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Los Angeles [Was] Burning

October 10, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
Los Angeles [Was] Burning

But isn’t it always?  As the largest fire in LA County history fades into memory[i], and another one springs up, perhaps it’s time that we asked what these apocalyptic tones say about the City of Angels. I mean, why is Los Angeles so explosive?  Why the LA riots?  Why the unencumbered sprawl?  And yet where else could an ad campaign say with a straight face, “Living your dream… that’s so LA?"  Try saying it with Detroit—just doesn’t work.  I mean what other city claims to exist for "the good life?" These twin threads have led some commentators to see LA as schizophrenic:

“All the blessings and plagues exist side by side in Los Angeles. The twinkling ocean, the looming mountains, the spill of desert, the bounty of vegetation, and the creased and verdant hills are here—and so are the floods and the mudslides and the earthquakes and the wildfires. Southern California seems constantly pitched back and forth between heaven and hell.”

Returning to the fire, it seems right now that we’re on the hell side.  My Dad keeps saying that, after this year, I’ll have had the total Southern California experience: drought, fire, and flood (El Nino is looming). Interestingly, though, this wasn’t always the case.  The San Gabriel Mountains used to be covered in trees.  Then, about a century ago, Angelinos cut those forests down for timber, facilitating the winter mudslides that always follow summer fires.  We've since had other roles to play in cycle of fire and flood:

“For many decades in Los Angeles there was a moat of orange groves between the built-up metropolis and the mountain front. The debris flows would come down the mountain into the citrus orchards and the farmers would plant new trees on top of the debris flow. During WWII & after, the orange groves were replaced with housing.”

The California bungalow, that ubiquitous instantiation of the American Dream, paved the way for destruction.  Some might be bold enough to say  the two were linked:

“Paradise and doomsday go hand in hand. The more magnificent the expectations we have for a time and place, the greater the risk of disappointment. And one can't divorce the traditional concept of the apocalypse on Earth from the idea of paradise on Earth. In our secular age, many forget that in apocalyptic tradition, cataclysm paves the way for a new heavenly era...In my secular way, that’s sort of how I saw last week’s pyrocumulus clouds.  Far from being the victory of hell in L.A. over heaven in L.A., they reminded me that in a very real way, we can’t have one without the other.  The cloud is just what it looked like: two sides of the same coin; the one defines the other.  Heaven, hell.  Ugly, beautiful.  Apocalypse, paradise.  Los Angeles.”

Skipping past the uninteresting question about the necessity of duality (for example, can there be light without there being dark?), this passage offers a profound angle into the exigencies of existence and man’s social condition.  In our struggles to better humanity, we often posit utopia as our goal, but might utopian perfection be paradoxically flawed?  Maybe we need hell, not merely as an opposite to heaven, but in and of itself.

Perhaps then, Zizek is right to suggest that the proper starting point is to ask the Schellingian question:

“What if, as Schelling implied, eternity is less than temporality?  What if eternity is a sterile, impotent, lifeless domain of pure potentialities, which, in order to fully actualize itself, has to pass through temporal existence?”[ii]

Isn’t that the point of The Fountain, ironically portrayed in its own lust for grandeur and universality?  Isn’t that the perverse realization of the Hugh Jackman’s oncologist character: that his attempts to biochemically engineer immortality and save his cancer-ridden wife have only blinded him from life’s true eternities—those moments that take your breath away.

So maybe rather than asking what an ideal utopia looks like, we should ask how to satiate that yearning for utopia, how we can forget the first question entirely—upon which we would already be complete.  At the individual level, we lionize the flawed life, as the majority of Sunday morning brunch conversations will attest to.  Is it that absurd to expect that fact to scale up to the social?


[i]The Station Fire is at 98% containment, having burned 251 square miles and nearly my house, which in the ecclesiastical thread of this post really only asks one question: was I being punished for my sins?

[ii] Zizek, Slavoj, The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 13

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