Sunrise On Another Apocalypse

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Smoke from a few years ago.

The locals don’t notice it and the transplants can’t articulate it. Living in Los Angeles requires getting comfortable with apocalypse. Not the fire and brimstone visions of The Bible, though there is some room for those, nor the alien landings of new age dogmas, though space is cleared for these too, but the daily unfolding of  a revelatory end.

It is true, as Joan Didion claims, that “the city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” It is also true that there is no place on earth where image and reality is more connected, the boundary between them more frayed, than in Los Angeles. The barrier between city and set is blurred. You see a muscular Adonis jump from a parking garage in fatigues and hit the ground running. You look for the cameras. None are pointed here. He might just be exercising. He could be a stuntman. He might just be crazy. Another man enters the grocery store dressed as The Joker. He could be some oddball fan, might be a model from the makeup school down the street or he could be about to pull out an automatic rifle and riddle the place with gunfire. You might find out. You may never know. The images that remain hidden are the harmless ones. The ones that emerge have body counts. This is the strangeness that you must get accustomed to. It’s impossible to explain to a tourist. Anything could happen at any time. It might all end in a minute.

A few months ago, the ground shook. It was a minor earthquake. But it went on just a little too long. Long enough to think about it. And when you think about it, you wonder — is this it? Is this The Big One? You know, The Big One. The one that finally shakes this city into the sea. The one we all know is coming. We just don’t know when. But it is coming.

I’d never felt anything like that in Toronto. Even when the entire eastern seaboard lost power, there was the sense that we’d be back up and running. Here, there is the opposite sense. Even when you have power, there is the sense that it’s all ready to collapse. That it can all just be blown away. At any moment. There will be no warning.

The ground stopped shaking. A few dogs started barking. Nothing else happened. A little dizzy –earthquakes make me dizzy– I went back to reading my book. After all, living here requires a certain degree of comfort with the apocalypse. It’s coming. You just hope it comes after you leave. It won’t surprise you if it comes now. I could go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow to find that the city had exploded in riots while I slept. It would upset me, sure, maybe. Would it surprise me? Not really. Anything can happen.

And when those winds blow, something always does.

When I first moved to the city, I felt the wind and thought it was a nice warm breeze. I’d heard about the Santa Anas but I’d never really felt them. I felt them a few times before I felt them. I don’t know the exact moment when they got into my bones. I think it might have been that night when they were blowing and I was at work. They shook the power at the grocery store. The lights flickered off. The registers went down. Everything came back up. But, for the rest of the night, a grating alarm screamed in the background.

You can read Raymond Chandler.

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

That night, I could feel his words in my flesh.

Now, I feel those winds. I don’t feel a nice, warm breeze. I feel those winds and they feel primal. I tingle with basic animal alertness. The winds feel like fire. Like fire is coming.

They brought fire again to us last week. Where I am, we didn’t get much of it. When Korea town burns again, it will be the people doing the burning. But the winds stopped and the smoke gathered. Ash fell from the sky. Eyes stung. Noses got clogged. I watched the moon turn orange and the sun rise red. It’s impossible to describe its color without resort to cliche. The sun was blood red. It’s the only color you can call it.

The winds started blowing again and the air cleared. It’s an ambiguous twist that the winds that cause the fires there, clear the air here. It’s the sort of thing than tempts you towards some moral reaction. Should I feel guilty about the wind bringing relief? What would be the point? The wind does not care what I feel. It’s just going to do what it does.

You just have to get comfortable with that.

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And, yes, getting comfortable with apocalypse is obnoxious. There’s no nice way of dealing with the slow motion unfolding. It’s all obnoxious. One can try to change it. One probably should try to change it. That means a lot of preaching and carrying on about changes to lifestyle. A lot of getting into other peoples business. This is necessary but it too is obnoxious. And one can try to explain it. That’s irritating and presumptuous. Mainly, you just carry on, waiting for the flames to come to you. This, of course, is crazy.  Los Angeles does all of these things. It does them all at the same time. It is all of these things, all at the same time. How could it be otherwise? Who would want it to be?

