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Ihara Saikaku’s This Scheming World is a classic of Edojidai Japanese literature. The book is a series of vignettes, all centered around New Year’s Day. In Tokugawa-era Japan, New Year’s Day was the major occasion for settling debts, much as Michaelmas traditionally was in England. Every story shows chonin, the urban merchant class, scrimping for money, begging for money, scamming for money. In story after story, Saikaku lightly shows how the need for cash overcomes all else, twists every aspect of human life, causes people to lie to themselves and each other.

Wait a second-a witty, urbane voice with a decidedly cynical viewpoint? That reminds me of a band!

This Scheming World
(to the tune of The Smiths’s ‘This Charming Man‘)

Empty moneysleeve
And my future’s desolate
Will fortune make me beg for rice yet?

Poor in this scheming world
This scheming world

How can I thrive
Financially
When silk costs so much per half
hiki?

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a
mon to spare
My landlord
is outside
He’s intent on getting his share

A broke-ass chonin boy
With a valuable
koto
He says “I’ll hock the strings”
It costs too much to buy my things
It costs too much to buy my things

There’s only four months and a week left in the 2010s. Does this seem like a big deal? Not really.

To my eye, the distinctness of decades has lessened in the last thirty years. Now this is coincident with my adulthood, and that may be why. But if it is a real, objective phenomenon, it might indicate the Unprecedented Era is hitting a lull. Coming to an end? That will only be apparent in retrospect.

One of the hardest things to express of the beauty of the Unprecedented Era is its ephemerality. Every phase can happen because conditions are Just So, and those conditions will never be that way again. The Seventies, just to use one example, are a combination of economic (the end of the great wave of mid-20th century economic growth), cultural/demographic (the afterglow of the Sixties, the autumn of those who remembered World War II, the maturity-but-still-youngness of the postwar generation), technological (the introduction of personal computers) political (the fading, but not faded, of Mass Man) elements. A certain permutation, made in the instant, year by year, month by month, hour by hour, never to be seen again.

And the same can be said for every decade since the 18th century. They are all birds: you see one for a moment, try to pin a name on it, but it flutters and is gone. You can only reconstruct it from memory, but whatever memory will never equal that empirical instant.

I think the most eloquent words ever on the subject of the Manson Family were from Winifred Chapman, the Polanskis’s housekeeper, on the morning of August 9th, 1969: “Murder! Death! Bodies! Blood!

Everything else is just commentary.

Libraries have been written about the Family, the victims, the murders, the context. The Manson phenomenon links into so many things—Hollywood, the counterculture, the Sixties, the media, the myth of the West, the myth of Los Angeles. So many links that it seems this must mean something, but what? It’s like reading a book in a dream, when you can’t get the words to focus and you peer & squint, but they never resolve.

Charlie may have never killed anybody himself. There’s a school of Manson thought which holds that Charlie got railroaded. This is not entirely inaccurate, but I don’t care. I think the world was a better place for having Charles Manson in jail. He was the living embodiment of a bad influence.

We still don’t know why, exactly, the murders took place. Some plausible rationalizations have been given for Cielo Dive, but no one really has any firm clue why the LaBiancas were killed. The one thing nobody with any real knowledge of the case buys is the “Helter Skelter” theory, the idea that Manson was hoping to start an apocalyptic race war. This was, naturally, the basis for the convictions.

I believe Charlie’s statement that he didn’t really like the Beatles. To the extent that he admired them & wanted to be them, he wasn’t envying their musical accomplishments. He wanted their power. He wanted the same worship they received.

I can listen to “Helter Skelter” every so often. It’s an interesting forerunner of heavy metal. But I’ve only listened to “Revolution #9” once. Charlie was right about that track; it does sound like the Tribulation. It’s got a real bad vibe.

I’ve also no doubt that people were listening to the White Album at the Spahn and Barker ranches, and that Charlie declaimed on it. Bugliosi took the chatter, the injokes and common delusions, and systematized them. He made the Family seem much more coherent than it was. We should remember that when we look at history, at our tendency to read order into disorganized things.

