Thursday, March 23, 2006

black swan green

I'm off on a not-so-secret mission to trade in my identity for a new one, so posting will probably be fairly light around here. In the meantime, you can read Ed Champion's correspondence with Megan Sullivan about the best piece of lit news I've heard in awhile: David Mitchell has a new book coming out on April 11th!

From Booklist: On the heels of his critically acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004), frequent Booker Prize nominee Mitchell has left behind complicated literary constructions for this beautiful, stripped-down coming-of-age story. Our 13-year-old narrator, Jason Taylor, lives in Worcestershire's Black Swan Green with his sister and his parents. Jason suffers from a stammer, and in order to keep above the bottom rung of the social ladder, he must go to extravagant lengths to avoid using stammer words (some days those that start with n; other days, s). And he must live in the wake of his brilliant sister and mediate between his parents. The anxieties and excitements of boyhood are captured extraordinarily well here. Some will argue that Jason doesn't sound 13 (he certainly has, per day, a lot more arrestingly beautiful thoughts than does your average 13-year-old), but the narrative voice is consistent, and readers will come to believe it. Indeed, it is Mitchell's brilliant ability to reproduce internal monologue that makes this story so mesmerizing. He reproduces Jason's inner life with such astonishing verisimilitude that readers will find themselves haunted by him long after turning the last page.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

we are all carousers here

Over the weekend, The New York Times reviewed a new book on Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).

In her 76 years, Akhmatova witnessed two revolutions, two world wars, a civil war and Stalin's purges. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, himself a wonderful poet, was shot without trial on a trumped-up charge; her son, Lev, spent years in labor camps; many of her closest friends left Russia or perished. Her early fame as a poet and a legendary beauty of bohemian prerevolutionary St. Petersburg gave way to decades of forced silence and official denunciations. And yet she remained in her beloved city, the unfaltering conscience of Russia, often suffering unimaginable deprivation. And through it all, she wrote.

I once had a graduate class with Akhmatova's niece (or second cousin or something) who turned me on to a poem I love:

The Sentence

And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready.
I will manage somehow.

Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—

Unless . . . Summer's ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I've foreseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.

Monday, March 20, 2006

urban fervor: cosmic consciousness

Part Five of the Urban Fervor series:

Many varieties of religious experience in Los Angeles focused on a heightened communion with the cosmos, drawing on spiritualist and New Thought philosophies and embracing the universal divine in all. This tradition falls under the name “harmonial”: “Harmonial religion encompasses those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos” (Ahlstrom 1019). Common features include charismatic leaders, complicated histories and rituals, and secret – or at least vague – spiritual doctrines. The nature of these harmonial religions struck a chord with the American public and in some ways, they came to represent the varied spiritual desires of the nation. Christian Science, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostalism all “bear the stamp ‘made in America’”(Ahlstrom 1021). While only some of these religions play a part in the spiritual history of Los Angeles, some other, less enduring religions in the harmonial tradition were L.A. born and bred.

Possibly the most provocatively named alternative religion in Los Angeles, the Mighty I AM movement was started in 1930 by Guy and Edna Ballard. The couple had prolonged connections with occultism before Guy Ballard published
Unveiled Mysteries in 1934, a book in which he claimed to have received revelations from Saint Germain, the “ascended master” who starred in the texts and public ceremonies of the Ballards. The real Comte de Saint-Germain was the alleged founder of freemasonry in eighteenth century France, but Ballard claimed to have met him in the form of a young man offering him a creamy drink during a mountain hike.

According to Ballard, Saint Germain had ascended to become a member of the Divine Spiritual Hierarchy which rules the life of the universe, and had been assigned the task of initiating the Seventh Golden Age, the permanent "I AM" Age of eternal perfection on this earth. He had searched Europe for several centuries to find someone in human embodiment through whom he could release the instructions of the Great Law of Life. Not finding anyone, he began a search in America, where he….subsequently designated Ballard, his wife Edna, and their son Donald as the only Accredited Messengers of the Ascended Masters (Institute for the Study of American Religion ¶ 5).

