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PRIMEVAL EMBEDDED IN TIME AND PLACE

by

Lionel Rolfe



I have thought long and hard about what in particular united all the disparate elements of California bohemianism. It shows in California literature, and in Los Angeles literature, as well as San Francisco literature. What shows is the "pristine innocence of bohemia," later jaded by the apocalyptical strain in writing which Huxley and Mann introduced to the Southland. The decay and innocence -- that is the true L.A.

Despite the superficial cosmopolitan atmosphere Los Angeles was developing in the last decades of the last millennium, don't think that authors -- and even the mortal merely mortal residents -- haven't perceived the rawness, the primitiveness of this place correctly. Time and place have been called disappearing characteristics of modern fiction about New York for decades now, but in Los Angeles time and place are still the stars of our drama.

Perhaps time and place are ephemeral phenomena, in life and to a lesser degree in literature -- maybe both are but a writer's conceit, construct or facile artifices. But the fact is that Los Angeles has put its garish mark on world literature with them. Desert sun and fire, the multivaried moods of nature and light, and artificial spotlights and glows have given the place its own special luminescence. Were it not for the sun there would be few fires, no doubt. Los Angeles is often consumed by primeval fires, in its canyons, its mountains and flatlands -- fires that make hell seem a modest place after all. In Los Angeles, our primeval fires seem to come from the bowels of the earth.

If you really want to understand the way Los Angeles looks and feels, you have to understand the desert sun and the land, the heat and the fire and the colors, over which a thin veneer of civilization has been laid down. Go just the other side of the mountain pass out of the Los Angeles basin on Highway 5 to Newhall. This is the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains that form the Los Angeles basin.

Being only 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles means that the old town of Newhall, now officially known as Santa Clarita, is only half an hour away by freeway. With its California Institute of the Arts, an arts university initially patterned after the Bauhaus, and Magic Mountain amusement park, and suburbs and malls and mini-malls, its riverbed and stream beds, as well as its hillsides covered with condos and homes, Newhall seems far away from the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard.

As late as three decades ago, you could sit on a hillside in that town and feel you lived in a raw and primitive place. Back then, the area was still far from built up, so those who had lived there a while could still find a bluff above it all, and watch the great red fires sweep out of its hilly canyons early every summer, and contemplate the buzzards and condors that circled the almost lunar desert landscape where you half expected dinosaurs to be roaming, and pterodactyls to be roaring and wobbling through the air. Right there at the edge of the L.A. basin, you get to understand -- to feel the rhythm of the fires in summer and the torrential rains, floods and even occasional snows in winter, and dread the inevitable punctuating earthquake. I think all of this contributes to the feeling that all L.A. is but a sound stage, even though here we're not here talking about studio back lots.

Straight ahead to the north are the Tehachapi Mountains, and northeast, by hardly more than ten miles, is the beginning of the Mojave Desert where giant rock structures have been dramatically uplifted by the earth's violent geology. It is tentative, primitive land in either direction -- and it's the same land that formed the Los Angeles basin that's now been covered over with the appurtenances of the city.

Consider that one of the ritziest parts of Los Angeles's Wilshire Boulevard goes over a patch of ancient surface oil. They pulled a museum full of beat skeletons and bones out of the still percolating tar pits. And remember that the San Gabriel mountains which form the northern part of the basin near Newhall are also the beginning of condor territory, ancestral home of a nearly extinct, primitive bird. Just how wild a land this is wasn't driven home for me until one day in the late sixties when I got a call early one morning. It happened that a huge Abyssinian hornbill -- a giant primitive bird out of another eon -- had escaped from the Los Angeles Zoo a few weeks before.

"Abby's" misadventures around the Los Angeles basin were featured on all the front pages in town and on every television news show day after day. Everyone cheered on the bird, which was obviously looking for freedom, and was spotted in different precarious situations all around the basin.

A good news source called me when I worked as a reporter at the Newhall Signal to tell me that a local father had been woken up early that morning by the sound of his son shooting off his rifle. It seems that Abby had finally found her way through the pass in the basin walls into Newhall and was flying north, because the rocky high desert landscape reminded her of the North African land she had come from. She stopped for only a second on a fence in Newhall -- and a kid looked out the window, saw Abby, and did what any good red-blooded American boy would do. He shot and killed her. The embarrassed father asked me not to reveal the identity of Abby's killer.