Because the thing we also know, right in our fucking bones, is that these ends are also beginnings. The wind is not through with us yet. Even if we started reducing carbon tomorrow and actually got serious about stopping global warming, we still have at least fifteen more years of these increasingly worse fire seasons. And it doesn’t look like anyone, least of all America, is getting serious about stopping global warming. This is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. We’re going to see more ash falling from the sky. More images will break into reality. The veil is thin. It’s getting thinner.

The Santa Ana winds will continue to stir in the hills. Our hungry ghosts blow back in from the desert. They’re coming for revenge. They’re coming in hot and heavy to burn us away. They’ll turn our lives into another set. The new abnormal. A school gym is now an evacuation center. The parking lot is now a staging ground. The blue sky bruised yellow. All the pieces will be torn apart. All the pieces will reassemble. The world is taking a new shape. Hail Satan and Humpty Dumpty. Beg Anna Nicole Smith for forgiveness. She will not grant it. Pray that she passes you by. She might not. So get comfortable and get ready.

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Some slow apocalypse looms.

An old terror is reborn.

There will be more.

But what else is new?

 

The Set

I guess there was some sort of royal wedding on the TV. I didn’t watch it. Instead I watched a rerun of a baseball game that I missed due to work. (3-1, A’s over Jays. Good job A’s!) But it seems like quite a few people did watch it. I don’t get it. I try not to judge.

But, on the other hand . . .

Besides the whole monarchy thing, what is with this constant fucking nostalgia? It’s bad enough when it’s just shows. But this is starting to warp reality in strange ways.

From It Just Won’t Die in Jacobin:

With its empire in ashes, its industrial landscape gutted, and its place in the world thrown into uncertainty by Brexit, Britain is in the midst of a slow-burning existential crisis. Its millions of citizens have been conjured from the earth by distant and long expired historical forces and now wander around urban landscapes that no longer make sense. It is unclear where Britain will go from here. Having long lost its status as the workshop of the world, all that remains is for Britain to capitalize on its history: to become a history factory.

Since the 1980s, “heritage” in Britain has grown into a sector of the economy — something like mining or fishing, except that it currently employs more than both these industries combined. It is calculated that history- (or “heritage-”) related tourism has contributed almost £9 billion to the UK economy and supports nearly four hundred thousand jobs. This is nothing new; history has always worked in service of the present. Everywhere, the mythologies of nations or communities form the raw material of ideology. But in Britain, history has recently been given a more specific, macroeconomic role to play — we are witnessing a transformation in what history is for.

Now, I don’t have any great allegiance to The Authentic. (Honestly, I think concepts of the authentic are, aside from being fake, are a fakeness usually rooted in violence and trauma but that’s another story.) Hell, I live in Los Angeles and I love it. This is a city that generates some confusion between The Real and The Set. At any moment, any place might become a set. At times, you’re unsure whether you’re looking at a post-apocalyptic hellscape, if someone is just filming a movie about a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Maybe just a Telus commercial. At work, I once saw a sweaty shirtless man in military pants and boots jump off the first floor of the parking garage and hit the concrete ground running. To this day, I don’t know if he was a stuntman, an exercise man, a lunatic, or something else. He could be from space for all I know. I don’t even know if there’s much of a difference between any of these things. All I know is that the old Mexican lady that I was chatting with was happy to have something to look at. I can’t blame her. Dude was built. He was some next level of handsome. But, whatever was going on with him, that’s just the sort of shit that happens in an LA parking garage at eight in the evening. The Set bleeds into everything here. Like, just the building where I live, Janky Palace, is a sort of shoddily built wealth set. It’s named after a French palace but has medieval turrets and a bunch of Roman design elements. It’s a total mess. It has no allegiance to consistency or history or anything. Whole thing is cobbled together out of Home Depot and nothing ever works. The elevators have been out for two weeks. There will be a pizza party. A carpet cleaning will be awarded to a game winner. That’s about the typical mess. The distortion caused by the friction between The Real and The Set is fundamental to the experience of the city. Even, perhaps especially, in that when you come here, you realize that almost every single thing you have ever heard or seen about this city is false – the result of some massive and racist editing job that has removed the incredible and best bulk of the city from its representations and replaced it with rich, white flakes. The scale of that propaganda is amazing and terrifying. How much work went into that? Was it even intentional? Could it be? How, on the brass tacks level, do these things happen?

I think it’s probably a mix. Things emerge.