The Ballards and their special relationship with the master drew the public in hordes; there were theatrical meetings across the U.S. attended by an estimate of three million people. “Like Christian Science, their program emphasized healing; like the later New Thought, it stressed the vast powers latent in man by virtue of his unity with Being (I AM) and the aid to be received from ascended cosmic beings” (Ahlstrom 1043). Guy’s death in 1939 and subsequent lawsuits for fraudulent use of the mail system ended the movement.

Considering the number of spiritual and cinematic narratives being crafted in Los Angeles on a daily basis, it is somewhat surprising that only one Hollywood screenwriter ever took a shot at starting his own religion. In a March 1929
American Magazine article, Hollywood screenwriter and real estate promoter William Dudley Pelley claimed that he had died and been reborn after “seven minutes in Eternity” (Ahlstrom 1043). Subsequently, Pelley became a medium for the wisdom of the mahatmas and gathered his followers under the moniker, the Silver Legion (or the Legion of Silver Shirts). In a sign of the times, Pelley was convinced that Hitler was the leader “to whom his divine instructions pointed” (Ahlstrom 1043). Eventually, Pelley wound up in jail and many of his adherents turned to the Mighty I AM movement. After his release from prison in 1954, Pelley picked up where he left off and published messages he claimed to have received from Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.

No contemporary discussion of alternative religion in Los Angeles could be complete without the secretive enclave popular among Hollywood celebrities, The Church of Scientology. However, the church has become a completely different institution than it was during the time period generally covered in this project. Originally, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and its philosophy Dianetics, was a struggling science fiction writer. According to R. Laurence Moore, Hubbard’s original intent was “to establish a new school of psychotherapy, one with its own language of ‘auditing,’ ‘reactive mind,’ engrams,’ and ‘clears’” (259). It wasn’t until 1953 that he decided to turn some of these ideas into a religion and increase the popularity of his opus, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The book details how engrams (brain records of past experiences and lives) can be treated to free the reactive mind from destructive behavior through auditing and clearing of the engrammic effect:

In the 1960s Hubbard added to this basic therapy a more elaborate metaphysics that described the spiritual essence of the human being as a “thetan”….Scientologists strive to become not only “Clears” but also “Operating Thetans” (O.T.s). Freed from the ill effects of the “reactive mind,” O.T.s are thought by Hubbard to possess extraordinary powers, including the ability to being into existence MEST: Matter, Energy, Space, and Time (Marty
EARH 596-7).

Such descriptions clearly harken back to Hubbard’s science fiction beginnings, but they are also elements in Scientology that evoke Freud, Eastern religions, Native American folklore, and Mormonism. “The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology's belief system as one of ‘regressive utopia,’ in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit” (Reitman ¶ 5). Few reach the high plane where Operating Thetans return to this ideal state.

In 1967, the Church of Scientology suffered a blow when the IRS ruled that it was not a tax-exempt religious organization, its critics citing greed as the reason. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, and ten Scientology leaders were imprisoned in early 1980s for investigation interference. The Church was redeemed in 1993 when it was granted tax-exempt status after a vocal defense by celebrities and the American Civil Liberties Union. L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, and the Church is now led by David Miscavige. While the Scientologists claim eight million members, critics say the number is closer to 50,000 (Marty EARH 597). What once began as an experiment by a speculative novelist is now an incredibly wealthy, clandestine institution whose participants are fiercely loyal and notoriously close-mouthed. This secrecy is possibly so customary because they don’t know enough to betray the organization. In a February 2006 exposé in Rolling Stone magazine, Janet Reitman reports that only the most exalted followers of Scientology ever learn the central tenets of its theology: “this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins” (¶ 5). The fact that Scientology has grown to such an extent while providing little to no information on its theology, its finances, its rituals, or its history is a testament to the reactionary contagion behind any successful new religious movement.

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel
Urban Fervor: Ape & Essence
Urban Fervor: The Flutter of an Eyelid

Sunday, March 19, 2006

good country people

Earlier this week, Maud Newton posted an excerpt from Flannery O'Connor's essay collection Mystery and Manners, in which O'Connor reflects on one of my favorite short stories of all time, "Good Country People." I used to love to teach this tale of wooden-legged Ph.D. Hulga Hopewell and nefarious bible salesman Manley Pointer. Watching the humor behind Pointer's name dawn on the students was only one small joy in discussing the story. From the Mystery and Manners excerpt:

In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called "Good Country People," in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen.

