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Something Birthday to John McGahern and Charles Manson

November 12, 2014



On this day in 1934, two very different little boys were born.  Only one of these boys is still with us.  I can’t for the life of me think of two famous individuals born on the same day who had less in common.

John McGahern was perhaps the most acclaimed Irish novelist of the late twentieth century.  Violence haunts his best works but this violence is never a tease or a temptation.  His exquisitely realised fictions are rooted in his native Leitrim yet also accommodate the painfully realistic theme of exile and the fact that all homecomings are scarred by long exiles.   McGahern knew that it was possible to live in a place and miss it at one and the same time just as McGahern’s characters know how to belong and not belong at one and the same time.  His work is also absorbed by the slowness of death and the effects of death and dying upon the living, not to mention the extent to which the potency of those dead is preserved by the living.   His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Son is remarkable for its ability to tell very little in the way of a story while hinting at the fecundity of circumstance that informs the most trivial responsibilities and encounters.  McGahern’s work is always fascinated by the ordinary and the humdrum, because of his sense that the ordinary and the humdrum is in fact strange and fragile.

By the time Charles Manson was tried and sentenced for his role orchestrating those very nasty murders back in 1969, he had already spent most of his life in some sort of prison.  Since then he has spent more than forty years freaking out panelists on successive parole hearings.  We must ask ourselves – could this frail eighty year old man really prove a threat to society?  Is he really capable of hypnotising another gang of damaged and bewildered young people into launching themselves into another killing spree?

And the answer has to be a resounding YES!  He’s still a tremendously dangerous individual.  He’s physically unimpressive – but then he always was – and his celebrity means that his power to dominate others has probably grown rather than receded over time.  Manson has demonstrated that he can survive incarceration – that incarceration has become his normal and natural state.  He will probably go on to break some sort of record for the highest percentage of a long life spent behind bars.  In a sense, Manson has one, but only because California is not a polity that is prepared to degrade itself to the point of treating him the way he treated others.  If McGahern celebrates ordinariness then Manson trivialises Heaven and Hell.  It is instructive that Manson had no idea that Paul McCartney was merely singing about a cylindrical fairground slide.

There can be no joint birthday party for John McGahern and Charles Manson.  A chronicler of the effects of death who is himself dead and a living sociopath who thinks he is Death but for whom the presence and weight of death has no meaning.  November 12, 1934 offers one of the stranger and more haunting anniversaries to mark if not celebrate.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Happy Birthday John McGahern and Charles Manson. What do you make of that you astrologers?

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