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