By six o'clock that morning, the bird, with its 14-foot wingspread, had been folded into my icebox. She stayed there while I wrote the story, and then we called zoo officials to come and take her body and identify her. Abby, who was a noble, but rather ugly creature that looked almost like a pterodactyl, stayed in my icebox for a couple of days. When the paper came out with our story, my exclusive in the Signal was widely noted on various television stations. But it was Abby's poor body, filling up the entire refrigerator that really gave me an intimate sense of the attraction that the land had had for her. Suddenly the primeval fires and lights were revealing their secrets to me.

In 1902 John C. Van Dyke wrote in The Desert that sunlight "falls fierce and hot as a rain of meteors -- it is the one supreme beauty to which all things pay allegiance" in Southern California. In 1906 the then young poet Robinson Jeffers sat on top of a hill in Los Angeles and watched the night descend, describing at the perimeter of his view "furnace fire lights" whose "rolling fierce shafts" pierced the black sky.

Even when there aren't fires and floods, there is always something about the light, natural and artificial, combined with the desert sun and spontaneous fires that impart a maniac, primitive look to Los Angeles and environs.

Half a century ago in his classic Southern California: An Island on the Land, Carey McWilliams insisted that the strange interplay of light and air in the desert by the sea is unique, and different from those of the Mediterranean or even the tropics, which L.A. climate most closely parallels. McWilliams noted that Los Angeles is bounded on one side by mountains and the other side by ocean, that it is a place where the sun and the air play odd little games with each other. This is no natural garden setting, gentle and woodsy, such as Tennyson and Wordsworth wrote about. Most European and eastern American cities are carved out of gentle, old worn hills and woods. But L.A. is a different kind of American city -- this was never the Garden of Eden -- there's hardly a plant in the Los Angeles basin that wasn't imported and isn't kept alive by water imported from elsewhere. The land itself is almost an inert ingredient -- it's mostly the Mojave Desert sun and air suddenly full of ocean moisture that's unique, McWilliams insisted.

Both inside the basin walls and outside, the land is hilly, with, as we said, jutting and often dramatic rocky geology, covered naturally with chaparral, sagebrush and some scrubby oaks. Sometimes seen in plain light, L.A. landscape becomes commonplace. But if you live in L.A. -- within the basin or just beyond it -- the memory of the fires and floods and the sunlight begins to work its magic. The longer you stay in L.A., the more the magic works because you always know how quickly the commonplace disappears.

You'll remember that Nathanael West's vision that inspired The Day of the Locust came from a terrible summer he spent in a Hollywood boarding house at the height of the Depression when he was both ill and broke. The heat of the summer sun combining with the deadly red from the brush fires in the nearby Hollywood Hills colored his L.A. perceptions forever.

The great fires that every summer burst out of the canyons -- in Newhall or in the Hollywood Hills -- are the same. They certainly inspired West to his best work and it had an incredibly apocalyptical feeling. Throughout West's The Day of the Locust, his protagonist, a movie studio artist, is working at home on his masterpiece, "The Burning of Los Angeles." Explained West, "He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun.... He wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned."

It's been suggested that like desert air, which produces great, strange mirages, L.A.'s air is like a giant movie lens that makes the place always seem bigger than life. Others have noted how fast the sun slips out of the hilly desert canyons as it sinks into the Pacific, in imitation of a Klieg light being turned off. In After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Aldous Huxley creates a nearly hallucinogenic quality to the light of Los Angeles by combing both of these effects. And this was before the landscape had driven him to LSD. Note this passage: "It was a winter day and early in the morning; but the sun shone brilliantly, the sky was without a cloud. The car was traveling westwards and the sunshine, slanting from behind them as they advanced, lit up each building, each sky sign and billboard as though with a spotlight, as though on purpose to show the new arrival all the sights."

Authors personalize the light. In What Makes Sammy Run? Budd Schulberg wrote that "the sun was taking its evening dipping, slipping down into the ocean inch by inch, like a fat woman, afraid of the water."

