“If God does not exist, Kirilov is god. If God does not exist, Kirilov must kill himself. Kirilov must therefore kill himself to become god. The logic is absurd, but it is what is needed.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (italics added)
Like the Guyanese intellectual, Virgil, one of the four protagonists in my novel, Resurrection City, I seek understanding in literature, philosophy, and art. Unlike him, I have not given up, nor shall I. What I pursue is clarity. Not logic or order. Certainly not beauty.
In his endlessly fascinating essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” – which Virgil reads and re-reads – Albert Camus, philosopher and novelist, Resistance warrior and ethical soul, analyzes Dostoyevsky’s existential hero of The Possessed, the engineer Kirilov. Though I confess I have yet to finish The Possessed, I see in Camus’ description of Kirilov an approximation of the Jonestown suicides of November 18, 1978.
In my reading, Kirilov does not stand for Jim Jones alone, but rather all the adults who chose to die and to kill others who could not or would not kill themselves. This approach diverges from the psychological explanation of paranoid delusions and/or deep depression. It removes international politics from the equation as well as the criminal repercussions of that afternoon’s murders on the runway at Port Kaituma.
Much has been made of Jones’ claims over the years to be god, or to have replaced what he called the “sky god” with Socialism as an alternative deity. The stories that he stamped on the Bible – telling his followers to stop paying attention to it and to focus on him instead – may be apocryphal. What seems most relevant is Jones’ embrace of that “Skygod” in the last hours of Jonestown.
“For months I’ve tried to keep this thing from happening,” he says on the final tape, “but now I see that it’s the will of the Sovereign Being that this happened to us.”
Suddenly, god or God – the “Sovereign Being” – is no longer inside him or inside Peoples Temple, but rather an outside entity over which he and the others have no agency. It is as if, in those last minutes, the Jones and Jonestown that determined their own world had evaporated, and, at this moment in his speech, Jones surrenders to the omnipotent God of his youth, the same God he had pointedly disavowed during the intervening decades.
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“If God exists,” writes Camus, “all depends on him and we can do nothing against his will. If he does not exist, everything depends on us.”
The roughly one-third of Jonestown’s population consisting of adults of sound mind and body who took their lives willingly – as opposed to those who were forcibly injected – are responsible for their acts. They cannot evade their terrible responsibility, nor should they. Neither Jones nor Dr. Schacht nor the nurses or guards forced their hands to self-annihilation.
In the anthology, In A Dark Time, Drs. Robert Jay Lifton and Nicholas Humphrey write, “For it is the privilege, and the burden, of human beings to have knowledge of good and evil, and free will: when we come to judgment we come to it on our own account, according to how we have lived our earthly lives.” So for those who chose to die, whether imagining they might become god or rather to escape the horrors of November 18, 1978, they did so on their own account, with all the burden and privilege that choice confers. They chose death, and in their aftermath, we who remain have no choice but to live in the wake of that decision.
I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing:
therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
(Annie Dawid recently completed Resurrection City, a novel of Jonestown. An article about her novel and an excerpt appear in this year’s edition of the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at email@example.com.)