and emancipation, “his women” had been willingly downgraded back to obedient, docile subjects of suburban housewives of the 50s, only this time, with a mission. He had found the keys to the portal that unlocked the toxic social ferment whose existence had to be denied at all costs by the system.

The emergence of Manson and his cult was an autoimmune reaction of the system, the blowback that couldn’t be processed or digested. It appeared at the peak of ideological obsession with the status quo. Manson was a social malady that couldn’t be fought. He did not want anything from the rest of the society; he didn’t need anything that society could deny him. Yet, he exposed the Achilles’s heel of the system. His only agenda and the driving force, was revenge against the system, against women, pop culture, Blacks, Hollywood, and the entertainment industry, spiked with a dash of white supremacy and the entitlement that fills the void created by the absence of other values.

All of the cult’s participants in the murders received death sentences. This included Manson himself, although he personally did not do the killing and was not present at the site when they occurred. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life as California abolished the death penalty.

Wendy Brown

My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system. … I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you. … You want to kill me? Ha! I am already dead – have been all my life. I’ve spent twenty-three years in tombs that you have built. (Charles Manson, 1978)

Manson was one of the first superstars of the nascent society of spectacle. Fascination with him and his cult started shortly after their arrest, and hasn’t really stopped even during his time in prison. Manson had numerous marriage proposals and was, at the age of 79 (two years before his death), engaged to marry a 26-year-old Illinois woman. Tex Watson, the only male member of the killer squad, who, like the rest of the surviving members, remains incarcerated to this day, got married and had four kids. Susan Atkins was married twice (her second husband was a Harvard-graduate lawyer, 15 years here junior). Manson and his followers have all been repeatedly denied parole, anywhere between 17 and 23 times and those who have survived, will most definitely never leave the confines of a prison.

50 years later, doomsday cults are back in vogue again and we learned that the same modes of collective mobilization, on a much larger scale, could be achieved without the persuasive powers of psychedelics. In 2016, Grand Guignol has been shut for over 50 years and Manson, behind bars for 45 years, has become an almost forgotten chapter of America history. However, his paradigmatic significance as a vindictive narcissist cult leader was anything but dead. The spirit of Manson’s Grandguinelesque version of macabre horror was very much alive, only hibernating, ready to be deployed again.

Ressentiment and the modes of rebellion

At the center of all forms of uprising and public revolt resides Ressentiment /rə,säntə’män/,  a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement[7]. There are three shades of revolt that govern different modes of response to Ressentiment. They differ by the intensity of revenge involved.

Absence of revenge: Judeo-Christian morality was born as a response of the weak, those who suffered in a value system affirming strength, power, and action. The weak were resentful not of their own weakness, but of the strong, whom they blamed for their suffering. As a result, they invented a new value system in which strength would be reproached as evil and weakness forted as good[8].

Moderate revenge: The French revolution and Communist uprising in Russia were bloody, but revenge was nominally blended with an emancipatory program and agenda. However, with time, revenge took over and prevented the evolution of the rebellion into anything other than self-destruction. These examples suggest that revenge is ultimately lethal even in small doses.

Excessive revenge: When ressentiment is born of dethronement, from lost entitlement, rather than from weakness, there is no new value system. Suffering and humiliation, ressentiment unsublimated, become permanent politics of revenge. In the present version of right-wing uprising, this is manifested through concentrated attacking those blamed for dethroned white maleness – feminists, multiculturalists, globalists, who both unseat and disdain them. There are high levels of affect instead of a developed moral system[9].

Unlike Black rage, which has been articulated through the Judeo-Christian mode, 21st century white rage represents collective vindictive narcissism. It is a reaction of the historically dominant as they feel that dominance ebbing.  

Vindictive Narcissism

Exclusion leads to resentment and accumulations of grievances, which brews into revenge. Outsourcing those grievances to the cult and its leader defines the collective and the sense of identity and belonging. Cults are predicated on convincing their members that everyone has been lying to them. Followers are enticed by the illusion of new truths and territories. With the help of psychedelics or flattering rhetoric and identity politics, and with some persuasive power, cult leaders create their own reality through speech acts and push those visions to their followers.

At the core of each cult resides revenge as the common link. It is through revenge that cult leaders resonate with their members. The people most hell-bent on revenge are both low in forgiveness and high in narcissistic traits. Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers and could reduce constraints on acting on this desire[10].

In his book The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo actually identifies The Vindictive Narcissist as a distinct psychological type/category. Narcissist’s vengefulness stems from his unconscious shame and his need to defend himself against that shame being revealed, leaving him thin-skinned and vulnerable to anything that looks vaguely like an attack. When he feels attacked, he reacts without restraint and limits[11].