I've never been more of an average reader than when reading this story. Beyond the wooden leg theft, Hulga's relationship with her mother - who "could not help but feel that it would have been better if the child had not taken the Ph.D." - can't help but ring true to any female doctoral candidate whose parents don't quite get it.

The girl had taken the Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a school teacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.

The story in full can be found here.

this week's netflix

In Her Shoes: This quintessential chick flick had a couple of things to recommend it: L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson and one of my favorite actresses, Toni Collette. Collette stars as the long-suffering sister of spoiled brat Cameron Diaz, and I'd have to say Diaz was the most compelling thing about the film. She can do downright bitchy as well as she does angelic ditz.

Elizabethtown: I always want to like Cameron Crowe films, but it never really happens. Orlando Bloom was pretty to watch as a man, recently fired for creating a colossal failure of a sneaker, whose father suddenly dies. (Did anyone pick up on what exactly was wrong with the sneaker? Who ever heard of a sneaker recall?) Kirsten Dunst was cute enough, but on the whole, the film is pretty forgettable.

Last Days: Gus Van Sant's film is supposedly inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain. If Kurt Cobain's last days were anything like this - long, paranoid, incoherent, drug-addled hours among friends who are more concerned with their demos than their overdosing host - it makes me so sad. Van Sant's portrayal is not very engrossing or enlightening, and I don't quite understand its purpose.

The Tenants: Based on Bernard Malamud's novel of the same name, this film pits two writers - one black (Snoop Dogg), one white (Dylan McDermott) - against one another as they squat in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 1970s and fight over Snoop's white girlfriend. I really liked the premise, but the execution was somewhat flawed, with giant leaps of logic and some overblown racial tension. Your time would be better spent reading Malamud's novel The Assistant.

Bubble: There was much ado about Stephen Soderbergh's latest release: the first of six low-budget films with no-name actors to be released simultaneously on DVD, in theaters, and on HDNet. The story centers around a trio of doll factory employees in a small town, and the absence of Hollywood pretense is so refreshing. It feels less like watching a film than getting a glimpse into the lives of these characters in all their pathos and mundane routine. The doll factory details are fabulous.

Mad Hot Ballroom: This documentary about NYC public school students competing in a ballroom dancing competition ran a little long, but the dancers' triumph made it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

size does matter

A study in perspective using my dissertation and a mini cooper

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

each man kills the thing he loves

It's looking like the time spent seeing the film version of Ask the Dust would be better served reading this Salon profile of John Fante:

Fante was never truly in fashion, though for a time in the late '30s and '40s he seemed nearly fashionable. The barbaric yawp of Arturo Bandini was the uncommitted conscience of immigrant America, one that practically went unremarked on in mainstream American literature. Bandini is a seething mass of contradictions, an Italian chauvinist who looked for Joe DiMaggio's name in the sports pages every morning and was at the same time insecure about having a name that ended in a vowel. "Do you like your name?" his Mexican girlfriend, Camilla, taunts him in "Ask the Dust." "Don't you wish it was Johnson, or Williams, or something?" 'No,' says Bandini, he is satisfied with his real name. But he is lying and she knows it. 'No, you're not. I know.'" Typical of Fante's work, the relationship between Arturo and Camilla seethes with resentment on both sides; Arturo, a step up on the ladder of ethnic assimilation, doesn't hesitate to browbeat her with racial slurs when provoked -- and she doesn't hesitate to sling "Dago" at him in return. Modern readers may be appalled at the bitterness of these exchanges, but it's almost refreshing to hark back to a time when people said what was on their minds, however narrow those minds may have been.

better late than never

I'm way behind on posting this live action version of the Simpsons intro, but it's good enough to risk the ridicule and share it with you if you haven't seen it.

just take me to your critical apparatus

Kate Braverman made a very public break with Graywolf Press, continuing her increasingly nutty behavior and proclamations:

