"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Most of us respond instinctively to “Dianetics.” We glimpse the covers (for some reason, you only see this book in battalions of copies), with their lurid pictures of spouting volcanoes emblazoned with screaming, foil-stamp lettering, and as if by reflex, our steps quicken, our eyes avert and our faces compose themselves into the expression of someone who would never, ever have time to fill out a 500-question “personality assessment.” But then, last week, under cover of darkness, a copy of “Dianetics” was delivered to my doorstep with the terse order, “Review this.” It was time, as they say on bad TV shows, to face my fears.
The first thing you notice about “Dianetics” is that it is spectacularly dull. L. Ron Hubbard promises, in this seemingly endless treatise, that his “modern science of mental health” will cure everything from schizophrenia to arthritis, claims for which he presents no credible evidence whatsoever — unless you consider merely insisting that you’ve got evidence to be the same thing as offering it. But I am here to testify that “Dianetics” is a phenomenal remedy for at least one widespread affliction: insomnia.
“Dianetics” belongs to a category of books that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s done time reading the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts for a book publisher. This kind of book is typically an explanation of life, the universe and everything written by a choleric gentleman (often a retired military officer) who has holed up in a converted basement or former kid’s bedroom to hammer out his ideas about how the world works — ideas that have for too long been disregarded by the incompetents and assholes around him. (If you are not familiar with this sort of book, know that you have the slush pile readers of America to thank for that.)
In a way, it’s impressive. Hubbard not only managed to get one of these books published, it actually became a bestseller and the founding text for Scientology. It’s not your garden-variety crank who can take a crackpot rant, turn it into a creepy gazillion-dollar church with the scariest lawyers around, and set himself up as the “Commodore” of a small fleet of ships, waited on hand and foot by teenage girls in white hot pants. But, I digress.
“Dianetics” begins with a stern admonition: “Important Note: In reading this book, be very certain that you never go past a word you do not fully understand. The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused or unable to learn is because he or she has gone past a word that was not understood.” This seems a bit punctilious, as everyone knows that one of the main ways people learn the meanings of new words is by hearing or reading them in context. Since only a few pages later, we’re promised that only “basic language” will be used in “Dianetics,” how tough is this going to be?
Alas, it is not only individual words that can cause confusion. Perfectly clear words can be dragooned into sentences so grammatically torturous and incoherent that any meaning once inhabiting those words runs screaming from the wreckage. Context only helps you figure out a word’s definition when the context itself makes sense, and in “Dianetics,” it often doesn’t. Still, there’s a certain twisted panache to preemptively scolding your readers for not trying hard enough to grasp your point before you bedevil them with logic-defying exercises in the hanging modifier and the passive voice. You don’t get it? That’s because you didn’t look up enough words! What did I tell you, idiot?
By the way, all that stuff about “basic language”? That’s a bald-face lie. No sooner does Hubbard get going with whatever it is he’s trying to do, than he starts mangling and making up words willy-nilly. Visual memories are rechristened “visio”; “evolute,” a term that used to refer to the center of a curvature, serves as an entirely unnecessary synonym for “develop”; and sense impressions become “perceptics.” Footnotes offer helpful definitions of commonplace idioms like “a far cry: only remotely related” and the sublimely tautological “present time: the time which is now.”
Obviously, Hubbard is keen to depict Dianetics as “an organized science of thought built on definite axioms (statements of natural laws on the order of those of the physical sciences),” and so he wraps his “technology” in a cloak of impressive-sounding jargon and crams the bottoms of his pages with inane footnotes in order to create the impression of research. This doesn’t keep him from sneering at doctors for obfuscating when (according to him) they call a cold a “catarrhal disorder of the respiratory tract,” or from condemning the pretensions of a (hypothetical) “scholar” enamored of “Hegelian grammar.” Then, with blithe hypocrisy, Hubbard proceeds to lard “Dianetics” with faux-learned name-droppings from the Western Civ. grab bag (Lucretius, Dante, Schopenhauer, etc.) — all of it patently cribbed from Will and Ariel Durant’s multivolume middlebrow classic, “The Story of Civilization.”
So what is this guy on about? The premise of “Dianetics” is that the brain remembers everything we experience and is “utterly incapable of error” except for an evolutionary holdover called the “reactive mind.” This portion of the mind, usually inaccessible to the reasoning or “analytical” mind, takes over when we are “unconscious.” By “unconscious,” Hubbard means not just the conventional sense of the word, but any condition of pain or fear. When you are “unconscious” and also suffering some kind of pain or discomfort, the reactive mind seizes upon all your sensory impressions at that moment and melds them together into an “engram.” The engram is then “soldered” into the circuitry of the mind and, when retriggered by a combination of factors, causes people to think and behave in irrational and destructive ways.
The average person supposedly has thousands of these engrams gumming up his or her works, but with the help of Dianetics’ “science of mind,” and a process called “auditing,” anyone can have them removed from the reactive mind and become a “Clear.” Clears are “optimum individuals,” devoid of engrams and other “aberrations” and furthermore blessed with “full color-visio, tone-sonic, tactile, olfactory, rhythmic, kinesthetic, thermal and organic imagination,” in addition to other qualities akin to superpowers.
