Pop Cult

Better ideas.
April 24 1997 3:30 AM

Pop Cult

What the lack of cultural cultivation can lead us to do.

Has there ever been a cult as kitschy as Heaven's Gate? Despite the thousands of words and pictures, and the weeks of speculations, nothing has altered the sheer dullness of this group: their trips to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, the meals at Taco Bell and the gambling in Las Vegas, the devotion to The X-Files and Star Trek, the leader who starred in productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific, their brand-new Nikes and their last supper of potpies washed down with spiked applesauce. The cult even made itself seem thoroughly nondescript when setting out for what it called its "graduation," packing bags and taking pocket change, presumably so, as fully credentialed E.T.s, they could phone home.

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Their world seems just a slightly more loopy version of American pop culture. The cult didn't really dress that weirdly or cut their hair that strangely or dissociate themselves from their surroundings by moving to isolated hamlets in the jungle. There were no sacred texts or profound esoteric doctrines, no exotic rituals or perverse sexual practices (aside from the castrato envy encouraged by the lead baritone), no financial scams or power struggles, no trials by fire or water. This was a cult that didn't seem like a cult. It embraced the very culture it was supposedly rejecting.

That, of course, is part of the fascination. Like those doe-eyed kids in Village of the Damned, the cult's smiling faces with close-cropped hair seem to reveal something horrific about ordinary life. It's as if the boundaries between cult and culture were nonexistent. The word cult has roots in religious beliefs about agricultural cultivation: Early cults required the measurement of fields, rituals for planting, and devotional sacrifices to local deities. Participants in a farming or fertility cult had one focus: the future of the seed. Culture was, in part, an extension of cult. The word once had similar intimations of worship and reverence along with ideas of growth, propagation--again, cultivation. It has also, of course, come to mean something broader. Culture is a kind of social education and training. Its goal is the refinement of human possibility.

Those ancient implications are retained even in American pop culture, which has earned the reverence not just of Heaven's Gate but of a world population aspiring to material comforts and hints of higher things. American pop offers so much at so little cost to so many. It is a kind of denatured religion, in which passions and aspirations are redirected toward the commonplace. Yearning for the now-legendary familiarity of a small-town society in which all threats are cozily controlled? Just visit Disneyland, where dangers are turned into short-lived rides that safely land us back in the town square. Seeking transcendence of ordinary existence, some intimation of the superhuman? Try watching the ecstatic leaps and sweaty athletes of sneaker commercials, and listen to their cultish command: "Just do it." What about the hopes of a paradisiacal world of wealth and privilege and status? Look at the Web sites designed by Heaven's Gate, which offer material aspirants commercial links to Old World cults of topiary, polo playing, and British sports cars.

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T he members of Heaven's Gate were also drawn to the more explicitly cultic strains of American pop culture--strains of rebel spirituality that are wary of modernity, materialism, and rationality. Those strains emerge in fantasy fiction, those epic, post-Tolkien tales of ersatz medieval worlds with wizards, warlocks, and magic, in which battles are waged to stave off the forces of modernity and preserve ancient knowledge. They can be felt in the Force of Star Wars and in the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Even the group's banal ventures into Web design were connected to New Age sentiments. Forget property, identity, and ordinary life, assert the cybercultists. We are entering a new era in which the material world is being left behind and new forms of connection are created on the hyperlinked World Wide Web.

But modern American culture is better at providing pleasure than meaning, sensation than structure. It is less interested in cultivation than in comfort. When the leader's prophecies of redemption went unsatisfied, American culture and New Age sentimentality could offer no help. And neither could the ecumenical mildness of mainstream religion. So the bland promises of pop were supplemented by the ancient forces of cult: the ritualistic sacrifices offered up for the sake of the future of the seed, the almost obsessive devotion to the ruling deities, the sense that nothing else could be as important and that nothing else would survive. "The weeds have taken over the garden," is how the leader put it. It was time for everything to be "spaded over," for a new type of cultivation.

Heaven's Gate developed its own evolutionary mythology, its own ritualistic agriculture, one that seems as shallow as the soil of its pop experience. It first encouraged a prepubescent infantilism (under the guidance of its nursery-rhyme shepherds, once known as Bo and Peep) until these human seeds were ready to "shed" their "containers" and enter "Kingdom Level Above Human." (One can imagine the parental-style nagging before the final ceremony: Don't forget to wear your new sneakers; take money just in case; finish your applesauce.) Along the way, it created a kind of warped counterculture in which the habits of American pop were magnified and distended. If American culture contained strains of sci-fi fantasy, this cult took those ideas literally. If American pop culture tended to have an adolescent quality, the cult would turn the clock back even further, to childhood. If American pop provided a form of aspiration, a promise of more powerful, transforming products, the cult would buy them all and then blast off. Some of the members once wrote a screenplay about their history; but their history already seems a screenplay, composed of bits of sci-fi TV, commercials, and New Age fantasy. The revenge of pop on the cult will be that the story will return to its pop origins as a made-for-TV movie.

In the Middle Ages, many cultic movements believed the world was about to end and only a select few were worthy of survival. In The Pursuit of the Millennium, historian Norman Cohn pointed out that the followers of these movements shared certain characteristics. They tended to come from what he called "surplus population"--peasants without land, unskilled workers, vagabonds, individuals without family or kinship groups. That has often been true, even in this century: Jonestown attracted the poor and disenfranchised.

Yet Heaven's Gate is different. Many of its devotees were not from the margins of American life but from its heart--adults with families, children, siblings, and jobs, including a dude-ranch owner, a massage therapist, a postal worker, a computer programmer, the brother of a TV star, and the daughter of a U.S. district judge. The only obvious thing they shared was a need. Though this need has often been called spiritual, it might better be called cultural. It is hinted at in the aspiring strains of pop culture the group tapped into, and in the snobbish Web sites it designed, in the contentious manifestos it wrote and in its inability to come up with anything other than some threadbare, pop-style myth to believe in. It may be that what makes us so uncomfortable about Heaven's Gate is that we recognize its dull world and strained ambitions as our own. We see how grotesque the consequences can be of living without a rich notion of human cultivation, and settling for one that is more cult than culture.

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large at the New York Times and author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.

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