Journey to Nowhere coverAbout halfway through Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a “New Earth Exposition” in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as “shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals” and “earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy” (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the “World Hunger Project,” one of whom remarks “I can see you’re a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You’re hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit” (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there’s no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a “pretty negative type.”

Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I’ve written before). Naipaul’s book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this “revolutionary suicide” of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.

What makes Naipaul’s approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. “No one,” he argues, “accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened” (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People’s Temple but notes that not a single one “has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy” (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What’s more, even the so-called “Concerned Relatives” are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: “by their words and action, they helped create the conditions” for the mass suicide; “their hysteria goaded [the People’s Temple] toward extinction” (156).

But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which “had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay” (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown’s destruction are already found in San Francisco’s “New Age Exposition,” Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley’s student radicalism, and Oakland’s Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale “intellectual and spiritual collapse” (208), a place where “the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions” (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: “ideas had indeed become viruses” (211); “they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect” (196).

California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a “laboratory” (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: “America’s wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate” (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a “hegira”) from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything “was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption” (249).

It gets worse. There’s a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book “A New World Tragedy”: he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones’s multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of “revolutionary suicide”? Had not “the basic groundwork [for Jones’s fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors” (288)? What the People’s Temple suffered from, in the end, was “an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption” (249).

Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a “Cooperative Socialist Republic”), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People’s Temple, is a place of “degeneracy,” of “moral decay” (105), of “a kind of universal mental retardation” (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host’s enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear “Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it’s my turn to drink the poison” (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a “concerned relative” aghast at what he repeatedly terms the “cultural and intellectual regression” born of “the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion” (26).

The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: “In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn” (39).

Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the “riffraff” (27) like “animals” (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a “jungly nightmare” (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized “logic and all that bullshit” in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?


Jonestown movie posterThe other day I saw the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the story of the rise and spectacular fall of Jim Jones and his quasi-socialist experiment in constructing an alterative society first in Northern California, latterly in a remote outpost in Guyana.

An interview with the director and some clips from the film are available on YouTube.

The film features many interviews with former members of the Peoples Temple, not least with some of the few survivors of the events of November 17 and 18, 1978. It also has a wealth of archive footage: of services in San Francisco, and of the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan whose visit to the Jonestown colony precipitated the final crisis and mass suicide.

Ryan, very much a hands-on politician, went down to Guyana to investigate reports of abuses. At first the visit went well from the perspective of Jones and his followers. There’s an extraordinary moment in which Ryan addresses a meeting of the community and declares “whatever the [questions and criticisms] are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.” This statement is followed by thunderous, overwhelming, and evidently spontaneous applause. The tumult of noise simply doesn’t stop. Ryan tries to say more, but is evidently taken aback, embarrassed but also somehow pleased, by the sheer force of the affect he has conjured up.

Now imagine being Jim Jones and receiving such a response on a regular basis.

The screening I attended was followed by a discussion led by a particularly clueless psychologist who repeated all the usual clichés about cults and brainwashing. What was striking was the way in which his discourse simply mirrored that of so-called cults: establishing a clear line between “us” and “them,” and warning us that “they” might seem superficially attractive and rational, but were in fact deeply dangerous and deceitful.

Watching the documentary itself, however, revealed the continuities between the Peoples Temple experience and the atmosphere of the time. Jim Jones emerged at the intersection of a potent cocktail of political radicalism, religious fervor, racial utopianism, and a general questioning of all norms.

Jones’s extraordinarily liberal racial politics were particularly evident, and clearly also long-standing and deep-held. One of the film’s interviewees was Jones’s adopted son, Jim Jones Jr. (he happened to be away from Jonestown the night of the massacre), who points out that he was the first African American child to be adopted by a white family in the state of Indiana. Other interviewees comment that, as far as they were concerned, Jones was not a white pastor: his empathy and understanding for the African American experience was almost instinctual, innate.

The film was particularly effective in conveying the appeal of the Peoples Temple: the way in which it offered an affective community, a dose of ecstasy, an amalgamation of Freedom Ride and hippie commune and underground cell. No wonder at least one former member comments:

a part of the film made me long to be back there in Peoples Temple. [. . .]

I wish that I could again experience the warmth of that Peoples Temple family and see the look of joy on the faces of my children as they interacted with that great big family. Back then I knew that I was a part of something that was going to make a difference in this world, and I was so happy that my children were going to be a part of it. I knew then that my life had purpose, and that I had done the right thing for me and for my children. I was glad that my mother [. . .] was also a part of this.

(Other responses are here).

But then there is the sense of disappointment, the tragedy that something, somewhere, went wrong. Somehow paranoia took over, the multitude turned bad:

I wanted November 18, 1978, to have been an ordinary day in the life of Peoples Temple, the day after November 17, the day before November 19 and so many days after.

It is all inside my head, too much inside my head. I find myself wanting to scream “Let’s have a do over. Let’s not have anyone die. Let’s not have Jonestown and Peoples Temple be what people say to describe a cult.” But if you have a do-over, where do you start from?

How it hurts to have to remember that it is all gone.

For more, see the film’s website, this YouTube montage, as well as Rebecca Moore’s indispensable Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.