Auditing is the repetitive reliving of the engram-creating experience with the aid of a Dianetics auditor and while in a mild hypnotic trance. (The auditor is instructed to say “When I count from one to seven, your eyes will close.” Hubbard maintains that the resulting state is “vastly different” from hypnosis because the subject isn’t “asleep” and knows what’s happening around him, but this just doesn’t sound that different from what most hypnotherapists do.) The most significant engrams, the theory holds, are formed prenatally, starting with the moment of conception. Any words overheard in an “unconscious” state, even pleasant ones, will become a particularly tenacious and unpredictable part of the engram, which is why you must never ever speak to a woman who has, for example, just fallen down in the street. Help her up, but don’t say a word! She might be pregnant!
It shouldn’t take anyone 700 pages of gobbledygook to cover this material, so along the way it’s easy to be distracted by Hubbard’s numerous personal and writerly eccentricities. I kept scouting the book for hints of something I’d heard about, the wacky science fiction mythology that lies at the inner sanctum of Scientology, though I knew it wouldn’t appear per se in “Dianetics.” That’s reserved only for those who have undergone the church’s intensive training and indoctrination. Scientologists say they withhold this information because learning it can drive the unprepared person insane and give you pneumonia, but it’s all over the Web, and it strikes me as far less likely to cause suffering than Hubbard’s prose.
Critics say the church hushes up this story — it involves an evil demiurge who, 75 million years ago, blew up 178 billion souls with hydrogen bombs planted in Earth’s volcanoes, trapped them on “electrical strips,” brainwashed them and packaged them into clusters that now cling to every human being and mess with our bodies and heads — for two reasons. One is that the church needs a sufficiently dramatic payoff after stringing members along through years of courses and trainings, all costing upward of a quarter of a million dollars. The other reason is fear that revealing this fantasia of kooky stories might turn off potential converts — but, hey, that never hurt the Old Testament.
Not only does “Dianetics” offer precious little sideshow appeal, it’s impossible to read much of it without realizing that it’s the work of a very disturbed man. (Here’s where things get less entertaining.) Hubbard’s grandiose preoccupation with “an answer to the goal of all thought,” the reiteration of fantasies of perfect mastery foiled by invasive, alien forces (engrams are described as “parasites”), the determination to envision the mind as a machine that can be brought under absolute control if only these enemies can be ejected — all these are classic forms of paranoid thinking. The alarm bells really start to ring when Hubbard describes colorblindness as caused by a “circuit” in a person’s mind that “behaves as though it were someone or something separate from him and that either talks to him or goes into action of its own accord, and may even, if severe enough, take control of him while it operates.”
All self-help books — and for all its attempts at intellectual hauteur, “Dianetics” is just that — resort to examples and case studies, and those examples tend to reflect the values of their time and the author. When “Dianetics” was first published in 1950, pop psychology books were still widely read by men (now, it’s mostly a women’s genre), and they often tackled such problems as how to get ahead at the office and deal with wives who nagged or withheld sex — the concerns of the average middle-class ’50s guy.
“Dianetics” is way off the reservation in this department. Certain motifs keep recurring with a compulsive regularity that suggests Hubbard himself was anything but clear of past traumas. Eventually, these recurring images and examples gel into a sad and scary narrative that must have had particular power for Hubbard, since it keeps cropping up throughout the book.
It involves an adulterous wife and a brutal husband. The wife becomes pregnant (presumably by her lover) and fears discovery of the affair. She tries repeatedly to abort the pregnancy on her own, using orange sticks and other household objects. Her husband, suspecting the truth, beats her, punching her pregnant belly, calling her a “whore” and “no good.” When the child is born, the parents pretend it was wanted, but the child’s only true ally is a grandmother, who thwarted the mother’s attempt to abort him and cares for the child when he’s sick. Eventually, the mother starts beating the child, using many of the same insults her husband has flung at her.
This horrific tale never appears in its entirety in “Dianetics,” but the book is haunted by it. Every time Hubbard reached into his mind for an example of how a fetus might come to feel pain, or how an engram “keys in,” or how engrams are passed on through generations, he came up with a piece of this story.
The prevalence of physical violence — almost exclusively domestic violence — in “Dianetics” makes itself felt early on. Among the first examples in the book (meant to illustrate the condition of “unconsciousness”) describes a woman being knocked down and kicked by her husband, and beaten women appear throughout with bizarre regularity. Hubbard also seemed to be obsessed with attempted abortion, which he believed to be widespread. Admittedly, when “Dianetics” was written, legal medical abortion wasn’t available in the U.S., but even so, the assertion that “twenty or thirty abortion attempts is not uncommon” among women who aren’t Clears is simply demented.
From reading “Dianetics” alone, you can glean a picture of Hubbard as a man wrestling with mental illness, who saw his mind as a potentially superhuman machine beset by invaders and parasites. Without knowing anything about his life, you can tell that this is someone raised in an environment of betrayal, secrecy, bullying and violence, someone who stands a good chance of re-creating the same conditions in his adult life if he’s not careful. You can figure out all of this just from reading “Dianetics,” like I did. Then, afterward, you can go on the Web and check out the many sites devoted to critiquing Scientology and documenting the truth about Hubbard. Chances are what you find there won’t surprise you at all.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)