Reading "The White Album"
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while.
—Joan Didion, The White Album
The imposition of a narrative line is the imposition of a fiction. I was an altar boy for my older brother’s confirmation. I wore a white robe, a leather necklace with a black cross, and a dyed-red hemp belt. At the end of the opening procession the Bishop handed me his crook. I handed it back to him at the start of the closing procession. I remember thinking that the Bishop’s face looked like it was getting pinched by invisible hands. It was a special mass because it was my brother’s Confirmation, but it stands out in my memories for different reasons. I became terribly nervous the moment I found out I had to hold the Bishop’s crook. The body of the crook was long and made of dark wood, its gold ornamented head curved sharply into itself. For an hour, as I sat to the right of the altar, I resisted the urge to touch the engraved golden curve. I thought it would appear insolent. The head seemed to me like the falling crest of a breaking wave, its golden engravings a sun-fretted spume. When you place your hand in the ocean tide and let the waves break upon it, you can feel activity bubbling through your idle fingers. In front of me, during the Confirmation mass, was the opportunity to do the opposite.
If I tried to write a completely honest account of serving as an altar boy during my brother’s Confirmation, the fiction I created while I experienced the event would be problematic. I was nervous, but I knew nothing about the Bishop. It was religion, age, and performance, and these all mean different things to us. There are many narratives in a day.
I read Joan Didion’s The White Album while I was writing an essay on Marcel Proust. I felt encouraged to try and observe the imposition of my narrative line as I was reading the essay. Read. Kneel. Follow. Do not expect much.
We guess as we read, we create; everything starts from an initial error; those that follow, extraordinary as they may appear to a person who has not begun at the same starting point, are all quite natural. A large part of what we believe to be true with an obstinacy equaled only by our good faith, springs from an original mistake in our premises.
While reading The White Album, we believe literature died for Joan Didion in the late 1960’s. Or at least we do for a while. She starts the essay by saying that the stories she has told herself make no sense anymore. The events of her life, specifically those in the late 60’s, have shrouded her experience in doubt. Before this happened she would impose narrative upon experience and, in recollection, read what had been written. Reading led to understanding and understanding led to writing.
Literature is survived by its memories. Didion uses the memories to ask: if we tell ourselves stories in order to live and the stories suddenly mean nothing to us, how do we live? What do we make of the past? What do we make of other people?
I found your print on a dollar bill
I found your print on an Indian mound
I found your print on the statue at the sound
I found your print on the elephant ground
I found your print in the beautiful mountains
The grass no longer grew around
I found your print in my mind -
The past sure is tense
Charles Manson was largely illiterate until adulthood. When asked, during a prison interview in the 80’s, what he reads, Manson says that he never reads. The title of Joan Didion’s essay is an allusion to Charles Manson’s theories on The Beatles’ ninth album.
Charles Manson: Everybody’s got something to blame because they don’t want to look inside themselves.
Penny Daniels: What do you see when you look inside yourself?
CM: Inside myself? I see everything. I see all. I see the good, bad, the evil, I see the whole thing.
PD: How much evil is there?
CM: As much as you see.
PD: What do you see?
CM: All of it. (Wide grin, chuckle.) Right down to peaks you haven’t touched yet. To dreams you haven’t dreamed. And worlds you haven’t conquered. The mind is endless. You put me in that dark, solitary cell and, to you, that’s the end. To me, it’s the beginning. It’s the universe in there. There’s the world in there. I’m free.
Manson moved to California when he was thirty-two. At the time, he had spent more than half of his thirty-two years in prison and other institutions. His childhood was by all accounts miserable. It is uncertain whether he knew his real father, who, evidence suggests, was African American. He was raised by his mother and, when she was in prison, various relatives. Manson claimed that when he was young his mother sold him for a pitcher of beer. A waitress of a restaurant jokingly told his mother she would like to buy her son. Manson’s mother said that she would part with the boy for a pitcher of beer. The waitress produced the beer, his mother drank it and left the restaurant without Charles. His uncle tracked down the waitress and returned Manson to his mother after a few days. He also claimed he was sexually abused by several of his relatives.
Manson considered his youth joyless save one event: he felt truly happy when his mother embraced him as she returned home from prison. Her affection was short lived. Within a year of returning, she tried to send her son to a foster home. Failing to do this, she sent him to a reformatory school in Indiana where he claimed to have been sexually abused again. For the rest of his youth he was in various reformatory schools, which were replaced when he came of age, by correctional facilities. Before he was released from prison in 1967, Manson requested permission to stay, saying that prison had become his home.
The Beatles’ White Album is much heavier than any of their previous albums. Following Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour, it appears conspicuously distant. While their previous two albums have distinctive artwork and feature music that expresses contemporary popular sentiments, The White Album is blank in appearance and features music that is ambiguous in meaning. Many of the songs on the album are aggressive in tone and seem to reflect personal turmoil. The White Album is a declaration that the idealistic Beatles are dead. Instead of the band that loves its audience we hear a band that is comfortable confusing its audience. There is a lyrical cynicism in most of the songs, from Glass Onion (the walrus was Paul) to Revolution 1 (Lennon speaks the word in after singing out) through the cryptic Revolution 9. The message that comes with the blank album cover is a message of subversion: we are not the old Beatles, you have been deceived. The Beatles of The White Album have left the love of their generation behind them. If there is a song on the album depicting shared experience it is the chaotic Revolution 9. I do not believe that any narrative could freeze the shifting phantasmagoria of this song. Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour were both framed with title tracks. They were narrative albums. The White Album is not a narrative album. Its individual songs are cynical and energetic and exist separate from the whole. It is perhaps because the songs are not connected that The Beatles seem so different from themselves. Their narrative albums attempted artistic cohesion and unity, and in doing so gave the band an identity. The White Album was not made by a band, it was made by four musicians.
