Saturday, October 13, 2007

The void, two views

Helen recently drew readers' attention to a startling (maybe terrifying) essay on what it means to live in Los Angeles by Geoff Manaugh, writing at BLDGBLOG.

Helen quotes the opening passage at plenty length to give the gist. But read the whole thing here. It's very good.

What do I know about Los Angeles? Not any more than it shows us of itself, which is a lot, but how accurate that is I can't say. Now I know also whatever truth there is to Manaugh's observations.

Says Manaugh with a shrug, Los Angeles is "the void."
Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it's bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don't matter. You're free.

Free to be anything you want to be, even nothing at all. "Literally no one cares," repeats Manaugh, "You're alone in the world. L.A. is explicit about that. "

Manaugh's dispassionate delivery is chilling, exquisitely scene-setting. The accompanying photos to his essay are suitably abstract, beautiful and bleak.

To the condition of being "free," as related to life in L.A., he gives its fullest expression and reveals it to be a state of total isolation:
In Los Angeles you can be standing next to another human being but you may as well be standing next to a geological formation. Whatever that thing is, it doesn't care about you. And you don't care about it. Get over it. You're alone in the world. Do something interesting.

Manaugh admits upfront that he loves this about L.A., and there's a little bit of Carl Sandburg in his admiration for the city.

L.A. is the apocalypse: it's you and a bunch of parking lots. No one's going to save you; no one's looking out for you. It's the only city I know where that's the explicit premise of living there – that's the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.


This is one vision of freedom, adrift and alone in a crowd, responsible only for "doing something interesting," if you care to. There are other views: Just about anything Wendell Berry writes will offer you a vision of freedom virtually the opposite of Manaugh's L.A.

Reading him today, I found a passage not much different than the usual Berry polemic, but after Manaugh the contrast is stark. I offer it as a look at an older form of freedom, and as a kind of antidote.
These ways of marriage, kinship, friendship, and neighborhood surround us with forbiddings; they are forms of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape. . . . But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness. Our choice may be between a small, humanized meaning and a vast meaninglessness, or between the freedom of our virtues and the freedom of our vices. It is only in these bonds that our freedom has a use and a worth; it is only to the people who know us, love us, and depend on us that we are indispensable as the persons we uniquely are. In our industrial society, in which people insist so fervently on their value and their freedom "as individuals," individuals are seen more and more as "units" by their governments, employers and suppliers. They live, that is, under the rule of the interchangeability of parts: what one person can do, another person can do just as well or a newer person can do better. Separate from the relationships, there is nobody to be known; people become, as they say and feel, nobodies.

--from Berry's essay, Men and Women in Search of Common Ground, 1985

7 comments:

Dave W said...

I have lived in Southern California all my life, but I have had the opportunity(through work) to experience many parts of the country to see the contrast. After spending several months in various parts of the south I found SoCal to be pretty hostile in contrast. Maybe not so much hostile but very self involved. Unless you are looking for attention, other people are just a necessary evil.
I really noticed the difference when I flew in to Mobile, Alabama late one night. The rental car counter person didn't just trot out the standard pleasantries minimally required for the job. I got into a friendly conversation with this person, however in the back of my mind I was suspicious. No fault of the counter person, You just don't interact with people here like that usually. My stay in Pensacola was very much the same, It was nice break from the world as I knew it. FT Meyers was downright traumatic, one of the other techs compared the pace there to Hawaii's island time. Meaning that you better not be in a hurry for anything. I got used to it, kinda liked it...
I think however, a big city is a big city as far as such attitudes. Some places are generally nicer than others but once you cram a bunch of people together the trend is similar.
Manaugh however puts the Los Angeles experience in words better than I have ever seen.

Matt Mullenix said...

Dave I agree there is something different and special about the South--the pace, maybe--although as a region it's by no means monolithic, and of course has its share of unpleasant history.

Also agree that in some of the ways Manaugh describes, all big cities might be like Los Angeles. I don't know. I've visited some but never lived in one.

Steve Bodio said...

I find many other cities, from Boston to Santa Fe, to be more human in their scale. It takes a real organic growth over time, and it helps to have a walkable scale, at leastin the city center. I have felt this in some southern towns though I don't know them as well as the ones above.

Matt Mullenix said...

Human scale is important. I wonder if that means a "human" city needs to have been built before the invention (or at least the primacy) of the car?

Steve Bodio said...

Now that is a thought. Santa Fe and Boston were both built in the 1600's and have buildings and street patterns from that era.

M.L. Miller said...

I am reminded of Thomas McIntyre's essay on southern California, "Blade Hunter." Read it. It haunted me when I first read it at age 20 or 21, and remains one of my favorite McIntyre pieces.

The fact that people can adapt to living in a place like L.A. can fill me with despair if I'm not careful. The fact that life indeed goes on in "mega-cities" appears to contradict biophilia, nature deficit disorder, a land ethic and all those other notions that make so much sense to me but obviously so little to an increasing number of humans.

But, to badly misquote Steve, I'd rather hunt rats and watch starlings in a Blade Runner landscape than try to fit into the bleak world portrayed by Manaugh.

Matt Mullenix said...

Matt, re: rats and starlings, Me too! That has been my mode in the past and, given current trends here, seems to loom in my future.