The idea of Helter Skelter was at least more interesting than the truth, the facts about a bunch of stupid, gullible kids trying to impress the psychopathic hard case who’d beguiled them. We want things to be more interesting. If we did know the truth of why the victims were lost, it’d probably be as idiotic as “trying to get Bobby out of jail.”

Bugliosi introduced me to the case, as he did so many. I can’t remember when I first saw the book Helter Skelter, but I must have been age 11 or so. I first finished it when I was about 15, staying up until 2AM reading. I was too terrified to turn out the light, so I read further, growing yet more terrified.

Charlie’s problem—in terms of his musical career, anyway—was that singer/songwriters weren’t big in ’68. If he’d just managed to hang on until James Taylor blew up, he might have made it. Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, and Charles Manson.

Music. If we’re not going to let Mrs. Chapman’s be the last words, maybe the better resort is music.

When I was a kid, I heard a song on the radio, an instrumental with a strong, sad harmonica rift. The memory of that song stuck with me for the next three decades, even though I never heard it again. Sometimes I wondered if I had imagined it.

In the summer of 2009, around the 40th anniversary of the murders, I did a Youtube search for “tate/labianca”–and found it. The song turned out to be the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” by the Percy Faith Orchestra. Someone put together a montage of clippings & photos from the time and set it to this tune. I rediscovered my long-lost song only to find it connected to The Family.

I resented that for a while. I didn’t want my fond childhood memory tainted by blood. But eventually I gave in, because it’s the right song. It’s appropriate. It’s mournful and lonely. It fits.

Murder. Death. Bodies. Blood. The sound of a lonesome harmonica. After half a century, there’s nothing else left to say.

Fifty years ago right about now the sun was sinking into the black, black ocean. Sharon and her friends went to El Coyote. At Spahn Ranch, things were tense. Mary and Sandy had gotten themselves arrested. Gary was already dead.

G’night, Sharon. G’night, Jay. G’night, Wojciech. G’night, Abby. G’night, Steve.

(Anybody wanna buy a clock radio?)

A car left the ranch. It drove onto the freeway and headed for the hills.

In recent weeks, the people of Hong Kong have been leading protests against the threat of Chinese oppression. Today in India, the government announced they intend to revoke the statue that allows the state of Kashmir self-determination and will split it into two union territories, ruled directly from New Delhi.

These are two instances of the same phenomena. In both cases, the vicissitudes of history have made these territories extraordinary. Nationalism cannot stand that. They must be reduced, brought into the fold, broken and remolded and melted into the whole.

In both cases, there is a larger picture. If the Chinese government cannot keep Hong Kong placid, what hope do they have of ever enticing Taiwan to rejoin the motherland? If, after more than 70 years, Kashmir still chafes at Indian rule, what hope is there for the unification of Akhand Bharat?
Yet, to the nationalist mindset, it would be intolerable to let them go. Thought form is destiny. If the people of these territories will not see reason, they will see force. They will be made to see the glory of New China/Bharat Mata.

There’s a basic problem in that the Enlightment idea of human rights was developed in the Western sphere (despite the fact that those of the Western sphere have often ignored it). Therefore in the other major spheres–the Islamic sphere, the Sinosphere, and the Indosphere–there will always be some measure of resentment of the idea. It will always, to some degree, be considered an alien intrusion. In these days of rising nationalism, that degree is increasing.

The ironic thing is that the idea of the nation state was also developed in the Western sphere, but hardcore factions of all spheres seem to take to it like a duck to bread.

But whatever intellectual chuckling I get to have at the nationalists of other spheres ignoring the foreign origins of their actions is bullshit compared to what’s at stake. Kashmir has been an oozing sore for decades. The Chinese government, judging from Xinjiang, seems enthusiastic about crackdown.

Power to the people. To the people of Hong Kong. To the people of Kashmir. It’s hard to see how all this will turn out well. But there’s still hope.

Nuclear fusion occurs in nature all the time. It’s that big hot thing in the sky. We all know that.

But does nuclear fission every occur in nature?

The answer is: yes. Once, that we know of. 1.7 billion years ago, in what is currently, but was not then, Gabon, veins of uranium ore arranged themselves just so and were affected just right so that nuclear fission spontaneously began.