Manson first heard The Beatles while he was in prison. He was instantly fascinated by them. After he got out and established himself as a guru in California, he and the original members of the Manson Family went on a bus tour which he named The Magical Mystery Tour. The White Album was something different from what Manson had heard before, and he developed a personal relationship with it that was effused throughout the family. He came to consider the album to be intentionally prophetic of an apocalyptic race war, and believed that with The White Album The Beatles were specifically reaching out to the Family.
Look at the songs: songs sung all over the world by the young love. It ain't nothin' new it's written in Revelation, all about the four angels programming the holocaust. The four angels looking for the fifth angel to lead the people into the pit of fire...right out to Death Valley. It's all in black and white, in the White Album - white, so there ain't no mistakin' the color.
The Family was moving in a new direction. Manson used a title of a song on the album, Helter Skelter, to represent their new goals.
Helter Skelter means confusion. Literally. It doesn't mean any war with anyone. It doesn't mean that those people are going to kill other people. It only means what it means. Helter Skelter is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don't see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It's not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says 'Rise!' It says 'Kill!' Why blame it on me? I didn't write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.
The White Album appeared fractured and charged to Manson. He was compelled to impose his own narratives upon it. Manson filled the white space with stories that all bore the tortured mark of his existence.
Earlier this year, I read a passage that I immediately thought I had read elsewhere.
Marcel Proust. Pleasures and Days.
When I was a small child, no character seemed to me to have a worse fate than Noah, because of the flood which kept him locked up in the Ark for forty days. Later on, I was often ill, and also had to stay in an Ark for endless days. It was then that I understood that Noah would never have been able to see the world as well as from the Ark, even though it was shuttered and it was night on earth.
I did not figure out what I was thinking of until after I read The White Album. You put me in that dark, solitary cell and, to you, that’s the end. To me, it’s the beginning. It’s the universe in there. There’s the world in there. I’m free. Proust’s ark and Manson’s cell. The quotes express a shared belief in the power of absence on the human mind. To separate oneself from physical reality and the possibility of new experience is to turn the mind inward. When the mind is turned inward it is turned towards impressions, the foundations of existence. When it is placed in the tide and you feel thoughts break upon it.
Proust and Impression:
In Remembrance of Things Past, things that happen to characters are infinitely more important than things that characters do. In life, the closest we can come to finding purpose is identifying our impressions. Our senses are our portals. Once we feel the past experience we can analyze it. The intellect is worthless on its own, but, when used upon the inner self, it can be invaluable. In Proust’s system truth can only exist in the spheres of a person that cannot be reached by someone else. Logic and reason and all other devices of the active mind cannot be trusted on their own because they reduce the value of the individual. The essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be invented by a great writer--for it exists already in each one of us--has to be translated by him. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.
To create authentic art the artist must use translate what is unintelligible inside himself.
Charles Manson had painful experiences in his youth. I believe that the way he lived, in the brief amount of time he spent out of prison, was enabled, or forced, by his ability to express the suffering of his past. Manson’s brutal childhood simultaneously engendered impressions that reached far beyond him and trapped him in world of incomprehensible violence. Charles Manson thought he was listening to The Beatles’ message. He was listening to himself.
For even if we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul, still it does not seem a fixed and immovable prison; rather do we seem to be born away with it, and perpetually struggling to transcend it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within. At the time of reading the passage from Pleasures and Days I had not thought of Charles Manson in a long time. I remember when it was because the previous day I had visited my friend’s father who had recently had a stroke. My friend’s family and my family have been close since I can remember, and I have always had affection for his father, Bill. While I was growing up I assumed, despite how supportive they were of my education, my parents were not interested in talking to me about books. Bill liked to talk to me about literature. When I visited I gave him an audio book version of Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons. I sat across from him at the kitchen table as he bubbled incomprehensible monosyllables to me. The stroke had left him unable to speak. As he made noises his wife would intermittently wipe the overflowing drool from his lips with a bandanna. His eyes were a much lighter blue than I remembered. It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.
I bought Lolita at a bookstore in New York City. On my way home I had to wait for a half an hour in Penn Station. As I was waiting I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play the New York Jets in a playoff game. I watched it through the windows of the T.G.I.F. restaurant, next to a dozen or so homeless people. When the Steelers took the lead from the Jets, the homeless people celebrated. As I was leaving I walked past a few men standing close to the glass, staring into the fishbowl, taunting the Jets fans at the bar. As a lifelong Patriots fan, I could not restrain a smile. It is the tragedy of other people.
In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative's intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.
Joan Didion does not retreat from the electricity of the moment. She draws the parallel with Manson. The White Album runs on as many lies as it does truths, but writing has not made the intention any clearer to me.
The italicized sections of text are taken from the following sources, in the order they appear:
Joan Didion. The White Album.
Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past.
Captain Beefheart. The Past Sure Is Tense.
(The Next Three Consecutive Sections) Prison Interview with Charles Manson.
Marcel Proust. Days and Pleasures.
(The Next Three Consecutive Sections) Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past.
Joan Didion. The White Album.
Bryan Conover is from New Jersey and is a graduate of Bennington College where he studied literature.