In fact, [Robert Polito] says, the only case of censorship associated with Transmissions is Braverman's insistence that he refrain from introducing her at a New School reading by reading from the foreword he wrote for the memoir, as she was offended by a list of Southern Californian artists and scholars he admires and to whom she was compared in a laudatory way. Braverman unhesitatingly expresses her disdain for his pantheon, dismissing them as obscure "people who have to be Googled" (and, in one case, as a "mud wrestler"). "Polito doesn't possess enough critical apparatus to say, well, if eighteen of my twenty examples are male, does that mean Braverman is writing as no woman has before?" she adds in her email. "And that her writing needs to be examined in this context? No, he can't put that 2 + 2 together." This leads to an even broader complaint: that her talents are simply misunderstood by contemporary literary culture. "No one of importance has read [my] work," she says. "It just gets referenced as great and legendary, which doesn't bring me to the attention of the people who need to put 2 + 2 together... The simple truth is that until a critical examination is done of my work, everything is irrelevant and all publishers will deal with me as Graywolf has, an accidental aberration to be dispatched with haste."

Monday, March 13, 2006

urban fervor: the flutter of an eyelid

Part Four of the Urban Fervor series:

Richard Hallas's novel
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up and the marketing strategies of The Ecanaanomic Party owe much of their imagery to Aimee Semple McPherson’s development of the Foursquare Gospel. Knight’s portrait of the kind of civic power a woman-run organization could achieve in Los Angeles is accurate and historically-based. Myron Brinig’s 1933 novel The Flutter of an Eyelid, on the other hand, paints an unreservedly acerbic picture of the evangelist in the form of Sister Angela Flower.

The Flutter of an Eyelid is a thoroughly bizarre tale of an uptight New England writer named Caslon Roanoke who has come to California to “write a novel different from any he had written before, peopled by characters who were motes in the sun, driven this way and that by vagrant breezes from the Pacific, without the austerity and discipline that had marked his books up to this time” (4). The Flutter of an Eyelid is both his story and his creation. As Caslon composes his novel, he discovers that the characters he has met who people his narrative begin to be controlled by the words Caslon himself writes. The line between Caslon the observer and Caslon the author blurs to the point of indistinction.

Caslon’s impression of southern California before he came was “as a huge, cement motion-picture factory surrounded by tabernacles given over to the practice of strange cults and womanish religions” (4). The writer initially encounters Sister Angela Flower at a garden party at which all of the major players first appear. Fellow partygoer Dwight Preston is shocked to discover Caslon has never heard of the Ten Million Dollar Heavenly Temple where Sister Angela preaches the Golden Rule Gospel. (In fact, Carey McWilliams puts the cost of McPherson’s Angelus Temple at $1.5 million.) Caslon is told that the evangelist “was constantly in the biggest, blackest headlines….It was said that she had healed hundreds of the sick and maimed, simply by placing her hand upon them” (17). Sister Angela’s arrival at the party is heralded by many blessings and the shock of her bright pink attire. Just as James L. Cain described McPherson’s “twang,” Caslon recoils from Angela’s voice “that could be described as nothing less than hideous….He could not remember ever having seen such a monstrously blatant woman, her obviousness not only a matter of appearance, but also of mood and gesture” (29-30). Caslon’s love interest, Sylvia Prowse, has a horror of the evangelist and describes her in unflattering terms, also evoking the common characteristics of the parishioners Louis Adamic described as “The Folks”:

She lives, breathes, and shouts sex, without ever quite knowing it. Aside from that aspect of her, she’s an extremely shrewd show-woman, a kind of Sarah Bernhardt of aggressive evangelism. She’s made lots of money out of her Heavenly Temple. People just flock there, and in order to get a seat, you’ve got to wait in line for hours. Her greatest appeal is to the Middle-Westerners who are drifting about in the futile paradoxes of California; sex-starved, rheumatic Iowans, Nebraskans, Kansans. The very sound of her whinnying voice is a psychological orgasm to those people (31-32).

