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By Frank Gruber
One of the better books I've read this year came out in 2000, but I just caught up with it. It's called Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles and its author is William Alexander McClung, an emeritus professor of English at, figure this out, Mississippi State University.
In his book Prof. McClung analyzes literary and other artistic treatments of Los Angeles and compares what writers and artists have said with the realities. (Prof. McClung uses "Los Angeles" the way people elsewhere do when they want to refer to the whole region.) While the book, befitting Prof. McClung's field of study, is in the nature of literary criticism, it is remarkably illuminating of our regional political dynamic.
What has always surprised me about Southern California is the contradiction between private happiness and public unhappiness. Difficult economic times in the past fifteen years have intermittently sent Southern Californians packing, but largely one gets the idea that people who live here do so because they want to, and that most wouldn't live anywhere else. Certainly that's been true historically.
The "California Dream" -- a souped up version of the American Dream -- has long been attractive and the lure of California, specifically Southern California, extends around the world. People who live here take the risks of Southern California life, from the geologic to the social, in stride. They shrug off everything from earthquakes to riots to astronomical house prices to gang killings as inconveniences, inconsequential in the big scheme of things.
Yet one can't deny that the politics of Southern California have predominantly been the politics of entitlement, resentment and even, too often, anger. Let's hope Antonio Villaraigosa will prove different, but it's hard to imagine a Southern California politician expressing a transcendent vision of any kind. They are usually wholly occupied with responding to the latest grass roots uproar.
I am an immigrant here myself. I come from Philadelphia, where grounds for resentment seem to adhere at birth on a block-by-block basis. As a transplanted Philadelphian, I have always been puzzled by the conflict between Southern California's crabbed politics and the blissful day-to-day freedom lived by Southern Californians of even average means.
Prof. McClung helped me understand what's going on. In the first chapter of the book he articulates a powerful insight, one he gained after reading, it seems, everything anyone ever wrote about L.A. He found that attitudes about Los Angeles coalesce around two conflicting visions -- two fantasies -- one "Arcadian," the other, "Utopian."
The Arcadian vision is that once upon a time there was paradise. Initially, among the Anglo settlers, this Eden was located before they arrived, in the Mission era. Think Ramona and the "Mission Play." Later, when the Mission era lost some of its luster, Arcadians in search of Eden sometimes looked further back in time, to the pre-Conquest era.
More frequently, however, Arcadians locate Eden in a more recent but presumed better past. They create a rolling Eden of the mind. As Prof. McClung says (page 17), "An ideal Los Angeles of the recent past is continually reconstructed in imagination, despite complaints at almost every stage since 1850 that paradise had already been lost."
As a local example of Arcadian thinking, consider how often some Santa Monicans compare invidiously any change in the city to an ideal of "beach town" (often sleepy) that purportedly existed at some undefined moment in the past.
If Southern Californians merely were pining about a lost paradise, they might dry their tears and move on with life. But, in fact, they are not content with the past. They want more. They want Utopia -- manufactured paradise.
What is the California Dream but Utopia: a bungalow in a subdivision, a convertible on an open highway, a good job in the movies or building airplanes. Everyone came here for something special, and it wasn't to live under a tree.
Consider our beloved pier, and all the pleasure piers that preceded it. Think of the carousel and the Ferris wheel and the tradition of taking nature, the beach, and trying to build something even more dazzling. Ludicrous, you may say -- how can one out dazzle the sunset? But building piers and hotels have been part of Santa Monica from its start.
What happens when you mix Arcadia with Utopia? Unfortunately, they don't get along. One consumes the other. On this subject, Prof. McClung is worth quoting at length (pages 11-12):
"Imagining Los Angeles has been, to a greater extent than with other U.S. and European cities, a process of aligning a model of a hoped-for Utopian future with one of an allegedly Arcadian past that cries out to be redeemed. Rapid growth has simultaneously aided and frustrated its citizens' efforts both to find what has been lost and to make something altogether new. . . .
"The imaginative history of Los Angeles is a record of efforts to improve upon Arcadia without acknowledging that to interfere with a found or given natural paradise is to introduce an element of dissatisfaction that can be eradicated only when the transformation to Utopia is complete.
"Since that transformation has occurred only imaginatively, in works like the paintings of David Hockney, the mentality of Los Angeles is trapped in anxious aspiration, simultaneously striving to go forward and to turn back."
Hmmm. "Anxious aspiration, simultaneously striving to go forward and to turn back." Sounds like a new motto for Santa Monica.
Here's a thought. I suggest we will all be happier if we forget about Arcadia and Utopia and concentrate on a word that deserves a capital letter of its own: "Reality."
Here's my ironic close: the first great resort hotel in Santa Monica was called the Arcadia. (Okay, I know it was named after Arcadia de Baker, one of the founders of the city, but still . . . .)
views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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