A couple of people have expressed surprise that the only reference in these Chronicles to the Heaven’s Gate incident has been an oblique remark at the end of Chronicle 87 (on Herostratus). My first reaction was that I had nothing to add to all the obvious remarks either pitying and/or condemning the suicides, or showing sympathy for their “spiritual quest.” But I think my very reluctance reflects a feature of the incident that is worthy, if not of commentary, then of metacommentary.
The obvious reaction has been to condemn the mass suicide as monstrously deluded. Not only was the group’s theology embarrassingly naive, but, after all, what worse thing could a cult do to people than kill them? Similar incidents in France have met with unanimous opprobrium in the press. Yet the first-level responses to the suicides have been condemned in turn by more sophisticated commentators; Doug Collins pointed out to me a couple of articles in the April 21 New Republic that may serve as examples.
Anthony Steel‘s piece on p. 25 is exemplary of the genre. Steel defends the Gaters with increasing sympathy, calling them “this ardent group of gentle souls who came together to seek fulfillment” and empathizing with “the millions who see something of their own unfulfilled longings in these searchers.” But we should not forget that the article began by attacking the “extraordinary response” of the media, “bristling with self-righteous denunciation” yet rarely seeking to understand the horrified fascination that led these journalists, “as if they feared contamination,” “to distance themselves as far as possible from the group’s professed beliefs.” For Steel, these beliefs are not “particularly unique or bizarre” but “firmly rooted in Christian theology.” Like other sophisticates, Steel points out the parallels between the Gaters and the early Christians, some of whom practiced self-castration, as well as with earlier American millenarian groups like the Shakers. After all, is there really a difference between believing in a space-ship behind Hale-Bopp and believing that a communion wafer is the body of Christ? Etc., etc.
On p. 42, Leon Wieseltier, in a somewhat lighter vein, is equally dismissive of his fellow plumitifs; after expressing his own dismay at the “kitsch” of Gatist theology, he takes on a quartet of previous commentators on the event: a reporter, a science fiction writer, a liberal, a conservative–none of whom, needless to say, has grasped the essence of the situation, since “what all these commentators were trying to elide was the reality of the hunger of the soul.” Kitsch or not, these people had acted “for a spiritual objective,” and at the end, Wieseltier, after showing sympathy for castration (“Why not subdue the body, when the body is an idol?”) concludes that, although the group’s answers may have been wrong, at least they had asked “the right questions.”
What then is my take on all this? Let’s say my take is determined by my meta-take. I note that, unlike natural disasters or feats of heroism or even Tiger Woods winning the Masters, this incident, rather than bringing us together as a community to deplore or celebrate, sets us against one another. I can’t recall having seen a single commentary on the affair–and my own is surely no exception–that isn’t an exercise in one-upmanship of one kind or another, either directly at the expense of the thirty-nine or more obliquely at that of some predecessor taxed with naivete or insensitivity.
Why is this so? Because, whatever spiritual values may have motivated the Gaters to suicide, their final gesture of turning their backs on the world–our world–can only be interpreted from our standpoint as the ultimate act of dandyism. The dandy, as Baudelaire was well aware, was a kind of worldly ascetic whose motto was nihil admirari, which, properly understood, means “never find anything interesting.” The dandy has found the definitive solution to the problem of mimetic desire: he feels, or in any case he expresses, no desire whatever. As a result, because he envies and imitates no one, all envy and imitate him: our petty pleasures turn to ashes at the sight of one wholly indifferent to them.
Dandyism to the point of suicide is dandyism with a vengeance. Either to condemn or to defend the Gaters is to appropriate a spiritual reality that excludes us. These people did not ask for our approbation. As far as they were concerned, it is we who are the deluded fools and spiritual failures. Hence, crazy or not, the thirty-nine provoke resentment on the part of those whose values have been rejected, whose mediation has been denied. The more naive–or we might say, the less neurotic–express this resentment through the familiar inversion of contempt, like the fox who finds the grapes out of reach. They retort in kind, forgetting that, in such exchanges, the second move (“So’s yer old man!” “Et ta soeur!”) is never very convincing. The more sophisticated, finding inversion too crude, take up the Gaters’ cause against the benighted rest of us, which gives them the opportunity to display by contrast their religious learning and spiritual refinement. But there is a word for those who take the dandy as their model without becoming dandies themselves: they are called snobs. The dandy, deluded or not, pays his dues; the snob does not. He is content to wrap himself in the dandy’s mantle in order to upstage his own less spiritual neighbors.
The spiritual value of an act for the larger community is best understood by observing its actual effect on this community. In the present case, the effect has been clearly negative. This mass suicide, whatever satisfaction it may have given its participants, has added resentment to the world rather than love. No one with more than a superficial understanding of Christianity can assimilate this deed to the imitatio Christi of martyrdom. The Crucifixion is a submission to human violence for the purpose of exposing and rejecting this violence. Jesus gave his life out of love for common humanity, not out of disdain for this world. No doubt Christianity has generated its share of Gnostic heresies, but, precisely, it condemns them as heresies because they are not expressions of its revelatory essence. The squabbling journalistic one-upmanship the Gaters’ suicide has inspired reflects not our awe before a great spiritual conquest but our resentment of what we interpret malgré nous as a hostile act.
Spirituality is nothing more than the rising to the surface of the underlying function of all cultural phenomena. No single act can put an end to violence, but to offer one’s life in this effort is to accede to the divinity of the originary victim. The horizon of Jesus’ death is the turning-away from the sacred center toward the human periphery and the reciprocity of human love. If we would salvage some spiritual value from the thirty-nine suicides, we should let our pity and envy of their communal solidarity inspire us to give our love to those who still share the world with us.