We learn that Angela Flower’s character is suspect, but this is nothing compared to the antics in which she engages for the remainder of the novel. As Caslon seeks to explore “the mystic, the elusive, the profound, the inaccessible,” he joins the garden party crew of “comical characters embalmed in the curious, fantastic fluids of their own personalities” aboard the boat of Chinese tea merchant Yang Kuo-Chung (36, 56). Sister Angela remarks that Jesus is present in sex and her Scotch before beginning a conversation with the tea merchant about how her savior would have been so much more at home among the Chinese because He is “too meek and mild for the Western races” who try to make him into a militant figure (62). After Angela is described as “one of the ugliest women in America” who “for some obscure reason…gave an impression of tremendous physical brilliance,” her attention is absorbed by a seaman scrubbing the deck who she claims to believe is Jesus Christ himself (73). In fact, the man is named Milton, and he unquestioningly assumes the mantle of redeemer:

Milton, the ordinary seaman, had always believed, vaguely, that he was the Supreme Being, and under the fascinating magnetism of Angela’s personality, the wavering idea had become certain and fixed within a few minutes of time….
“No one would believe me when I told them I was Jesus. But I am Jesus, ain’t I? You just said I was….”
“Hallelujah!” repeated Milton. “But before we go, Ma’am, mightn’t I have just another small spot of rum? Not that I need it. I got plenty of confidence. I learned confidence from a correspondence school….” (75-6).

Sister Angela is astir with the publicity possibilities of having found her Lord, and she immediately begins Milton’s makeover into the proper savior. We next see her cavorting naked on the beach while Milton has been left at home to memorize the New Testament. The Lord’s appearance at the Temple causes great consternation among the congregants. Brinig paints the parishioners as sexually promiscuous, uncivilized rabble:

[W]omen gave themselves to men they had never seen before, in a terrible ecstasy of belief, and certain other men and women, carried away by the extraordinary news that Jesus was back at last, butted one another like goats. Still others leapt from their seats in the balcony, catching hold of the chandelier and pillars, and swung back and forth like monkeys (129).

Jesus’ return is said to forecast an economic upturn, and even East Coast writers flock to the scene. Some of the visiting journalists take a familiar disparaging attitude, one even going so far as to spit on Milton, who turns the saliva into a flower. When initial interest in the seaman wanes – “they could not even accept a Savior without the embellishments of the freakish” – Sister Angela comes up with an idea (135). Brinig takes Aimee Semple McPherson’s assumed drowning, before her alleged kidnapping was discovered, as a plot device for the premature demise of Milton. If Jesus walked on water, surely Milton can, especially considering his previous work aboard the tea merchant’s boat. At first, he is successful, traversing the ocean before the large crowd gathered on the beach, but he is done in by a very unholy instinct. When he catches sight of the lovely Sylvia swimming naked in the sea, he sinks beneath the waves, never to be seen again. Just as many would-be rescuers lost their lives in the search for Sister Aimee, hundreds are crushed and drowned in the stampede to save Milton.

Brinig’s appropriation of McPherson’s public persona and media headlines is a caustic revision of the preacher’s life story. However, the majority of the other characters in The Flutter of an Eyelid are also subjected to derisive treatment in this tale of abusive relationships, fatal poisoning, sadomasochistic pleasures, and unrequited love. Caslon is eventually freed from the lure of the West Coast, just in time to escape certain death as the entire state of California is torn asunder and, like Milton, sinks to the bottom of the sea. Sister Angela is last seen as she is swallowed by a whale that proceeds to spit her back out, as she dreams of the money that would fill the Temple once she told her congregants that she had seen Jonah.

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel
Urban Fervor: Ape & Essence

Sunday, March 12, 2006

culture is a gene pool

I was thrilled to realize my upcoming trip back to New York will coincide perfectly with the Whitney Biennial. The latest edition of Artkrush has an interview with Philippe Vergne, curator along with Chrissie Iles of this year's exhibit.

AK: You certainly don't shy away from politics. Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija's Peace Tower — one of the first works we see when entering the museum — includes nearly 200 artists making antiwar statements; the Wrong Gallery's Down by Law installation presents 54 artworks, from Andres Serrano's Piss Christ to Andy Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot, which explore the myth of the American outlaw; and you display an iconic figurative work by Richard Serra that depicts a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with the slogan "STOP BUSH." What was your motivation for weaving these issues into the exhibition?

PV: It's very simple. Our motivation was to echo what we experienced in studios and conversations with artists. It would have been untrue to the project to camouflage the deep anger currently felt among the art community. And this anger is shared. This anger has very little voice in mainstream media so it was our duty to give it a platform — to raise questions and to allow artists and the audience to use the museum as a loudspeaker, if they wish to.

