To Find the Heart, You Need to Look

The Heart of Saturday Night
The Heart of Saturday Night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title track for Waits’s second album (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night confirms his ambition to be true to his vision of himself as a jazz-centric Beat poet. The idea comes straight from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, in which the protagonist was “hurrying for the big traffic, ever more exciting, all of it pouring into town Saturday night.” Composing the song while literally cruising down Alvarado Street and Hollywood Boulevard, Waits was striving after an elusive epiphany, trying to locate stillness in motion or find a center of innocence in America’s most heartless city.

via Los Angeles Review of Books – In The Neighborhood: Tom Waits.

I love this story in LARB, but I have to object.

Los Angeles is not a heartless city. Finding the heart of L.A. (or any city, for that matter) is like finding the heart of a Vulcan: it’s there somewhere, but if you can’t find it, that’s only because you aren’t looking in the right place.

Norman and the Rats

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well
I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see
Where we all soon will be.

“Heaven on their Minds,” from Jesus Christ, Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

English: Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair Intern...
Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation,” Algis Valiunas offers an essay that has to be one of the better-written post-mortems of Norman Mailer that is not a panegyric. Rather than lionize the man because of his work, Valiunas considers the man and the art together. If you are not a fan of Mailer and his work, the article is unsettling. If you are a fan, it should be.

After slogging through The Naked and the Dead, I never picked up any of Mailer’s later writings, and Valiunas has all but ensured that I won’t. Leave aside the critic’s obvious distaste for his subject and Commentary’s implicit agreement. Valiunas describes not a misunderstood genius wrestling with his shortcomings, but an unapologetic hedonist with an unmeasured streak of sociopathy. He shows us Mailer the confirmed narcissist, a habitual philanderer who knifed his second wife, lionized the hoods who killed a 50-year old candy-store owner, and advocated jousting tournaments to punish juvenile delinquents.

What is troubling about all of this is not that it makes Mailer’s writing worse than it might be otherwise. Valiunas tries to make a case that Mailer’s character flawed his writing, but he tries too hard: the worst he can muster about Harlot’s Ghost is:

Mailer has a real fascination with the world’s great secret machinery, and he is willing to give the intelligence agents he portrays, who are naturally great villains to his friends on the Left, the chance to present their anti-Communist case without undue irony directed at their insensate evil.

Still, Mailer cannot control his sheer boyish vulgarity. … Mailer sees himself as writing for the ages, like Hugo describing the Battle of Waterloo or Tolstoy the burning of Moscow; but at the climactic moments, his efforts prove to be potboiler swill served on a bed of journalism.

Even for a detractor, that’s grasping at straws. Suffice to say that if Mailer is worth reading, he is worth reading with his character flaws fully in mind. Indeed failure to do so – or failure to condemn his flaws as such – risks conflating the man and his art. This is Valiunas’ biggest bone with Mailer, and mine as well. It was less the puerile prurience of his prose than the fact that when we lionize a man, we make of his character an idol for ourselves and, worse, our youth. Valiunas writes:

He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.

And herein lies the problem with the aesthetic objectivists who protest that the art and the artist must be considered separately. When we do that, we fool ourselves into thinking that the artist separates himself from his art. This is nonsense; art, especially good art, is more than technique. It is the transmutation of an idea, a picture, or a feeling through the mind and soul and passion of the artist into symbolic expression. Even if we ascribe to the artist the purest of motives, the work itself is a vector of its creator’s essence.

If Mailer was a great writer or even a good one, it is because he poured himself into his work, and so when we consume his work, we consume his essence. We have two choices in that case: either take the work unknowingly and allow yourself to be subtly but importantly changed by it, or take it in the full knowledge that it is the work of a moral ogre, and that it must be read as such.

To do less is to surrender ourselves to the song of the Pied Piper, to agree to be led as a society to our undoing because we cared more about the sweetness of the music than what was in the mind of the musician as he played.

Xeriscaping goes Mainstream

xeriscaping (Photo credit: tylernol)

“Lisa Gimmy’s Designs for Livable California Gardens”
Photo Essay
Lindsey Taylor
Peter Bohler (photos)

The New York Times continues its coverage of California’s growing movement away from English-style gardens and toward xeriscaping, the trend in landscape design toward the use of indigenous flora and ground cover, with a photo essay of the work being done by landscape designer Lisa Gimmy.

What is interesting about Gimmy’s approach is that just as she seeks to integrate the garden with its surroundings, she also takes cues from the architecture and interior design of the home. In short, she seeks to create a continuum between natural surroundings, garden, and living space.