In the twenties, Upton Sinclair wrote his incredibly Balzacian novel of some 500 pages called Oil, which painted a sparse landscape that was, literally, floating on oil, oil that would propel the development of a city even more than its famed dream factories. In 1912 he had an oilman and his son racing across the Southern California landscape, "no hat on Dad's head, because he believed that wind and sunshine kept your hair from falling out." Sinclair describes the scene as the car roars across it: "A barrier of mountains lay across the road. Far off, they had been blue, with a canopy of fog on top; they lay in tumbled masses, one summit behind another, and more summits peeking over, fainter in color, and mysterious. You knew you had to go up there, and it was interesting to guess where a road might break in. As you came nearer, the great masses changed color -- bushes of a hundred shades. They were spotted with rocks, black, white, brown, or red; also with the pale flames of the yucca, a plant which reared a thick stem ten feet or more in the air, and covered it with small flowers in a huge mass, exactly the shape of a candle flame, but one that never flickered in the wind." A few miles further, dad remarks, "If that sun doesn1t get over the hill in three minutes, she's late."

Sinclair also notes that in the West they tried to light up even the small towns with far more artificial light than back east. Sinclair insisted Western towns were different. "The width of the street, the newness of the stores, the shininess of their white paint, and the network of electric lights hung over the center of the street."

In the early part of the twentieth century the basin must have had a pristine, gentle quality as the orange orchards and bean fields got planted and roads and Red Car tracks were laid out. But that period lasted only a short time. Raymond Chandler describes how when he first got to L.A. in 1912, he found a world with year-round sun, hot and dry in the summer, with great tropical rains in the winter. By the time his hard-boiled prose in the Philip Marlowe books is maturing, he is writing about the Depression and the pristine past is as lost as the Garden of Eden. By the fifties, he sadly announced, the climate remained hot but had also become sticky and humid and befouled with smog. The sunshine had turned "as empty as a headwaiter's smile." But maybe what is the most memorable line from Chandler came when he immortalized our Santa Ana conditions, those terrible hot desert winds blowing through the valleys into the basin. These are the times, said Chandler, when meek wives look longingly at the backs of their husbands' necks and sharpen their kitchen knives.

By World War II, Huxley had descended into apocalypse for a literature that reflected the Southern California desert he was living in. The sun had set the stage for the apocalypse ever since. The great flashes of light from the nuclear bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were on his mind as he wrote this book, especially because Huxley was practically blind. Light became his obsession. He discovered the source of Los Angeles's unique light by living in the desert at Llano. The desert light enabled him to see more, he believed. He even drove his car across the desert floor, able to make things out because of the direct desert light and distinct shadows.

Sun, light and ultimately fire -- this old high desert island by the ocean has also left big imprints on international literature. Take Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, it never mentions L.A., but it was conceived and written in L.A. The book is about the decline of Germany into total barbarism during World War II. The germ of the novel was said to have first come to Mann when he was in vacation in Palestrina, Italy, as a young man. For it was during Mann's Palestrina period that he developed his sense of his own German identity; he hated the palm trees and blue skies in Italy because they were so un-German. No doubt Mann's subconscious was awakened during the Holocaust as he sat in the pleasant green hills by the blue Pacific, the blue, desert-sun lit bright air of the Pacific Palisades making him think of that early time in Palestrina. One thing no doubt led to the next. The palm trees and sun of L.A. commingled with Mann's Palestrina memories. Along with his own forebodings about the land from which he was exiled.

In Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, which takes place in Mexico on the verge of World War II, the Consul ultimately disappears into the volcano. He is consumed by the fire of the volcano. Everything was ultimately consumed around Lowry -- even the dead dog goes into the cabalistic furnace. Lowry wrote much of the manuscript while cooped up in a dingy Los Angeles hotel room.

Compare Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, the most Los Angeles of all detective heroes. What lives and breathes about Holmes is the same quality that lives and breathes about London even to this day -- it is a cosmopolitan international city, older and wiser than Los Angeles -- very rational and sophisticated with its Victorian sun. Holmes deducts, Marlowe reacts. What lives and breathes in Raymond Chandler's Marlowe is not his intellect but a sharpened sense of L.A.'s place and time, invariably cast in a continuum of fire and sun and garish artificial light.

From pristine beginnings to apocalypse was the later message of L.A. literature which was born in a baptism of fire.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lionel Rolfe writes about coffeehouses and Los Angeles literature in the third edition of Literary L.A., which is just now being released. He is also the author of Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground. Check out Lionel Rolfe's interview at 3am.







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