Art is ultimately about subversion — though we might have a tendency to forget about it as we get "industrialized." Our motivation was to raise awareness, with the belief that art can make a difference, viewer by viewer. If we did not believe in such an idea, we would be, at this moment in history, very cynical.

jonathan coulton strikes again

I've already posted about Jonathan Coulton's "Skullcrusher Mountain" and his version of "Baby Got Back." I can't get enough of the sincerity behind his satirical song stylings. Now he's collected some random Flickr images with a narrative soundtrack that is as amusing as always.

beef liver bacon

Just after deciding one of my postdoc projects was to find a way to see Tom Waits play live, I came across Panopticist's link to the only commercial voiceover Mr. Waits ever did.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

ask the dust

I can think of no better way to celebrate sending off my final draft later this week than to catch the film adaptation of one of L.A.'s classic novels, John Fante's Ask the Dust. After the Oscars on Sunday, I'm excited to see Salma Hayek in just about anything. I'll try my best to approach Colin Farrell as Bandini with an open mind. Opening Friday, the film is directed by Robert Towne, most well known for writing the Chinatown script. Rake's Progress points to an interview with Towne here:

CS: You discovered this book while you were researching "Chinatown" and it is cut from the same depression-era 30s LA cloth. What appeals to you about that era?

Towne: Remember, the two films were part of the same inspiration. When I decided I wanted to do "Chinatown" it was partly because of photographs I had seen taken in 1971 of bits and pieces of LA as if they were shot in the past. An old cream-colored Packard convertible in Pasadena. A private investigator's Plymouth convertible in the rain under a Wilshire streetlamp. Much of LA, I thought, in its own vulgar way, still had a kind of beauty that was almost gone and it filled me with a great sense of longing. That coupled with reading "Ask the Dust" and the memories that it jarred. It was great to deal with Los Angeles in its adolescence, growing, full of dreams…dreams that all too often would not come true.

Monday, March 06, 2006

urban fervor: ape & essence

Part Three of the Urban Fervor series:

Aldous Huxley found no better place to relocate his invention of a mystic than Southern California. In her book Hollywood Utopia, Justine Brown devotes a chapter to Huxley, echoing Carolyn See in her questioning of what happens at the end of the frontier:

Huxley was increasingly certain that the only answer for man lay in the ancient practices of prayer, trance, and meditation…The coast itself embodies the question: now what? It makes the problem concrete. When geography runs out, when modernity’s lavish promises culminate in the turning of technology to evil ends – in more and better weapons, in corpses – now what? That was the question that Huxley wanted to tackle, and California seemed always to be posing it. At the end of the West’s trajectory, at the edge of the continent, literal space is replaced by figurative space; physical space gives way to the imaginary (150-1).

Brown’s reference to more and better weapons points to a main difference between After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Ape and Essence: the former was written before World War II, the latter composed in its aftermath. Once the reality of Adolph Hitler was made public, the idea of following one man’s dogma did not appear so innocuous. Huxley’s talking head in Ape and Essence is no longer a secular humanist seeking the plane of eternity, but the Arch-Vicar of a post-apocalyptic cult of devil worshippers. Mike Davis observes that Ape and Essence “prefigured the postwar fantastic novel…that exploited Southern California’s unsure boundary between reality and science fiction” (City of Quartz, 41).

In the novel, two studio executives retrieve a film scenario from the garbage that tells a horrifying tale: after a worldwide nuclear war, a team of New Zealand botanists sail to Los Angeles on a scientific mission and discover the city has become a nightmare of mutation, misogyny, and homicidal sacrifice. The framing device of the discarded script is quickly abandoned and the script itself comprises the bulk of the novel. Dr. Alfred Poole, a repressed English scientist, is kidnapped by the Belial cult, just in time to participate in the annual Belial Day ritual, in which deformed babies are murdered in the name of evil and the citizens are allowed to fornicate wildly in a once-a-year orgy. This is the only time sex with women is allowed because they are “vessels of the Unholy Spirit,” much to the dismay of Dr. Poole, who has become smitten with a young woman named Loola.

Dr. Poole is accorded special status due to his promise to assist the cult with their measly crop production. He witnesses the sacrament that precedes the orgy, where the masses recite the catechism of Belial.