But how did this affect the life forms atop the land? Did they mutate and acquire superpowers? IS THIS HOW DINOSAURS BEGAN?

No. Because multicellular life as we know it only started about 600 million years ago.

As with so much of natural history, the only witnesses were protozoa, and they weren’t in the habit of filming newsreels.

Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing
There’s shopping malls coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure
That’s why
I pay no mind

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I and a group of my friends remained on campus in Western Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant time, the summer before our senior year, the last season of freedom before the world was forced upon us.

Beck’s first album, Mellow Gold, was popular that summer. I played it often in our sweltering little apartment. Besides “Loser,” the hit single, two songs really stuck out: “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997

Rattlesnake on the ceiling
Gunpowder on my sleeve
I will live here forever
With the ocean and the bees
Lay it on to the dawn
Everything we’ve done is wrong
I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone
Lay it on to the dawn

My summer job was shelving in the library. It was not demanding. I had plenty of time to peruse the stacks.

City of Quartz.” What a great title! What’s it about? It’s about Los Angeles and its fate.

My interest in Southern California had already been primed by a few things, such as Bruce Wagner’s miniseries Wild Palms (in which the themes of Southern California become the natural end of the entire country) and the essay collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A.—not to mention a longtime interest in the Manson Family (more on that next week). But Mike Davis’s neo-Marxist jeremiad reframed things. Davis had been lucky enough to sync with the ’92 riots, making him hailed as a prophet. His vision of Los Angeles, a rivalry between sunshine and noir on the brink of implosion, vibrated within my college-junior skull.

All the time I kept listening to Beck, kept listening to those two tracks on Mellow Gold. The most curious reveries filled my head.

In those songs, I heard a desiccated slow-apocalypse, the logical end of the City of Quartz. A crumbling motel next to empty dusty bungalows, the skeletons of realtors and talent agents left abandoned in empty swimming pools. Faceless cops patrolling the canyons. Luxury cars burning on the freeways. An infinite beach, because the tide kept going out and out and never came back, ’til you could walk to Catalina.

In those moments, I understood Los Angeles. The place that will someday be erased by the earthquake. The place where “the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.”

(needle scratch)

See what I did there?

I constructed a thought form. Out of various bits of information related to the objective existence of the territory and people termed “Los Angeles” and “Southern California” (used interchangeably), I formed a mental image and interacted with it, creating emotional responses that could lead to action. In this case, a variety of elements came together in my head to form a strongly “noir” picture of the city.

This fashioning didn’t really have any consequences. I was just a college student; I had no power to make them a reality. But it could have if I had gone on to have any power over, say, federal funding to Southern California.

Really, there was never any real threat that this thought form could lead to action, because I was skeptical enough about it even at the time. I did once warn someone against moving to L.A., but not seriously.

I touched on thought forms here. Thinking back to the summer of ’94, it occurred to me that my mental L.A. was a glass-case example. Note this thought form was developed from a poor & entirely theoretical information base—a few books, movies, and miscellaneous media. Most of our thought forms are developed on such poor bases, and, due to the Problem of Information, no one’s forms can encompass a significant amount of the relevant data.

Often our thought forms harden. We form them in youth and then invest ourselves in them. Information that reinforces our favored forms is welcomed; information that undermines them is passed over or rationalized away. We make the world we see and then we see the world we make.

But in the case of my view of L.A., I can report that I was not content to leave things on an last-chapter-of-Less Than Zero note. Steve Martin helped. His L.A. Story and the essay on Los Angeles in Pure Drivel paint the city as a place of ironic joys. There are countervailing voices, if you listen hard enough.

In the end, all our thought forms stand as beetles against the obelisk of reality. The actual thing called “Los Angeles” is the aggregate of every life carried out within its borders. Some end wonderfully, some horribly, all in infinite variety, each one slightly different. There’s no way to grasp it all. Lived experience will always ooze around our expectations.

Since 1994, I’ve actually been to Los Angeles. Just once, on a happy occasion, for a weekend. We drove the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, rode the ferris wheel at the pier, saw the moonlight on the Pacific surf while jets from LAX soared aloft like angels. It was beautiful. We can never comprehend the totality of real life. But every little bit helps.