Success is a relative category. A businessman whose career starts with a $400mn handout from his father and follows up with seven bankruptcies is not really an example of success. While being objectively rich, someone with such initial conditions and that roster of  failures is a colossal loser, pretty much by any metric[12]. Getting into the White House only to finish his one-term presidency as, what is unanimously considered, the worst president in the American history (by a wide margin) is also not something one could be proud of. That knowledge and awareness must hurt.

For Trump, everything has always been about revenge – he is the epitome of a vindictive narcissist. That is his curse, but, at this political moment, also his magic, his secret sauce, and the point of resonance with his base. Exacting revenge has become the sole purpose and philosophy of both the leader and his following. It is the backbone of their shared social identity.

Having a leader who harbors feelings of revenge, not necessarily rooted in the same way as his followers, creates a special emotional bond and resonance between the two[13].

Trump’s transgressions and acts of revenge, no matter how petty or pointless, have had an orgasmic effect on his base. They became an articulation of their revenge against the wound of nothingness and a symbolic act of destruction of the imagined agent of that wound. The policies he proposed were irrelevant as long as he opposed those that were in place, which they hold responsible for their precarity. His abuses of power are vital to this desire. He has the power they lack – they live their revenge through him.  

Politics as a suicide cult

No sense makes sense (Charles Manson)

Revenge as a way of creating change is socially toxic. It carries the seeds of self-sabotage. It is non-convertible and sterile, unable to transform itself into a creative force. The vindictive cult followers are trapped in the quicksand of fermented rage and resentment. They are asphyxiated by their leader, but, at the same time, as a group, they cannot survive without the virtual supplement that he provides. The residual of the Republican Party, “Trump’s Family”, is a bunch of bewildered and desperate shipwreck survivors, Manson’s girls without Manson in search of their raison d’être.

Fascination with chaos and ex-nihilo creation reveals a common pattern across different cases of vindictive narcissist cults. Through a concerted creation of chaos, doomsday cult leaders effectively voice their plea for a second chance, albeit without any alternative plans. Their entire lives were spent on the edge of precipice, narrowly escaping catastrophe. They believe that, due to their higher tolerance to chaos, they would fair better than the others after the great reset.

Manson’s ridiculous acid fantasy of revenge, Helter Skelter — the racial war in which the Blacks would win, but unable to rule themselves, would elect none other than him — is just the other side of his impotence in finding his place in the social universe. As an outcast, he saw himself in the same position as African Americans, the other systemically excluded social group. However, the little white racist in him couldn’t avoid seeing himself as their superior and “natural” leader. When put together with his choreography of the gruesome spectacle of the 1969 Hollywood murders, this dimwitted fantasy underscores the Grandguinolesque dialectics of comedy and horror.

These modes of collective self-hypnosis are the site where all revenge-based cults converge — Fascism, Bolshevism, Jacobin revolution, terrorism, Trump’s and Manson’s included. Their logic and dynamics translate seamlessly to contemporary Right-Wing populism, just on a larger scale. The spectacle of the last presidency, as a form where the comedy of ridiculous narratives, clownish self-sabotage, and outright stupidity are blended with irresponsible criminal incompetence and the gruesome horror of their consequences, is the Grand Guignol Theater of the new century.

According to Wendy Brown, the current predicament is a result of the unintended consequences of the neoliberal project. The accidental wounding of the white male supremacy has yielded an apocalyptic politics, which in its final mutation has evolved into a suicide cult. If white men cannot own the planet, there won’t be any planet. This, at the end is the apocalyptic mode of white revolt and its politics that is willing to destroy the world rather than endure a future without white male rule[14].

This degeneration of the Right-Wing political movement (into a suicide cult) has an unmistakable Helter Skelter vibe. The crescendo of deliberately open and grotesquely excessive violence against the American Blacks could serve no other purpose except to act as a trigger of a racially intonated civil conflict, out of which the white supremacist cult hopes to emerge on top as a representative of the outnumbered, but ultimately, in their eyes, superior race in what they are experiencing as a reenactment of the Manson’s acid fantasy.


[1] http://www.grandguignol.com

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage (1979)

[6] Charles Nonon, theater’s final director, summarized it best: “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

[7] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Joseph Burgo, The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, Touchstone (2015)

[11] ibid.

[12] To put things in perspective, at the time of this handout, the S&P was around $100, and now it is at $4000, and if one had done nothing but left those $400mn as a passive stock market investment, that would have amounted to around $16bn today. Instead, the recipient of that handout today is struggling to remain solvent for the eight time.

[13] Wendy Brown, ibid.

[14] ibid.

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