L.A.: Drastic Space

Letters at 3AM

by Michael Ventura


illustration by A.J. Garces

America has always been a place of the drastic, shaped by refugees, revolution, slavery, civil war, and other such drastic modes of human behavior. Obsessed with the drastic project of mastering a wild continent. Conceiving cities as drastic constructs. (Imagine just how drastic New York seemed even 50 years ago, when it was the only skyline of its kind in the world.) The most distinctively American art has always been drastic. I think of little Emily Dickinson in her Amherst garden taking on the entire universe with almost unbearably tense language -- a drastic project if ever there was one. Or Charlie Parker playing faster than anyone ever played a horn, using notes in dizzying combinations nobody had ever thought of -- another drastic project. William Faulkner, Billie Holiday, Martha Graham, Henry Miller, Bette Davis, Walt Whitman, Willem de Kooning, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg -- all avatars of the drastic. The Alamo. H-bombs. Breaking the sound barrier. The only country on earth with as many personally owned weapons as there are citizens. With more non-war-related murders than all other countries put together, and more people in prisons and mental hospitals. The first nation on earth to write into law that a human being has the right to say anything, and that even the government is (theoretically) not allowed to silence you. A drastic place.

And far on its western edge lies its most drastic landscape and most drastic city: the Mojave Desert and Los Angeles. Isn't it drastic, that all across the continent, all across the world, living rooms and bedrooms glow at night with the fantasies, trials, and disasters that erupt in L.A. -- a glowing that's almost, but not quite, taken for granted? What, precisely, are so many sitting in the glow of? And that screen doesn't only glow, it hisses. Turn the volume down to nothing and there's still a hiss. What insanity could generate such a secretly hissing, all-pervasive glow?

Do we understand, for instance, that we are watching the glow of a desert? No conceptual "great wasteland" but a wild and murderous and unpredictable desert. The Mojave is such an immeasurable place that different encyclopedias give drastically different estimates of its extent -- their measurements vary by as much as 10,000 square miles. You'd think our era of satellite cartography would be more exact, but nothing is exact in the Mojave. Something radiating from its innards throws off exact judgments. Within a six-hour Mojave drive from L.A., through a land called (on the maps) The Devil's Playground, you find the hottest place on earth. Death Valley, and the Nevada Test Site, which is the one place on earth that has endured several hundred surface and underground nuclear explosions. Nor can you drive an hour without crossing one potentially disastrous fault line or another. And if you're stranded on a two-lane in summer without water, and you don't know the desert's ways, you can die before sunset.

A drastic place, yes? Well, if it wasn't for the greatest water-theft in history, that desert would reach almost to the sea. We forget, when we watch that glow in our homes, that it's the glow of a desert city, a place that has more in common geographically with Jerusalem or Cairo than with Baltimore or Austin. A place as fragile as it is drastic. Most of its water is supplied by four aqueducts (two of which cracked in the Northridge quake). It may be a little cooler by the sea, but the city's light is desert light, its air is desert air, its rules are desert rules.

And what are those rules? Put most simply, both literally and symbolically: Carry your own water, and know the shortest route to the next water. Trust no one else to do and know this for you. People dying of thirst tend to forget their manners, and the Mojave's L.A. is a place where many are threatened by many kinds of thirst. (That fact is the real hiss of that glow in your home.)

Let us imagine that you're an artist of some kind, driving across the Mojave on Interstate 10, headed for L.A. About three hours from the city you'll pass a hot slum called Indio. No sign advertises what you're really passing, nothing tells you that under Indio is the San Andreas Fault. A rather drastic and unpredictable event is waiting tensely beneath you. People in New York and Texas think the inevitable Great California Quake hasn't much to do with them, but that's ignorance. California accounts for roughly 20% of the nation's Gross National Product; 10% of that is in Southern California. What happens to your economy if America loses from 5% to 15% of its GNP overnight? You'll be living in a very different America, and (for some years at least) at a very much lower economic standard.

That's something the hiss itself knows, though those who generate that hiss are, for the most part, ignorant of it. It's a drastic country indeed that has entrusted so many of its eggs to such a fragile container.

But we were imagining an artist taking this journey, and what this means for you, if you're an artist, is that the sense of space here is not only on the ground, or in the air, but goes far deeper into the earth, and reaches up from those depths toward you. Stay long enough and it will shake you, maybe kill you, but its mere presence is enough to change you -- for artists are human seismographs, of a kind. Artist or not, something apocalyptic is likely to color what you do, how you feel, or how you avoid feeling. Nobody who spends much time in L.A. is able to avoid that. It's a rather drastic situation, when you consider it: Just how much American pop culture is generated by people who choose to live (usually in denial) in such a dangerous place. That, too, is in the hiss and the glow.

All this, and we haven't reached the city yet. Still driving in the desert, you may suddenly hear a tremendous boom, then another, in quick succession. The sonic booms of a spacecraft (we tamely call it a "shuttle") landing at Edwards, less than a two hour drive into the Mojave. The booms shake L.A. and all that surrounds it. So this is a city where spaceships rattle the windows. Thus the sense of space extends not only beneath your feet into the depths of the planet, but goes beyond this bleached-white sky into the depths of the universe. It is drastic indeed to be at the intersection of -- well, of practically everything.

Still, two hours out of L.A. you reach San Bernadino and begin a hundred miles of smoggy suburban sprawl -- another massive proof, as if one were needed, of the ugliness humanity will tolerate in hopes of a steady job. It's easy to forget that without watertheft this stretch would be no different from the desert you've just driven through. Now you're driving through a particular human space, a human density. All densities resist what tries to enter them. Call this, if you're an artist, a resistance to you -- I mean, a resistance to art, to beauty, to any vision not utilitarian, not immediately translatable into money. In this sense, at least, all of America is becoming such a desert. (If that's not drastic, what is?)

And if you're an artist, and not just another pop-culture parasite, then your job description is to resist back -- and to translate this struggle between ugliness and beauty into meaning, non-meaning, loveliness, gruesomeness, inner space, or whatever you can make of it, you drastic soul, you. That is, if you are old fashioned enough to believe that art is not merely self-expression but vision. (Remember what it says in the Bible: that without visions, the people perish. And we are each one of the people, aren't we, so visions may be a personal as well as cultural matter of life and death.)

After such a parched drive there is enormous relief when you round a turn and see the skyline of downtown L.A., for you are passing from resistance to receptivity. Not receptive to you, not receptive to anyone individually, but receptive to the energy of hundreds of thousands of people pouring in every year to join their spark to its glow. To put it less grandly: you're being sucked in. Into a glowing hissing drastic vortex.

"The most ethnically diverse city in the world," according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. In the world. Hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken here. Can you see them in that thing that glows in your home, hear them in that hiss under Leno's leer and those cackling Friends? Somewhere in that glow is the tension between the fact and the denial of the fact: the fact that not one but several epic migrations of the 20th century are going on right in this city, right now, at the same time. Aside from a lot of immigration scare-talk, this epic event is hardly mentioned in any art or discourse that gets seen or heard here or anywhere. All those languages, all those accents, all those races are virtually silent, as far as America at large is concerned. Silent, except for how the denial (and/or misrepresentation) of their existence manifests in that undersound of hissing in that glowing thing in your home, your very own home.

With all of this unsaid, with all of this barely even implied with all of this simmering just under the surface of that thing we stare at every day, how can you imagine that you're not living dangerously?

(to be continued)

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