Question: What is the chief end of Man?
Answer: The chief end of Man is to propitiate Belial, deprecate His enmity and avoid destruction for as long as possible…
Question: To what fate is Man predestined?
Answer: Belial has, out of his mere good Pleasure, from all eternity elected all now living to everlasting perdition…Belial has perverted and corrupted us in all the parts of our being. Therefore, we are, merely on account of that corruption, deservedly condemned by Belial (93-5).

As a result of his convenient position, Dr. Poole is welcomed into the fold of “His Eminence the Arch-Vicar of Belial, Lord of the Earth, Primate of California, Servant of the Proletariat, Bishop of Hollywood,” who launches into a sermon on the pre-history of Belial worship (104). Before the nuclear holocaust, humans had become slaves to technology, creating an insatiable hunger for modernity that led to the two primary causes of their downfall: progress and nationalism. In looking at the chronicles of Man, it was obvious, according to the Arch-Vicar, that only Belial, the prime source of evil, could have inspired such exquisite destruction. The cult of Belial had developed as a procrastination tool of destiny. “Then why,” asks Dr. Poole, do you go on worshipping Him?” The Arch-Vicar answers, “Why do you throw food to a growling tiger? To buy yourself some breathing space. To put off the horror of the inevitable, if only for a few minutes” (133).

After Many a Summer's William Propter and the Arch-Vicar share a rationality and a method of discourse, but the similarity stops there. Hope, goodness, and eternity have been completely evacuated, and Huxley paints a bleak picture of the future of Los Angeles religion and its accompanying spiritual pursuits. Ape and Essence fully surpasses the cynicism of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but in his life outside of his fiction, Huxley is well-known for exploring a number of different avenues, spiritual and pharmaceutical, in his California quests to open the doors of perception.

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel

Saturday, March 04, 2006

dishing the dirt

I'll be joining some very cool folks tomorrow night over at Ed Champion's Oscar 2006 Blog, where there will be liveblogging extraordinaire, Jon Stewart deconstruction, and I'm sure some mention of gay cowboys.

Friday, March 03, 2006

the religion of humanity

In honor of the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle one hundred years ago, the LA Times reprinted Anthony Arthur's afterword from a new edition of the meat industry exposé:

Sinclair was a recent convert to socialism, as were many thoughtful Americans in those times. But he was not visibly a rebel and certainly not a bohemian — he never smoked or drank, avoiding even tea and coffee. He also rejected the then-fashionable intellectual arguments for "free love" as banal, though liberated women frequently let him know they liked his wavy brown hair and intense blue eyes, his physical grace (he played tournament-level tennis for many years) and his way of carrying himself as a Southern gentleman. Indeed Sinclair's conduct was commonly described as courtly; even many of his antagonists, flayed by Sinclair in print, agreed with his friend Charlie Chaplin that in person he customarily spoke "through a smile."

Side note: Sinclair also wrote two books that take a look at religion in Los Angeles: Oil! provides a fictional portrait of a male evangelist based on Aimee Semple McPherson and They Call Me Carpenter has Jesus paying a visit to the city.

try much harder

Garrison Keillor calls for Bush's impeachment:

These are troubling times for all of us who love this country, as surely we all do, even the satirists. You may poke fun at your mother, but if she is belittled by others it burns your bacon. A blowhard French journalist writes a book about America that is full of arrogant stupidity, and you want to let the air out of him and mail him home flat. You hear young people talk about America as if it's all over, and you trust that this is only them talking tough. And then you read the paper and realize the country is led by a man who isn't paying attention, and you hope that somebody will poke him. Or put a sign on his desk that says, "Try Much Harder."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

the notorious bettie page

Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, has completed a new film on kinky sex kitten and symbol of iconoclastic female power Bettie Page.

As famous for her hairstyle -- long and black with short, curved bangs -- as for her nude photos, jungle shots and high-heels-and- black-stockings fetish pictures, Page (played by Gretchen Mol) was revived as an icon of 1990s sex-positive feminism after two books of her photos were published in 1996. That's about the same time that it seemed independent film, and particularly women in independent film (among them Harron, co-writer Guinevere Turner and producer Christine Vachon), were poised on the vanguard of a new era in American movies.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006