But, if you can get over any notion of authenticity and just take the flux on its own terms without expecting it to kiss your ass or to ever arrive on time, Los Angeles is pretty fucking great. I like it, at least. I think Werner Herzog got the city right:

What I like about Los Angeles is that it allows everyone to live his or her own lifestyle. Drive around the hills and you find a Moorish castle next to a Swiss chalet sitting beside a house shaped like a UFO. There is a lot of creative energy in Los Angeles not channelled into the film business. Florence and Venice have great surface beauty, but as cities they feel like museums, whereas for me Los Angeles is the city in America with the most substance, even if it’s raw, uncouth and sometimes quite bizarre. Wherever you look is an immense depth, a tumult that resonates with me. New York is more concerned with finance than anything else. It doesn’t create culture, only consumes it; most of what you find in New York comes from elsewhere. Things actually get done in Los Angeles. Look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and a wild excitement of intense dreams opens up; it has more horizons than any other place. There is a great deal of industry in the city and a real working class; I also appreciate the vibrant presence of the Mexicans. In the last half century every significant cultural and technical trend has emerged from California, including the Free Speech Movement and the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a dignified society, computers and the Internet, and—thanks to Hollywood—the collective dreams of the entire world. A fascinating density of things exists there like nowhere else in the world. Muslim fundamentalism is probably the only contemporary mass movement that wasn’t born there. One reason I’m so comfortable in Los Angeles is that Hollywood doesn’t need me and I don’t need Hollywood. I rarely involve myself with industry rituals and am rarely on the red carpet.

Of course, California is also where some of humanity’s most astonishing stupidities started, like the hippie movement, New Age babble, stretch limos, pyramid energy, plastic surgery, yoga classes for children, vitamins and marijuana smoking. Whenever someone wants to pass on “good vibes” to me, I look for the nearest empty elevator shaft. There are a lot of well-educated people doing very silly things in Los Angeles, like a man in my neighbourhood who one day casually mentioned his cat was in some sort of a frenzy, so he called the cat psychic. He put the receiver to his pet’s ear and for $200 the animal’s problems were solved. I would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than visit a psychiatrist. Self-scrutiny is a strong taboo for me, and if I had to stop and analyse myself, there’s no doubt I would end up wrapped around the next tree. Psychoanalysis is no more scientific than the cranial surgery practiced under the middle-period pharaohs, and by jerking the deepest secrets out into the open, it denies and destroys the great mysteries of our souls. Human beings illuminated to the last corner of their darkest soul are unbearable, the same way an apartment is uninhabitable if every corner is flooded with light. The Spanish Inquisition was a similar mistake in human history, forcing people to disclose the innermost nature of their religious faith. It did no good to anyone.

What was I on about again?

I can’t even fucking remember where I was thought I might be going with this. Something about the jungle? No, that’s not it.

Oh yeah, that’s right, the History Factory . . .

I guess what I’m trying to say, is this transformation of The Real into The Set that creates a third space that is neither entirely real nor set, isn’t so novel. I sometimes think that what we are seeing in modern cities is much less gentrification than it is total Las Vegasification. They’re all becoming some decadent entertainment complex for the rich ringed by shit housing for the laboring service sector that makes the place run – all the profits siphoned out into shady tax havens – and the whole thing surrounded by atomic wasteland. As for this representing a change in what history is for, well, I think that history has commonly been used to prop up the present and this whole historic tourism thing looks sort of like a dispersal of the museum married to Caesar’s Palace.

But this combination of The Real and The Set, in and of itself, might not have to be awful. It might have to be awful, but maybe not. It’s hard to say. But it certainly seems to trend towards the awful. It allows a mobility that power enjoys. Parking lots are easily turned into staging grounds for militarized police. Easily turned into sites for advertisements.

And when you take something like that and combine it with the fucking monarchy of all things? The celebration of blood, tradition, wealth and power?  Well, yuck. That seems like trouble. It seems a little gross. That seems fated to end badly.

That sort of nostalgia will create its own distortion. A thing like that will warp reality in really reactionary and violent ways – towards a radical return of the past, and, well, we know what that means. Nothing good. LA, at least, looks usually, to the future. That has its problems but it sure beats making anything something again.

And, also, fuck Downton Abbey. Nice wallpaper but Jesus . . .