The approach is thus an outright rejection of the traditional approach to gardens, which is to bend nature to our hand and to draw a clear distinction between the “wild” and the “civilized.” I see in xeriscaping, and in particular in Ginny’s thinking, an embodiment of a more genuinely Californian (or far-Western) ideal. We need not alter the landscape to live in it – indeed, we are discovering that the less we alter the ecology around us, the more livable we are making it.

Looking at Gimmy’s designs, both in the essay and on her website, there is an interesting dynamic at work. Rather than force her clients to give up sod and hedge completely, she seems to be leading them – and, by extension, us – through a transition process by integrating traditional gardens and xeriscapes. Purism would be easier, but Gimmy is not trying to hit us over the head with a new orthodoxy. Instead, she is going the more difficult route, designing gardens that wean us away from our customary ordered Englishness into something more natural and Californian.

That is art indeed.

The Sidewalk in Front of Perino’s, 1936

“What Do We See When We Look at L.A.? The Swells on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936”
Where We Are

SoCal Focus

The Great Depression did not mean that people stopped living or having fun, and these 1936 Wilshire sidewalk shots uncovered by KCET’s D.J. Waldie at his SoCalFocus blog are poignant reminders.

The photos are from USC Digital Archive’s collection of “Dick” Whittington’s study, and based on the content they look like they were done as part of a job for Perino’s.

Perino's 1936

Pop on over to Waldie’s blog for more, or, better yet, to Ryerson’s  posts on the forum Noirish Los Angeles.

Aces over Ventura

When you scan the landscape of California’s museums, the giants cast a wide, deep shadow. To the north, the de Young, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the stunning new California Academy of Sciences. To the south, the Getty, LACMA, the California Science Center, and the dozen museums that line El Prado in Balboa Park. For any state this list alone would constitute an embarrassment of riches.

Yet these titans all too often (and unfairly) overshadow the hundreds of more modest but equally enticing jewels in the crown, the small, private, and specialty museums supported by die-hard donors and volunteer docents that shed loving light on often-overlooked aspects of the arts, science, history, and culture and industry.

Starting this summer, it will become a significant focus of this blog to catalog those gems, but for now let us begin with a modest treasure: the World War II Aviation Museum in Camarillo.

Two China Dolls, plus two plane geeks.
Two China Dolls, plus two plane geeks.

The Commemorative Air Force (formerly known as the Confederate Air Force) is a national group of aviation veterans and enthusiasts who spend their time rebuilding, maintaining, flying and teaching about the men, women, and planes that helped win World War II from the air. The Southern California Wing of the CAF makes its home at Camarillo Airpot, a former Air Force base that formed a part of California’s early Cold War defenses. With a runway designed to handle jet fighters and hangars made to military specifications, the place is made-to order for a the impressive squadron of operational, beautifully maintained planes of historic significance.

One hangar is set up as The World War II Aviation Museum, with interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, docents, and, of course, planes. Next door is where the real work happens, where the CAF’s volunteers continue to fight the ravages of time and physics to keep the birds together and keep them flying. The collection is small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in sheer quality. Not only are these planes complete, they still fly 68 years after the end of the war. The squadron includes:

If it were just a bunch of pretty planes parked on a ramp, the museum would be worth the stop off of US 101 on your way into or out of the Los Angeles area. What really makes it worthwhile, however, are the docents, several of whom have masters’ degrees in related topics, who are able to adjust their presentation to the level of knowledge and enthusiasm of the audience. It is this small corps of aviator-scholars that make this place a worthy visit, whether you are just a casual observer (like my wife) or an unabashed plane-geek (like my son and I).

Those coming through town in mid-August will get an extra treat: the Wings over Camarillo Air Show. In addition to the 90-odd aircraft filling the ramp of the airport, many of the vintage aircraft offer rides. Be aware, the rides aren’t cheap: they’ll set you back the equivalent of a cross-country airfare. But you’re not paying for transportation – you are paying for an experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else: the chance to feel what it was like to go to war in the air with the Greatest Generation.

The World War II Aviation Museum is not the National Air and Space Museum, and it doesn’t try to be, even in miniature. What it offers, though, is something the NASM cannot: a highly personalized, unhurried, hands-on experience with magnificent machines that made history, all in a setting that is both beautiful and realistic.

One final word; if you get hungry while you’re there, the place to recharge is The Waypoint Cafe just a few hundred feet east of the museum along the flight line. A well-kept secret among flyers and locals, Yelp gives it 4 stars out of 5, and we make it a point to stop in for eats whenever we get the chance. Make sure you get there early: it’s breakfast and lunch only, and lunch gets busy (although we like their breakfasts best.)

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